REVIEW | 2021 Porsche 718 Spyder brings the drama

27 May 2021 - 19:25
By Thomas Falkiner
The Porsche 718 Spyder starts at R1,736,000.
Image: Thomas Falkiner The Porsche 718 Spyder starts at R1,736,000.

Two things weigh heavy in the back of my mind whenever I get a high-powered sports car to drive. The first is the frighteningly real threat of jail time. Now it doesn’t matter who the manufacturer is — in 2021 these things are so damn quick that if you don’t practise some modicum of restraint and/or keep a close eye on the speedometer then there’s a high chance Mr Metro and his band of merry men will be frogmarching you towards their bright orange van. The second peril is being pelted with abusive language and/or objects. 

The greater public will tolerate an obnoxiously loud sportster if it’s being piloted by a Margot Robbie lookalike sporting flash shades and a warm spring smile. However, if, like me, you still resemble an undeveloped 20-something taking daddy’s midlife crisis for a quick joyride, well, brother, then you better have your wits about you.

I sure as hell have done ever since a 1.5-litre bottle of freshly squeezed orange juice exploded inside the cabin of an Audi R8 I was driving through Cape Town city streets (whoever it was, bloody good throw by the way).

With this in mind you can probably understand why I approached this Gentian Blue Metallic Porsche 718 Boxster Spyder with a fair amount of trepidation.

The crop-top sister of the 718 Cayman GT4 I piloted last year, this special Boxster is a seductive piece of metal that attracts all manner of attention when steered down the street thanks to its unmistakable styling: the headlining act of which is that unique one-piece rear deck lid characterised by two distinctive humps behind the passenger and driver rollover hoops — an aesthetic nod to the Carrera GT. Then there’s the roof.

The canvas roof stows beneath the unique double-bubble rear decklid.
Image: Thomas Falkiner The canvas roof stows beneath the unique double-bubble rear decklid.

Fashioned out of canvas with pronounced buttresses and built to weigh as little as possible, it’s a mostly manual affair that requires you to spill out the cabin and do some folding should you feel like exposing yourself to the elements. It’s not quite as complex as putting the top down on an old Lotus Elise but it’s not that far off either. 

Anyway, whether stowed or left in place this fascinating piece of engineering gives the Spyder a unique silhouette: one far more exotic than its run-of-the-mill 718 Boxster siblings. Sprinkling more spice into the visual mix is a set of gorgeous 20-inch alloy wheels plus the pairing of a bespoke front splitter with a small retractable rear spoiler that automatically pops up at speeds over 120km/h.

Unlike with the more track-orientated Cayman GT4 these aerodynamic aids don’t actually produce any downforce per se but they do keep a lid on any unwanted lift. This is good to know. Especially in a car that can claw its way right up to a claimed 301km/h.

This impressive turn of pace comes courtesy of what I can only describe (in 2021 anyway) as an engine of the gods: a naturally aspirated 4.0-litre flattie that spits in the face of turbocharging and is all the better for it for a number of reasons.

No roof = more drama.
Image: Thomas Falkiner No roof = more drama.

The first being its appetite for revs. Where most force-fed sports cars lose interest around the 6,000rpm mark this boxer motor only throws in the towel at the 8,000rpm mark. Yep, think of it as a GT3 Lite.

Then there’s the delicacy of the throttle response. Whether trudging through town or carving up country back roads, you will find that even the lightest touch of the far right pedal will have an immediate influence on the amount of torque being transferred to those rear wheels. Indeed, there’s an accuracy and predictability to this action that pays dividends when it comes time to adjusting your line on the limit. God that sounded geeky, so let’s move right on, shall we, to the noise factor.

Now that Porsche is forced to run a particulate filter in addition to a catalytic converter this boxer motor is arguably more muted than it should be. Even with the standard sports exhaust system set to its “loud” setting you get the feeling that it is holding back. While this is an issue in the Cayman GT4, in the 718 Spyder you have the almost unfair advantage of being able to drop the top — something that amps things up from around a six right up to about a nine (for reference sake the 911 GT3 RS was an 11). 

In 2021 you can choose to partner this multi-cylinder monster to either a six-speed manual or seven-speed PDK gearbox. The Cayman GT4 I drove last year came equipped with the former and it was a lot of fun — especially with the fancy electric rev-matching system that negates the need for heel-’n’-toe on downshifts. Well, you still can if you like — Porsche allows you to turn it off and go fully old school — but to be honest I didn’t bother because the computer does an absolutely cracking job of it.

Retro 'Spyder' script adds to the cool factor.
Image: Thomas Falkiner Retro 'Spyder' script adds to the cool factor.

