Pros: Mid-engine configuration enables outstanding agility; open-air thrills without sizable body stiffness or handling compromises; especially entertaining aural experience

Cons: inevitable perception as a "cute" car, despite sporting soul; performance and economy improvements to next-gen model make it hard to justify purchasing a 2012 model

Historically speaking, Porsche has produced more duds than bona fide hits in the "baby Porsche" category. Most die-hard Porschephiles still harp on entry-level stinkers like the 914 and 924 while lauding the venerable 911.

From its debut in 1996, the Boxster struck all the right notes with its classic styling, sub-$40,000 starting price and zippy maneuverability. Whether you looked at it as a rich man's Miata or a poor man's 911 Cabriolet, the Boxster's blend of involving driving dynamics and approachable cost of entry made it a revelation to those who had pooh-poohed the idea of a within-reach Porsche. Such was its market success that the Boxster helped rescue the brand from financial disaster.

Enter the 2012 model year, and the Boxster's second-generation design is enjoying its last hurrah before the third generation hits showrooms this summer. The current range includes the base model ($48,100), the more powerful S ($58,600) and the lighter, more focused Spyder ($61,800). A limited-production S Black Edition is available for $65,200.

The future looks good for the Boxster lineup: the 2013 model offers more power, lighter weight and better fuel economy without a price penalty. It seems Porsche's baby will not only help the brand's ambitious goals of doubling sales by 2018, it will also encourage more buyers to choose Porsche over rivals like Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz.

Comfort & Utility

Two-seat roadsters aren't known for their comfort or utility, but the Boxster manages to hold its own considering its tiny footprint and impractical layout.

The Boxster's cabin is more spacious than you might expect given the car's diminutive proportions, and it offers firm but comfy seats; the optional sport seats enable a more supportive alternative. Two luggage compartments are functionally surprising, with 4.6 cubic feet of storage just aft of the engine and 5.3 cubic feet ahead of the front axle. The power-operated canvas top includes a rear window with a built-in heater, and the lack of a folding hard top emphasizes this roadster's bias toward lightweight construction and performance over low noise levels and cocooning luxury.

Technology

If there's a tech item that can make a car go faster or enhance the experience behind the wheel, there's a good chance it can be found on the Porsche Boxster. From its direct-injected flat-6 engine to its automatically extending spoiler, the Boxster's engineering is optimized for crisp acceleration and responsive handling.

Weight savings also play heavily into the Boxster's engineering, particularly with the Spyder version. Shaving 132 pounds of mass compared with the base Boxster, the Spyder boasts aluminum body panels and a more spartan interior that includes nylon door pulls, a feature inherited from the 911GT3 RS. Although it's available with Porsche's high-tech dual-clutch PDK transmission and features a stiffer suspension, lower ride height and a limited-slip differential, one of the Spyder's key differentiators abandons technology in favor of weight saving: a simple, lightweight soft top that's considerably more cumbersome to operate than the standard power roof. Seems that sometimes, you've got to take two steps back in order to move one step forward.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The Porsche Boxster lineup offers a relatively broad spread of performance and pricing options.

Starting at $48,100, the base Boxster is powered by a 2.9-liter flat-6 producing 255 horsepower and 214 lb-ft of torque. Opt for the Boxster S, and the hefty $10,500 premium lands you a 55-hp gain and an increase of 52 lb-ft of torque. The Spyder's aforementioned 132-pound weight saving will cost you: the stripped-down model starts at $61,800, and climate control, which is standard on the lesser models, becomes optional on the Spyder. Power is also slightly bumped on the Spyder, up 10 hp and 7 lb-ft compared with the S model.

The standard Boxster achieves 0 to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds; opt for an S or an S Black Edition, and that figure is trimmed to five seconds flat. Thanks to its lighter weight and incremental power increase, the Spyder model can hit 60 mph in 4.9 seconds, or 4.6 seconds when equipped with PDK and a Sports Chrono package with launch control engaged.

Expect to pull 19 mpg in city driving and 26 mpg on the highway for all models except the base model, which gets 27 mpg on the open road, and the Spyder, which achieves 29 mpg.

Safety

The federal government's NHTSA and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety have not released crash test results for the 2012 Porsche Boxster, but its generous list of safety features should make it competitive among compact two-seat convertibles.

Although its agility should help it avoid collisions, Boxsters are also equipped with dual front advanced airbags as well as head and side airbags. Side guard door beams offer protection in the case of a T-bone collision, and the usual assemblage of car control features including ABS and stability control contribute to the Boxster's handling-which can be otherwise counterintuitive at the limit because of its mid-engine layout.

