Review and road test of the Porsche Boxster '981 Series' (2012-2016)
BY JONATHAN CROUCH
Designing Porsche's third generation '981' series Boxster can't have been easy. It needed to be better to drive than any of its key rivals, yet also affordable enough to slot comfortably below the Stuttgart brand's seventh generation 911 model. It would need to appeal to the German intent on thrashing it around the N??rburgring, the Floridian retiree with a golf bag in the boot and those inching through the Beijing rush hour. And, as with any new generation model, it would need to pull off the trick of being better built but lighter, quicker yet more economical and offering more equipment while issuing fewer tailpipe emissions.
That's one heck of a balancing trick. Thing is, Porsche pulled it off. So does this car also make sense s a used buy? Let's find out.
(3rd Generation 2 dr roadster 2.7, 3.2, 3.4, 3.8 petrol [base, S, Spyder] )
Today, Porsche is a significant world automotive player. But the reasons why have less to do with the car everybody knows it for - the iconic 911 - and more to do with this one, the Boxster. This was the car that brought Porsche ownership within reach of the man in the street, offering the marque's classic design, technology and handling prowess at relatively affordable prices. Whilst the original version, launched in 1996, was no ball of fire, progressive incarnations have just got faster and faster.
Purists used to Porsche sportscars with their engines slung out over the rear axle took a little time to adjust to the Boxster concept, forgetting that the very first car to bear the name 'Porsche' was in fact a mid-engined sports car, the legendary 356 No1. Those with ready chequebooks had no such hang-ups and were even prepared to put up with a few initial build quality glitches from the Finnish factory before the Germans tightened things up for the second generation design which arrived in 2004, shortly before a Cayman coupe version debuted a year later. There was a power upgrade in 2006 and a hi-tech PDK semi-automatic gearbox added in 2009.
But all these tweaks were really just aimed at keeping this car ahead of lesser German rivals like BMW's Z4 and Mercedes SLK. A Porsche should be on a different plane entirely, a different proposition to match its very different price tag. With the introduction of this MK3 model in early 2012, that goal seemed in sight for the Stuttgart brand. This higher quality third generation '981' series design was, buyers were told, the ultimate Boxster, slightly bigger and a lot lighter, slightly faster and a lot more efficient. In other words, the car it always should have been.
A more powerful 3.4-litre GTS model was introduced in 2014 and a 3.8-litre Spyder version arrived in 2015. The '981 Series' Boxster line-up lasted until 2016 when the normally aspired flat six engines of this '981' were replaced by the turbo flat four units used in the restyled '982' series car.
What You Get
If you come to this car fresh from the previous MK2 model '987 Series' Boxster, the big news from a design perspective will be the way that this much improved car asserts itself more stridently. Boxsters always used to borrow body panels like the doors from the 911 but this one didn't - which is why it has more of a look and feel of its own. These deeply indented flanks, the massive side intakes and the wheel-at-each-corner stance ensure that the third generation Boxster could never be mistaken for a 911 drop top.
When designing this model, Porsche aimed to keep a firm cap on weight. Extensive use of aluminium in the chassis is coupled with magnesium and steel where it's needed. The net result is that the chassis is 40% stiffer then before but weight is anything from 35kg to almost 100kg lighter, depending on which model and options you choose.
The cabin feels relatively spacious, helped by the fact that an extra 60mm was grafted into this MK3 Boxster's wheelbase. As before, there are no rear seats but despite the car being 13mm lower than its predecessor, there's actually a little more headroom, thanks to a lower mounting position for these surprisingly broad seats.
But what you really notice here is the greater feeling of quality, enough to lift this Porsche clear of Mercedes and BMW rivals from this era. Fit and finish are of course impeccable, the days being long past when Boxsters struggled on that score. And the choice of materials is faultless. You feel special in this car. The dashboard design is better too, with a slimmer centre console and a tidier look thanks to the fitment of an electrically operated handbrake and movement of the cupholders off to a slot by the glove box.
Then there's the electrically operated hood, no longer covered by a separate panel when retracted and completely redesigned for this generation of Boxster with a sleeker profile that stretches further back along the car. Raise it, a process that takes nine seconds and can be done at speeds of up to 30mph, and you'll notice the fleece lined finish that claims to improve both thermal and noise insulation. You'll also notice that there's a proper glass rear window much bigger than before.
