Rebel with a cause

Roadtest: Porsche Boxster

The worst thing about the Porsche Boxster is that there was a better one a few years ago. At the 1993 Detroit Show, Porsche showed a delightful concept car, that looked like today's machine but was studded with jewel-like details, not least a gorgeous part-alloy cabin complete with instruments which would do justice to any upmarket watch face.

Alas, the production Boxster, just on sale in the UK, has a very dull cabin that is made out of the grimmest plastics Porsche could find.There are no elegant little fripperies, which pepper the rival Mercedes SLK's cabin. Even the switches look and feel rather naff, and are sited with all the ergonomic planning of shot fired from a blunderbuss.

Mind you, after a few miles in the Boxster, you probably won't care too much. The little Porsche is such a hoot to drive and so stunning to look at that the cheapskate cabin is soon dismissed. Instead, you'll savour the bellow of the gutsy flat-six engine, a foot or so behind your ears, and the marvellous agility.

Like all the best sports cars, the Boxster feels alive, hyperactive, eager. And like all other pricier Porsche models, it feels solid and meaty when you drive it hard. The steering is heavy, even though it's power assisted, and the little short-throw gearchange and pedals have firm, precise actions, too.

The Boxster replaces the old 968 model as Porsche's entry-level machine. It costs just pounds 33,950, and that's cheap for a Porsche. Unlike the old 968, the Boxster has a mid-mounted engine, is a full convertible, and is very much more distinctive both to look at and to drive. It's an attempt by Porsche to go back to its roots and to cast off any criticism of making cars that look like Japanese coupes, but cost twice as much.

The Boxster harks back to the Fifties and to delightful Porsches such as the 550 Spyder. The Boxster's mid-engine layout, open top, lowness, long nose, headlamp and taillight shapes are reminiscent of the famous James Dean sports car, as is the big central rear exhaust pipe.

The old Spyder was a very minimalist, raw, noisy car. The Boxster still has a subversive streak - it's fast, low and noisy, too - but today's Porsche customers want their comforts. The seats are electrically controlled, there's central locking, power windows and an electrically operated hood.

You can even specify an automatic gearbox, in the form of Porsche's novel Tiptronic S, which enables you to choose between full automatic mode or DIY gearchanging courtesy of Formula One-type steering wheel buttons. It is such a good transmission that you sacrifice little in performance or fun compared with standard five-speed manuals.

Then again, low-rent cabin notwithstanding, you sacrifice so little with this car, compared with pounds 50,000-plus Ferraris, that there's little point in spending any more. The Boxster is a rebel with a cause - to rewrite the sports car rulebook. After the Boxster, there's just no point in paying any more.

Porsche Boxster: pounds 33,950. Flat-six cylinder engine, 204bhp at 6000rpm, two-seater, mid-engined convertible sports car. Top speed 149mph, 0-60mph in 6.8 seconds, average fuel consumption 27mpg.

Rivals

Mercedes SLK: pounds 30,090 Cheaper, more beautiful, better made and just as fast. But the SLK is not as sporty as the Porsche and its supercharged four-cylinder engine sounds flat. Automatic transmission only in Britain.

BMW Z3 2.8: About pounds 26,500. Another highly desirable new German convertible, but looks a bit toy-like and not as stimulating to drive as the Boxster.

TVR Chimera: pounds 30,650. Beautiful, brutish, fast and noisy. But can't compete with the Germans for refinement, comfort, reliability or build quality.

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