When you think of Porsche, you think of driving dynamics, sublimely set-up driver’s cars and nape-prickling noise. Cars that give you the James May fizz. Take away one of those attributes and you risk the overall house of cards, so delicately built over decades, tumbling like a cheese wheel down a Gloucestershire hillside.
That’s effectively what Porsche did when it developed the then-new 718 Boxster and Cayman. Doing away with the howling but not especially low-emission six-cylinder engines and replacing them with two turbocharged flat-fours, just 2.0 and 2.5 litres respectively, was a huge gamble for a brand built on a certain kind of performance car. It hasn’t paid off.
Right from the earliest press drives it was clear something was out of line. The engines were technically excellent, with no lag at middle-to-high engine speeds and a better chassis than ever before, but something fundamental had gone walkabout. After leaving the launch in early 2016 I described it as the best performance car you can buy - if you’re deaf. Mean, perhaps, but the point is as valid now as it was then. The 718 and 718 S cars are lacking in an area crucial to any Porsche’s appeal.
Porsche was stuck between European emissions laws, the prevalence of a certain Japaese saloon that pretty much owned the modern turbocharged flat-four concept, and the fact that the Porsche brand was, then as now, known and admired for offering something more exotic than the mainstream. It did what it had to do to try to meet emissions regulations without upsetting the apple cart too much, but the truth is that such a vast switch - some would say ‘reduction’ - in character was never likely to go well.
Let’s hit the numbers, first in the US where things have arguably gone worst. From 7292 cars across the Cayman and Boxster 981 ranges in 2014, the total dropped to 6663 in 2015, that line’s last full year on sale and traditionally a slow one. In the overlap year, 2016, the figure was already lower again – 6260 cars. Alarm bells would have been sounding in Stuttgart. Boom: 2017 comes and goes, leaving a figure of only 5087 718s shifted.
It got worse. After a brief and small resurgence with 5276 units sold in the region in 2018, 2019 has seen it dive to just 3880. In Europe the figures peaked in 2016, when both old and new models were on sale, at 9770 cars across both models. Since then the numbers have dropped to 8438, 8202 and most recently 7100 or so – this last figure is estimated as we don’t have figures for December 2019 yet, but it represents a drop to about 650 cars less than the combined Boxster/Cayman figures for the 981’s final full year in 2015.
It’s not quite that simple in Europe, to be fair. The general market for sports cars is collapsing, so to have sold two consecutive years of the 718 at higher numbers than the 981, and to still be selling a number of 718s close to the 2015 mark is actually a pretty good performance under the circumstances. We couldn’t get hold of UK-specific sales figures but a Porsche GB spokesman told us that the 718 was holding its own in a sports car segment that was actually up 13 per cent on these shores, driven by the new BMW Z4 and updated Audi TT. Its market share has stayed similar in the face of the new challengers.
Still, the uncomfortable position for Porsche in its long-standing European and American markets is that the engine swap was too much. The 718 handles better than ever but buyers here aren’t into it in the same way because it lacks the exotic edge of the 981 before it; the edge provided by sound alone. Porsche knows it, too, having fairly urgently reintroduced six-bangers for the (evo Car of the Year-winning) Cayman GT4 and Boxster Spyder. These make up more than half of overall sales in the US, with the balance set to tip even further towards sixes now that a pair of six-cylinder GTS variants has been confirmed.
As Porsche has already explained to Road & Track, the real reason the West was lumbered with a 718 that didn’t cut the sonic mustard is China. It’s much cheaper there to tax a 2.0-litre car with four cylinders than it is to slap the same ticket on a 3.4-litre flat-six, and there’s much less of an issue there with heritage or an expectation of six cylinders. Add to that the increased sales volume potential in a nation of over a billion people, and this side of the world we all suddenly look rather unimportant.
Without the demand from that vast nation we probably wouldn’t have a 718 at all, so perhaps we should be grateful, not grumbling. Maybe, much like building the Cayenne, Panamera and Macan, the 718 is just another one of those ‘wrong’ decisions Porsche is very good at making when the alternative is commercial failure.