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Porsche Everyday? We slog a Boxster on snowy roads

Posted by Craig Fitzgerald  March 2, 2012 11:07 AM

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(All photos: Craig Fitzgerald for Boston.com). Click photo for larger version.

I walked out of the garage with a snowbrush yesterday right as my plow guy, finishing his last pass of the driveway, stopped and called me over to his Ford pickup.

“You’re not taking that, are you?” he asked, his finger pointed at a bright red 2012 Porsche Boxster S.

Why wouldn’t I?

Since last year, Porsche has been running the “Porsche Everyday” campaign, pitching its line of cars – not just its SUVs and sedans – as everyday drivers, suitable for picking up the kids at school, hauling a couple of bags of Portland cement from the Home Depot, and yes, getting through the snow safely and securely.

For years now, I’ve been listening to New Englanders bellyache that you can’t get through winter without all-wheel drive. Utter nonsense. All-wheel drive is nice to have. It’s by no means mandatory.

For nine months of the year, you’re pushing around hundreds of extra pounds of driveline, and it adds significant complexity and expense when repairs start coming in. Learn how to drive in the winter and you can drive just about anything. My own father arrived safely at the door on Feb. 6, 1978 during one of the worst storms in New England history. He was driving a two-year-old Camaro.

As an indication of how confident Porsche is in its car’s winter ability, the manufacturer sent this Boxster S to compete in the New England Motor Press Association’s “Official Winter Vehicle of New England” competition. Some looked askance. Others reacted with outright hostility. But when this winter's only real snow arrived in the Boston area, I willingly took the keys to see if these sports cars were all they were cracked up to be in the snow -- hopefully without any crack-ups along the way.

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Click photo for larger version.

I’ve had experience with hauling stuff in Boxsters. I used a previous-generation Boxster to bring a couple of vintage Vespa engines to my buddy’s house to get rebuilt, and the cargo area up front offered a depth and size that seemed made to carry single-cylinder two-strokes. But I hadn’t ever experienced one in the snow. I’ve driven two sports cars in lousy weather – a 1989 Mazda RX-7 and a 1991 Mazda Miata – and both of them were pretty lousy with standard tires mounted.

Porsche doubled down by shoeing this Boxster with a set of Blizzak tires. I buckled my seven-year-old daughter in the passenger seat and inched down the driveway. The Blizzaks bit into the packed snow and the ABS groaned a bit, but my trepidation with descending the hill was unfounded. The Boxster S stopped just as you’d expect it to.

At that hour, my street was essentially unplowed. Five inches of snow had fallen and plenty of vehicular traffic had created ruts surrounded by at least seven inches of sloppy wet snow. The enhanced Porsche Stability Management (PSM) system kept it from straying too far from my intended path, and the mid-engined layout kept the Blizzak tires churning through the slop.

The Boxster S has three performance settings that modify throttle response and the way the PDK automatic transmission shifts. In Sport Plus mode, you launch like you would at a drag strip, with super-high rpm and shifts that rocket you forward into the next gear. In Sport mode, it’s a little less abrupt, but the throttle is still instantaneous and authoritative.

You don’t want to use either mode in the snow or the rain. When you fire the 315-horsepower flat-six, the default shifts are lazier and arrive at much lower revs. Throttle response is still crisp, but it’s a lot easier to manage (I thought starting in second gear might be better, but the transmission wouldn’t allow it). Regardless, the Porsche found its grip easily and we were off with no major issues.

The driveway to my daughter’s before-school program is on a sharp corner that immediately crests a steep hill. I figured this would be the place where I’d learn the limits of the Boxster’s traction, and I’d be sliding backwards, the ABS and traction control fighting the whole way. But with no momentum, we crested the hill drama-free. Descending the other side was just as confidence-inspiring. The rest of the 25-mile trip I had ahead of me was going to be a breeze.

I’m not suggesting that a Porsche Boxster S is the ultimate winter vehicle, especially if you live in Jay, Vermont spending most winters with two feet of fresh snow on the roads. Twelve inches of snow will defeat the Boxster on ground clearance alone. But if it’s that bad out, should you really be driving anyway?

However, I am suggesting that with a bit of technology, decent weight distribution, a good set of dedicated snow tires, and a bit of experience, you can drive a car that’s a whole lot more fun the rest of the year than some Soccer Mom’s crossover.

Here’s a crusty Yankee’s tips for winter driving:

Snow tires. More than anything else, a dedicated set of snow tires will inspire incredible confidence in the snow. Tires like the Bridgestone Blizzaks on this Porsche are good, but they’re a soft-compound winter tire that’s better suited to icy conditions than snow. There are true “snow” tires with aggressive tread patterns that will cut through the powdery stuff when it gets deep.

Narrower wheels. If I had one complaint about the Boxster, it would be the width of the wheels they put these tires on. Talk to your tire retailer to find out if there’s a narrower wheel/tire combination, even if the wheels are steel. Those pizza-cutters will offer a lot better traction than the wider tires that tend to float up on the snow.

Go easy on the pedals. Every old Yankee’s dad gave the same bit of advice: “Drive like there’s an egg under the gas pedal.” Judicious application of the throttle will result in less wheelspin, and therefore, better traction when leaving an intersection.

Practice. I’ve seen people freak out with the slightest wag of the tail on a rear-drive vehicle in the snow. You’ve got to learn what the car’s going to do when you step on the gas, learn how to manage a skid, and correct that errant behavior instantly. Traction control and stability control is all well and good, but learning to control the car yourself is better.

And you won’t understand how ABS works unless you’ve felt it in action in a controlled environment. You can do it on your own in a snowy parking lot, or you can sign up with the pros for better instruction. Dealerships like Lovering Volvo in southern New Hampshire offer teen driving courses that take place whether there’s snow on the ground or not.

Craig Fitzgerald is a regular contributor to The Boston Globe and drives a rear-wheel-drive Buick Roadmaster station wagon and Pontiac Parisienne when he’s not in Porsches.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
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Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee
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