There is a caveat to this transmission though and that is its almost comically long gear ratios. How long? Well you’re looking at just over 80km/h in first, almost 140km/h in second and an utterly insane 195km/h in third. At times this can be frustrating because on our everyday streets full of traffic and speed bumps you seldom get a chance to fully wring this motor’s neck. And even if you do you’re then playing in serious admission of guilt/and or go straight to jail territory. This is why you want the PDK.

You see, having an extra cog in the game allows the Porsche drivetrain engineers to stack the ratios a little shorter. Not dramatically so, mind, but enough to make that 8,000rpm redline slightly more accessible than it was before. Another benefit of ticking the box for “Porsche Doppelkupplungsgetriebe” is an extra 10Nm worth of torque and a quicker zero to 100 time — a claimed 3.9 seconds vs the 4.4 seconds achieved by the row-your-own model.

For me though the single greatest advantage is being able to focus all one's attention on the business of driving. In a car this capable and this rapid having to think about and then execute a traditional manual shift in the age-old tradition just slows things down — especially when you’ve faced with a road coiled with corners of various speeds and radii. Having the instant cog-swapping might of PDK at your fingertips means that you can concentrate so much more on braking and steering the Spyder through corners. Look, I’m all for #savethemanual but in cars as adept as this the auto option is a total no-brainer. 

So how does the 718 Spyder drive? Well much like its Cayman GT4 sibling this flagship Boxster fairly ripples with feedback: every nuance of the car’s clinging embrace with the asphalt below is telegraphed through to your fingers, feet and buttocks in crystal clear high definition. Complemented by a fettled chassis — Porsche Active Suspension Management (PASM) with a 30mm drop and torque vectoring — this is a machine that feeds your confidence and inspires you to push. Damn. Hard.

The driver-focused interior comes standard with excellent Porsche sports seats.
Image: Thomas Falkiner The driver-focused interior comes standard with excellent Porsche sports seats.

And when you do you discover a car that handles better than exotics at double the price. Whether pivoting gleefully around its centre point or tracking straight and true like scissors through taught calico, few sports cars are as easy or as rewarding to pilot as the 718 Spyder. Or as fast. Seriously, 309kW might not sound like a lot in this day and age but the way this Porsche delivers it to the tarmac makes it ludicrously quick in a straight line — even up at our power-sapping Johannesburg altitudes. 

Other highlights include a set of mighty, fade-free brakes and tonnes of mechanical grip courtesy bespoke Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres and a locking rear differential that allows you to rip through corners at brain-bending velocities. Just make sure there’s some heat in those french gumballs before you take any liberties as they tend to be a bit slippery when cold. 

Now as I briefly alluded to before, losing the roof really does amplify your time behind the wheel here as it not only exposes you more to the elements but also that glorious exhaust warble: something many would argue makes the Spyder a more visceral steer than the GT4. Buffeting is never an issue — even at unprintable speeds — while structural integrity seems more or less unchanged when compared to its fixed-head sister.

Even across choppy surfaces there’s not even the slightest hint of the ‘ol dreaded scuttle shake — a truly impressive feat. As is the ride that — provided you leave the ‘sport’ button well alone — is firm but never harsh or crashy: an enviable balance that only Porsche seems to nail 100% right. 

For many the 718 Spyder might seem like something of a gimmick when stacked up against the more focused Cayman GT4: one that trades some lap-time-shaving substance for look-at-me-everybody style. Especially considering that it ships sans the trick aero or those manually adjustable dampers that allow smug GT4 owners to further finesse their chassis settings to suit their preferred driving style. And maybe out on a racetrack this might come into play.

However, across everyday roads the difference is negligible. You’re getting every ounce of the intoxicating GT4 experience plus a notable sensory/drama boost courtesy that curious canvas top. Oh, and a significant saving of R68k, which kind of makes the Porsche 718 Boxster Spyder a bona fide sports car bargain no matter which way you slice it.

Just beware jealous onlookers and/or eagle-eyed enforcement officers: this time I got away without any issues but that doesn’t mean you can let your guard down. Ever. They’ll ruin your day. You have been warned.  

Top up or top down the 718 Spyder never fails to attract attention.
Image: Thomas Falkiner Top up or top down the 718 Spyder never fails to attract attention.

Fast Facts: 2021 Porsche 718 Boxster Spyder 

Engine: 3995cc six-cylinder boxer 

Power: 309kW at 7,600rpm 

Torque: 430Nm from 5,000 to 6,800rpm 

Transmission: Seven-speed PDK

0-100km/h: 3.9 seconds (claimed)

Top speed: 301km/h (claimed)

Fuel: 11.8l/100km (achieved)

Price: From R1,736,000