The mid-mounting of the Boxster's flat-six engine has always been a big plus when it comes to practicality. Okay, so your service technician might not immediately agree, but you'll value the utility of having a boot at the front and one at the back, plus it's twin-boot layout leaves it with a luggage capacity of 150 litres in the front compartment and 130 litres behind the engine. Neither is as broad or practical as a hatched rear in a front-engined car, but such are the compromises one makes for mid-engined handling purity.
What to Look For
This '981 Series' Boxster's normally aspirated flat six engines are reliable and charismatic units which have yet to show up any significant problems. Our survey of MK3 model Boxster owners revealed a lot of very happy people but inevitably, a few issues were raised which you might need to watch out for. One owner reported vibrations at speed, traced to uneven tyre wear. Another reported hesitant starting and an electric parking brake issue. We also came across cars that had noises in their instrument binnacles, heater blower motor problems, a waterleak in the seatbelt holder area, a glovebox that wouldn't close, an alarm problem and a PSM failure warning light that kept coming on.
Check the tyres for wear and also have the rear axle and suspension inspected as heavy acceleration from a standstill on a dry surface can lead not only to wheelspin, but also 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. Few customers specified their cars in base trim and Porsche extras weren't cheap so watch out for those buyers looking to claw back unreasonable sums they blew on options.
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. An air filter will be priced at around £45. Brake pads are around £45 for a set. Wiper blades cost in the £15 to £20 bracket, though you could pay £42 -£50 for a pricier-branded set. A oil filter is around £20 and a headlamp bulb around £11.
On the Road
Welcome to a performance masterclass. The rear-engined 911 approach might sometimes feel more fun but it can never quite achieve the mid-engined Boxster's perfect balance and unflappable poise that remains undaunted, even if you play with the wonderfully-weighted and now more agile steering when you shouldn't, power on in the middle of a slippery corner say. The car will just shrug its shoulders and work with you.
And it's with the more efficient ZF electro-mechanical power steering system, borrowed from the seventh generation 911, that we'd like to start here. It's probably the aspect of this third generation model that die-hard Boxster fans will approach with the most caution. Steering, you see, is sacrosanct to enthusiasts of this car who loved the way that the old hydraulic set-up got the wheel writhing in your hands throughout the driving experience. All very nice - but all very Nineties. Hydraulic systems milk the engine of power even when you're doing nothing with the wheel: electric ones don't. So the Porsche people got on and developed the best electric steering system in the world. No, it doesn't have the leather-stitched wheel jiggling in your hands like before, but neither does it feel like you're at the wheel of a PlayStation game either, the response direct, well-weighted and with fine feedback. Thank goodness for that.
Engines next. With this '981 Series' model, the entry level powerplant actually shrank back in size to 2.7-litres, with the S staying at 3.4-litres in capacity. Power took a hike in both instances though. The 2.7 flat six generates 10bhp more than the previous MK2 model's 2.9-litre unit did, managing a hearty 265bhp which, if you cast your mind back, is a few brake horsepower more than the original Boxster S. The '981 Series' Boxster S is good for 315bhp (5bhp more than the '987 Series' Boxster S could manage) and is as a result, a seriously potent tool. Porsche claimed it could lap the N??rburgring Nordschleife in 7 minutes and 58 seconds, 12 seconds faster than its predecessor. As with the '987 Series' Boxster, both engines featured direct injection for improved efficiency.
And transmissions? Well, a sweet-shifting six-speed manual is fitted as standard but the optional seven-speed PDK double clutch auto gearbox was a big hit with Boxster buyers, especially given that in this '981 Series' model, it featured revised software for quicker and smoother shifts in normal and 'Sport' modes. Opt, as we would, for a car that was fitted with the extra-cost 'Sport Chrono' package (which includes a launch control function to fire you away from rest) and you can go a step further with this system, thanks to an extra 'Sport Plus' setting, specifically designed for circuit use and able to slash a further 0.3s from the 0-62mph sprint times. That'll see the 2.7-litre model reach sixty in just 5.5s and the Boxster S make the same benchmark in just 4.8s.
