EXPERT REVIEW

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It was hard to figure. Was it the end of an uncertain winter, or the beginning of a reluctant spring?

Chilly, wet days. An occasional burst of sunshine lighting the colors of new flowers and foliage. And the threat of rain, again.

I took a chance and lowered the top of the 1997 Porsche Boxster convertible. It was easy. I pressed a button to release the header latch, and pushed another to lower the top into its rear stowage compartment.

It was done in 14 seconds, which justified the risk of going topless in erratic weather. Had the rain come, the top could have been raised as quickly as it was taken down.

Taking care of the chilliness was a tad more difficult, but this was something I had to do. There are cars, and the Boxster is among them, that beg you to let it all hangout, to be cool, even if that means freezing to death.

Driving such a car with the top up, or with an automatic transmission, is like holding hands with a lover and calling it sex. That’s safe, perhaps even virtuous. But the feeling ain’t the same.

Background: The two-seat Boxster is as much an idea as it is a car. It’s a celebration of the notion that driving is about freedom and pleasure. It is the rolling counterpoint to the argument, made by author Jane Holtz Kay in her new book, “Asphalt Nation,” that cars are tools of modern enslavement and that they are the ruination of all that is good in environment and community.

I’d challenge anyone to drive a Boxster without smiling at least once.

And that smile would come from the thrill of being at the wheel of a perfectly balanced automobile — literally a car with a 50/50 weight distribution front and rear with a low-slung engine, placed a bit ahead of the rear axle, equipped with six horizontally opposed cylinders. The engine’s a 2.5-liter, 24-valve, water-cooled “boxer” — so named for its cylinder arrangement — rated 201 horsepower at 6,000 rpm. Torque is rated 181 pound-feet at 4,500 rpm.

On city streets in low gears, that engine is draggy. But on the open highway in the higher gears, it’s a full-blown screamer.

The Boxster can move without giving the slightest hint of slipping or sliding in tight curves, or doing the squirrel thing in close-encounter, collision-avoidance maneuvers. Credit here goes to its low center of gravity and to its very responsive, four-wheel independent, aluminum suspension system.

The test car was equipped with optional 17-inch (rim diameter) tires. Standard rubber includes 16-inch Pirelli P-Zeros.

A five-speed manual constitutes standard gearing. There’s an optional, five-speed Tiptronic S transmission, which can be operated manually or automatically. Go figure.

Anyway, for a little car — 95-inch wheelbase, 170 inches overall length, 70-inches wide — the Boxster comes with lots of standard stuff. That includes four-wheel disc brakes with anti-locks all around, rollover bars, dual air bags, racer-type roll-cage construction, speed-activated rear spoiler(comes up at about 75 miles per hour, a visual speeding signal for knowledgeable cops), power windows and mirrors, power seat back adjustment, an AM/FM cassette stereo system, and front and rear trunks with a combined cargo capacity of 9.2 cubic feet.

But the main thing is the Boxster’s overall feel. Totally seductive. Just sitting in it makes you want to drive.

1997 Porsche Boxster

Complaint: I didn’t get along with the Boxster’s first gear. Stalled the motor several times. Wound up starting it in second every time after the last embarrassing stall.

Praise: The perfect “entry level” Porsche that’s every bit a Porsche. Extremely agile. A darned lovable car.

Head-turning quotient: What a sports car should look like — an exterior work of elegant muscularity, smooth, purposeful, attractive; a Spartan, yet comfortable and functional interior accented by circular, layered instrument gauges. Even the Luddites stopped and stared.

Ride, accelera ion and handling: Triple aces. Maintained composure on rough roads. Beautiful performance on smooth roads and in curves. Really good wet-road performance, too. Excellent braking at highway speeds.

Mileage: About 24 miles per gallon (15.3-gallon tank, estimated 352-mile range on usable volume of required premium unleaded gasoline), running mostly highway with two occupants and light cargo.

Sound system: Optional six-speaker AM/FM stereo radio, cassette and compact disc player with four-channel amplifier. Installed by Porsche. Excellent, even in the wind.

Price: Base price is $39,980. Dealer invoice price on base model is $35,005. Price as tested is $45,706, including $4,961 in options (silver paint, $789; floor mat, $90; upgraded tires and wheels and other goodies such as the in-dash CD player in the “sport package,” $3,235; traction control, $847) and a $765 destination charge. Oh, yeah, count on federal “luxury taxes.”

Purse-strings note: Lust ain’t cheap. But you can go easy on the options and still have a good time with the Boxster. Compare with Mercedes-Benz SLK, Chevrolet Corvette, BMW Z-3.

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