What I'm Driving At: Simple & Direct
There are times I'm thankful that I'm not a golfer. Otherwise, I might have spent a bright, balmy afternoon out on the links last week, and I would have missed a rare chance to link corner after backroads corner behind the wheel of Porsche's stunning roadster, the Boxster. Like a hole-in-one out of the blue came my opportunity to test-drive this German pocket-rocket for four windswept hours through Middle Tennessee's finest rolling roadways. Little did my companion and I know that the next day, Ferdinand Porsche would pass away at the age of 88, leaving a legacy of 22,000 race victories and countless miles of smiles.At a base price of $41,000, the Boxster is billed as the entry-level Porsche -- without a smirk of irony, I might add. Although amenities like color-coordinated leather upholstery and technical preferences like 17-inch wheels can swiftly add $10,000 worth of packaged options, a $50,161 Boxster still undercuts its 911 sportwagen sibling by tens of thousands of dollars.The car is a classic two-seater that unabashedly apes Porsche predecessors like the 356 "bathtub" of the James Dean '50s and the svelte 550 Spyder. Like a quarter-tone Asian melody or the geodesic, Dymaxion architecture of R. Buckminster Fuller, a Porsche auto design seems a visitor from a parallel but nearby universe. The Boxster is no exception. "Ferry" Porsche was mad about mid-engines -- about the 50/50 weight distribution they make possible and the resulting "low polar moment" that allows for neutral handling characteristics. Ironically, the company's rear-engined 911 coupes intentionally obliterate this neutrality to create oversteer tendencies that sports-car adepts can transform into wicked cornering speed. Just the same, neutrality is no enemy of alacrity in its own right, as the Boxster so ably displays.From a squat stance that appears to incline slightly forward, the Boxster scarfs into tight country corners with a reassuring balance. Wearing 17-inch wheels means planting 8.5 inches of tire onto each rear corner of the road and 7 inches per corner up front. A Porsche-modified, MacPherson-strut front suspension sets the springs nicely into controlled compression during hard cornering, while the multi-link rear setup administers traction to both cornering and acceleration duties with equal aplomb. Without sacrificing agreeable ride comfort, the Boxster nevertheless maintains flat, stable handling, even when making mid-course steering corrections in search of the swiftest trajectory through a corner. When the road finally uncoils from the twisties and rolls out into a lazy, gentle "sweeper" of a turn that enthusiasts love to take flat out, Boxster settles into a taut crouch before leaping full-stride into the straightaway at the far end of the arc.The car's namesake is its horizontally opposed (or "boxer-style") engine, mounted just behind driver and passenger under the ingeniously collapsing softtop. This unorthodox engine layout is another Porsche trademark, tried and true in generations of iterations but remarkably new in the Boxster. Displacing 2.5-liters, it's the company's first six-cylinder to incorporate both water-cooling and a four-valve head employing VarioCam intake and exhaust timing. The upshot is 201 horsepower, a mid-six-second-pace zero-to-60, and an incomparable exhaust note sounding at once dulcet and martial.The key to exploiting the Boxster six is revving it. The motor redlines in a trice at 6700 rpm, and it taps into a heaping helping of maximum torque at 4500 rpm. In other words, it's a "spinner" that thrives on maintaining an elevated heart rate through judicious use of the precise, short-throw shifter. Billet-made Brembo brakes borrowed from Porsche's 962 racer are crisp, firm, and virtually fade-proof. As you'd expect, pedal placement is ideal for heel-and-toe braking downshifts; but woe betide the slacker who lets the revs fall off their perch in a complicated sequence of twisties. There's no barrow-full of low-end torque to cover up mistakes the way a lugging, big-bore V8 might do.The Boxster provides a subtle, broad-spectrum palette with which to paint a backroad landscape. It's no single-minded road-dart like Viper or 'Vette, yet it's a considerably more thoroughbred performer than, say, Mercedes' SLK or the Mazda Miata. Only BMW's M-Roadster, which debuts soon, will likely challenge Boxster's full complement of performance virtues for anything like a comparable price.This is not to say that Boxster is the unqualified winner of every face-off with its challengers. There are quirks, particularly in the lifestyle department. Some, like the long-throw clutch, are soon accommodated. Others, like the wimpy stereo, encourage driver and passenger alike to switch over to the car's "acoustic" orchestration of wind, engine, and exhaust. And speaking of wind, a Plexiglas-and-screen option that's supposed to banish turbulence from the cockpit is not only ineffective, it also blocks side vision when parking or reversing the car.Then there are quirks that appeal, like the origami softtop that folds automatically and tucks completely out of sight in a 12-second blink. Front and rear trunks are two more anomalies that raise a smile. Although the engine is virtually unreachable without a mechanic's lift, the car's layout yields storage up front for a decent-capacity valise, while a rear "boot" offers room for "two smaller-sized golf bags," according to one enthusiast publication. (As if I'd care about that.) The rear trunk also hosts filler necks for engine oil and radiator fluid -- the Boxster's only reasonable options for do-it-yourself motor maintenance.The Boxster interior is certainly more than Spartan; in fact, standard side-airbags now complement the dual fronts for '98. At sporting speeds, seating is reassuringly supportive, even during spirited tosses from right- to left-hand corners. Moreover, instruments and controls are logically located and work the way you'd expect -- especially when you can't be distracted from the road. The car, in short, is much more than a four-wheeled motorcycle, something that can't be said of many other roadsters. It is less luxury-minded than its SLK rival from Mercedes, to be sure. I propose, as well, that it is less of an image-poseur than the more rakish BMW Z3. Boxster, in short, is an apt exemplar of Porsche's traditional determination to accommodate -- but never to compromise -- performance.Accordingly, quibbles about any of the car's functions not directly related to making and sustaining speed on the road risk sounding prosaic. The Boxster is an instrument made for "performing" speed. Abundant frills are neither required nor warranted, and attempting to fine-tune every creature comfort becomes an endless exercise in missing the point. In Simple & Direct, a now classic manual dedicated to clarity of expression in writing, educator and critic Jacques Barzun advocates the elegance of simplicity. It's a message equally as relevant to the sedentary writer as to the windswept roadster: "For as Yeats said, 'The correcting of prose is endless, because it has no fixed laws; a poem comes right with a click, like a box.' " Or like a Boxster.