You probably won't be able to resist the temptation to try 'Sport Plus' on your favourite backroad. Activate it and all hell breaks loose, with a characteristically resonant deep chested roar thanks to a specially developed intake manifold, something you can further emphasise if you've chosen a car that was fitted with the wonderful optional Sports Exhaust system. Behind you, the dynamic engine mounts that come as part of the Sport Chrono package switch to their stiffest mode for a tauter and sportier damping and chassis setting. So yes, contrary as it sounds, an automatic Boxster will be well suited to enthusiasts - provided that they get themselves a car that was fitted with the proper steering wheel paddle shifters, rather than the ghastly rocker buttons the standard wheel came with.
We'd be happy with the manual model. Driving it, you may well feel more at one with a car that in this guise is every bit the equal of its fixed-top Cayman stablemate. Enthusiasts used to prefer the Cayman for its better chassis rigidity, lacking as it did the tiny amount of flex that Boxster drivers would feel over lateral imperfections in the road. That was dialled out of this car.
Which is yet another reason why this third generation model feels a more grown up car to drive than its predecessor. Such is the composure of the steering and suspension that at modest speeds it can feel a little more inert than before, but press a little harder and the talent in this chassis soon becomes apparent. The longer wheelbase and wider track give it a more planted feel and you can take real liberties through corners before the excellent PSM stability control system decides you might be having too much fun. That's switchable between 'on', 'Sport' (which allows a bit of leeway before it intervenes) and fully off.
Porsche's PASM adaptive damping system is an option that's worth seeking out, good before and now even better. With four vertical chassis sensors, it means that the car can feel loose limbed and supple when cruising along a typically broken British B-road, yet will retain decent body control should you chuck the car at a corner. If you're the sort of person likely to be doing that on a regular basis, then it's worth also looking for a '981 Series' Boxster model that was fitted with PTV - Porsche Torque Vectoring - which uses either a mechanical or an electronically-controlled rear differential lock and selectively brakes the inside rear wheel through sharp bends, firing the car on towards the next corner like a bullet from a gun. Brilliant.
Are there any caveats with this Boxster? Not really. Assuming you can afford one, there are only a couple of things worth mentioning. The re-designed electric hood (which can be opened or closed in around 9s at speeds of up to 30mph) works well, but up or down, wind isolation at speed isn't quite on a par with the Mercedes SLK. Nor am we 100% convinced by the 'coasting' function you get with the PDK auto gearbox. This disconnects drive from the rear wheels when you lift off the throttle when cruising, enabling the engine to idle and reducing fuel consumption. A clever idea slightly spoiled by the fact that coming back on the throttle is accompanied by a small but perceptible shock to the driveline when it recouples drive. Fortunately, if you engage the PDK's 'Sport' mode, this 'coasting' function will be disabled.
Other than that, the Boxster is as close to perfect as any sports roadster from this era that we've ever encountered. The driving position is spot-on, both engines sound just as a proper Porsche should as they approach the redline and the standard steel disc brakes are simply mighty. You'd only really need to choose a car fitted with the optional carbon ceramic discs if you planned on giving the car a good leathering on track, something it'll handle without breaking too much of a sweat.
In this third generation '981 Series' guise, the Porsche Boxster certainly evolved - and did so rather beautifully. In this form, the car was no longer the slightly awkward looking thing you bought because you couldn't afford a 911. Instead, it became a roadster that many drivers decided they preferred to a base 911 Carrera Cabriolet if given the choice. Why? Because of this MK3 model Boxster's fabulous mid-engined balance, its light weight and.. well, you only have to look at the thing. The seventh generation 911 from this era is a stylish piece of design, but get the spec right on a '981' Boxster in terms of paint and wheels and it can look fantastic.
What's more, there's no reason why running a Porsche like this MK3 Boxster should cost you any more than choosing, say, a high end hot hatch. Are you really going to be that person who reaches old age knowing that you could have afforded an open-top Porsche but never went for it, never looked forward to the day it arrived and twitched the curtain all night in disbelief as you looked at it on your driveway. Bottom line? This remains the best roadster you can buy from the 2012 to 2016 era. Is it the best car Porsche made in that time? You might say so. Is it head and shoulders above rivals from that era? Undoubtedly.
Porsche Boxster '981 Series' (2012-2016) review by JONATHAN CROUCH