The Boxster saved Porsche. Back when it was first introduced in 1996, the German marque was going through a tough financial patch. Although the Boxster shared many components with the 911 to help cut production costs, the small mid-engine roadster had a lower price and brought new customers to the brand. With it, of course, came the mocking 'poor man's Porsche' label.

There had always been a strong case for such a car. The original Porsches, such as the iconic Type 356 'No 1' of 1948, were light, simple and entertaining. When sketching the original 986 Series Boxster, Dutch car designer Harm Lagaay was inspired by the simple lines of this car and another lightweight race car, the 1953 550 Spyder with its high-performance 'boxer' engine that claimed countless international victories.

The original Boxster shared the same bonnet, front wings, headlights, and engine architecture as the 911. The main target for this new third-generation car was to visually separate it from Porsche's pinnacle model and give this little roadster its own unique personality.

'When the Boxster story started 16 years ago, it was the smaller brother of the 911,' admits Porsche design director Michael Mauer. 'Then over the second generation, and now this generation, it has become more of a car on its own with its character and design features.' The team carefully worked the proportions so the car would look more adult - 'more of a serious roadster,' Mauer notes.

Porsche will increasingly use the Boxster platform to introduce new design features to the brand. Mauer says that as the car doesn't have a long history, or legions of obsessive fans like the 911, he can be more daring with its design.

The new car is longer and wider, but lighter and therefore more economical than the previous model. It is still recognisably a Boxster, but the headlights are now more vertically stacked, the doors are scalloped to flow into the bigger side intakes, a strong crease runs between the tail lamps and integrates with the pop-up rear spoiler, and every line and angle is just a little bit sharper and more dynamic. Crucially, the large air intakes on the doors visually emphasise the mid-engine layout of the car.

The folding fabric roof is now thicker and insulated and no longer has a panel to drop behind; instead the roof itself now doubles as the cover when the hood is stowed. The unpredictable British summer ensured the electrically operated roof was put to the test. Down, it is admittedly a little breezy inside, but then that is half the fun of driving a car like this; up, the insulated fabric offers a quieter cabin than its predecessor.

The interior is a continuation of new design strategy seen on the 911 with the raising centre console and an introduction of more premium materials and textures. The overall feel is of significantly higher standard than the former Boxster and with more space allocated to driver and passenger, it is noticeably a more comfortable car to drive.

The entry-level Boxster comes with a 2.7-litre engine that develops 261bhp and sprints from 0-62mph in just 5.8 seconds. For those who desire more speed, and a sportier sounding engine, the top-of-the range Boxster S offers a 3.4-litre engine producing 311bhp and 0-62mph in just 5.3 seconds.

How does it drive? These cars are all about frivolous and sporty open-top driving and, in that respect, the Boxster delivers brilliantly. The test route took us to the very heart of Wales, where the Boxster performed well on both open motorway and the narrow hilly roads of the Welsh Valleys. It is responsive, more than fast enough (especially if you opt for an S model) and perhaps not quite as showy as the 911.

There is a very wide palette to choose from for exterior and interior colour and trim, including the rather strange shade of gold (pictured) Porsche is using for much of its marketing. Porsche is also offering new Boxster customers a complimentary course at its excellent driving experience centre at Silverstone.

The world of premium brands has evolved hugely since the birth of the Boxster. Marques like Porsche have had to expand their products to satisfy a wide range of customers' needs and finances, as well as the demands of newer markets like China and Russia. In the former, Porsche has found that its larger cars - the Cayenne and Panamera - have far more appeal than the flagship 911, seen as the definitive Porsche in Europe and America.

Mauer admits that it has been a struggle convincing new markets to invest in small sports cars like the 911, hinting that perhaps the Boxster can bridge this gap. With its more confident looks, excellent dynamics and prices starting around £37,000 - half that of the 911 - the Boxster is hard to fault. Although of course, there is no accounting for taste.