We carried on into Paso Robles, then a small ranch town and now the center of a booming wine industry. In 1955, the racers were traveling to Salinas, but today they go to Laguna Seca Raceway, which was built near Monterey in 1957. Take the back way to Laguna Seca by exiting U.S. 101 at Greenwood, and then drive inland through the vineyards to Carmel Valley Road. For nearly thirty miles, this narrow county road twists among the coastal oaks along the Carmel River (hardly more than a creek, really).
Light and eager, the Porsche Boxster steers through the corners like a roller skate, as always. A 10 percent increase in body stiffness and careful suspension revisions in the second-generation chassis help give this car far more composure than ever before. The Boxster just flies through the corners, and the wide (and soft) rear tires keep the car steady beneath you. When stability control intervenes, it engages gradually. We liked the predictable breakaway of the optional eighteen-inch Michelin Pilot Sports, although the car was so low that we often scraped the plastic splash guards of the Porsche's underbelly.
At first, the SLK seems less impressive. You just can't fight the consequences of the front-mounted engine layout, while the heavy hard top is also packaged high in the chassis. If you try too hard, the SLK feels a little unsettled as it dives toward an apex, and the front end washes out. Once the front tires hook up again, the car tries to pivot. It's not a happy combination, and stability control is like the hand of Gottlieb Daimler himself shaking you. But if you relax, carry the SLK's braking nearly to the apex of the corner, and simply maximize the grip from the front tires, the car finds its footing easily. The cornering limits are actually very high, and the broad power band of the V-6 also makes it easy to sustain your speed.
The Boxster and the SLK compare much as they did in their first-generation iterations. The Boxster is light and direct-a machine for driving. The SLK is composed and comfortable-a GT car cleverly cut down to a personal size. What's surprising is the way the two cars have evolved toward each other. The Boxster now feels more substantial, and a 300-mile tour doesn't seem like punishment. With no spare tire, the Boxster even offers more luggage space than the SLK. Meanwhile, the Mercedes will take you anywhere on the turnpike, yet you don't have to feel embarrassed as you follow the BMWs and Porsches toward Carmel Valley Road.
Mercedes has put a lot of effort into the SLK (consider the SLK55!), and we think it finally has the sports-car authenticity it's needed. The evolution of the Boxster and the SLK shows us again that sports cars command our attention in a way other cars do not. The sports car is a constant value, not a romantic anachronism. It can be stylish and civilized, but it's only satisfying if it also represents an act of rebellion. James Dean still lives on in popular culture because the spirit of rebellion keeps his story from being dissipated by time, fading memory, and commercialization. It is a worthwhile lesson for any automaker that builds sports cars.