This article was first published in 2001.
While the name 'Porsche' and the genre 'sports cars' goes together in a way achieved by almost no other manufacturer of the last half-century, amongst grass-roots level car enthusiasts you'll find very few Porsches. Even though a used 924 can be picked up for next to nothing, and even though an older V8-powered 928 is now down to base model family car prices, the sort of people who drive Porsches and the sort of people who read AutoSpeed mostly have little commonality. (In fact, many would suggest that a Porsche is synonymous with performance poser, rather than performance driver!)
But is that a fair appraisal? The later model Porsches have moved far from the VW origins held so sacrosanct by even current 911 drivers - the Boxster, for example, is definitely a clean sheet design.
So when we were given the opportunity to drive a 1999 2.5-litre Boxster for a weekend, we were curious. We pledged to forget the Porsche mystique, forget the way in which Porsche owners valiantly defend the archaic rear-engine layout and floor-hinged pedals of so many of their beloved 911s, forget the jokes about porcupines and pricks and Porsches - and instead assess and appraise purely on the basis of the car that we were driving.
And we were impressed - very impressed indeed. In fact, with the exception of one glaring shortcoming and a few more minor negatives, at around AUS$80,000 for a secondhand Boxster, we'd go as far as to say it's a car which is excellent value for money...
A Brief History
Shown as a concept in early 1993, the Porsche Boxster was the first truly new Porsche since the 928. While it was greeted with acclaim, the concept shown at the Detroit Motor Show had little luggage space, no roof, and would not have passed crash legislation. The production car overcame these deficiencies, in part by being 200mm longer and 40mm wider. But the visual tightness remained - the Boxster is one car where there is not a line out of place. Wonderfully aware of the Porsche styling heritage - but at the same time very definitely not retro - the Boxster is simply beautiful.
In Australia the Boxster was released in January 1997, selling for $109,000. The 5-speed automatic transmission model cost substantially more at $116,000. Both cars use a 2.5-litre flat six developing 150kW. An all-new design, the dry-sumped engine uses a forged crankshaft, variable intake manifold and water cooling. Peak power arrives at 6000 rpm while 245Nm of torque is available at 4500 rpm - however the engine develops 200Nm at just 1750 rpm.
In September 1999 the engine in the Boxster was lifted in capacity to 2.7 litres, with power rising to 162kW. But the intro of a gun model - the Boxster S - was the big news. Released at the same time, it came fitted with a 3.2 litre version of the flat six, churning out 185kW. A better trim level, more sporty suspension, bigger brakes and a host of other changes justified the required $132,000 - the 'S' was definitely a move up-market.
The standard equipment list of the base 2.5-litre Boxster looks good on-screen (17-inch alloy wheels, ABS, auto climate control, CD player, central locking, dual airbags, electric drivers seat, electric mirrors, engine immobiliser, leather seats, power roof, power steering, power windows, wind deflector and sports seats) but when looked at closely there are a number of omissions. Cruise control was an extra cost $620 option and spec'ing a hardtop added $2790, while the CD isn't a stacker. The 'electric seats' are electric in backrest rake only, while the sound system uses just dashboard mount speakers which sound..... well, like any dashboard speakers.
One of the first driving impressions of the Boxster is of its body stiffness. Despite what manufacturers always claim in regard to their soft-top cars (you know, "It's 34 per cent stiffer than last year's model", etc) a car without a roof generally flops around over bumps and when cornering. But not the Boxster. It feels genuinely rigid, even in comparison to conventional fixed-roof coupes.
The second most immediate impression is of the car's practicality. Not only is the cabin relatively roomy, but there are two boots - front and back - and each is a very useable compartment, both in volume and shape. The rear boot, placed above the longitudinal rear-mounted transmission, is shallow but wide and deep, while the front boot - ahead of the bulkhead, and also containing a vertical mounted space saver spare wheel - is very deep. Add to that the practical compartments scattered around the cabin (the armrests, for example, lift to reveal good sized door pockets) and you start to realise that a lot of thought has gone into the car's packaging. And while you'll not be thinking of luggage space when you're throwing the Boxster around corners, in normal everyday use it is far more acceptable than you might first believe.
Start the engine and you'll immediately become aurally aware of one of the negatives of the car. The flat six is noisy. Its mid-engine position means that it sits within inches of your ears - and it sounds it, too. It whines and shrills and roars - first time drivers of the car can always be found changing up gears at 1500 rpm, cos they think that the engine's turning over at double the revs, so loud is its message. But select the first of five cogs with the short lever (which unfortunately has an over-long throw), give the threshing machine some revs, move away from a standstill and you'll be impressed.
