Talk about coming-of-age: the latest Porsche Boxster has certainly stepped up a notch in terms of styling, size and dynamic prowess.
Given that it still shares half of its components with the 911, you might well wonder what the point is in buying the larger (some might say more traditional) Porsche.
There's where Porsche people tend to split into two camps. Some say the German maker is really only holding onto the 911 (and holding back the Boxster's performance potential a little) for nostalgia's sake. Other reckon there's still nothing like the rear-engined 911 and it deserves its place at the top of the tree.
Count me in camp two. In fact, for all its newfound sophistication I think the Boxster might have lost something in its latest form. More ability, less charm. Anyway, I've declared an interest so we can move on.
To this week's test car, the 911 Carrera S. Until this week's announcement of the new four-wheel drive versions of the 911 (coming to New Zealand in early-2013), this $254,000 machine was the flagship of the range and still is for our market. The GT3/2 and Turbo models will come, of course, but they're still some way off. Porsche does these things in very orderly fashion.
The new 911 (it's officially the Type 991 for you Porschephiles) is only the seventh incarnation of the car in 48 years. This one does look quite different. No, really. Not so much in the pictures, but you see it on the road you realise how much lower and wider the new model is. The front has been stretched out 50mm, for example, the result being that it no longer has that idiosyncratic wider-at-the-back stance. Except that the four-wheel drive models do, because they've been made wider over the rear guards as well. Can't help themselves.
The basic formula is the same, with flat-six engines at the back, rear-drive and ability/character in equal measure. The Carrera S keeps a 3.8-litre engine but has gained 11kW/20Nm over the previous model and now makes 294kW/440Nm. Raspy exhaust and scary barking sounds are guaranteed.
A seven-speed manual is available in this car, but most Kiwi buyers opt for the faster (and more economical) dual-clutch PDK. The automated clutches can still be a bit grumpy in urban driving, but there's denying the speed and ability of this gearbox to really click through the ratios when you're up and running.
As each new 911 comes along there a danger that it will loose some of its raw appeal: that sense of the engine hanging out the back, the incredible traction and the tail bobbing around through bumpy corners. That's especially the case with this 911, which is not only larger but has electric power steering in the interests of fuel saving: a first for the model (the Boxster now has the same system).
There's no doubt that the 911 is easier than ever to drive, but to my mind it's just as exciting as it ever was. It certainly retains sufficient styling and handling character to remain a car to aspire to over and above the Boxster. And yes, I'll admit that Porsche goes out of its way to maintain space between the two.
Would a tricked-up Boxster be just as rapid as a 911 in real-world driving? Probably. But the smile on your face wouldn't be quite as wide.