Pure sports car and purely Porsche.

by Tony Swan

Base Price $40,745
As Tested $42,095

If you think ordinary Porschephiles are fanatics, consider the Porsche sub-cult that regarded the old 914/6 as the best of this distinguished breed -- better, at least in terms of handling, than the immortal 911.

Although it was relentlessly rectilinear and singularly unlovely, the 914 also had superb handling for its day, thanks to the balance that goes with a mid-engine design.

Porsche faithful love to debate arcane issues such as this, like the guys in medieval monasteries trying to figure out how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. But we think the new Porsche Boxster effectively consigns the 914 to history. This dramatically all-new mid-engined roadster opens a new chapter for the world's premier sports car company.

Walkaround

Although it's not quite as drop-dead gorgeous as the Boxster show car of 1993, the production version is clean, purposeful and distinctively Porsche.

From the front, the Boxster design is reminiscent of the evergreen 911, particularly some of the 911 special appearance packages. But from the rear, it suggests a blend of a couple of '50s ancestors, specifically Porsche's 356 Speedster and the 550 Spyder.

Naturally, the proportions are a little different. This is a mid-engine car, as distinct from the rear-engined 356 and the 911, which means the engine is mounted ahead of the rear axle rather than over or behind it.

This configuration yields excellent weight distribution, and just as significant, puts most of the car's mass between the front and rear axles, a big asset in the department of rapid maneuvers. Which, of course, is what cars like this are all about.

Riding a 95.1-inch wheelbase and almost 170 inches long, the Boxster is about 10 inches longer than the BMW Z3 and Mercedes-Benz SLK, its Teutonic rivals. It's also a tad wider, with a wider rear track. However, the extra dimensions don't translate as a weight penalty. The basic Boxster scales in a tad over 2800 pounds, which is a little lighter than its competitors.

Propelling this tidy package is an update on a classic Porsche design -- the opposed or "boxer" six. With their cylinders opposed 180 degrees to one another, boxer designs offer packaging advantages, because they lie flat. And because they lie flat, they also help designers keep the car's center of gravity low.

At a glance, the new engine is classic Porsche, with roots that date to Ferdinand Porsche's early work in the 1930s. But there's a key contemporary difference. The Boxster's flat-six is liquid-cooled, eliminating the old 911 cooling fans and lending a distinctly new sound to its power delivery.

As you'd expect of a Porsche, the new engine is mechanically au courant, with twin overhead cams, four valves per cylinder and variable cam timing. And as you'd also expect, peak power -- 201 horsepower from 2.5 liters -- is plentiful, though both the Z3 2.8 and supercharged SLK are a little more robust in the torque department.

Two transmissions are offered -- the standard five-speed manual and Porsche's Tiptronic automatic, also with five speeds. The Tiptronic offers its operator the choice of full automatic operation or fingertip pushbutton self-shifting, similar in concept to a Formula One racing car. It's the best compromise between stick and automatic on the market, but at $3150 it's also the most expensive and the manual gearbox provides better performance.

Braking, with oversize vented discs on all four wheels plus Porsche's latest anti-lock system, is superb.

Our basic Boxster was equipped with the standard wheel/tire package -- P205/55ZR front, P225/50ZR rear, on handsome 16-inch aluminum wheels. Optional 17-inch wheels add a bit more grip at the rear of the car, but also add $1450 to the bottom line.

Other chassis/performance related goodies on the option list include a $3235 Sport package (17-inch wheel/tire combination, wind deflector, cruise control, alarm system and in-dash CD player) and a Technic Sport package (stiffer suspension components, 17-inch wheels and tires, automatic brake differential and traction control) for $1901.

The traction control system, which includes the automatic brake proportioning system, is also available as a separate option for $847.

The Inside Story

Consistent with virtually every Porsche ever made, the Boxster is all business inside, with plenty of room for two (we don't have specific measurements) highly supportive leather-surfaced bucket seats, contemporary amenities and excellent control placement.

However, the instruments do represent something of a departure from Porsche tradition. Three round pods are siamesed together, with the speedo on the left, coolant temp and fuel on the right and a big tachometer dominating in the center.

The speedo and tach are analog, of course, but there are smaller digital readouts at the bottom of each pod -- odometer incoporated in the speedo, clock in the secondary readouts and a digital speedo at the bottom of the big tach. It's an attractive and effective blend of classic with contemporary.

A pair of steel tube hoops, mounted behind the seats and extending above the seatbacks, provide extra protection for drivers unlucky enough to find themselves upside-down, and of course there are the usual passive safety features -- twin airbags, three-point seatbelts and side-impact protection.

Unlike the BMW Z3, the Boxster's standard convertible top is power-operated. When the top is down, you can stretch a wind deflector between the upper seatbacks to minimize interior buffeting. It's a $360 option that we recommend. Porsche also offers a removable hardtop option, which includes a rear window defogger, for $2249.

Other optional amenities: a trip computer ($440), alarm system ($600), upgrades sound package (six speakers, four-channel amp, $590), headlight washers ($224), metallic paint ($789) and cruise control ($550). Although the seats in the basic car have leather inserts, you can spread more cowhide around the interior with the leather interior package for $1951.

All of the foregoing makes it clear to us that option shopping is something to approach carefully with this new car.

Luggage space is apportioned between fore and aft compartments, and is surprisingly good for a small two-seater. Getting at the engine, however, is another story. Although you can get to fluid reservoirs readily enough, all access to the engine itself comes from below. Unless you have your own hydraulic hoist, getting to the engine means a visit to your Porsche dealer, which is rarely cheap.

Ride & Drive

Although the BMW Z3 2.8, with its torquey in-line six, may be just a little quicker out of the blocks, the Boxster is definitely brisk. It'll dash to 60 mph in well under seven seconds, and top speed -- something we hope to explore someday -- is pegged at 149 mph.

But the real fun here is this car's unerringly precise response to driver commands. Mid-engine balance, an excellent chassis and firm suspension tuning add up to a level of agility and stability that seems a cut above the Boxster's key competitors. There's not a hint of wrestling to guide this aggressive newcomer down to the apex of a fast turn; it seems almost to anticipate its orders, and there's not a hint of hesitation or uncertainty.

The old British definition of a sports car was something that could, in a pinch, be raced. That's a key part of Porsche's heritage, and it certainly applies to the Boxster. The ride quality that goes with these gunfighter reflexes is distinctly firm, but somehow we don't think anyone will mind.

Final Word

The sudden revival of the roadster is a gratifying phenomenon in an age of sport-utility vehicles. Besides the Boxster, the SLK and BMW Z3 offer tempting packages to consider, each with its own appeal.

Of this trio, the Boxster is the most expensive, but it's also arguably the best at pure sports car duties. It's a genuine Porsche. To some, that alone will be worth the price of admission.

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©1998 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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