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BEHIND THE WHEEL

Racy Boxster Makes the Heart Quicken

March 14, 1997|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A motorcade of lower-priced, lesser-equipped, entry-level automobiles would make a sorry procession of losers and poseurs.

Last time we looked, BMW's early, four-cylinder 318s--designed to tease us into buying expensive, six-cylinder 325s--were nowhere to be seen. Not even on scruffier used car lots, where salesmen still wear plaid and ask after the little woman.

Although always considered puppy-cute, the Dino Ferrari of the '70s remains a reject among collectors because of its Fiat engine, separated at birth from a washing machine. Most potted histories of Porsche ignore the unfortunate 914 with its Volkswagen engine; most buyers are still in therapy.

Healthy adults have popped night sweats recalling the desperate days of 1981 when a Chevy mid-size was given a new lining, different badges and passed off as the Cadillac Cimarron. It has earned a niche in history as the industry's first disposable car: a metal box ready for recycling with years left on the warranty.

So the world has awaited the lower-priced, lesser-equipped, entry-level Porsche Boxster with understandable anxiety.

Relax. This is a real Porsche and, like Dolly, a perfect clone of pure genes and noble parents. Without all that wool.

The Boxster is also a carefully conceived sports car, not a diluted, denuded version of something else. It has power, handling, balance and enough easy quirks for owners who fancy themselves as masters of all they drive.

And with a pleasure range stretching from fun on Mulholland to excitement at Laguna Seca, we should see the start of Boxster club racing sometime next month.

All fears have been flattened.

Instead of a weeny four, the mid-engined, two-seater Boxster has a middleweight 2.5-liter, six-cylinder, horizontally opposed boxer (hence Boxster) engine. It is liquid-cooled--a first for traditionally air-cooled Porsche products--with double overhead cams, speed-variable valve timing and 201 horsepower that will get you most places in a respectable hurry.

Porsche promised to reduce pricing by umpteen thousand dollars with an inexpensive car under $40,000. Right, and I know this little old lady with a clunker in a barn that she says is a Doozerbug, a Dwheezeberg, something like that.

Yet Boxster has come to market at $39,980, beneath the target price by the slimmest of Earl Scheib margins.

That, of course, is still the price of hers 'n' his Miatas. With a remote thingy here, a digital option there and taxes every place they can be plastered, expect to slide behind the wheel of a Boxster with a purse or back pocket some $44,000 lighter. But that's still more than $20,000 less than any other Porsche on the current roster.

Also, for that, one becomes a full member in envied standing of the fraternity and sorority of Porsche.

*

Note the conscious duality of genders here. For in its wisdom--noting that almost 50% of today's car buyers are women--Porsche has produced a vehicle to satisfy the strutting of man, while catering to the convenience and easy handling demands of woman.

Porsche also told us that its roadster would not only be a spiritual extension of Porsche's performance lineage, it would actually look that part.

Take a look. The single, sooty tunnel poking from beneath dead center of the rear deck is an exhaust pipe cued directly by the Porsche RSK racers of Le Mans and the '50s. The headlight lenses and hunched, rounded fenders front and rear suggest the 550 Spyder that was James Dean's final, fatal attraction.

What set those cars on a towering pedestal--and drivers consistently on victory podiums--was not just power, not light weight, not simply sturdiness and reliability and performance engineering.

It was agility. Everything--from engine mounting to setting spare tire and gearbox behind the rear axle--was positioned to provide maximum balance and control.

This apple has not fallen far from the tree.

Although still not a screamer from a dead start, once awake it runs to 150 mph with ease. Most important, handling remains reliable and unchanged in all but extreme performance modes.

*

We ran the Boxster hard for hours at Volkswagen's test track at Phoenix International Raceway. It was level around the pylons, belly-down well above three digits, and its big-disked, anti-lock brakes should be a model for any car that might make stops with a driver bug-eyed and shrieking.

Would you believe 120 mph to rest with pads smoking in something around six seconds? With no brake fade the second and third times? Our courage had faded by the fourth attempt.

Yet Porsche's infamous throttle-off over-steer is back. It's not your father's rear-engined car that flicked around like Lash LaRue. But hurtle into a fast, tightening sweeper, back off the throttle to slow, and the Boxster's back end will start sniffing for its front end and the nearest weeds.

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