- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 28, 2006

There’s an 11-mile stretch of highway in eastern Tennessee in the Great Smokey Mountains near the North Carolina border called “The Tail of the Dragon.”

It is famous around the world among motoring enthusiasts of both the four-wheel and two-wheel persuasion, mainly because of its 318 turns. If it were a road-racing course, it likely would be one of the most challenging anywhere.

Alas, it is not. It is a public highway that admits everything from bicycles and motor scooters to 18-wheel semi-trailer rigs.

Because of that, and because of its fame, the dragon’s tail has a speed limit of just 30 mph. Originally, it was 55, but it became so congested that 30 would have become the practical limit anyway. So it is one of those phenomena that attract people who simply want to say they’ve done it.

Porsche chose a route that included the dragon’s tail to introduce the 2007 Boxster, its entry-level sports car, and the more powerful Boxster S.

The Boxster, the reasoning went, was uniquely suited to the twists and turns. It is, but that short stretch has become so crowded with Sunday drivers that you could have as much fun in a Volkswagen Microbus or Citroen 2CV.

Fortunately, there’s a highway, not far away, to which the Boxster is even better suited. It’s the Cherohala Skyway, a 36-mile scenic road through the Cherokee and Nantahala national forests in North Carolina.

Here the curves are neither as sharp nor as frequent. But it is possible to find quiet times, along with higher speed limits, that any enthusiast would want to experience for an emotional charge or recharge.

There are sports cars faster than the Boxster, of course — the Chevrolet Corvette, Dodge Viper and Porsche’s own 911. But they cannot with sanity be driven to their potential anywhere but on a race track.

Even the Boxster is too much car for the Skyway. A driver is quite likely to take some of the 25 mph curves at 60 or more.

But it also is perfectly suited to mastering this road in a pleasurable, nonthreatening way. The emotional satisfaction comes from the feedback — the tactile sensations that the Boxster sends back to the driver’s torso, appendages and brain synapses as it waltzes its way through the curves.

The Boxster is a midengine car, which means that its horizontally opposed six-cylinder engine nestles behind the seats but forward of the rear axle.

A horizontally opposed engine has its cylinders lying flat, feet to feet, on both sides of the crankshaft, instead of leaning at an angle, as in a V-6 or V-8, or standing upright, as in an in-line four- or six-cylinder engine.

The H-motor also is called a flat, or boxer, engine, which is how the Boxster got its name — a combination of boxer and roadster.

The Boxster, introduced in 1999, is in its third generation. Though the basic concept has not changed, it has become more refined and powerful. For 2006, it received a new interior and some exterior styling changes.

For 2007, the big change is a redesigned engine, completely reworked internally to produce lower levels of air pollution, more power and better fuel economy.

The engine’s six cylinders have a total displacement of 2.7 liters in the base Boxster. From that, the Porsche engineers have extracted 245 horsepower, enough to propel the car to 60 mph in 5.8 seconds, according to the factory specifications. Yet it manages EPA city/highway fuel consumption of 23/32 miles to the gallon.

If you must have more power or bragging rights, the Boxster S has a 3.4-liter engine of 295 horsepower and either a six-speed manual gearbox or Porsche’s Tiptronic five-speed automatic transmission, which also can be shifted manually.

But the argument here is that the base Boxster with the five-speed manual is more than sufficient unto itself on the Cherohala Skyway, the Tail of the Dragon or anywhere else on public roads.

As long as you shift properly, a pleasurable pursuit in itself, the power is more than adequate. The handling is so well balanced, and the steering and tires so well matched, that the Boxster compensates almost instinctively when the driver makes small mistakes. It has that rare capability of enabling a driver to drive better.

Criticisms of the Boxster fall at the margins. Controls could have better labeling, and the automatic climate control is rudimentary given the price class.

But the seats are comfortable and hold the torso properly in place, the steering wheel can be adjusted just so, and there’s a large, well-positioned dead pedal on which to brace the left foot during cornering.

This sophistication does not come cheap. The Boxster starts at $46,395, and even a few of the many available options can boost the price substantially.

The test car, with heated seats, 19-inch wheels and seat belts that matched the “speed yellow” paint, came to a total of $50,925. That’s a lot of bucks for a toy. But it’s a gift that keeps on giving.

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