Younger readers may wish to be reminded that 914s were mid-engine half-Volkswagens - in Europe they were even sold from VW showrooms - that Porsche produced from 1969 to 1976. Most of them had four-cylinder engines, and almost all seemed to be painted the same awful road-cone orange. The good ones were said to be remarkable, but the only good ones I ever encountered were at the track, at Porsche club events - and here I must admit that my snobbery, like all snobbery, was based on a combination of ignorance and insecurity. Back in the 1990s, I'd be tooling around the track in my street-legal, silver-on-black 911 Carrera 4S when a shuddering flash of orange in the mirrors announced that I was about to be overtaken by a stripped-down, souped-up, slicks-shod 914. Club racers on a budget bought aging 914s for a pittance - they liked to call them "disposable" cars - and turned them into fierce competitors that proved to be as agile as Pro Bowl cornerbacks. All I could do was sigh, wave the damned thing past, hound it down the straight, then watch its little orange tail whip away through the twisty parts.
I had the half-baked notion that "real" Porsches have their engines behind the rear wheels. It dated from the day in Miami that I first saw a 356 up close. I was fourteen years old. One sunny afternoon in 1958, our music teacher, a suave veteran of the Broadway orchestra pits who wore Italian loafers yet was rumored to be heterosexual, took me and three peerlessly cool Latino trumpet players outside to see his new white Speedster. I didn't know what to make of it. Just when American cars were sprouting enormous fins and grilles as edgy as medieval maces, the Porsche looked as soft and droopy as a half-used bar of soap. It was so tiny that you could almost have hung it on davits across the back of my father's Cadillac, and the engine, which seemed only marginally bigger than the Eldorado's air-conditioning compressor, was situated where the trunk should have been. Yet the Speedster's single-minded design, its wire-mesh headlamp grilles and knockoff wheels, its sparse, race-car-like interior - not to mention the fact that the trumpet players flipped up their sunglasses and ogled it with genuine respect - persuaded me that Porsches must be a) cool and b) rear-engined. Since the 911 was a direct descendant of the 356, I came to regard it as a proper Porsche, the Boxster not as much so.
Yet it was just then, in the '50s, that Porsche was really beginning to rack up the world-class racing victories that put the marque on the map, thanks less to the 356 than to the mid-engine 550 and RSK. Unlike the chop-top 356, these dedicated racing cars were designed from the outset as ragtops (Spyders), the aim being to shed weight and keep the center of gravity low - the same approach that would make the 914 such a giant-killer. (The 550 was so low as to be easily overlooked on public highways; James Dean's last words before fatally crashing his 550 were, "That guy up there's gotta stop . . . He'll see us!" He didn't.) Mid-engine Porsches proved particularly effective in the Targa Florio, a twisty Sicilian road race of considerable antiquity where they scored overall victories versus the more powerful Ferraris in 1956, 1959, and 1960. So when invited to drive parts of the old Targa Florio route in the updated 2009 Boxster S, I jumped at the chance.
After landing at Palermo in gale-force winds, I staggered across the tarmac to a row of Boxsters - all were S models, which account for 55 percent of Boxster sales worldwide these days - and grabbed the first one that came to hand. It was painted a conspicuous speed yellow but at least lacked the cop-magnet racing stripes and numbers that besmirched some of the others. I set out briskly at first but soon was picking gingerly through dark, muddy mountain roads rough enough to better suit an SUV. The Boxster campaigned along gamely enough, its interior snug and warm, although this car suffered from excessive wind noise where the top met the windshield and a persistent squeal in the left front brake. In the last of the light, I stopped amid the broken stone towers of an ancient ruin and looked out over the long, ragged backbone of western Sicily, a landscape resembling that of Ireland but steeped in an even richer history. Greeks, Romans, Africans, and an almost ceaseless assortment of European warlords had campaigned on these roads, taking a full day on horseback to climb roads that my little yellow Boxster had just covered in an hour.
