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1997 Porsche Boxster

  • Driver

KOLN, Germany — From the moment the Porsche Boxster concept

car was unveiled at the Detroit auto show in 1993, the question

was: will the production car be a "real" Porsche?

After all, every Porsche since the 1963 911 has been

considered less than pur sang by Porschephiles. The 914 was a

Volkswagen. The 924 was an Audi, its successors, the 944 and

968, less than genuine for a variety of reasons. The brilliant

928 was perceived as too much of a luxocruiser to be a true

sports car.

The Boxster?

No question. It's a Porsche. Even if it isn't air-cooled.

The Boxster looks like a Porsche. It goes like a Porsche. It

sounds like a Porsche. Most important, it handles like a

Porsche.

Well, scratch the last one. It handles better than a Porsche.

Fightin' words? Wait till you drive it.

Looks like a Porsche? You bet. There are deliberate throwbacks

to famous Porsches of the past, from the very first 356

prototype, through the Spyder 550 race car. Yet there are some

subtle touches that chief stylist Harm Lagaay insisted upon that

play with Porsche tradition.

The S-shaped shut lines of the hood (as opposed to straight on

the 911) deliberately cut across the valley formed by the front

fender-to-hood curve. A minor detail, perhaps, but still a brave

thing for a Porsche designer to do. No problem. It works.

The front end, with its complex headlight shape, recalls the

current 911. But the rear threequarter view, especially when

seen in motion (i.e. when it's flying past you) is the car's

best angle. It even looks good with the clever, powered canvas

top in place. The optional aluminum hardtop does look a bit

Miataish, however.

Grant Larson, the American-born designer who was 100 per cent

responsible for the concept car and about 80 per cent for the

finished product, has good reason to be proud.

The interior, done by a pair of Germans, isn't quite as

successful in my view, for two reasons. First, it couldn't quite

capture the funkiness of the concept car, not that we ever

thought it would. Things like exposed blades on ventilation fans

are the sort of thing that set litigation lawyers to doing

handsprings. Productionizing it inevitably brought compromise.

Second, the minor switches and trunk release levers are shiny

black plastic, which to us boomers has come to represent

cheapness.

Lagaay counters that research shows younger people view matte

black as cheap, and shiny black as expensive check out a Game

Boy or Nintendo. The generation gap rears its ugly head; the

Chev Beretta was ahead of its time.

The curved interior shapes, free-standing door trims and the

way the rear view mirror mimics the reflected space between the

head restraints are interesting, as is the gap between the

instrument pod and the rest of the dash. Instrument graphics are

italic in shape, another departure from the strict Teutonic

flavor of typical Porsches.

The preponderance of push buttons for radio and ventilation

controls the latter seemingly lifted intact from an Audi A4

is depressing. If Porsche and BMW have abandonded proper round

knobs, is there any hope for the rest of the world?

And the ignition switch to the left of the steering column is

another Porsche trademark I could do without. (Was Dr. Porsche

lefthanded, perhaps?)

The seats are a bit lacking in lateral support for the back,

surprising considering the cornering power the car generates.

They are adjustable manually for reach, electrically for rake;

the driver also gets manual height adjustment. With a

telescoping (but not tilting) steering column, most drivers will

find a comfortable driving position.

The engine is mid-mounted, behind the passenger compartment

but ahead of the rear axle, putting the mass of the motor within

the wheelbase for reduced polar moment of inertia, hence nimble

handling, about which more anon.

An optional aluminum roof rack can be fitted, top up or down.

It's designed to carry up to 75 kg of snowboards, surfboards, or

mountain bikes (Porsche Design, naturally).

The 2.5 litre engine shares nothing with previous Porsche

motors but its flatsix boxer configuration and spacing between

cylinder bores.

Heinz Dorsch, Porsche's head of engine development testing,

told me that maximum displacement is 3.2 litres, which doesn't

seem sufficient for a new 911 (it's currently 3.6), although

with four valves and four cams, power levels will be higher for

the new 3.2 than for the old 3.6.

The Boxster engine is Porsche's first production four-valve

design, and the first four-cammer apart from some lowvolume

racing specials. These features and the water cooling were

necessary to extract the required horsepower from the required

displacement, and to keep fuel consumption and noise levels low.

It produces 204 horsepower at 6000 r.p.m. and a peak of 181

poundfeet of torque at 4500 r.p.m. Porsche's VarioCam variable

camshaft timing system, introduced on the Carrera 2, helps

flatten the torque curve, providing at least 85 per cent of that

peak value from 2000 to 6500 r.p.m.

And it goes like hell. Keep the revs over 4500, and be

prepared to move. It's decently flexible at lower engine speeds

too, but it does like to spin.

On my first turn behind the wheel, pulling out of an autobahn

parkplatz and just taking it easy for the first few minutes, I

was up to 185 km/h before I knew it. What an engine. What a

country.

