2000 PORSCHE BOXSTER

COLLI di TRONTO, Italy: To help fill the not insignificant performance and price gaps between its Boxster and 911 models, Porsche will this fall launch the Boxster S in North America.

The German sportscar maker will take advantage of the fact that its two existing models (a sports-utility vehicle is coming in 2002) share much of the same architecture and will transpose some of the more expensive 911's go-fast stuff into the Boxster.

Key items making the move include the 3.2-litre flat-6 engine and the brakes, a set of components that do a considerable amount toward transforming the competent-but-not-killer Boxster into a more serious 2-seater. Indeed, one possible meaning for the S designation could be "serious," but the folks at the Stuttgart headquarters suggest "stronger, swifter and superior," which gets no argument from me.

These attributes you can sense from a quick perusal of the specifications sheet, since the two key numbers (horsepower and torque, respectively) are now 252 at 6250 rpm and 225 at 4500 rpm.

It would not be unfair to speculate from these numbers that a certain amount of revving is necessary to get this engine up and on its feet, but it would be wrong to speculate that.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. The horsepower and, particularly, the torque show up early and keep on showing up to their peak rev points and beyond. Let's just say that power is not an issue on the Boxster S. Porsche says zero to 100 km/h takes just 5.9 seconds.

This delightful engine can be mated to a pair of transmissions, starting with a 6-speed manual and going up to the 5-speed automatic.

Porsche says the manual shifter has been specially tuned to "ensure smooth and harmonious transition from one gear to the next, capitalizing in the process on engine torque." Again, no argument from me on how well the manual gearbox behaves or how it's presented -- low and forward in the center console. Traditionalists will love churning through the gears.

But they will miss out on the distinct pleasures of the optional automatic, since it is the Tiptronic S transmission that can provide much of the manual experience if the driver wants, and it's been upgraded for the Boxster S.

You can leave the Boxster S in D and ignore it for hours or days or weeks, since it's wired up to provide about 90-95 per cent of the performance dimension all on its own. But you can also go in search of those remaining points by putting the gearshift in M and flipping back and forth using the paddles on the steering wheel.

On the Boxster S, you can also do the flipping gears thing without going to M, since it's been adapted to allow driver shifts from the normal setting. This allows the car to operate as a manual for at least eight seconds, though the transmission will stretch that if it senses conditions are critical.

In all, the Tiptronic S has five programs with "different control maps readily available in the control unit and activated automatically as a function of the driver's style of motoring or the route he is taking." And how does the Boxster S know what to do? Well, "The crucial factor in all cases is the driver's foot on the accelerator."

Those aforementioned traditionalists may scoff, but transmissions as slick as the Tiptronic S make the need for a manual less and less pointed all the time. Get used to it.

The other technology change of note on the Boxster S would be the electronic gas pedal in place of a mechanical gas cable that makes many operations slicker and surer.

Even better stops are provided by those 911 brakes, which were eventually applied to the Boxster after unsuccessful attempts to develop new brakes. Brake diameter is therefore up at all corners, brake disc width is increased, and they're cross-drilled for better stopping in the wet.

It would have been foolhardy to throw all of these improved go-fast toys into the Boxster S without also upping the ante on the suspension, and Porsche is not foolhardy. So there are firmer springs, shocks and stabilizer bars, all of which are meant to "enhance driving stability at high speeds and in bends." Again, no argument from me on that claim.

Many people would have been happy, if not delighted, if Porsche had stopped the makeover at this point, since it would have delivered them more performance and stopped the price escalation that cosmetic and comfort features cause.

But Porsche went ahead with those cosmetic and comfort features and they're worth mentioning. Boxster S's exterior look is slight but significant, since the third air intake, the side scoops, the dual tailpipes, the unique 17-inch wheels, and the bright red brake calipers suggest the new performance reality. But there is also a badge or two to make the situation clear to the non-cognoscenti.

Interior fixtures are pleasingly improved in Boxster S, with Alcantra replacing the regular cloth coverings on the seats, with leather an option. There are also new gauges, shaped with an eye to making the car look faster from behind the wheel as well as from the curb.

There are also a bunch of non-performance items thrown in to the Boxster S, including a sophisticated alarm system, more range on the intermittent wiper, illuminated vanity mirrors, and a triple cool 3-spoke leather steering wheel.

All of this will undoubtedly move the price of the Boxster S considerably beyond that of the regular old Boxster, but it will still be a goodly distance from the price of the 911. Look for specific pricing details in mid-September, which is just before the car goes on sale.

Since it will be closer to the base Boxster price than the base 911 price, it's easy to argue that the Boxster S will be a performance bargain because it comes close to the levels of the base 911. In real world performance terms, indeed, it is extremely close to the 911.

Porsche has therefore done exactly what it set out to do and is providing a very attractive vehicle close to Boxster in price and 911 in performance.

By Alex Law,

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