Sports car earns respect

Boxster S is the performance version of Porsche's entry-level roadster.

Porsche's entry-level sports cars get no respect. From the little 914 of the 1970s, through the front-engine 924 and 944, to today's Boxster, the pecking order ranks them as something less than a real Porsche.

In other words, not up to the standards of a racy 911.

That's too bad, really, especially for the Boxster. Here's a sharp little roadster with the looks and performance of a real thoroughbred. Among midprice, two-seat imports, including Audi TT, BMW Z4, Honda S2000, Mercedes-Benz SLK and Nissan 350Z, Boxster is the undisputed class act. Throw in Chevrolet Corvette, and you might get some dispute.

The hot Boxster S narrows the gap between entry-level and top Porsches, adding the horsepower and handling characteristics that have made the German sports-car maker synonymous with competitive performance. It gains some measure of respect, though still labors under the entry-level stigma.

But most of all, Boxster S is highly successful at its appointed task: to be fun, sporting and a great car in which to be seen.

Especially with the top down.

What it is

The hot version of Porsche's entry-level roadster, Boxster S offers performance akin to a 911 at a (somewhat) more reasonable price.

Engine and transmission

The 3.2-liter flat six cranks out 258 horsepower, a boost of eight horsepower over last year's S and 30 horsepower over the standard 2003 Boxster's 2.7-liter engine. That's enough to propel the sub-3,000-pound Boxster S to 60 mph in less than six seconds, depending on the driver's ability to flip through the gears.

Infinitely variable cam timing provides a broad power band, adding versatility to the engine attributes. One minute it's shrieking with power under full throttle, the next it's rumbling quietly through traffic.

The engine roars up to its 7,500 redline with a powerful whoosh, rocketing into illegal territory before you get into third gear. Smooth and satisfying.

As well as tuning the engine for power, Porsche engineers tuned the exhaust for "acoustic presence." That, according to the press material, is what gives Boxster S its sweet singing voice.

The six-speed, close-ratio transmission snicks sharply into gear with a twist of the wrist. Boxster S also comes with Porsche's popular Tiptronic automatic transmission, with push-button steering-wheel controls.

I'll take the six-speed.

Handling and drivability

With sinuous response and supernatural cornering ability, Boxster S continues Porsche's tradition of great sports cars. Handling really is amazing, the inherent balance of a midengine layout enhanced by a suspension that is stiffer than the standard model and set up for fast maneuverability.

The optional electronic anti-skid p rogram, called Porsche Stability Management, is non-intrusive yet effective. It keeps you out of trouble without your even knowing it's working. Turn the system off, and you discover that your fine driving skills have suddenly diminished.

Like all Porsches, Boxster S is tractable and easy to drive at low speeds, springing to life only when the driver gets on it.

Styling

Designed to evoke Porsche's classic sports-racing cars from the 1950s, Boxster's look has held up beautifully over the past six years.

Subtle body changes were made for 2003, including a revised front lower fascia and a rear treatment that comes down lower and wraps around the tailpipe. Boxster S gets titanium-colored exterior trim, aggressive-looking red brake calipers that show through the 17- or optional 18-inch alloy rims and revised air vents on its flanks.

The redesigned convertible top is rounder and more shapely and has a glass rear window with built-in de roster. The top opens or closes automatically in 12 seconds.

The midengine setup is surprisingly practical, with a deep trunk up front and a small trunk in the rear. The engine seems non-existent, tucked away out of sight behind the seats.

Interior

Classic forms highlight the tight but comfortable Boxster interior, from the supportive seats to the white-faced gauges with Porsche's distinctive script numerals.

The cabins of 911s are noted for their spaciousness, but not so the Boxster. Anyone over 6 feet tall is going to feel crowded in here. Also, the steering wheel telescopes but does not tilt upward, which isn't appreciated by tall drivers seeking a little extra legroom.

There are plenty of cubbies for stowage, and the newly redesigned cupholders actually hold cups.

Pricing

Though less expensive than top Porsches, Boxster S does not come cheap, limiting its appeal to those enthusiasts who can afford the toll. Base price is $51,600 for a well-equipped sports car.

Options on the test car included 18-inch alloy wheels, $1,435; stability management system, $1,235; upgraded audio, $830; special metallic paint, $825; cruise control, $570; interior wind deflector, $375; wheel caps with Porsche crest, $175; and shipping, $765.

Total: $57,905.

Bottom Line

Boxster S adds power and finesse to Porsche's attractive entry-level car.