Get your hands on Porsche's shapely Boxster and you'll make a lot friends. I did.

Every time I drove it someone wanted to talk about it. They rolled down their windows to ask questions about it at stop signs. They paced alongside on the freeway, making gestures. In stores, restaurants and parking lots folks couldn't resist asking about it. Even some visiting executives from one of the Big Three pored over it with curiosity.

Without exception, all seemed mightily impressed with the Boxster, a name derived from its "boxer" engine and "roadster" body. A 2.5-liter, water-cooled six-cylinder engine sits tucked behind the seat and in front of the trunk, completely hidden from view.

It is an impressive car for a variety of reasons:

One, it's the first entry-level Porsche since the 914 debuted in the early 1970s, and its base price of $39,980 is nearly $24,000 less than the basic 911 Carrera. Demand is high and supply is tight, which means it may be hard to find a car not already spoken for. Porsche has announced it will also assemble Boxsters at a plant in Finland, but it is not yet clear whether any of those cars will be allotted to this country.

Two, the sensational body design is cutting-edge modern with a strong retro flair. It looks both old and new at the same time. In the rounded, sloping back end you can see strong hints of the 1953 550 Spyder, a racing car that also had a mid-engine configuration.

When the sheet was first pulled from the prototype in 1993 at the Detroit auto show, a collective gasp escaped from the crowd of journalists and auto executives. While the production version isn't quite as daring, it is still handsome.

Three, it is immensely fun to drive. It handles like it already knows what you want to do, and the six-cylinder engine howls with delight when you floor the throttle and let it run to redline.

Even though it only has 201 horsepower, it feels like more than that when you give it the whip. The flat, horizontally-opposed engine has four valves per cylinder and variable valve timing which enable it to spread its power over a broad range. It is tractable enough to be docile at low speeds yet quick when you want speed.

The standard transmission is a five-speed manual, but our test car was equipped with the Tiptronic S auto-stick transmission, a $3,150 option. Originally developed for Porsche racing cars, Tiptronic combines the effortlessness of an automatic with manual overrides. This year the transmission has been updated so it has five gears instead of four, although it always starts off in second unless you select first manually or smash the throttle from a stop. While there seems to be adequate power for second-gear starts, I would prefer it use all the available gears.

Slip the lever from D to M and you shift it yourself with buttons mounted on the steering wheel like a Formula One racer. Even in manual mode the transmission does some shifting on its own, such as downshifting when you slow for a turn. Also, when hold the throttle to the floor it automatically up shifts at redline.

About 20 percent of the cars will be equipped with the Tiptronic, which I enjoyed (must be showing my age). After the first couple of days of shifting myself, I tired of that and generally left it in auto mode.

Traditional Porsche fans will want the five-speed, not only to save money but time. According to the factory's figures, the manual zips to 60 mph in 6.7 seconds, versus 7.4 for the Tiptronic. Top track speed is 149 mph for the manual, 146 for the Tiptronic.

Putting the top down is a snap. After releasing a safety catch it automatically folds into a compact space behind the rear seat. A removable aluminum hard top with rear defroster is a $2,249 option. With the top in place rear visibility is somewhat restricted, and headroom is tight for tall drivers.

Twin roll bars and a plexiglass deflector keep wind turbulence in c ck. A strengthened windshield header and roll bars meets U.S. rollover protection standards for a coupe, according to Porsche.

The interior is recognizably a Porsche, complete with the ignition key on the left side and a tachometer in the center of the instrument cluster. The analog speedometer is quite small and hard to read, which is why there is a digital readout under the tach.

The seats have good lateral support without being hard to get into. The dashboard's unusual texture reminded me of a basketball.

There are two trunks, one in front and one in back. The back is large enough to hold a set of golf clubs, an advantage over the 911.

As good as the Boxster is, there are some paradoxes. Cruise control is not standard, for example, and the folding cupholders that attach to the fresh-air vents are clearly an afterthought. They are rather flimsy, they block airflow, and the one on the left is too close to the ignition key. There are a few storage spaces inside the cockpit, but only one is lockable, and it is quite small.

Price

The base price of our test car was $39,980. Options included the Tiptronic S, a wind deflector and floor mats.

The sticker price was $44,345.

Warranty

The bumper-to-bumper warranty is for two years and unlimited mileage.

Vehicles for The Star's week-long test drives are supplied by the auto manufacturers.

Point: The Boxster is a turning point for Porsche. Built on a new platform, with a new water-cooled engine, it will be the basis for new models to come.

It is fun, attractive and affordably priced, relative to other Porsche models.

Counterpoint: Supply is tight and demand is high, which means they will be hard to get.

The lack of cruise control as standard equipment is puzzling, as are the cupholders and the lack of a glove box.

SPECIFICATIONS:

ENGINE: 2.5-liter, 6-cyl.

TRANSMISSION: Tiptronic S

WHEELBASE: 95.2 inches

CURB WEIGHT: 2,954 lbs.

BASE PRICE: $39,980

PRICE AS DRIVEN: $44,345

MPG RATING: 17 city, 26 hwy.