"The morning rises from the sea, still drunk with the song of sirens," wrote the Sicilian poet Lina La Mattina, and the dawn sun did look a bit tipsy as it shuddered in and out of a bank of storm clouds. But the rains had subsided momentarily, so I fired up an off-white Boxster S, put down the top - a quick operation that requires manually releasing only a single, central latch before pressing a button that lowers the roof in twelve seconds - and headed out for a loop around western Sicily. The roads were empty, and my speeds climbed rapidly. The car was light and tight, affording a wealth of informative feedback through the steering wheel and the seat of the pants; like the very best Porsches, it conveyed a sense of being able to respond accurately to every input, no matter how expert or inept. Its seven-speed PDK gearbox - effectively two transmissions, each with its own clutch, sharing one housing - was wonderful, even though I still had it set on Normal.
Over dinner the night before, Rolf Frech, director of development for all Porsche models, had said that when testing prototypes, he seeks to bring out what he called the car's "fingerprint." "When you drive a Porsche," he said, "you should know at once - with your eyes closed, so to speak - from the feeling and the sound, that it is a Porsche. The sound, acceleration, steering, the seat position - which must be close, not far back, and in this position, you must be able to reach everything - plus the feel in your stomach, all these make up the fingerprint, the soul of the car. If you lose that, it's a me-too car."
Asked for an example of what he'd done in developing the latest Boxster, Frech mentioned broadening the differentiation of the car's three performance settings, so when I hit the foothills, I switched from Normal to Sport. The suspension tightened pleasingly, and the shifts became quicker. Locating the shift buttons on the steering wheel took some getting used to, though, and I would have preferred Ferrari-type paddles, mounted behind the steering wheel and actuated by pulling toward the driver. Instead, Porsche uses less intuitive rocker switches on the steering-wheel spokes. "We studied this very carefully, but we wanted to retain the Tiptronic button philosophy," Porsche stylist Mitja Borkert had told me. So far, the best I could say of that philosophy was that it's doubtless better than G. W. F. Hegel's. But then I switched to Sport Plus.
Holy cow, it was like parachuting into a faster car. The crisp, incredibly fast downshifts were better than any human could be expected to deliver. Several years ago, early paddleshifted cars used single-clutch transmissions that were programmed to shift like professional drivers, with rev-matched downshifts and smooth engagements, but Porsche's PDK system seamlessly leaps from one gear to the next. I doubt that the most grizzled traditionalist among the old Targa Florio drivers would have passed it up, and if I were buying a Boxster, I'd spec PDK even if the cost meant forsaking every other option.
The uncannily prescient transmission mapping was particularly impressive in its ability to sense when the car was entering a turn, often downshifting before I'd thought of it. Neophytes could learn a lot from Sport Plus about how to drive a Porsche - mainly, as Paul Newman used to counsel, to "keep the revs up." Thoroughly besotted, I left the Boxster in Sport Plus for the rest of the day except when passing through towns, where the mode's appetite for the fat part of the torque band sent engine rasps echoing off the stone houses and storefronts. Quieting the car proved especially suitable in Paceco, a town whose residents drive as though shouldering their way through a crowd of friends and family at a wedding reception - and who will honk at you for stopping at a stoplight. You wouldn't want to make a racket in Paceco.
Heading down the coast, where the wind had whipped the sea into a memorable oil-paint green, I picked up some of the longest Targa Florio route, the one that from 1912 to 1914 and again from 1948 through 1950 encircled almost the entire island. Drivers completing that 650-plus-mile race would sometimes be so exhausted that they had to be lifted from their cars, and I could see why. While too many American roads appear to have been designed by civil engineers, Sicilian roads evince the graceful, confident touch of Renaissance artists like Giotto, who, when asked by a Papal emissary to submit drawings for consideration in a design competition, took a piece of paper and drew, freehand, a perfect circle. These roads are spectacular and exciting to drive but so challenging in their sense of what a driver ought to be able to accomplish that they can really wring you out. Hurtling down a steep mountain road behind an Audi A8 whose driver clearly felt that his manhood was on the line, then passing him in a turn washed with mud and gravel while blue sea filled the windshield, I was grateful that the powerplant behind my shoulders was not a big lump by Ferrari or Lamborghini but a tidy six that simply kicked the rear out a few feet before leaping ahead as eagerly as a racing whippet trotting to the starting gate. This car is a lot of fun to drive.
