Porsche Boxster (986): review, history and specs of an icon
It was the car that saved Porsche and the original Boxster remains as sweet, sorted and satisfying today as it was 25 years ago
Twenty-five years ago I was somewhere in Germany to drive two of the hottest cars on the planet, the new ‘baby’ sports cars from Porsche and Mercedes. Sunlight glinted off the glossy silver Mercedes SLK and it outshone the Boxster in more than just colour; it was cute and neat and, despite being more compact, had a Transformers-style talent, being able to dramatically fold and stow its expensive-looking hardtop beneath a double-hinged bootlid. It drew an admiring crowd wherever it went.
Three years earlier at the Detroit show, Porsche’s concept for an affordable, mid-engined sports car had wowed the crowds. It was pert and curvaceous and glittered with fabulous details, including air vents with individual, miniature wind tunnel turbines. It was a mouth-watering prospect. The production version in front of me was somewhat less fabulous, even though it was the work of the same designer, Grant Larson. In some respects, his hands were tied.
‘Promise less, deliver more,’ might be sound advice from Great British Bake Off judge Paul Hollywood, but that’s not how concept cars work. If Larson’s show car hadn’t been such a hit, if people hadn’t beaten a path to the corner of the Detroit show where Porsche had been relegated and left blank cheques, the company’s bosses might well have chosen a different path in search of commercial salvation.
Porsche’s finances were in a desperate state. There wasn’t the money to convert the concept more faithfully into production because the firm was also committed to replacing the 911. To get both the Boxster (986) and the all-new 911 (996) over the line required a sharing of significant parts such as the facia and interior, much of the structure forward of the screen, including the bonnet and distinctive ‘fried egg’ headlamps, and the doors.
Happily, the restricted budget also brought one very beneficial, possibly crucial consequence for the specification of the Boxster. Porsche had hoped to fit a four-cylinder engine but in the end it was less expensive to fit a downsized version of the all-new, 3.4-litre, water-cooled flat-six destined for the 996, installed about-face with the gearbox poking out to the rear.
In Germany all those years ago, as soon as the Boxster fired up, the balance of the twin test began to shift in its favour. The flat-six’s seductive drawl was like Marlene Dietrich to the SLK’s four-cylinder Jeanette Krankie. For all of its visual sparkle, the SLK’s supercharged (K for Kompressor) engine adhered to the Mercedes philosophy of the period, being admirably effective but quite charmless. The SLK’s dynamics could be described in similar terms, so soon the momentum was firmly with the Porsche.
All these years later, I’ve been through the same range of emotions. I’m still no fan of the Boxster in profile but as soon as its 2.5-litre flat-six is started – smooth, confident and oozing character – aesthetic shortcomings evaporate like steam from its central single tailpipe. This tidy example, owned by photographer Dan Bathie, already had the lowered springs when he bought it, and I don’t think they help its look, but the less restrictive exhaust usefully enhances the engine’s character.
I’m not sure we’d be celebrating the 986 Boxster if it were powered by the Audi 1.8T four-pot, an engine so anodyne it sucks the joy out of anything within a three-metre radius. On the other hand, the little flat-six has a richness and allure that has you smiling in anticipation, even though you know it has a mere 201bhp (and even less torque) and that it will probably feel even less gutsy than it did 25 years ago.
The modest output was evidence of Porsche’s desire to put distance between the Boxster and the 911, staple of the company for so many years. Launched the year after the Boxster, the 996 cost almost twice as much, had 300bhp and was unquestionably the more thrilling driver’s car. The evolution of the Boxster was soon underway though, with power increasing to make it more of a match for the ability of the chassis. Engines quickly grew to 2.7 litres and then 3.2 litres in the Boxster S, and in 2005 the Cayman joined the second-generation Boxster. However, there remained an almost deferential gap between the mid-engined and rear-engined models, a gap that was only closed with the very recent launch of the GT3-engined Cayman GT4 RS. Meanwhile, the 911 RSR, Porsche’s GT racer, went mid-engined in 2017…
For a 25-year-old, this Boxster is pleasingly tight and rattle-free and instantly feels like a good place to be. That shared dashboard is not a great piece of design and, although trimmed in the same terracotta leather, the interior isn’t nearly as funky as the Detroit concept’s. There are some neat touches, though. I love how the rear-view mirror is shaped to match the gap you can see between the headrests cum roll-over bars. I also love the air gap between the instruments and the binnacle, and the dials with their lovely markings that hint at the modesty of this Boxster’s performance, the speedo having a high score of 150mph and the rev-counter only going to 7.
The gearshift is a bit looser and its throw longer than I recall but it’s a pleasure to stroke the car along, lazily changing gear with a wristy action, the pedals perfectly spaced for heel and toe. And it’s such a sweet engine, quiet on a light throttle and loaded with character when you open the taps, when the low, loping bass gets overlaid with whirring top notes.