Sounds terrific too, the engine I mean, with a metallic blat

that gets particularly nasty between 5000 and 5500 r.p.m., where

the VarioCam does its business.

It's considerably quieter with the canvas roof down, not just

because there's wind noise to drown it out, but because the

folded top provides added sound insulation.

The car is never unduly noisy, but you are constantly reminded

that this is, after all, a sports car.

The exhaust note is also the only clue that there is an engine

in there; apart from oil and coolant fillers in the rear trunk,

you can't see any part of the engine without putting the car on

a hoist. Hydraulic valve lifters and longlife spark plugs mean

neither you nor your mechanic will have much need to look at it.

A new five-speed manual gearbox is the base transmission.

Shift feel is never a Porsche strength because of the long and

torturous passage the linkage must follow to reach the

rearmounted tranny. The Boxster's box is a little closer to the

shifter; the shift feel is predictably better than usual.

The clutch is a little on the heavy side, but takeup is

strong and smooth. Shift speed and quality are therefore up to

the skill of the driver, not handicapped in any way by the

machinery.

A five-speed Tiptronic manual-automatic is the transmission

option. It's an all-new gearbox, whose shape precludes fitting

it to the current 911 (bet the farm it'll be in the 996). Shifts

are both quicker and smoother than before.

Unlike previous Tiptronics, this one provides for manual

operation only by rocker switches on the steering wheel spokes.

The old Tiptronic allowed toggling the shift lever forward or

back; now, you either put it in "D", in which case it does all

the work for you, or slide it over to "M", wherein your

fingertips (or, in my case, the fleshy part of the hand at the

base of the thumb) nudges the switch up to upshift, or down to

downshift.

Tiptronic is almost smarter in drive mode. It can, for

example, sense lateral acceleration, and will hold a gear if you

lift off in a sharp corner, rather than upshift as a

conventional automatic would, which might upset the car just

when it might need the torque the lower gear provides.

It has taken me several sessions with Tiptronic Porsches to

begin to appreciate it a half-hour downtown Stuttgart traffic

jam in a manual Boxster made me pine for it. I'm not sure I

would buy one, but neither would I reject it out of hand, like

too many sports car purists do. It's technically interesting,

fun to play with, and most drivers are quicker with it. Remind

me again: exactly why do you buy a sports car?

Porsche turns a cost disadvantage unlike its competitors,

Boxster is not based on a mass-produced sedan into an

advantage: exclusivity and fitness for purpose. This is

particularly evident in the suspension, designed expressly for a

sports car.

You might wonder why they stick with a semi-MacPherson strut

design, rather than the theoretically superior double wishbone

system.

But drive the car and there can be no doubt: this is one of

the fine handlers in the world.

Mid-engined cars tend to be twitchy, with turnin that can be

too abrupt. But Porsche has taken their Weissach rear axle

concept, which toes the outside rear wheel inward in a corner to

counteract oversteer, and extended it to the front suspension,

where slight toeout of the outer front wheel increases

stabilizing understeer. It also means hard braking in a corner

won't upset the car.

The result is positively brilliant. Both ends of the car work

strongly in hard cornering. Yet unlike a 911, you don't have to

be a Jacques Villeneuve to extract maximum lateral acceleration.

This handling doesn't compromise ride quality. Yes, it's firm,

but the car handles bumps large and small with cushy ease.

Did I mention braking? Always a Porsche hallmark, the Boxster

doesn't disappoint. Racing-derived one-piece cast aluminum

calipers (think about machining the piston bores in these

things) are completely flex-free; you get retardation

immediately on initial pedal touch, and it stays there forever.

The Boxster will carry a $58,000 sticker when the first of

about 300 cars start wending their way into Canadian Porsche

dealerships early next year.

Options will be available in packages cruise, CD player, a

host of other goodies but package content and prices haven't

been finalized yet.

The Boxster is the third of three brilliant German machines

that are redefining the sports car market. All three

Mercedes-Benz SLK, BMW Z3 and the Boxster are roughly the same size,

and are aiming at roughly the same market. When the Z3 is

available with the 2.8 litre six cylinder engine, they'll all be

roughly similar in power and price too.

And yet, all three are distinctly different, and accurately

reflect their originating companies' philosophies.

The SLK is solid, beautifully built, and its disappearing

hardtop is an engineering tour de force . But you do have to dig

deep to find its excellent handling; limited luggage space

aside, it's more of a touring machine.

The Z3 in current guise is a bare-bones fun car, and certainly

the value leader. But it will need the six before it competes on

sheer power.

The Boxster is a pure sports car, with spectacular

performance, outstanding handling and brakes, and modern, cheeky

good looks.

And this cannot be understated it's a genuine Porsche.

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