Why? Because even in just first gear it's immediately apparent that this engine is a lovely piece of gear. The progressive torque development, the sheer flexibility, the unruffled but instant throttle response - all are marvellous. So those first-timers making the Boxster lug up hills in third gear at 1200 rpm won't be embarrassed by lumpiness or other signs of unhappiness - instead the Porsche will be happy trundling along, clutch fully out and almost idle revs on board.
And, when the engine is warmed and the road is clear, exploring the other end of the rev band finds no downside. Above 4000 rpm the flat six discovers another lease of life and - despite the oddly unhurried nature of forward progress - even this base model Boxster is capable of quick straight-line acceleration. In fact, while a seat-of-the-pants impression might suggest a mid 8-second 0-100 km/h time, the car is actually capable of reaching three figures in only 6.7seconds! That's not bad going from a NA 2.5-litre six in a 1250kg car.
The steering is very direct - fluid and incredibly precise. The feedback through the steering and the seat makes placing the relatively wide car millimetre-exact: this is one car that really does shrink around you. Despite the massive difference in the front/rear tyre specs and pressures (front 205/50 and 29 psi, rear 255/40 and 36 psi) the car feels superbly balanced. Go too hard into a corner and it will understeer; get on the power a bit early and the understeer progresses into a neutral cornering stance and then into power oversteer. Looking really closely at the tyre wear pattern - evident on the shoulders after a 30km hard drive - it could be seen that if anything, the rear Falkens were working harder than the fronts. But there was little in it, and the Porsche is also obviously gentle on its tyres.
In fact the handling is so good that the car feels quite capable of handling more power - a lot more power! But a surfeit of handling over grunt - 'specially considering the car's 15.1 quarter mile performance - is no bad thing.... But it sure did make us wonder how good the Boxster S must be!
And we also wonder about the upgraded brake package that's in the 'S' - for the brakes in the car we drove left us puzzled. While the meaty 4-pot calipers and ventilated-all-round discs look well up to the task of reining-in the car time after time, on fast bumpy secondary roads we thought that the ABS was coming in much too early. In fact, not only did the ABS activate in straightline braking when approaching a corner, but in left/right switchbacks - when a dab of brakes was used at the mid-point to settle the car - it could also sometimes be felt chattering away. And all on a dry road! Given that at very slow speeds (ie a walking pace) the ABS will not operate at all, we wonder if the resolution of the system is simply insufficient.
But point-to-point the Boxster is a very quick car indeed. Even with the roof down, the buffeting at high speeds isn't bad - a polycarbonate wind deflector is mounted between the two headrests and does a good job. However, exactly how ruffled your hair will get depends very much on your height - slump down in the seat and you'll find a quiet world not being experienced by those 180cm and taller.
So on an urban cruise or a quick country drive the Boxster is enormously impressive - practical, roomy, poised, fun and fast. And did we say that the ride is exceptional for a car of this cornering performance?
In fact, by this stage of our Boxster experience we were starting to do the calculations re personal finance repayments...
But then we put the roof up.
First impressions are favourable. The electric-powered roof is quickly into position - a single strong and easy-to-operate centrally-placed lever locks the cloth roof into place. And, unlike some erected soft-tops, this one doesn't make the cabin feel claustrophobic - in fact there is plenty of headroom and visibility remains good. But look around a bit longer, and even before you move off, there's a disappointment. The roof is unlined - there's just apparently a single layer between you and the outside world. Furthermore, the rear window is plastic. Already starting to go milky along parts of a central crease in this 47,000 km old car, you kinda expect more in a car of this sophistication. Maybe not the incredible metal roof of the Mercedes SLK, but still...
But even worse is that the car is very nearly as noisy with the roof up as it is down! Engine noise whines into the cabin, the windscreen header rail creaks and groans (the car feels less rigid with the roof up!) and at speed, the booming deep turbulent noise of the aerodynamic wake dominates its way through the rear plastic window. To give you a quick guide, at 100 km/h with the roof down (but side glass up and rear deflector in place), we recorded an in-cabin noise level of 66-68dB (A). With the roof up, this dropped only marginally to 64-66 dB(A).
So if you're thinking that maybe you could kinda justify the Boxster cos you could commute to work every day in it - well yes you could. But it would want to be a short trip.
But really, besides our complaints about the amount of in-cabin noise with the roof up and a question mark over the ABS, we have nothing but praise for the Boxster. Its combination of performance, handling, ride, practicality and fuel economy (try just 11.1 litres/100 km on test!) makes it very desirable. Add to that the stunning looks - which are dating only very slowly - and the traditional Porsche excellent re-sale value, and this is a sports car which justifies its dollars very well.
A poser's machine? Perhaps it is for some - but for many it will also be far more than that.
Thanks to AutoSpeed reader 'Q' for the loan of his car.