Review and road test of the Porsche Boxster '986' Series (1996-2004)
BY ANDY ENRIGHT
The Porsche Boxster is a mightily impressive sports car. Marketing staff at Porsche GB have even been heard to mutter that it's too good, poaching more profitable sales from the legendary 911 range. After the demise of the 968 series of 'entry-level' Porsches, keen drivers cried out for a model that gave them classic Porsche design, technology and ability at relatively affordable prices. The Boxster provided that in spades.
Whilst the initial model was no ball of fire, progressive incarnations have just got faster and faster. Whatever model chosen, the Boxster makes a great used buy. Due to its sound build quality and reliability, the baby Porsche is a largely trouble-free used proposition. Just don't expect those qualities and a Porsche badge to come cheap.
(2 dr coupe 2.5, 2.7, 3.2 petrol [base, S, Tiptronic, Tiptronic S] )
The Porsche Boxster arrived a year after its predecessor, the 968 series of cars, was axed. During this lean time, Porsche had to rely solely on the 911 and needed something special to reignite sales interest. The Boxster hit that particular bullseye. Developed from a show car which wowed the crowds at the 1993 Detroit Motor Show, the Boxster initially disappointed due to the watering down of many of the bold ideas displayed in the show car. Its on-paper performance figures didn't appear promising either, being significantly slower than the previous 968. It did have a classic Porsche flat-six engine, even if it was water-cooled and located in the middle of the car instead of slung out past the rear axle, and those who drove the Boxster were instantly converted.
The most significant change to the Boxster range came in October 1999, when the base model's engine capacity was raised from 2.5-litres to 2.7-litres and a new S model was launched. This had a 3.2-litre engine right behind the driver and developed an impressive 252bhp. Any gripes about the Boxster's straight-line speed were banished for good. Tiptronic transmission, basically a manually controlled automatic gearbox with steering-wheel mounted shift buttons, was available on all models. A replacement Boxster was unveiled in the Autumn of 2004.
What You Get
The Boxster is an astonishingly capable car. Traditional Porsche design cues are everywhere, belying the car's position in the range. There's the slab-like dashboard, the breathy wheeze of the flat-six engine behind you and Porsche's Weissach Crest staring at you from the centre of the steering wheel. The detailing on all models is good, but interior fit and finish was much improved when the 2.7-litre and S models were launched. The plastics quality on the 2.5-litre cars is notably inferior.
Having said that, whichever Boxster model you choose, it's a car that makes you feel a million dollars, especially with the hood down and the engine at full chat. The hood mechanism is almost worth the price of admission by itself. Pressing a single button will electrically raise the rear deck, and unfold the hood until it tautens and can then be latched onto the windscreen header rail. In all it takes just 12 seconds and although rivals such as the Mercedes SLK have taken this trick and refined it still further, the Boxster's hood still draws admiring glances. And this, for many, is what the Porsche is all about. It's a car to be seen in, to parade about town whilst flaunting effortless good taste.
For this set, the Porsche is surprisingly practical. The front and rear boots can actually swallow a surprising amount of Prada and Hermes bags, and the Tiptronic cars make town driving painless. This sort of car, having lived its life gently perambulating suburban high streets makes the best used buy. Often, however, they get treated far harder.
What to Look For
The Boxster's engine is a reliable and charismatic unit which has yet to show up any significant problems. Check the tyres for wear and also have the rear axle and suspension inspected as heavy acceleration from a standstill on a dry surface leads not to wheelspin, but to quite severe 'axle-tramp.' This is a condition where the rear of the car judders under the torque of the drive going to the grippy rear tyres and is a potentially damaging and uncomfortable sensation. A whining axle or drive shaft will bear testament to this.
Check the condition of the alloy wheels for kerbing damage. Also make sure the electric motors that power the hood haven't been damaged by ignorant occupants attempting to raise or lower the roof manually. Check the bodywork, especially the bonnet and bootlids, as these can easily be damaged by owners slamming them onto protruding items from the front and rear boots. Boxsters are quite colour sensitive, and dark blue and green cars are harder to shift than ever-popular silver and red. Otherwise insist on a proper Porsche main dealer service history and buy with confidence.
(Estimated prices, based on a 2.7 Boxster) Boxster spares are predictably quite pricey, although they never cross the border into exorbitant. A clutch kit is £175, while front brake pads are around £60 with rears weighing in at about £75. The Boxster is equipped with two radiators, one on the right and one on the left, and these cost around £110 each. A new alternator is around £350, while a new headlamp is in the region of £160. A new exhaust muffler and oxygen sensor will cost around £360. Not bad at all, really.
On the Road
Despite the Boxster's impressive showing in terms of market performance, practicality and reliability, it is on the road that the Porsche aces the opposition. Featherweight specials aside, no roadster in its class matches it for driving appeal. All of the controls are beautifully designed and weighted, the brakes are superb, the engines sounds fantastic and the handling is unimpeachable. The depth of engineering is instantly apparent and enormously confidence-inspiring. The Boxster just feels as if it was built by people who knew what they were doing.
The 2.5-litre car isn't enormously quick, but is nevertheless great fun. The 2.7-litre model is just about perfect, with the best engine note of the entire range. Performance figures are impressive, with 0-60 in 6.6 seconds and a top speed of 155mph making it quick enough for most. The Tiptronic shift system is easy to master but the gearbox blunts the performance figures. The 3.2-litre S model is bordering on supercar fast and makes it effortlessly easy to stray into speeds which would merit a custodial sentence. It's not too difficult to reach 60mph in less than six seconds. Beware.
The overriding impression after a drive in a Boxster is of its unshakeable composure. For an open topped car there's no shake or shimmy in the chassis, and even in the S model, the sort of lurid tail slides that would be top of the TVR menu are utterly absent. Porsche Stability Management is available on the later cars, an electronic stability control system that ensures that the probability of a hedge/Boxster/ditch moment is minimised.
The Porsche Boxster is the best roadster around. As a used buy it's still a good bet, but you'll need deep pockets to be able to afford the initial purchase price. After that, the Boxster, like most Porsches, is surprisingly cheap to run. A good resale value, admirable reliability record and reasonable fuel economy see to that. Recommended.
Porsche Boxster '986' Series (1996-2004) review by ANDY ENRIGHT