Supercars need to adhere to an unofficial set of rules: without neck-snapping looks they’re nothing; a brilliant engine is essential; and (yes, really) there should be a degree of impracticality built in to ward off those with only a casual dedication.
They should also cost a bomb, but is the last one really essential? The 2020 Porsche 718 Spyder hits all the supercar high notes, but does so with a slightly more grounded price tag.
Your $197,200 outlay, before on-road costs and options, will net you the basics of a 718 Boxster’s already impressive mid-engine chassis, but instead of a turbocharged four-pot behind your head, there’s a new dry-sumped, 4.0-litre naturally aspirated, high-RPM-addicted flat-six engine with 309kW at 7600rpm and 420Nm of torque from 5000–6800rpm.
Because Porsche doesn’t do these things lightly, the only available transmission is a six-speed manual. No half-hearted effort with an auto to be found here, although Porsche’s PDK automatics are well-regarded performance autos, so don’t be surprised if one pops up down the track.
The 718 platform, without being ridiculously exotic, at least offers a degree of uniqueness. It’s not shared with an Audi, Volkswagen or anything of the sort. The engine, at this stage, is exclusive to high-end 718s in GTS and GT4 spec.
You can sprint from 0–100km/h in 4.4 seconds, so it’s a little off the pace in terms of outright acceleration, but you have to extract that performance yourself. No modern supercar from McLaren, Ferrari or Lamborghini asks you to change gears manually – for purists that’s incredibly good news.
On the other hand, near $200K could see you in a Mercedes-AMG C63 S Convertible with a 4.1sec sprint and a gnarly V8 up front. An ex-demonstrator BMW M5 gets close, too, but then you’d have to take your family along for the ride. You could opt for a Nissan GT-R, perhaps, although it’s far from light or lithe, but there’s always the Lotus Evora, maybe a GT410 or GT430 if you’re feeling spicy.
None are bad choices, of course, but then none of them are a Porsche, and none has the look-at-me zing of the 718 Spyder either.
Let’s face it, it’s all about that roof – barely passing over your head and pinned by a sailplane at each side to keep things in check at the rear, it is minimalist and unapologetic. It’s only there to keep you dry if the weather is absolutely dire or if you want to lock something in the interior.
The intention is to keep it off. Nothing could be more telling than the procedure involved in stowing and deploying it. No, it’s not impossible, and it can be done easily enough by one person, but if anyone were to witness you doing so it’d ruin the Spyder’s mystique.
It has an electric release... That's all. You still have to manually unpin the rear at each side, open the boot, manually fold the top into its dedicated space, shut the boot, and flip the little buttress covers on each side over by hand. It’ll take you 20–30 seconds: you have to start inside and end outside the car, and to reinstate it you do the same in reverse.
A theatrical all-electric motion would be fitting for the price, and it’s worth pointing out that an MX-5 roof can be manually released, folded and clipped securely with one hand at any speed in five seconds. At least the Spyder is undeniably sexy with it up or down, the complexity ensures posers need not apply, and if you want something idiot-proof, there’s always the regular 718 Boxster.
Every moment of that fades into insignificance once you’re back behind the wheel. Things are a bit more familiar here. The interior is broadly the same as a regular 718 Boxster or Cayman, and looks its best by far in the available ‘Spyder Classic’ Bordeaux red leather and black Alcantara combo ($4820) seen here.
Also worth ticking are the boxes for 18-way adaptive sports seats ($5150) and Bose surround sound ($2470), because without it the constant roar or road noise is unbearable on long trips. A car like this shouldn’t need an audio upgrade, or an audio system at all, really, but if you plan to do anything other than bolting up and down the spine-tingling rev range, you’ll thank yourself for adding it.
There are some options you may decide to skip. It seems hard to justify shelling out $310 to have the Porsche logo on the rear blacked-out, or $420 for the headlight washers in body colour. I'm not usually a fan of Porsche’s $4920 Crayon paint either, but it makes a statement on the Spyder – personally, I’d tick the red-roof option box, too, though.
There are a few other add-ins on this particular car’s spec sheet, bringing the total to $219,290 as tested.
Standard kit, if you’re wondering, covers satellite navigation, Apple CarPlay, dual-zone climate control, a pop-up rear spoiler, powered seats, six-speaker stereo, bi-xenon headlights (adaptive LED lights fitted), auto lights and wipers, seat heating, cruise control, rear camera, rear park sensors and six airbags.
Traditionally, a supercar probably ought to be somewhat challenging to get in and out of, but the 718 Spyder misses that mark. It’s surprisingly easy to climb in and out of, and once settled into the driver’s seat you’re low, but without the feeling of being barely above the ground.
It’s actually a little more comforting that way, but taller drivers might wish to crank the seat lower. No matter how you position yourself forget about visibility, the view forward with the front guards poking into each corner is sublime – the view rearwards, non-existent.
