1998 Porsche Boxster Road Test

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1998 Porsche Boxster Convertible

(2.5L 6-cyl. 5-speed Manual)

When Roadsters Dream

Porsches are all about fun. Of course everyone talks about racing heritage, and how fast they go, and how quickly they stop, and how much they cost, and how they’re all about form and function, but the truth is that Porsche builds toys for grown-ups. This year, Porsche won the Professional Sports Car Racing GT championship, thanks to Rohr Motorsport’s 911 GT1, a 600 horsepower beast of a car. Translation: an expensive toy won a big game. Big deal. How many people can afford a million-dollar car?

Create an easy-to-drive convertible, however – make it the most affordable car in the Porsche lineup – make it outperform the closest competition – make it remind us of the classic roadsters of the 50’s – throw in some parts from the championship racecar – and you’ve got it made. And so they do.

Last year, the small German manufacturer released their first new car in almost 20 years. They called it the Boxster. It has been a huge success, propelling Porsche sales over the 30,000-car mark.

It’s a safe bet that anything made by Porsche is going to live up to the company’s heritage of supreme performance at a supreme price. In the last few years, the revival of the roadster has seen the birth of the Z3 and SLK, made by two other prestigious German car companies. BMW entered the market with an expensive 1.9-liter four-cylinder Z3, and Mercedes introduced the SLK with an automatic as the only transmission choice.

Porsche, however, got it right the first time: the Boxster comes standard with a six-cylinder engine and a five-speed manual transmission, with an optional Tiptronic auto-manual transmission. And the Boxster is priced to compete – at a slightly higher price than the other neo-roadsters, but with more standard equipment.

The Boxster is an amalgam of simple roadster and adrenaline-pumping sports car. Unlike pure roadsters like the Mazda Miata or the British MG, Triumph, or Lotus cars of yesteryear, the Boxster is very fast. Muscle cars can be fun to drive on twisty two-lane roads, but deriving satisfaction is more of an arm-wrestle than a tango. No, it’s not intended as a primary means of transportation, but as a means to enjoy the driving experience.

Marketing types describe their success with "The Porsche Experience – There Is No Substitute." Cynics would say, "The Porsche Experience – Will Make You Destitute. Pay a helluva lot for a car, pay a helluva lot for maintenance, and take a helluva hit in depreciation." Oh, and have a helluva lot of fun in the process.

But Porsche is not worried about its price point. In fact, Boxsters are selling so well that they’ve had to open a plant in Finland just to keep up with a demand that has not tapered off since the car’s introduction. Used Boxsters are appreciating in value on the market, sometimes selling for $5,000 more than the cost of a new one. A faster "S" version is in the works, but Porsche has no plans to produce such a car when the demand for the "slower" original is exceeding manufacturing capacity. And who can blame them? The Boxster is more than enough car for most people.

Starting with the interior, ergonomics are excellent. Some of the same components are shared between the Boxster and the new 911, to simplify manufacturing and to keep costs down. And if it’s good enough for a 911, we’re okay with it. Shiny black plastic buttons are not exactly posh, and neither is a rather weak stereo system, but leather abounds, though some of our staff were less-than-impressed. At night, we had trouble locating some of the controls because they are not all backlit. Even the new Corvette pays more attention to such detail. Then again, driving at night should be avoided at all costs: remember James Dean. The instrument nacelle is composed of an oversized tachometer pitted between and slightly overlapping a left-side speedometer and right-side fuel and engine temperature gauges. Fonts are cartoonish in character, a quality only exaggerated by the digital speed readout located just below the tach.

For people over six-feet-four inches in height (admittedly a freakishly small percentage of the population) comfort is sacrificed for fun. The seat won’t slide back quite far enough for ample legroom, and the seatback is too short to provide an adequate headrest. My noggin actually rested squarely on the roll bar, which would have been a concern in the event of a rear-end collision. But the seat is comfortable for most body types, and even with the roof up, headroom is not a detriment.

The black roof on our test car made for a cave-like ambience when up, but most Boxster driving time is spent top-down and smiling in the sunshine. The top lowers or raises at the push of a button, and the only labor involved is in securing one center-mounted latch just over the windshield. The entire process is accomplished in about 12 seconds.