Bi-xenon headlights with dynamic cornering lights are a $1,560 option that assists with nighttime visibility, while the priciest performance item masquerading as a safety feature is the set of ceramic composite brakes, which inflate the price by $8,150.

Driving Impressions

The Porsche Boxster is, first and foremost, a driver's car. Unlike the brand's SUV and sedan offerings, which are tuned for performance but make concessions to cargo capacity and passenger hauling, the Boxster's compact proportions, lightweight construction and more elemental mechanical setup enable it to become more focused on the experience behind the wheel.

Exactly how much performance you get depends dramatically on which model you choose; going from the base model to the S adds 55 hp, producing a seat-of-the-pants kick that's significantly more visceral. Pinning the throttle in an S yields a strong whoosh of acceleration accompanied by a sweet mechanical song from the center-mounted exhaust pipes. Also present is a solid dose of road noise and, when the top is pulled down, a fair amount of wind turbulence (which can be reduced with a clear deflector accessory that mounts between the roll hoops).

Maneuverability is exceptional in any Boxster. That's largely because of its responsive suspension and mid-mounted engine, which helps it change direction with immediacy. But for ultimate Boxster performance, the Spyder ups the ante considerably. Sitting an inch lower and tuned with an unrelenting crispness, the Spyder's ride is punishing at best, and sound insulation is lacking. But if you're the sort of driver who attacks mountain roads as if there's a stopwatch running, the Spyder offers exceptional steering feel, astounding roadholding grip and all sorts of gut-wrenching sounds and sensations to accompany the experience.

Choosing trim and upholstery options easily boosts the Boxster's sticker price, but a few option choices make it faster and/or more entertaining to drive, like the dual-clutch PDK transmission ($3,200), which enables quick, smooth shifts; Porsche's active suspension management ($1,790) for adjustable damping and the Sport Chrono package ($1,850), which includes dynamic transmission mounts, digital and analog stopwatches, sportier throttle tuning and, when equipped with PDK, a launch control system. But even without its lengthy options list checked off, the Boxster is an involving, sharp-handling driver's car with the added benefit of an open roof.

Other Cars to Consider

Audi TT - The coupe version of Audi's TT can be ordered in a limited-edition high-performance TT-RS version, but the roadster only comes in two variants: the TT (which starts at $41,300) and the TTS (priced at $50,000). The former is powered by a turbocharged 4-cylinder that is capable of hitting 60 mph in 5.6 seconds, identical to the base level Boxster. The latter is tuned for 265 hp and makes the same sprint in 5.1 seconds. While the Audi's eye-catching exterior and interior design has attracted legions of fans, it still doesn't quite catch the Porsche when it comes to feedback and rewarding driving dynamics.

BMW Z4 - The latest generation of BMW's Z4 has veered away from a more performance-oriented bent, offering a roadster experience that's a bit more luxurious and leisurely. The base sDrive28i model comes in at $48,650 and is powered by a turbocharged 4-cylinder capable of achieving 32 mpg on the highway. The sDrive35i is powered by a twin-turbocharged inline-6 and begins at $55,150, while the $64,200 sDrive35is offers the sportiest approach, with 35 more horsepower than the sDrive35i and an adaptive suspension system that's more aggressive. While the current-generation Z4 isn't available with an M designation, the sDrive35is's ability to accelerate to 60 mph in 4.8 seconds at least makes it nearly as quick as the top-tier Boxster, although its handling isn't quite as precise.

Mercedes-Benz SLK - Mercedes-Benz's diminutive two-seat Boxster alternative was also launched in 1996, but with a decidedly less sporting approach. The turbocharged 4-cylinder SLK250 starts at $42,500, while the $54,800 SLK350's V6 offers more grunt and the $67,500 SLK55 AMG goes for broke with a 415-hp V8. Heavier due to its folding hard top, the SLK has managed to evolve over the years to a more driver-focused personality. Still a bit doughy compared to the Boxster's performance-oriented demeanor, the SLK is nonetheless an elegant choice for different reasons, offering unique options like AIRSCRAF, which keeps occupants comfortable during top-down stints by blowing warm air across the neck area, and Magic Sky Control, which turns the roof from opaque to transparent at the touch of a button.

AutoTrader Recommends

The base Porsche Boxster is quite a bargain at just over $48,000. With the third generation about to make its debut, though, you might want to wait a few more months to get yours.

author photo

Basem Wasef is an automotive journalist, author, and photographer with two coffee table books under his belt, and is a regular contributor to Popular Mechanics, Robb Report, and Maxim among others. When Basem isn't traveling the globe testing vehicles, he enjoys calling Los Angeles home.

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