Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Romancing the Road

Part 3

By Marc K. Stengel

JUNE 12, 2000:  Faced with the excruciating prospect of choosing "the best" sports roadster among Porsche's new Boxster S, Honda's S2000, and Audi's TT Roadster, it's tempting to throw up one's hands and simply let the Fates decide.

There can be no wrong answer if you're a true driving enthusiast--and perhaps it's more fun to learn what the gods have in store for you after all. But it turns out there are very different traits and features of these cars that will make a significant difference to some people. In this third and final serving of roadster ragout, what follows is a consideration of the relative advantages and disadvantages of driving each car

22000 Porsche Boxster S

Driving a Porsche on a regular basis can be hard work, both socially and technically. What a relief, then, to slide behind the wheel of this new-for-2000 Boxster S and discover...pleasure without the pressure. Yes, all decked out in chromium "Speed Yellow," the car drew its requisite gazes; but I didn't feel them. I was distracted by the Boxster's supportive, instantly comfortable leathery bucket seats; perfect heel-and-toe pedal placements; and convenient layout of the critical steering-wheel-to-gear-shifter axis.

Even dedicated un-sporting types, however, will appreciate the Boxster's charitable concessions to the real world. Thanks to a mid-engine layout, there are two "trunklets," fore and aft, that can absorb 9.1 cu. ft. of reasonably bulky cargo. Neither of the other two roadsters can swallow this hard; and although all three offer virtually no spare room in the cockpit, there's more "psychic space" in the Boxster by far, compared with Audi's TT or Honda's S2000.

There is, however, no dodging the fact that this so-called "entry-level" Porsche outprices its two rivals by about $20,000 in each case. (In fairness, it should be said that a "standard" 2000 Boxster costs $8,500 less than its amped-up sibling, the "S" version.) Psychologically, then, it's a bit of a letdown to note that the cleverly folding power top incorporates a plastic rear window instead of a glass one. More purist Porschemanes are also on record disparaging the Boxster front end's too-close resemblance to the patriarch of the clan, the 911. As I see it, however, this only poses a problem for those who shell out $70-grand-plus for a presumptive ne plus ultra. For the Boxster S buyer there is, instead, the satisfaction of spending wisely--albeit well--on a car whose serious credentials don't in the least obscure a grinning personality.

2000 Honda S2000

I had expected least of all to develop such a crush for Honda's demure, little S2000. My expectations were confirmed when I first encountered all the switchgear, door handles, and knobs I might have found in an Accord or Civic. No wonder it bears the least expensive price tag of the three roadsters reviewed here, at just under $32,500. In light of this Spartan aesthetic, moreover, the power roof seems an odd extravagance while the plastic rear window seems perfectly appropriate in a down-market sort of way. The high center console, moreover, presents an unbreachable bulkhead between driver and passenger, and it means gear-shifting with a prone right arm.

My entire basis of reference disappeared once the top was snugged into its coffer behind the seats. Key in ignition...no start. Wha...? A little red button beckoned from its position on the dash. "Push here," it cajoled. And when I did, my entire world of expectations in a sporting automobile changed. There are no frills in the S2000, because a stripped-down street-fighter doesn't want or need the baggage.

The solid billet of aluminum that serves as a shifter knob click-click-clicks through its six forward speeds almost like a sequential stick in modern Formula One. In my fog of euphoria while driving, I occasionally got a grind going into a very angular second-gear slot, which I'll attribute to my own impatience. I'm reading about others' similar experiences, however, and they're not quite as charitable to let Honda's gearbox engineers off the hook.

So will I recommend this car unconditionally? Sure...but only if you're 5 feet, 6 inches, 135 lbs., middle-age restive, and prone to Walter Mitty-style self-delusions of automotive grandeur. Nobody else can comfortably fit this car. Nor will this car fit any lesser ambition.

2001 Audi TT Roadster

Somehow, Audi has managed to produce a successful sports roadster that stresses style over performance, luxury over efficiency. Not that the latter qualities don't make a creditable appearance in the TT Roadster. They do, and the TT is as fun to shift and steer and double-clutch-brake as both of its nearby rivals. But there's an anti-matter sort of aesthetic about this odd-looking, different-driving car that defies head-to-head comparisons.

For one thing, there's a definite sense of humor about the way Audi has rigged it up. Check out those stainless-steel croquet wickets that serve as rollover protection for the roadster's occupants. They're, well, funny-looking, but you can't help but like 'em. Throughout the tidy interior are all these self-conscious cues reflecting a postmodernist, industrialist hyperactivity. Alone among the three roadsters here, the $35,000 TT wears a glass rear window. But the roof is a manual drop-top--and easy to use at that. (An $800 power top is optional for the 180-HP model, standard for the 225-HP Quattro.)

The TT Roadster is tiny inside but carves a huge swath of attention while under way. It is the fun-loving choice for uncompetitive souls...who will be delighted to know what a winner they've hitched their fortunes to.

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