A modest kerb weight of just 1250kg helps make the most of the available power (the official figures were 0-60mph in 6.7sec and 149mph flat-out), but the first time you pin the throttle with the tacho needle at around 3000rpm, there’s a surprising lack of go. If you want to make decent progress, you need to rev the little flat-six beyond 4000rpm and keep it nailed all the way to the 6500rpm red line. It’s up for it, sounding crisp and feeling smooth and willing as it approaches the red zone, and it’s a challenge to relish to keep the momentum and revs up for a sustained cross-country dash.
In typical Porsche fashion, at first the Boxster doesn’t feel dynamically sharp. The wheel is just the right size and has just the right diameter rim, but initially the steering feels a bit slow and a little heavy, so the car feels heavy too. However, after an hour you’ve forgotten this because you’ve discovered that when you want and need the steering to be crisp, direct and feelsome – in the corners – it is.
Despite this car’s shorter and perhaps slightly stiffer springs, the ride is still pretty supple. Add in a great driving position and decent seats and refinement and this feels like a car you could cover big miles in. It’s practical too, of course. That SLK test was the first, but over the years I’ve been on lots of Boxster twin tests and group tests where the Porsche ends up carrying all the photographer’s gear because it’s the only one with enough luggage space. There’s a deep boot at the front and a smaller but still useful one at the rear, leaving you to puzzle how they fit in a flat-six engine and five-speed gearbox… and then still have the room to fold an electrically powered roof on top, creating a smooth line from stem to stern. It’s a sort of packaging alchemy, though if you’ve seen a cutaway of the rear quarters of a 911 Turbo you’ll appreciate that Porsche is rather good at this sort of thing.
So good that you can almost forgive the Boxster its slabby profile. The Boxster concept wasn’t unimprovable, though. The production version looks better from the rear three-quarters because the rear panel doesn’t extend all the way up to the backs of the seats. The ‘speedster’ look was great for the show but the production car needed a roof, of course, and while the SLK restarted the trend for folding hardtops (few of which were integrated quite as well as the Mercedes’), the execution of the Boxster’s fabric roof made a mockery of that fad.
Sure, it wouldn’t stop a knife vandal, didn’t come with a heated rear screen (initially) and wasn’t quite as refined at elevated autobahn speeds, but it performed impressively for a fabric roof because it was so small and taut. And in many other respects it was much better. It weighed massively less and the Boxster’s weight distribution was barely altered with it up or down. Not something you could say for the SLK and its ilk, with their boots full of glass and metal.
In theory, the Boxster’s superior mid-engined layout should have hastened the 911’s demise, or at least impacted its status, but while the Boxster proved capable and polished, dynamically the 911 was still the daddy. The 996 was the latest big step in 35 years of evolution that had fashioned a car that seemed to defy physics, harnessing all the benefits of an overhanging rear engine with few of the vices, and challenging and rewarding the driver in equal measure.
With just 201bhp and 181lb ft of torque, the Boxster didn’t have the performance to fully exploit its chassis, but the upside is that you can use every last atom of energy the flat-six can give. It’s great to see that this Boxster is on a set of premium tyres – Michelin Pilot Sports – which probably offer an improvement in grip, response, comfort, noise… everything over the original equipment fitment from a quarter of a century ago (the Michelin Pilot SX was an OE fit).
That does mean that despite predating electronic traction and stability control, this Boxster is very hard to unstick, but power oversteer was never a big part of the model’s dynamic repertoire. You still enjoy its eagerness to change direction at low speed and the feeling that all the mass is low-slung and that everything that’s happening is well telegraphed. It’s equally engaging at speed, thanks to its calm balance and precision, so however you’re driving you fall into an easy rhythm with the Boxster. Impressively, the modestly dimensioned brakes deliver fine top-of-the-pedal response, too.
More powerful and more dynamic Boxsters followed, but a day spent with the first on a great mix of roads shows that Porsche nailed the original brief. It may not have dramatic performance but it still has great reach. Mooching around town, it rides well and feels and sounds sophisticated and characterful, yet if you work the flat-six hard, it will cover ground impressively, the chassis composed and responsive. Like all Porsches, the Boxster feels built for it. Add remarkable practicality and it’s a winning formula.
An essential element of the Boxster and Cayman’s success is the flat-six, though. I don’t think it would have been such a big hit with a four-cylinder engine. The recent 718 with the flat-four has plenty of performance and is dynamically superb but it’s not good to listen to and lacks sophistication. As with the original SLK, there’s no joy in just travelling.
I’d go as far as to say that the flat-six is a major part of why the Boxster and Cayman have managed to do what no other sporting Porsche has done. Until the Boxster came along, the 911 had outlived every other model – 914, 928, 924, 944 and 968. Twenty-five years on, the Boxster and Cayman show no signs of fading away.
Porsche Boxster (986) specs
|Power||201bhp @ 6000rpm|
|Torque||181lb ft @ 4500rpm|
|Price when new||£33,950 (£67,000 in today’s money)|
This story was first featured in evo issue 294.