The Porsche Boxster is the current evolution of "economy" sports car from the German company famous for high-performance vehicles.
Designed in the early 90s and initially released in 1996 in Europe and 1997 in the United States, the Boxster takes design cues from the classic Porsche Spyder 550 (mid-engined layout, roadster appearance) and technical developments from the -- nearly eponymous -- Porsche 911 (boxer engine) and the Porsche 928/924/944/968 families (water-cooled). The Spyder is best known as being the sports car James Dean was fond of and died in.
In the mid-70s Porsche started its transition into water-cooled engine designs (much to the dismay of Porsche "purists" who insisted on air-cooled powerplants). Through the 80s, they refined their water-cooled technology in the "inexpensive" 944, 944 Turbo, and later the 968. These vehicles could be produced at less cost than the 911 and broadened Porsche's customer base extensively. The company saw the need to continue to offer a vehicle at a price point underneath its flagship 911, and started to develop the Boxster. As of early 2005, the list price on a Boxster hovers around $50,000 (US) whereas the 911 starts around $70,000 and goes to $150,000 depending on performance.
Their product achieved fruition in 1993, as they demonstrated the Boxster at the Detroit Auto Show. Its design seemed to be polarizing at the time -- some Porsche owners disliked it, but many immediately put deposits on their own car. Some would wait three years or longer before delivery! In the meantime, Porsche discontinued the popular water-cooled V8-powered 928 and the 968.
The production Boxster (codenamed the 986) shared many components with the as-yet-to-be-released 1998 Porsche 911 (codenamed 996, it was the first water-cooled 911). Easily recognizable to amateur Porsche spotters are the non-round headlights common to both models and divergent from previous decades of Porsches. As with almost all modern Porsches, the Boxster has a galvanized steel skin which is very helpful at keeping away things like rust.
The Boxster -- be sure to note the 's' -- is named as a combination of "boxer" and "roadster". Boxer is a nickname given to Porsche's flat engines, wherein opposing cylinder banks are 180 degrees from each other. This results in a wide and relatively short engine which tends to runs smoothly. Because the pistons punch outward, the boxer moniker arose. Roadsters, of course, are typically two-seat cars with a removable or convertible top... and a penchant for driving fast.
By putting this boxer engine in between the front and rear axles, and placing a transaxle between the rear wheels, the weight distribution of the Boxster creates a low center of gravity that is very close to the center of the car. This promotes high turning abilities of the vehicle, especially when combined with four-wheel independent MacPherson suspension which is standard on all Boxsters.
The transaxle on the Boxster comes with either a manual or automatic gearbox. The automatic features Porsche's Tiptronic system, where any of the five ratios can be selected by the driver, overriding the automatic system. It is not a completely computer-controlled manual as in some current cars.
Some statistics, cause everyone loves numbers:
Engine Type: Six cylinder, horizontally opposed, water cooled
Displacement: 2.5 L - 2.7 L
Horsepower: 201 hp @ 6000 rpm - 240 hp @ 6400 rpm
Torque: 181 ft lb @ 4500 rpm - 199 ft lb @ 4700 rpm
Valves: 24 (four per cylinder)
Valvetrain: Dual overhead cam
Fuel system: Gasoline, Sequential EFI
0-60 mph: 7.4 s
Top Speed: 146 mph
Top secret Porsche plans seem to indicate an upcoming hard-top version of the Boxster to enter the market in the next year or two marketed as a Porsche Cayman. Since Porsche is about to release the Panamera, bringing their model lineup to four, the Cayman will be their fifth line.