New Car Review

1998 PORSCHE BOXSTER

by Tim Considine

porsche

It is probably fair to say that in recent automotive history, no new model has been more eagerly awaited than the Boxster, Porsche's first entirely new car in 19 years. Even its creators were stunned by the enthusiasm generated when the concept car was first unveiled at the Detroit Auto Show in 1993. Within months, though no one had seen as much as a photo of the actual production car, much less gleaned any technical details, U.S. Porsche dealers had taken over 6000 deposits. To a company that only sold, including all models, 5800 cars in America in 1994, that was, needless to say, good news. The question was, could Porsche deliver a car that would live up to enthusiasts' expectations. In a word, "Yup."

With the show car, which incidentally, in 1/24th and 1/18th scale die-cast miniatures, quickly became the most popular model car in America, Chief Designer Harm Largaay and American Grant Larson captured the essence of Porsche's racing legacy. To a remarkable degree, happily, the production car preserves most of that great design, which, while modern in every important way, is unmistakably linked with the legendary Porsche 550 Spyders, RSKs, and RS 60s of the 1950s and '60s. A number of these revolutionary competition "giant-killers" were also displayed when the Boxster debuted last January at the Los Angeles Auto Show. The bloodlines were clear.

We had the opportunity to test the Boxster both on the street and on the track. And while, admittedly, our track tests, conducted on a small road circuit in the hills overlooking Phoenix International Raceway, were dulled somewhat by Porsche's insistence that a "professional racer" be in the car with us at all times, we did manage to ignore the distraction enough to get a pretty fair impression of the car's performance (as opposed to our own, which seemed to be the preoccupation of our skilled and well-intentioned passengers - each of whom had different ideas about how we should do this or that).

Bottom line, this is a true sports car, with everything that implies, good acceleration, powerful brakes, balance, grip, and sound. Oh, what a sound! Take all those wonderful mechanical Porsche sounds of the past, subtract the thrashing racket of air-cooling, and add just enough throaty exhaust, emitted from a single large-diameter Spyder-like central tailpipe, and you have the Boxster. The source of this beautiful music is an all-new water-cooled flat six that has been designed to meet the strict emissions, noise, and fuel economy requirements of our time. Different versions of this four-valve alloy engine will eventually power every Porsche. In the Boxster, it displaces 2.5 liters (151 c.i.) and puts out 201 hp at 6000 rpm. Maximum torque is 181 ft.lbs at 4500 rpm, but due no doubt to Porsche's "VarioCam" system, which alters camshaft timing on the fly, 147 ft.lbs are available from 1750 rpm.

There are many thoughtful innovations in the new engine, among them, a new "Lokasil" casting technology that permits silicon-augmented abrasion-resistant cylinder liners to be cast into the two-piece aluminum alloy block assembly. A separate "dry sump" is cast into the block, significantly reducing the need for plumbing. It also requires only half the oil of the conventional dry sump 911. Electronic sequential fuel injection and ignition (six individual coils) are controlled by a Bosch Motronic M 5.2 engine management system that includes on-board diagnostics (OBD II), as mandated in the U.S.

The newest Porsche six is obviously intended to be a low-maintenance motor, as opposed to one designed for "tinkering." In fact, access to the engine is somewhat limited, being done through "service openings" above, below, and to the front of the motor. By design, all normal end-user access is done through a small service unit in the top-right corner of the rear trunk. Neatly grouped together there are the dipstick and fillers for engine oil and coolant. And that's it. The first scheduled service on a new Boxster is at 15,000 miles, to change oil.

Power is delivered through a cable-operated five-speed manual transmission. Shifts, while not quite as precise and positive as those made with the incomparable rod-actuated and ball-bearing smoothed gearbox on other Porsches, is still quite good. Much better than we expected, frankly. We also tested a Boxster with the optional five-speed Tiptronic S transmission (one speed more than the 911's). Left in the full "automatic" mode, it selects among five adaptive shift programs (from economy to performance), depending on driver input. Switched to "manual," it is actuated by upshift and downshift buttons on the steering wheel. In fact, one can get maximum performance in the automatic mode just by holding the accelerator down through the gears. This engages the most aggressive of the shift programs and no upshift will be made until peak rpm is reached. Downshifts can be forced - at the proper rpm - by a quick release, then stab and release of the accelerator. This little trick sounds more difficult than it is. On the track at Phoenix, there was a second-gear corner, a real crawler, at the end of a section on which the Boxster was doing about 115 mph, in fifth. With left-foot braking, it was possible to downshift to second with three quick jabs to the accelerator. Pretty neat.

Porsche's first postwar prototype in Gmund, Austria was a mid-engine car, but its street descendants, the classic 356 and later, the 911, have all been true rear-engine designs. It's a credit to Porsche engineering that after nearly 50 years of refinement, virtually all the inherently "evil" aspects of that tail-heavy layout have been dialed out. It was no surprise, then, to find that the wizards of Weissach have made the Boxster, mid-engined, like the competition legends it recalls, a superbly balanced, fine handling road car. Turn-in is crisp and the grip is prodigious, regardless of whether the surface is smooth or bumpy. Yes, there's trailing-throttle oversteer, but not the "Oh, my god!" kind. Take your foot out of it when cornering at the limit and the tail will move out. But this is predictable and easily controllable by the driver, as opposed to the diabolical snap-oversteer of some older Porsches. It is possible to spin a Boxster, of course. We did (naturally, at an appropriately safe place on the track), but only after combining too much speed with clumsy throttle and steering.

The very best cars don't have to be driven hard all the time to enjoy them and that's the way we found the Boxster. The real quality of this car is that one feels sporty without discomfort. While treating the driver and passenger with the visual and tactile cues of a classic high-performance sports car, no sacrifices are asked. Handling, for instance, has not come at the expense of a good ride, even with the optional 17-inch wheels we tested.

Inside, the retro theme continues, but every modern driver convenience is at hand. A group of three large overlapping analog gauges is laid out before the driver, with smaller digital displays underneath. There are power windows, power mirrors, and a telescoping steering wheel (with the most compactly-packaged air bag we've ever seen). Push one button on the dash and the convertible top is electrically raised or lowered in about 12 seconds, needing only to be latched or unlatched. A no-brainer. Air-conditioning and heating are first class. Oddly, only the radio failed to impress, either in sensitivity or sound. It was a real squawker.

The Boxster is Porsche's least expensive convertible and, as they call it, the "entry-level" Porsche, but it doesn't come cheap. Ours, without taxes, came to $41,894, including the optional $360 glass "wind-deflector" and a silver paint job - metallic colors are $780 extra! Regardless, the Boxster is truly one of those rare cars that has classic written all over it. But for the bum radio, it's worth every penny - and for us, one of the most interesting and fun drives we've had this past year. We'll take one in silver, please.

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