The 718 Spyder also escapes some of the more cutting-edge features that probably have no place being in a car like this in the first place. You still have to twist a physical key, for instance, and the flat glassy monolith of backlit controls found in a 911 is nowhere to be seen inside the Spyder.
An easily accessible 150L of storage can be found under the bonnet, and a slim 120L is available behind the cabin, the caveat being that you can’t open it with the roof in place, and it's locked down by the corner pins. Just another endorsement for going topless, then.
There’s a familiar, faint rattly purr at idle, and you have a choice to enact auto-blipping gear changes, firm or firmer damper modes, and a more vocal exhaust.
The first you don’t need. The engine is so responsive to throttle inputs that as soon as you tap the accelerator pedal, the tacho dances along. It’s pretty easy to nail the blip thing yourself. Some drive-by-wire throttles are dead to a quick stab, but this certainly isn't one of them.
As for dampers, take your pick – at no point does the Spyder become punishing. It is certainly firm, and if you’re going long-distance, the ‘normal’ setting might be more friendly. But given how settled, stable and roll-free the car is otherwise, the inclusion of adjustable dampers doesn’t really feel necessary.
Exhaust: open. There’s no other way to do it. Opting for the quieter mode is like going to a concert hall to sit in the cloakroom. Leave the exhaust flap closed and the Spyder simply sounds too timid. The depth of aural range is trimmed, the note is choked, and it's a genuinely pedestrian and unsatisfactory experience.
There’s a more purposeful note with things open, and at no stage will you find uncomfortable booming, roaring or look-at-me crackling – what a refreshing change. It’s still reserved around town, but swing the tacho needle past 4500rpm and the Spyder finds its ‘big car’ voice. This setting really ought to be the default.
Then there’s the relationship between driver, machine and road. With the roof down and pared back, flowing bodywork that creates an unbroken flow between inside and out, you’d expect the experience to be pretty special, and it is.
Without the weight of an engine up front, the Spyder enjoys a delicate steering feel. It’s accurate because it’s light, but the feel and feedback are utterly impressive. There’s no detail that isn’t fed back to the driver, yet no bucking or kickback when things get rough.
The gearshift is a pure engineering joy. There’s a mechanical heft as you slide through the gate, and a strongly sprung resistance with each pass through. It is precise and well weighted, but at the same time effortless and almost impossible to miscue.
On the right stretch of road, the athleticism is undeniable. You quickly pick up a flow from corner to corner that never feels rushed or frenetic, yet there’s real pace and dedication in every motion.
With the engine behind you, there’s a massive sensory load that kicks in as revs climb, induction throb gets overtaken by exhaust wail, and your balance adjusts to having the rotational centre much, much further back than any front-engine car can provide.
If you want, you can easily kick the tail sideways, but it is by far more rewarding to hold adhesion right at the limit and push the Spyder for maximum thrust. You have 8000rpm to play with and a throttle that’s more playful than an energetic puppy – restrained exuberance helps, but relentless extravagance doesn’t go unrewarded either.
At the rear, 295/30ZR20 rubber keeps things in check balanced with 245/35ZR20s up front. The chassis is far more forgiving than some of the snap-oversteer mid-engined folklore of the past, but you still have a lot of engine and a reasonably pert 1420kg kerb weight, so it’s not out of the question to hamfist things if you’re oafish about your approach.
It’s probably worth pointing out, too, that while the ethos of the Speedster revolves around minimalism and weight saving, the Boxster GTS is 15kg lighter, makes 15kW less and is just 0.1sec slower to 100km/h, but puts its hand out for $22,000 less... Those who can, will.
When the time comes to rein in the fun, 380mm front and rear discs with six-piston front and four-piston rear calipers provide plenty of stopping force. High-performance brake systems are often twitchy, grabby or whiny when driven sedately, but that isn’t the case here, yet the on-pedal adjustability and face-pulling force are still present.
You can, if you’re so inclined, option ceramic-composite brakes, but the value is hard to see unless you’re committing to track work, so good is the standard package.
As with the majority of prestige brands, Porsche sticks with a short three-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty. Services are set at 12-month/15,000km intervals.
If you’re keeping an eye on consumption, Porsche claims 11.3L/100km. On test, with plenty of hard pedalling spaced out with some longer, more relaxed stints in between, we settled on 9.4L/100km. Add in some urban commuting and consumption, and we ended up at 11.3L/100km – rare is the performance car that can match its official claim!
The 718 Spyder may not be a supercar in its entirety, then, but at least the automotive equivalent of a café racer motorbike. Packed full of powerful engine, compact in proportions but demanding in presence, sharp handling, and perfect for spirited jaunts from point to point. Café roadster, then?
It’s delightful to drive, impractical thanks to its roof (and the inability to open the boot with the roof up), gorgeous to set eyes upon, and thus forgivable for its faults.
There will always be a future for cars like the 718 Spyder, even if something like the Porsche Taycan EV is more widely discussed. The past-and-present-splitting joy of a pure, dedicated, scaled-down super roadster like the Spyder defines Porsche.