Fearing that the fun level might be interfering with the imperatives of journalistic integrity, after lunch I headed east along the relatively flat though entirely magnificent Strada di Salemi, an Italian artwork featuring big, sweeping turns built to howl through at triple-digit speeds. In such turns, the Boxster demonstrated stability superior to that of many 911s, which can get searchy, and it was unfazed by side winds gusting so strongly that the giant wind turbines outside Marsala had shut themselves down.
Darn, too much fun again. I tried to concentrate on analyzing the Boxster's flaws. Braking very late into turns, I could get the front end to wash out, but the results were unspectacular. Rough roads induced a bit of fore-and-aft chop when in the Normal and Sport settings, but for some reason this minor annoyance disappeared in Sport Plus. Body flex is minimal - I doubt that it alone would justify stepping up to the hardtop Cayman - and being able to put the top up and down on the fly was a gas on a day when it rained every hour or so. The only thing I can criticize, really, is the look of the Boxster. It's cute, whereas the 550 had the stark, menacing beauty of a vehicle that could get you into trouble quicker than an F-100 jet fighter. Neither appearance, however, is deceiving. The Boxster is easy and forgiving to drive; the 550 was neither. When James Dean showed fellow actor Alec Guinness his 550 Spyder, the aptly named "Little Bastard," Guinness said the car looked "sinister" and cautioned Dean, "If you get in that car, you will be found dead in it by this time next week." Dean's fatal crash came nine days later. The Boxster may not look like much, but it provides a fine, spirited ride for drivers not eager to relive the bad old days.
If you order one, I'd advise skipping the "Boxster S" side appliqué s and anything else that tarts it up. Optional white LED running lights enliven things but seem as extraneous as spats on a greyhound. The narrow carbon-fiber sport seats severely limit seat adjustment and don't seem necessary; as you'd expect from a Porsche, the stock seats are adequate at anything less than a nine-tenths racing pace. Most of this year's colors are rather too bright and literal to be inspiring, but there is an appealing forest green, and a beautiful dark gray goes very nicely with the new wine-red top.
Driving a 2009 Boxster is very different from, say, driving a beautiful vintage car. The gorgeous antique thrills all who see it go by, while inside you're pumping the grease pedal, feathering the throttle to keep the radiator from blowing its top, and spinning the steering wheel like the helm of a square-rigger. The Boxster won't turn many heads, but its driver enjoys all the traditional delights of a quick sports car with few of the traditional liabilities. If you're out to impress people, always a mistake in life, look elsewhere. But if instead your intention is to genuinely satisfy your own desires, the only real question to ask about the Boxster is whether it's "a real Porsche." To which my answer is an emphatic yes.
2009 Porsche Boxster S
Base Price $57,650 (Boxster S)
Engine: DOHC 24-valve flat-6
Displacement: 3.4 liters (210 cu in)
Horsepower: 310 hp @ 6400 rpm
Torque: 266 lb-ft @ 4400 rpm
Transmission type: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
Steering: Power-assisted rack-and-pinion
Strut-type, coil springs
Strut-type, coil springs
Brakes: Vented discs, ABS
Tires: Michelin Pilot Sport
Tire size f, r: 235/35YR-19, 265/35YR-19
L x W x H: 172.1 x 70.9 x 50.9 in
Wheelbase: 95.1 in
Track f/r: 61.8/62.0 in
Weight: 3042 lb (per manufacturer)
EPA mileage: 20/29 mpg