First Drive: 2011 Porsche Boxster Spyder

Up Front

"A pure roadster reduced to the essentials" is how Porsche (POAHY:US) describes the 2011 Boxster Spyder, a high-performance reworking of the Boxster S. By "reduced to the essentials," the company means that the Spyder doesn't come standard with air conditioning, cupholders, or a radio. These omissions reduce the car's weight to a mere 2,811 lbs., 176 lbs. less than the already ultralight Boxster S. The goal: even better quickness and handling than the S at a comparable price.

If you balk at the idea of paying $60,000-plus for a car lacking in basic amenities, stop reading now. The Boxster Spyder is aimed at serious driving enthusiasts, the type of owners who regularly spend weekends at a racetrack (or dreams of doing so). Porsche expects to sell only 1,000 to 1,200 Spyders in the U.S. annually. If comfort in daily driving is your priority, the S is a better bet.

The Spyder starts at $62,150—that's $3,250 more than the Boxster S and an enormous $13,600 more than the regular Boxster. For the extra money you get numerous performance upgrades, including a locking rear differential, a lower and stiffer chassis, a fixed rear spoiler, lightweight aluminum doors, a sculpted aluminum rear hood, lightweight 10-spoke/19 in. alloy wheels, a different front fascia, and lightweight sport seats. In place of the Boxster S's conventional convertible top is a rudimentary removable ragtop that has to be rolled up and stowed in the trunk by hand.

If an ultralow curb weight isn't your priority, you can add back the radio and cupholders to the Spyder free of charge, but air conditioning (which comes standard in the Boxster S) is a $1,760 option.

The Spyder's 3.4-liter inline six-cylinder engine is similar to the one in the Boxster S but has been tweaked to eke out more power. The Spyder engine generates 320 horsepower (10 hp more than the S's) and 273 lb.-ft. of torque (7 lb.-ft. more than the S's) and reaches peak output at 7,200 revolutions per minute, 950 rpms above the S's maximum engine speed.

As with the S, there's a choice of a six-speed manual transmission or (for an extra $3,420) Porsche's terrific seven-speed PDK double-clutch automatic with steering-wheel mounted paddle shifters.

The Boxster Spyder is rated to get 19 miles per gallon in the city and 27 on the highway with a stick shift or 20/29 with the PDK automatic transmission. It doesn't have government crash-test ratings, but standard safety equipment includes reinforced doors and windscreen, a stainless-steel alloy roll bar, and seatbelt pretensioners, as well as front, side, and head-protecting airbags.

Behind the Wheel

I drove the Spyder and Boxster S on a track at the Monticello Motor Club in upstate New York, accompanied by three professional Porsche racing drivers, Hurley Haywood, David Donohue, and David Murry. The Spyder is a blast to drive, especially in the company of racing royalty, but the Boxster S is so good that only obsessive driving enthusiasts are likely to be able to discern the differences between the two.

The Spyder is just a tiny bit faster than the Boxster S, for starters. With the optional Sport Plus package, the Spyder accelerates from 0 to 60 in a mere 4.6 seconds—which is blazingly fast, but only one-10th-of-a-second faster than a similarly equipped S. Without Sport Plus, the time is 4.9 seconds with a stick shift and 4.8 seconds with PDK—again, a mere one-10th-of-a-second faster than the S.

The improvements in handling are slightly more pronounced. The Spyder is set 0.8 in. lower than the S, and you sit lower to the ground when you slip behind the wheel. The springs are shorter and stiffer, and the dampers set harder, so the Spyder's suspension feels slightly sportier without being overly harsh. The ride is comfortable in daily driving.

What sets the Spyder apart is its incredibly low curb weight and nearly perfect weight distribution (thanks largely to its midmounted engine). There isn't another ragtop like it on the market. The Nissan's (NSANY) 370Z Touring, Daimler's (DAI) Mercedes SLK55 AMG, and BMW's (BMWG) recently redesigned Z4 all weigh around 3,500 lbs., nearly 700 lbs. more than the Spyder. The Audi TTS is nearly 600 lbs. heavier than the Spyder, while the Chevy Corvette is about 500 lbs. heavier.

The way the Spyder skates through hard corners is almost magical. On the track, I headed too fast into curves several times with my brain screaming that I was about to spin out of control, but the car always ended up sticking easily to the pavement. I rode shotgun while Donohue did circuits driving left-handed, a walkie-talkie in his right hand. Incredible.

The Spyder is mainly designed for top-down driving. Top speed is 164 mph but is limited to 125 mph with the top deployed, because the ragtop might be unsafe above that speed. At slower speeds, the top will protect you from the elements but really isn't designed for heavy-duty winter weather. Also, you wouldn't want to have to put the top up in a hurry during a sudden rainstorm. The multistep process isn't hard to master, but takes a minute or two.

The Spyder's interior is more Spartan than the S's. In addition to the missing radio and cupholders, door handles are replaced by weight-saving nylon slings. The instruments have black faces, and the hood over the main instrument cluster has been eliminated to save weight. The top has a retro snap-on rear window that can be removed to get a breeze going.

To me, the Spyder's macho good lucks are a big plus. The lower stance, sculpted rear deck, and revised front fascia give the Spyder a more streamlined, integrated appearance than the Boxster, which looks ungainly to me. The Spyder's black double tailpipe also is very cool.

Buy it or Bag It?

Reviewers who contend that the Spyder costs more for less than you get in a Boxster S are mistaken. The standard performance upgrades in the Spyder more than offset its price premium. For instance, 10-spoke/19 in. alloy wheels cost $2,385 extra on the Boxster S, sport bucket seats $2,990, a limited slip differential lock $950. And you're still not getting the extra 10 hp, the sport suspension, and the sculpted rear deck and spoiler that come standard on the Spyder.

However, the Boxster S offers similar performance and is more practical than the Spyder, especially if you live in the snowbelt. For an extra $2,345, the S is even available with an optional hardtop.

The big question with either model is whether to pay $3,420 extra for the PDK transmission. Fact is, it's probably worth it. Driving enthusiasts scoff at automatic transmissions, but (as I said in my review of the Porsche Panamera) the PDK shifts so quickly that no human can match it. These days, if you want the absolute best available performance in a Porsche, you have to pay up for the PDK.

When I outfit a Spyder, the sticker easily tops 70 grand. The PDK, leather interior, and sport exhaust ($2,500) are all tempting, and the Sport Plus package ($1,320 with PDK) is a must.

There are plenty of other excellent convertible sports cars around at lower prices. The Audi TTS sells for an average of $53,167 and the Nissan 370Z Touring for $42,458, according to the Power Information Network. The Corvette convertible and the hardtop Corvette Grand Sport both start in the $55,000 range. None of them, however, can quite match the Porsche's handling.

What to do? My heart says to go with the Spyder with a stick shift, my head says go with the Boxster S with a PDK. Either way, it's a great car.

Click here to see more of the 2011 Porsche Boxster Spyder.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.