Porsche vs. Porsche: A road test

  @FortuneMagazine September 26, 2012: 11:23 AM ET
porsche 911 cabriolet boxter

The 2012 911 Carrera S Cabriolet (top) and the 2013 Porsche Boxster

(Fortune)

Is Porsche immune to the laws of supply and demand?

Item: Despite the global economic slowdown, the luxury sports car maker expects to sell 18% more vehicles in 2012 than in 2011, and it is forecasting another increase in 2013.

Item: Porsche has pulled off the tricky business of moving beyond its sports car roots into four-doors and SUVs without alienating its devoted followers.

Item: Turning conventional economics upside down, Porsche's more expensive sports car outsells its cheaper sibling by four to one.

Item: Porsche's per-car profits are the highest in the industry, with margins three times those of volume producers and nearly double that of some luxury marques.

Why is this so? To better understand the dimensions of the Porsche mystique, I arranged with Porsche Cars North America to spend some extended time driving two of its newest models: the 911 Carrera S Cabriolet and the Boxster. Given Porsche's racing heritage, I devised my own competition to better examine the merits of each car. Here are my findings:

The contender: 2012 911 Carrera S Cabriolet

With its Boxer engine mounted behind the rear axle, the 911 is the archetypal Porsche, the third generation of a basic design that was introduced nearly a half-century ago. The new model is longer and wider and festooned with electronic control devices, making it more of a grand touring car, but this 911's 400-horsepower engine, seven-speed manual transmission, and lightening-quick reflexes have enabled it to retain its traditional sporting character. Refined and comfortable, the new 911 handles a weekday commute as easily as a weekend romp.

The challenger: 2013 Boxster

When 911s got too pricey in the mid-'90s, Porsche developed its younger sibling by moving the engine to the middle of the chassis and fitting the car with a fabric roof. Now fully grown, this year's Boxster is all new, longer and wider, and built with bigger doses of aluminum to keep its weight in check. Putting the Boxster up against its big brother for this drive may seem patently unfair, except that its mid-engine layout makes it sportier and -- many say -- more fun to drive.

The route: Water, redwoods, and wine country

To devise a route as classy as the cars, I plotted a 1,200-mile drive from San Francisco north to Vancouver, British Columbia. At least the first two-thirds lived up to my expectations. After crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, GPS guided us north on Highway 101 along the wild Pacific coast, then through giant stands of redwoods and in to the geometrically precise vineyards of the Willamette Valley in Oregon. There, we swapped the 911 for the Boxster to make the run up to Seattle and across the Canadian border to Vancouver.

Concerns

With income equality looming larger in the public consciousness, I wondered whether there would be bad vibes in cities like San Francisco and Seattle with large homeless populations. There weren't. I worried, too, that driving 200 miles a day in demanding automobiles over challenging roads might be too much of a good thing. It wasn't, but I was rarely unwilling to quit. And finally, how would I handle those San Francisco hills with a manual transmission? No worries. The 911's hill hold feature keeps the car from rolling backward when the clutch is engaged.

Style

Enough preliminaries. How did the two cars stack up? Each was striking in its own way. The Carrera was top-shelf trimmed with silver metallic body paint (a $3,140 option) topped by a red canvas roof. Porsche has upgraded its interiors, and the "Carrera Red" leather was succulent (although it added another $4840 to the base price). As for the Boxster, it glowed. Its elegant "Agate Gray Metallic" paint oozed class, and its trim revealed greater attention to details than in the past. This is the first Boxster that doesn't have to make do with hand-me-down doors from the 911. Designers made good use of their new flexibility by adding flourishes like air scoops and character lines that really dress up the car. The Boxster was the winner here.

Functionality

Nobody buys a Porsche for car pools, even if a current YouTube clip shows Dad driving his daughter to school in a 911 Cabrio and Mom cruising to soccer practice. Still, if a car isn't comfortable, you aren't going to spend any time in it. The Boxster felt commodious enough -- the front seats were roomy and the car has two smallish trunks, front and rear -- but that's it for storage, since the engine fills the space behind the seat. For its part, the 911 has one larger trunk in front -- accessed with Porsche's maddening hidden lid release -- and two smaller seats in back (technically usable by children). But the 911 also came with keyless start, the best laborsaving device since the motorized antenna. Naturally, Porsche has its own spin: Instead of the usual button, it uses a key blank in the ignition "because it provides a more tactile experience." The 911 won this round.

Performance

Even fill-in NFL refs could have figured this one out: The car with the best route and the most horsepower wins. All the interesting roads ran under the wheels of the 911. There were dozens of hairpins and switchbacks along coastal inlets that required downshifts to second gear, followed by lusty acceleration up to the top of the next hill. In redwood country, the shoulderless two-lane road threaded through groves of enormous trees so close to the asphalt, they were marked by signs and reflectors for the unwary. Seven forward gears and 400 hp -- seemingly excessive under normal conditions -- provided a banquet of benefits. The Boxster, by contrast, made do with six gears and 265 hp, and was forced to cope with miles of knobby I-5 through Washington State on low-profile tires that were both noisy and rough. The 911 won by a landslide.

Profiling

The parking valets in San Francisco swooned over the 911, but the best comment came from the immigration official at the border. Since I needed nearly as many letters of transit to get the Boxster into Canada as Victor Laszlo and Ilsa Lund did to escape Casablanca, Porsche provided me with an official document explaining my mission. Upon reading it, the officer handed it back to me with the comment, "I wish my job required me to drive Porsches." This round was a tie.

This filthy Lancia is worth $250k

Price

Another no contest, but watch out for the trick ending later on. The Boxster carries a base price of $49,500, and the test car stickered at $72,500 -- far from Miata country but not unreasonable for a car with its European engineering and Porsche provenance. As for the 911, $108,000 only gets you to the beginning of the option list before you add baubles like the $5,010 audio package and $6,155 for the premium package and 18-way seats. Altogether, they pushed the tab for the Cabrio up to $142,505. The Boxster had the economic advantage.

Value

Getting the Porsche shield for half the cost of the 911 would seem to provide Boxster with a commanding advantage. But, almost by definition, buying a Porsche is not rational, so why not pop for the bigger car? You can value it as a work of art or an historic artifact instead of transportation. The 911 is an extravagance -- Warren Buffett might call it indefensible -- so if you are going to get into the pool, you might as well dive into the deep end. That's especially true if your swim takes you up the Pacific Coast through the big trees and the Oregon vineyards and on to Canada. The winner oveall: 911 Carrera. To top of page



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