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1997 Porsche Boxster

PHOENIX, Ariz.—Car companies love to use this town to show their products off to the press. I've been here four times already this year, and it's only March.

The reason should be obvious: you can pretty much count on the weather.

But Murphy's Law struck Porsche during the North American launch of its new Boxster sports car. During my session, one of six scattered throughout February and March, Arizona had snow.

Not a light dusting. But serious, this could-be-Winnipeg snow.

Not in Phoenix itself; it only got horizontal rain and flooding of Biblical proportion. The snow was confined to the mountains north of Phoenix, in the Prescott Jerome Flagstaff

area.

Where had Porsche laid out the driving route? But of course.

With its mid mounted twin cam 24-valve flat six 201 horsepower engine putting nearly the ideal 50 per cent of the weight on the driving wheels, the Boxster is better able to handle this than other, less well balanced sports cars.

But not even Bridgestone would argue that their Potenza S02s are winter tires. The tread pattern that works brilliantly on dry or wet pavement clogs up instantly in wet snow, making the car quite a handful. A huge admission for me, but I was actually glad to have traction control.

(Mind you, if it were my car I'd fit a set of proper winter tires and revert to my usual pull the traction control fuse strategy.)

My co-driver, Harry Pegg of Calgary, and I started in a lovely red five speed manual. With the 12-second stooped power top down until the weather closed in, we took back roads to Wickenburg, up to Skull Valley, then bailed out of the suggested route at Prescott and headed back into town. If you have a map of Arizona, locate these areas, and don't forget them next time you have an interesting car to drive down here.

I dropped Harry back at the hotel, then took a five-speed Tiptronic out for a two hour boot.

The following morning, we had an opportunity to take as many laps of Phoenix International Raceway's little road course as we wanted, with well known race drivers Rick Bye, Pierre Savoy, David Murray and Hurley Haywood as co-drivers and/or

instructors.

But those of us who had driven with Haywood before refused to get in the car with him. He has a penchant for reaching over from the passenger seat and grabbing the steering wheel out of your hand if you aren't on the absolutely perfect racing line.

Sorry, Hurley you may have won Le Mans a few times, but I don't need that sort of aggro.

The entire objective of these exercises was to see whether my initial experience with the Boxster in Germany last fall was accurate sometimes cars don't "travel well" from their

homelands.

This one does. It's wonderful.

It is, to be sure, a sports car. There is some cargo space: separate areas, front and rear. At least one set of golf clubs is no problem, nor is luggage for two for a weekend. But it's no minivan.

The ride is amazingly comfortable, the aggressive tires not extracting as big a toll as you'd expect. The engine sounds lovely, especially at full chat. And you'll be at full chat most of the time. Not because you have to be, since the variable cam timing system advances the opening of the intake valves, increasing overlap and filling the cylinders faster, thereby boosting torque low down in the rev range. No, you'll be at full chat most of the time because the engine spins so smoothly and willingly you're into the rev limiter before you know it.

But eventually you'd even want to shut Beethoven off (it's not like he's Mozart). The motor is right there behind your ears, the exhaust note is with you all the time, particularly with the snug fitting top erect, and it gets wearying after a few hours.

The Tiptronic is an acquired taste. I'm not sure I'd choose it over the excellent manual gearbox, but it's fun to play with. The boy racer temptation is to move the console mounted shift lever to manual mode, and pretend you're Jacques Villeneuve by

changing gears with the steering wheel spoke buttons.

This can be useful on the road, when in moderate traffic and wish to hold a single gear instead of letting the box hunt around. If you don't upshift at the redline, the tranny shifts

for you anyway; if you ask for a manual downshift that would overrev the engine, the tranny ignores you. Frankly, I find it easier to simply let the car do all the work.

On the track, I again left the shifter in drive, and used the right foot both to shift (by banging down hard on the gas pedal and lifting immediately, which selects the next lower gear) and to modulate the throttle. It takes practice to get it right, and to learn how the transmission adapts to your driving, but it's a more interesting technical exercise than fiddling with the manual shift buttons.

The interior takes some getting used to. Harm Lagaay, Porsche's chief of design, says today's young people view shiny black plastic as cool and hip older folks (i.e., those who

typically can afford Porsches) tend to think of it as cheap.

Porsche tradition (or is it Swabian stubbornness?) is served with the ignition switch to the left of the steering wheel.

I'd have to suffer through a long-term test of a Boxster; not an entirely bad idea to get used to this. Ditto the speedometer, also offset to the left, which had me checking

speed via the digital readout in the tach face.

The map pockets are in the door sills, rather than the doors themselves. Whenever you get out of the car, you invariably kick whatever has been stashed in there onto the (in our case, wet, snowy) pavement.

During the race track sessions it became apparent that the Boxster would be a perfect car for advanced driver training.

Every input the driver makes, with steering wheel, throttle, brakes or transmission, is instantly communicated to the car, and the car communicates back.

Lift in a corner, the nose tucks in. Brake in a corner, the tail drifts gently out. Put the power back on, the car hunkers down and rockets out of the bend. The steering is all the while telling you exactly what the front wheels are doing. It's responsive, but never bites you, as a 911 can.

I mentioned this to local boy Bye, who runs driver training programs for Porsche.

Bye doesn't miss much; he'd already asked Fred Schwab, president of Porsche Cars North America, about getting some Boxsters.

In his straight-shooting style, Schwab replied, "We're going to sell these things, not give 'em to you!"

And sell they are. The North American dealers have already spoken for the entire 1997 allocation, and 44 Boxsters have been delivered in Canada as of the end of February. They are projecting 520 Canadian sales by the end of the year.

The $56,600 buys a well, if not lavishly, equipped Boxster.

Such desirable features as heated seats, alarm system and headlight washers are optional, as are things the market demands but purists don't care about, such as leather, CD player and cruise. (Only a marketing person could answer how a CD player gets bundled into something called a "sport package".)

This makes a Boxster considerably pricier than a comparably equipped BMW Z3 2.8 or Mercedes Benz SLK (I consider $10,000 considerable).

People always ask which of the three I would (hence, they should) buy.

As I've said before, it's amazing how three German car companies, staring at essentially the same design brief, could come up with three such different cars, each perfectly

reflecting the traditions and strengths of each company.

The various carmakers studying the concept of brand identity should, but probably won't, learn something from this.

The Benz is the luxury/touring car of the trio, feeling like it weighs a million kilograms; it doesn't even offer a manual transmission. The Boxster is the uncompromsing athlete, while the Z3 runs a middle course, with geewhiz styling, which I like but which may age quickly. I can't see anyone being disappointed in whichever one most attracts them.

Most German car fans can't, however, see as far as the new Corvette, which offers half again more power and comparable driving dynamics, but that's their loss.

Porsche can only build 30,000 cars a year in their factory in Stuttgart Zuffenhausen; currently half are Boxsters and half 911s.

They've cut a deal with Valmet in Finland, which used to assemble Opel Calibras and Saab 900 convertibles, to crank out 5,000 additional Boxsters per year.

They're pretty closed-mouthed on the details, but the contract runs for at least two years, and can be extended or cancelled, as demand dictates.

Concerns about Finnish Porsches being second-class citizens don't appear to be an issue. Schwab has said he'd gladly take them all.

Then maybe Rick Bye can have a few for his driving school.

Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie, among a group of auto writers invited to a test site, prepared this report based on sessions arranged and paid for by the automaker.

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