When you test-drive a fancy new car every week, here's one sure way to know which are the very best: You find yourself taking them out for an extra hour or two just for fun. That's how I ended up rising before dawn one Monday morning and heading out to watch the sunrise while speeding through the rolling foothills of Northeast Pennsylvania in a Porsche Boxster.
Redesigned for the 2005 model year, the Boxster is the perfect car for such flights of fancy. It's a two-seat, rear-wheel-drive ragtop roadster with the speediness and tight handling you'd expect from a Porsche. And because the engine is mounted in center of the car, just behind the passenger compartment, the Boxster is exceptionally stable. It's a pleasure to put the top down, take this car's chunky leather-wrapped steering wheel in hand, and ramble.
Yet the Boxster is priced in a range where an average working stiff can actually imagine owning one. The entry level Porsche's base price is $44,595, rising to $45,795 on the '06 model. That's a considerable saving compared to the $82-grand base price of the convertible version of Porsche's flagship model, the 911 Carrera Cabriolet. The relative value Porsche packs into the Boxster is one reason it's selling so well: Through September, U.S. Boxster sales have more than doubled vs. the same period last year, to 6,425.
INTERIOR UPGRADES. Of course, you can spend a lot more money on a Boxster if you want to. With a bigger engine, the Boxster S costs nearly $10,000 more than the base model. If you really want to go upscale, the Cayman S, a new hardtop, hatchback model based on the Boxster starts at about $60,000. But this is one car where, dollar for dollar, the base model just might be the best. Indeed, Consumer Reports magazine rates the Boxster the top upscale roadster on the market.
On the outside, the new Boxster doesn't look all that different from the old one, which first came out in early 1997. The air scoops are bigger, and the headlights have been restyled, but otherwise it's hard to tell the difference. Inside, however, this version has more leg room. Leather trim is standard, and the seats are supportive and comfortable. The Boxster also has the same cool, high-tech cup holders the 911 has: They pop out of the dash on little stalks and can be adjusted to grip cups tightly to reduce spillage.
More important, the new Boxster is better on the road. I tested one of the first Boxsters in Germany back in 1997, and it seemed like Porsche Lite to me. This new model is both more solid and quicker. That's partly because it shares 55% of its parts with the 911.
SUPREME BRAKING. The six-cylinder engine now delivers 240 horsepower, vs. 225 hp in the old Boxster -- enough oomph to propel the car from 0 to 60 miles per hour in a very respectable 5.9 seconds with a stick shift. It also delivers a top speed of 159 mph. By contrast, the Boxster S, with its 280-hp engine, does 0 to 60 in 5.2 seconds and tops out 167 -- a minor performance edge that hardly seems worth an extra $10 grand.
On top of all that, Consumer Reports declared the Boxster's brakes the best it has ever tested. From 60 mph, it comes to a dead halt in just 112 feet.
For a sports car, the Boxster is also surprisingly practical. Raising and lowering the motorized convertible top is a snap -- it folds down automatically into a covered space behind the passenger compartment. Fuel efficiency is reasonably good: It's rated to get 28 miles per gallon on the highway and 20 in the city (though it does use pricey premium gasoline). On the safety front, the Boxster not only has front and side airbags but also head airbags hidden in the frame that significantly reduce injuries in side impact collisions.
STICK WITH THE STICK. Plus, for a sports car the Boxster has a surprising amount of storage space. Each door has a little covered compartment, an "oddments tray" is available in the center console, and it has a spacious glove compartment. Mounting the engine mid-car also created space for both front and rear trunks. They aren't huge, but they offer plenty of luggage space for a couple to take weekend jaunt without being sartorially challenged.
What don't I like about the car? Roll bars behind each seat severely cut down on what you can see out the rearview mirror, and a bad blind spot makes it hard to see vehicles overtaking you on your right. As usual with Porsches, optional equipment is also very pricey -- floor mats with colored trim go for $440 (compared to $115 for basic black, brown, or gray), electric seats for $1,550, and Bose surround sound for $1,665. The Tiptronic automatic transmission adds $3,210 to the price -- which is pretty outrageous considering that an automatic transmission costs about $1,000 on most cars.
The good news is that even without bells and whistles the Boxster is an outstanding set of wheels. You don't really need fancy power seats, for instance, because the manual adjustments are so well-designed and easy to use. And who really wants an automatic transmission in a sports car?
You don't usually think of an entry-level car as a dream machine. But that's exactly what the Boxster is.