With the top lowered, we fitted a piece of clear plastic between roll bars, which reduces buffeting from the wind. However, at speeds of over 60 mph, a loud whistle was heard piercing the cabin area. Some would ignore the whistle, and some would call it maddening. Being of the latter mindset, I searched in vain for the source of my displeasure. Members of our staff theorized that the pointed side mirrors could be the cause, but more likely the shriek came from the hard mesh set amid the roll bars, just behind each passenger’s head.

Aside from the shrill whistle in the test car, there’s not much to dislike about driving a Boxster. But lest we miss any, here’s something to concern anyone who’s afraid of another speeding ticket: at 75 mph, a spoiler automatically pops out of the Boxster’s rump, and it doesn’t retract until the car drops back under 50 mph. For the enthusiast who uses radar detectors and was born with a slightly lead foot, forget about avoiding attention from the highway patrol; the speed-sensitive spoiler is like mooning the cops. We can hear it now: "I’m giving you a ticket for operating your spoiler in a 60 mph zone." The spoiler serves to reduce lift and improve ride stability. We just wish it popped up a little earlier.

Flash is part of the Porsche mystique. In fact, styling has been a point of contention. The 1993 concept car that debuted in Detroit was more curvaceous than the car that made it to production, but compared to the competition, the Boxster is true to its marque. Sure, the 911 has been recently redesigned, but all new Porsches follow the lineage of the original (also mid-engined) 356, and the Boxster successfully brings the past up to date with a profile that’s less wind-resistant than ever, yet still distinctly Porsche.

But the Boxster is more than style; it performs up to Porsche standards as well. A new water-cooled engine, a Porsche first, makes the air-cooled engine obsolete, but still creates a jubilant sound just behind the driver, responding to the accelerator with an eager hum. The engine is a 2.5-liter horizontally opposed six-cylinder "boxer" configuration, which is good for 201 horsepower and 188 pound-feet of torque. But the engine’s output may not be as integral a part of the recipe as its location: mounted behind the seats and ahead of the rear axle, the flat six helps provide a very low center of gravity as well as giving the car a 49/51 front-to-rear weight distribution. Thanks to front-and-rear trunks, there’s even enough storage space for a couple of overnight travel bags.

As a macho automotive journalist, I hate to admit it, but the Porsche Boxster is a better driver than I am. Approaching flat bends in the road is enough to unsettle most cars, but the Boxster performs flawlessly, its 205/55ZR16 and 225/50ZR16 tires performing miracles of traction. To really test the limits of a car like this requires a racetrack and some Skip Barber driving instruction, neither of which we could arrange on short notice.

Braking performance is athletic and as sure-footed as Pele. Four-wheel disc brakes come equipped with ABS, and the caliper design is the same as that found on the 911 GT1 car: monoblock with four various-sized pistons to avoid uneven wear on the linings. We’ll vouch for the fact that they work well, however they’re designed.

Cruising around tight corners in a Boxster not only challenges the laws of physics – it ridicules them. Second gear, forty miles an hour, middle of what appears to be a U-turn, and the car remains glued to the pavement. Every effort is precise, from the tight steering wheel input to the amount of pedal required to shift from idle. The Boxster communicates as if by Braille: if you can read it, you’re in good shape [sic]. The driver never becomes one with the Boxster, but rather uses the car as a delicate instrument, aware of intended input and each of the car’s responses. It’s a lot of work, but the result is a lot of fun.

But it all comes down to a question of taste: do you want to drive the modern-day equivalent of James Dean’s 550 Spyder? And are roadsters meant to perform like powerful sports cars? Basically, the Boxster feels like an MG on steroids; the handling is secure and fun, but everything happens much faster than normal. And is it more fun to drive a car blazingly fast in the twisties than to have the rear end come around once in a while with a little playful oversteer? Some people may not want to take the Boxster to its limits, and most people shouldn’t in any case. Again: remember James Dean.

For the best roadster of the ‘90s, if there were such a contest, the Porsche Boxster makes an excellent nominee. It would also be in the running for the best new sports car. However your definition may vary, keep in mind that there is no substitute for fun.

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