Mid-Engine Bargains: 1985 Toyota MR2, 1997 Porsche Boxster and 1991 Acura NSX

PORSCHE BOXSTER

For thirty years after the 911 was introduced, the Porsche lineup consisted of two choices--the 911 and the also-rans. Granted, the 912, 914, 924, 928, 944, and 968 generated cult followings of their own, but among the Porsche faithful, they were tolerated rather than loved. It wasn't until the Boxster was delivered in 1997 that one of the 911's siblings was embraced.

It didn't hurt that the roadster's shape and motoring soul harked back to the 550 race cars of Porsche legend. And there was no mistaking the family resemblance between the Boxster and the early 996-body 911. (To reduce costs, the two cars shared sheetmetal and interior components.) The 1997 Boxster's 2.5-liter engine wasn't air-cooled, true, but as of the following year, neither was the 911's. More to the point, the flat-six made a healthy 201 hp and all the right noises, thanks to its horizontally opposed architecture.

Priced at a relatively affordable $41,000, the Boxster was an immense hit. "When we drove our car home, people were racing to get alongside of us to see what it was," says Nita Burrows, who's still driving that car, number 647 to come down the assembly line. The Boxster synthesized virtually every quality necessary for driving satisfaction, and with the engine situated between the axles rather than hung out the back, it actually handled better than the 911. To nobody's surprise, it was the slam-dunk Automobile of the Year in 1998.

A larger, more powerful engine arrived in 2000. So did the sportier S, whose extra grunt, stiffer suspension, and seriousness of purpose made the base car seem almost like a--dare we say it?--chick car. In 2005, the 986 Boxster was replaced with the new-and-improved 987, and the Boxster-based Cayman coupe debuted shortly thereafter. At this point, the Boxster seems almost as much a part of Porsche's DNA as the 911.

Porsches aren't designed to run forever, so Boxster prices are very sensitive to mileage. Early cars, which trade in the $20,000 range, suffered from various engine design and manufacturing flaws that led--and might still lead--to catastrophic failures. It's safer, although more expensive, to pay upward of $25,000 for the 2000 model year and beyond, which also buys you some extra displacement. S models command a premium of $5000-plus. And to think, some people say money can't buy happiness.

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