EDINBURGH, Scotland – If this drive were a video game, the difficulty setting would be lofty. Perhaps it's not quite Rainbow Road, but it's raining and the route, which is barely wide enough for two cars, is a meandering mix of blind dips and corners. Hedges line some of it, daunting rock walls other parts. And as this is Scotland, there's the perpetual danger of errant sheep. Not to mention we’re tackling right-hand-drive roads in a left-hand-drive car. Fun, right? Away we go in the 2020 Porsche 718 Spyder.
If there’s one advantage to this situation, it’s that it’s much easier to hug the inside line as logging trucks haul by within inches of the right mirror. And it's hard to imagine a vehicle better suited to hug that line so precisely and provide the confidence necessary to traverse this sheep-strewn minefield with anything approaching the speeds we're managing. This is the pinnacle of the Porsche 718 family, along with its fixed-roof sibling, the Cayman GT4. The steering is scalpel precise, the mid-engined chassis perfectly balanced, every control tuned in a way that feels like the benchmark for, well, anything.
Although both Spyder and GT4 have existed previously, this is the closest they've ever been to each other, sharing a unique 4.0-liter naturally aspirated engine, suspension and aerodynamic enhancements. Besides their roofs, they most diverge in their rear spoilers: The Cayman's is a fixed wing, whereas the Spyder's is a pop-up unit much like the regular Boxster's.
They perform, too. The GT4 laps the Nürburgring Nordschleife in 7 minutes, 28 seconds (there was no Spyder time available), which is 12 seconds quicker than both the previous GT4 as well as the current Cayman GTS. It's also quicker than the famed Carrera GT at the time of its launch.
To accomplish that, both the Spyder and GT4 are enhanced with the same lightweight MacPherson front suspension as the 2018 Porsche 911 GT3, which is intended to handle heavier loads and to generally improve agility and allow for greater steering precision. The rear is a unique design, but still borrows the subframe, control arms and struts from the 2018 GT3.
The ride height is lowered by 1.8 inches compared to the regular 718, and a specially tuned "track-bred" version of the Porsche Active Suspension Management (PASM) provides Normal and Sport settings. Porsche says the latter is intended for track use, but it's never harsh on Scotland's patchy pavement. Normal is far from cosseting, however, and the difference in firmness between Normal and Sport is minimal.
Handling is further enhanced with the standard Porsche Torque Vectoring system that brakes the inside wheels while the limited-slip differential adds power to the outside wheel. In combination with the suspension enhancements and ultra-sticky tires, this system provides stunning corner-taking capabilities. The 718 Spyder grips the wet Scottish roads like they're bone Phoenix dry. Of course, the chief handling factor is one inherent to every 718: The engine is tucked low between the axles for the best possible chassis balance.
Those lamenting the fact that the 718 family switched to turbocharged four-cylinder engines will rejoice that the Spyder and GT4 pack flat-sixes sans turbocharging. It produces 414 horsepower and 309 pound-feet of torque – up 39 hp from the old 3.8-liter Boxster Spyder. While the 4.0-liter engine shares a displacement with the naturally-aspirated units in the GT3 family, it is actually related to the 911’s turbocharged units.
Porsche says both cars will go from zero to 60 mph in 4.2 seconds with their standard manual transmission. That’s quick, but a PDK-equipped GTS can beat it at 3.9 seconds. That’s likely because PDK cars are generally quicker, but also because the GTS has the same peak torque as the Spyder (309 lb-ft) but it arrives at 1,900 rpm and holds all the way up to 4,500 rpm. Meanwhile, the Spyder doesn’t make peak torque until 5,000 rpm.
That may seem damning, but it misses the point. Emerging from a blind corner to find a long straight – and no sheep – lets us revel in revving the flat-six to its 8,000-rpm redline. The sound is raw and mechanical, almost as joyously spine-tingling as the 520-hp flat-six in the GT3 RS that wails to a 9,000 rpm redline. It's decidedly more thrilling and authentic than the 718's turbo mills, which rely more on their exhausts to keep things interesting. By contrast, it's difficult to tell the difference in the Spyder's dual-mode exhaust settings, which is just fine. Blaring pipes are better suited to men in kilts.
Power delivery is also profoundly different. It doesn't have the “right-now” low-end torque of the turbo cars, but the higher-strung engine and its more linear power delivery are better suited to the balance and agility of the 718. It's perhaps less tail-happy as a result (a good thing when trying to maintain traction on damp pavement), but it just feels like the right pairing.
So too does the standard six-speed gearbox, which makes the best case yet for saving the manuals. The Spyder's shorter shift knob provides a sensational snick-snick action, and the dual-mass flywheel, shared with the 911 and other 718s, makes operating the clutch easy on your leg. There's also the new Auto Blip rev-match downshift function. Some will prefer to turn it off with the dedicated button and heel-toe the old-fashioned way, but Auto Blip is arguably the best application of auto rev-matching to date. It makes gear changes almost as quick and simple as Porsche's PDK transmission, even on a track. A PDK will be eventually be available, but that it isn't from the get-go for a track-oriented car like the GT4 shows Porsche hasn't given up on three-pedal cars.
The Spyder may be less track oriented, but it still features aerodynamic enhancements intended for that very purpose. There's the enlarged front splitter; the small aero outlet forward of the frunk lid; the bypasses that guide air around the front wheels; and most important, the rear diffuser that provides 50 percent of the downforce by literally sucking the Spyder down to Earth.
All of these performance enhancements add up to a base price of $97,550 for the Spyder, a $13,500 premium over the next rung down on the 718 convertible ladder, the Boxster GTS. Some of that’s justified; the engine's most definitely worth something extra, and the improved handling at least doesn't come at the added expense of a ruined ride. There are token weight reductions inside like the cloth strap door handles, but the interior's still covered in leather and fitted with auto climate control and touchscreen infotainment. It's not a track-day stripper – hell, even the available fixed-rake bucket seats prove to be impressively comfortable during a full day driving.
However, the Spyder also pairs greater exclusivity with visual specialness. It sports an elongated, double-bump decklid that echoes past Spyders and differentiates it from lesser Boxsters. The special soft top is also sleeker and features oh-so-cool flying buttress panels.
Then again, lowering the top requires an engineering degree. You must pull the power roof button to disengage the power latch, then physically undo each buttress from the decklid, secure them to the roof, lift up the decklid, put the roof down, re-place the decklid and get back into the car. By contrast, the regular Boxster soft top operates as follows: Push button. It’s up in 9 seconds while going up to 30 mph.
The rain actually pauses at times during the Great Scottish Gantlet, but the threat of it returning and needing to find an emergency roof-erecting stop point keeps it in place. Worse still, the Spyder roof and its tiny plastic window make rear visibility worse (thank goodness for the standard backup camera), hampers access to the trunk (you have to disengage the power roof latch first), and as it's a single layer top, highway noise is booming.
Basically, the Spyder is a worse convertible than a Boxster, but a better driver's car. It's a worse track weapon than the $100,450 GT4, but as a unique convertible, it's more broadly recognizable and appealing. It also costs about the same as a comfier, higher cachet 911 Carrera S Cabriolet, but it's ultimately a sharper driving tool. There are pros and cons, and it won't be for every Porsche buyer, but on a narrow, damp, meandering road with the steering wheel on the wrong side, a 911 or regular Boxster just wouldn't have provided the same drama-free jaunt through the country. Actually, it's hard to think of anything else that would.