When a premium manufacturer introduces an entry-level model, that manufacturer is taking a big gamble. If the new model doesn't work, it dilutes the brand. If it works too well, it steals sales from the pricier products.
Arguably one of the best examples of how to do it right is the Porsche Boxster, introduced for 1997. Porsche, after all, had some previous experience in doing it wrong: The bar-of-soap-shaped 914 set no sales records, and later, the attractive but troublesome 924 sold well enough but soured lots of buyers on the brand.
No such problems with the Boxster. It looked right, drove right, and with a base price of $39,995, it was priced right. In the end, the Boxster introduced a lot of customers to the brand, and plenty of those customers traded up to the Porsche 911. Even now, there are plenty of decent 1997 Boxsters available out there in the $15,000 range, which isn't bad so long as buyers are aware that no Porsche, ever, has been cheap to repair.
So where does that leave the Boxster now? Pretty much where it was in 1997. Base price is $45,600, cheap considering that this new Boxster has a bigger, more powerful engine than the original (a 2.7-liter, 245-horsepower six-cylinder, compared with the original 2.5-liter, 201-horsepower six), and lots more safety equipment, including six air bags and the Porsche Stability Management system, which is their version of electronic stability control. At that base price -- assuming you can find one for that -- it's a bargain.
The test car had some options but wasn't overloaded: Larger 18-inch wheels and tires, compared with the standard 17-inchers, plus a few other features raised the list price to $49,515, including shipping.
There are, however, opportunities to pay a lot more for a Boxster. Available options include a sport package that adds active suspension and a six-speed manual transmission, replacing the standard five-speed manual, plus there are various trim, paint, sound and interior options that can raise the price of the previously affordable Boxster to near-stratospheric levels. If you want an automatic transmission, the Porsche Tiptronic is among the best, but it's pricey, too.
I never felt I was lacking for anything in the test car, though: The standard sound system was fine, the base leather-trimmed bucket seats comfortable and supportive, the five-speed manual transmission nicely spaced and easy to shift. The larger tires and wheels likely helped handling, which was typically Porsche -- crisp, precise, but with a ride that was entirely tolerable. If you need to go faster, there's the Boxster S, which -- for an additional $10,000 or so -- gives you the six-speed manual transmission and bigger tires and wheels standard, and bumps horsepower from 245 to 295. I've always liked the Boxster S better, but if I was buying a Boxster, I'd have to think hard whether I like it that much better.
Inside, the Boxster cockpit is snug but roomy enough for long trips. With the top up, there's a fair amount of outside noise coming in, but it isn't objectionable as long as you understand that this is, after all, a sports car. There's almost 10 cubic feet of luggage space in the front and rear trunks, but very little in the cockpit itself.
It takes a few minutes to get used to the ultra-light front end, and the longstanding Porsche quirk of placing the ignition on the left side of the steering wheel, but that's part of the charm. Otherwise, this is an easy car to drive.
The Boxster was mildly restyled in 2005 and has not changed much since. What has changed is the competition within the brand, as the Porsche Cayman -- essentially a hardtop version of the Boxster -- is awfully appealing on its own. The Cayman, like the Boxster, is offered in base and S models, with the same engines and horsepower ratings. The Cayman starts at $49,400, but given its appearance -- it really looks a lot like a top-of-the-line 911 -- you would think it costs more. After all, the cheapest 911 starts at more than $72,000.
For my money -- as if I had that much money -- the base Boxster, just as it has for the past decade, offers the most bang for the buck in the Porsche model mix. But I wouldn't try to talk you out of a Cayman or a 911.