Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Romancing the Road

By Marc K. Stengel

MAY 29, 2000:  It is said to mean absolutely nothing that we are experiencing a rare sequence of planetary coincidences this spring. The five "naked eye" planets--Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, and Mercury--have lately maneuvered into nearly direct alignment with the setting sun. What's more, when the moon was new earlier this month, all of our orbital fellow travelers had serried away from us deep into the solar system, leaving Earth all by its lonesome at one nether end. So far, I have successfully resisted the urge to wax apocalyptic about this unusual but routine display of astral geometry. No, we are reassured, this is no gravitational tug-o'-war threatening to yank Earth off its keester.

Yet how am I supposed to explain why, in a single three-day period straddling this latest new moon, I unexpectedly received for simultaneous evaluation three of the paramount performance roadsters of the new model year? From three unrelated, uncoordinated sources, I took delivery of Honda's new S2000, Porsche's new Boxster S, and Audi's new TT Roadster. This is, of course, an automotive conjunction of staggering ramifications for the sports car enthusiast. I have no explanation for it beyond some half-baked hypothesis concerning the planets' momentarily enhanced gravitational effect upon my tides of fortune.

Three such spirited, uncompromising, and exotic sports machines deserve to be considered not only by themselves but also in the company of each other--jointly and severally, as the writers of legal boilerplate are fond of saying. In the space of a single column, it is scarcely possible to do justice to a single one of these roadsters, let alone the three of them. So there is no alternative but to serialize their evaluation over three weeks, devoting this introductory essay to the subjective, aesthetic personalities of each roadster. Next week there will follow a comparison of the cars' various mechanical identities and empirical measures of performance, with a concluding essay one week later attempting to summarize the relative advantages and disadvantages of driving each car.

2000 Honda S2000

It is better left for another occasion to detail the superior design of Honda's magnificent motor in this S2000 roadster. For the present, it is enough to know that no other mass-produced engine in the world attains as much specific output without turbo- or supercharging as this Honda's 120 horsepower-per-liter. To a significant degree, this motor is this car--as perhaps it should be, considering its manufacturer's formal identity as the Honda Motor Company. But it is a motor whose distinct and unusual personality is dictated by a stratospheric redline of 8,900 maximum rpm, which approaches the whizzy realm heretofore exclusive to motorcycle superbikes.

Like a superbike, the S2000 is purpose-built for speed--flagrant and exulting. Under hard acceleration, the car sprints to 6,100 rpm whereupon it launches yet again into a warp drive up to redline. Amidst a fanfare of exhaust trumpets, the light, nimble road racer goads its driver into unconventional feats: It powerslides almost at will, thanks to a limited-slip rear axle that's never happier than when it's painting corners with faint black stripes of wheelspin while the driver deftly countersteers into the direction of the slide. Here is a genuine thoroughbred of twitchy, uncompromising behavior that yearns to canter wild and free--yet never lets its driver forget he's just one impudent move away from hurtling disaster.

2001 Audi TT Roadster

There could hardly be a greater contrast to Honda's fleet but traditional-looking S2000 than Audi's oddball TT Roadster. Derived from the extraterrestrial TT Coupe with its "cupola-style" roof, Audi's baby ragtop bears an endearing, captivating resemblance to a hopped-up lunar lander. My tester was a front-driver with the smaller 1.8-liter turbo making 180 horsepower instead of an available all-wheel-drive Quattro version making 225.

The TT's horsepower deficit relative to the S2000 and Boxster S results in a totally different personality for this car. Hardly slow, it is instead rather more stately under way. The turbo spools up its telltale whistle, the TT gathers itself together, and suddenly you seem to be floating along at impressive cruising speeds surrounded by the most unusual auto interior this side of Luke Skywalker. Where the S2000 is cocky and brash and the Boxster S self-confidently muscular, the 1.8-liter TT Roadster displays all the quirky competence of a shrewd court jester. Although its two rivals are determined to behave like serious sports cars, the TT Roadster seems content merely to play the good sport.

2000 Porsche Boxster S

Four years after the arrival of Porsche's 201-horsepower Boxster, a new high-output "S" version debuts as if in response to a dare. Given both its pedigree and its price, the original Boxster drew near-universal criticism for its rather tame acceleration. "So there!" say its designers, gesturing toward their new 250-horsepower S-version.

There is no question, when appraising the bodybuilder styling of this "baby" Porsche, that world domination is a clearly stated aim of the Boxster charter. What is deceiving is how subtly this roadster goes about its conquests. Its 3.2-liter opposed (i.e., "boxer") six-cylinder motor makes equally short work both of accelerating from a stop and of making "roll-on" passes at near triple-digit speeds. But the power is smooth, unflustered; the exhaust note expressive but discrete. Just when a driver wonders when the power stroke will strike, he may look in his rearview mirror and see every other car on the road stretching backward into the space-time continuum. Whereas the S2000 is a tempting enchantress, the Boxster is a crafty wizard: One moment you're just driving along; the next, you're skating through blurred landscapes very fast indeed.

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