THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Beefed up Boxster no longer second-rate

By Clifford Atiyeh
Globe Correspondent / August 17, 2008
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I tucked my running shoes into the tight trunk of a new Boxster S one day after work recently, thinking how fast I'd feel if I pulled up to the gym in a Porsche. As blood and engine warmed, the silver roadster slipped through the downtown Interstate 93 tunnel exhaling shrill blasts from its flat-six, the brawn of a track athlete punching the air as its Michelins sliced the turn onto Storrow Drive.

A flash of embarrassment hit my skin as the sun reappeared. Here I was - a skinny, out-of-shape runner - hustling around in this muscled varsity star, and it wasn't breaking a sweat.

Forget going to the gym with this thing; it would only make me look worse.

Had this been a few years ago, when the Boxster was a rather wheezy Porsche next to the 911, my ego might have survived. But the as-tested $69,925 price of this limited-edition RS 60 Spyder, just three-and-a-half grand shy of a base Carrera, suggests the Boxster is no longer content being a second-rate sports car.

Porsche will import about 800 RS 60 Spyders to the United States out of a total 1,960, a similar formula to the 1,953 Boxsters made for the company's 50th anniversary in 2004. According to the public relations staff, the RS 60 pays tribute to the topless racing Porsches of the 1960s. But it's really here to package the company's most expensive options, and for several thousand dollars less than if you ordered them yourself.

Witness the bleeding red full-leather interior, a new front lip spoiler, and intricate 19-inch wheels filling out those seductive GT Silver Metallic haunches. Look closer and you'll find exclusive touches: red taillamps, a red soft top, larger GT3-style exhaust pipes, and a numbered plaque on the glove box. These additions wouldn't justify the $9,200 premium over a standard S, so Porsche threw in its active suspension and sport exhaust, which in RS 60 guise bumps up the 3.4-liter engine eight horsepower to 303. That isn't a big improvement, and on paper the car fails to impress. But once you're molded into the deeply bolstered buckets, a twist of the ignition will make you forget the hole in your wallet - and the Carrera.

In fact, anything you're thinking will quickly be drowned out by an angry, throat-clearing bark as the RS 60 settles into a low thrum.

Pressing the button marked "sport" ahead of the polished aluminum shift knob - which on a hot summer day is like grabbing a scalding pan handle - does three things: It firms up the dampers, raises the threshold of the stability control, and dumps salsa verdé on the exhaust, turning the Boxster into a gurgling, salivating creature that doesn't like to putt in traffic.

Under 2,000 r.p.m., the RS 60 in sport mode is like a pacing lion, bucking hard when lifting off the gas as I crawled through Kenmore Square. Pounce on the throttle, and by 4,000 r.p.m. the muffler valves open, morphing the sound from burble to voracious howl. Clutch take-up, normally smooth and progressive, is rougher and more abrupt. While I didn't find the proper road to do a full-throttle launch from rest, this six-speed feels like it could stand an all-day thrashing. Though the notchy, short-throw stick makes a quick 2-3 shift difficult, staying in second gear let me warp to highway speeds - and be loud and obnoxious around town.

Even on Boston's patchy roads, the RS 60 rides comfortably, despite ultrathin 35-series tires. The chassis is unflappable, except on very rough tarmac with the suspension hunkered down in sport mode. Fortunately, another button switches the springs back to normal.

While most cars allow a few degrees of dead steering on-center, the RS 60's thick wheel transmits the slightest twitch, which I appreciated dodging a tire retread on the Mass. Pike. But this Boxster belongs on back roads, namely the twisty (and rarely policed) trails through Central Connecticut, where it served up loads of grip and torque, mile after mile.

The cross-drilled brakes, while providing excellent pedal feel, disappointed with their constant squeals (Porsche said this was due to excess dust on the rotors.) While I'm griping, the optional wind deflector rattled incessantly at highway speeds, even after I reinstalled it several times. And that dashboard chronograph makes a lovely mantelpiece, but it's a computer-controlled fuss to operate.

What's really irksome is that 70-large also buys a Corvette Z06 or Nissan GT-R - both of which would toast the RS 60 on any racetrack - and the formidable BMW M3 checks in at $56,500.

So who will bother with this Boxster, essentially an S with a body kit and racier soundtrack? For demanding enthusiasts, the RS 60's $8,000 advantage over the Porsche 911 - the sports car benchmark with which the RS 60 shares its exotic hardware - is reason enough. Besides, no one uses those backseats, anyway.

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