The first Boxster helped establish modern-day Porsche; the third generation perfected the roadster
By Tony Middlehurst / Monday, August 30, 2021 / Loading comments
- Available from £25k
- 2.7, 3.4 or 3.8 flat-six petrol, rear-wheel drive
- Superb mix of performance, handling and driving ease
- Standard equipment wasn’t lavish on base models
- Excellent mechanical reliability
- Not that economical on fuel
Search for a used Porsche Boxster 981 here
Seems hard to believe now, but at some point in the future, we’ll be talking about the last of the six-cylinder 911s. What’s even harder to believe, looking back, is that the entire Porsche business was on the verge of collapse in the 1990s. The four-seat saloon that was supposed to drag them clear of the precipice was abandoned in favour of a ‘back to the roots’ approach spearheaded by lower-priced cars.
The first product of this new approach was the 986 Boxster of 1996. The concept car had been put together in a bit of a rush, so there were a few misgivings about how good the finished item might be. All doubts vanished when road testers got their mitts on the first production cars, though. Powered by an all-new, free-revving aluminium 2.5 flat six – Porsche’s first watercooled mid-mounted engine – the Boxster instantly leapt to the top of the desirability table for affordable premium two-seaters.
The 986’s appeal wasn’t just the six-second 0-60 time, its top speed of nearly 150mph, or even the very un-Porscheish price of £33,950; it was also highly engaging and very easy to drive, thanks not just to the excellence of the chassis and drivetrain but also to a seating position that aligned the driver with the pedals, controls and instrumentation in a way that no Porsche had done before. Autocar called it “the world’s best roadster” and few argued with that assessment.
For fear of upsetting its existing customers, Porsche never referred to the first Boxster as a budget 911, but the legions of buyers who had lusted after a 911 all their lives without ever being able to afford one were more than happy to view it as a dream attained.
The 986 was succeeded in 2005 by the 987, which seven years later, made way for the 981, the subject of this week’s buying guide. A 2.7 engine had been part of the Boxster offering since 2000, but the 981’s 261hp/206lb ft entry-level 2.7 engine was new. A six-speed manual gearbox was the Boxster default with a seven-speed twin-clutch PDK as a popular (by a factor of two to one) option. Both transmissions were top notch. With the PDK fitted the standard Boxster had a 0-62 time of 5.4sec and a top speed of 162mph.
The 3.4 that powered the S model was an upgraded 311hp version of an existing 987 engine. It lowered the 0-62 time to 5.1sec and lifted the top end to 173mph, a speed it shared with the GTS that came out in May 2014 as a range-topper. The 174mph GTS had a 325hp/275lb ft version of the 3.4 plus Porsche Active Suspension Management (PASM) as standard, with passive sports suspension as an option. It covered the 0-62 in 5.0sec.
The GTS was £52,879, which was £30k less than the cheapest (identically powered and heavier) 911 Cabriolet. The £5,840 GTS premium relative to the Boxster S was a bargain because you’d have been spending that much on upgrading the S with the PASM, 20in wheels, Sport Chrono pack, sports seats and dynamic headlights that the GTS came with, and that was before you even thought about the active drivetrain mounts, new suspension setup and the extra 15hp/10lb ft that the GTS threw into the pot.
In mid-2015, the Boxster Spyder appeared with a 370hp/310lb ft variation of the 911 Carrera S 3.8 litre motor. That was about 10hp less than the same engine was producing in the Cayman GT4. The Spyder came with the classic twin-hump rear deck, a manual canvas top (albeit with electronic assist) and a manual gearbox. No PDK was offered. It rode firmer and 20mm lower than the regular Boxster and had a modded anti-roll bar and quicker steering along with larger 911 brakes. With the default deletion of the infotainment and air-con systems (which could be put back in at no extra cost) it was the lightest 981 Boxster at 1,315kg, the fastest at 180mph (with a 4.5sec 0-62 time), the thirstiest at 28.5mpg combined, and the most expensive at just over £60,000.
The beauty of the 981 proposition is that engine size, weight and all that other stuff doesn’t really matter, because all of these Boxsters are amazing to drive and wonderfully poised on the road. Some are slightly more poised and slightly quicker, but they’re all brilliant – so it’s great news that right now, you can get a third-generation ‘last of the sixes’ 981 Boxster for £23,000 or less.
SPECIFICATION | PORSCHE BOXSTER 981 (2012-16)
Engine: 3,436cc flat six 24v
Transmission: 7-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): [email protected],700rpm
Torque (lb ft): [email protected],500-5,800rpm
0-62mph (secs): 5.1
Top speed (mph): 172
Weight (kg): 1,350
MPG (official combined): 35.3
CO2 (g/km): 188
Wheels (in): 8 x 19 (f), 9.5 x 19 (r)
Tyres: 235/40 (f), 265/40 (r)
On sale: 2012 – 2016
Price new: £45,384 (S), £37,589 (2.7)
Price now: from £25,000
(Figures are for 3.4 S PDK)
Note for reference: car weight and power data is hard to pin down with absolute certainty. For consistency, we use the same source for all our guides. We hope the data we use is right more often than it’s wrong. Our advice is to treat it as relative rather than definitive.
ENGINE & GEARBOX
The 981’s direct-injection flat-six engines with their chain-driven cams were impeccably smooth and willing, and provided tremendous performance without the aid of turbocharging. Thankfully the horror stories of porous engine blocks and IMS failure on earlier Boxsters were ancient history by the time the 981 arrived on the scene. Still, 981 exhaust valves sometimes stuck, leading to pipe replacement under warranty, and there have been cases of engine mounts failing.
The ratios on the manual gearbox felt quite long in the lower-powered Boxsters, to the extent that you might find yourself only rarely getting into the top two, but they made more sense in more powerful variants like the Spyder where the gearchange and clutch inputs were left deliberately hefty for driving purity. A regular Boxster clutch should be OK for at least 50,000 miles and a replacement from an independent will cost about £1,100.
The PDK transmission that added around 50kg to the weight of a Boxster has acquired a brilliant reputation for both functionality and reliability. It had a ‘sailing’ mode that disconnected it from the engine on a trailing throttle or on downhill sections. PDK trans fluid should be changed every six years at an average cost of £800. Some transmission cooler seals were replaced under warranty. A small number of PDK cars have suffered from an inability to engage reverse. Oddly, this only seemed to happen on cars without the optional LSD. From a warranty point of view, it’s worth pointing out that, in the event of a problem, Official Porsche Centres aren’t allowed to repair PDK boxes. The whole unit would have to be replaced at a cost that is unlikely to be less than £12,000.
Boxster servicing was every two years or 20,000 miles, with no pricing differentiation between the three engine sizes. If the car was under a new or extended warranty, you had to take it to the Official Porsche Centre network for servicing. The cheapest of the first six fixed-price services at an OPC should be just over £500, while the most expensive (the 12 year/120,000-mile one) should come in at just under £1,100. Prices at non-OPC specialists would be around two-thirds of that. As long as you picked the right one, a stamp from one of those would have the same weight as an OPC stamp in any 981 service book, given that even the youngest one is now five years old. There have been suggestions of recent price increases at OPCs, but others have said that many OPCs will attempt to get as near as they can to the quotes given by independents.
Unassisted by turbochargers, 981 Boxsters aren’t that economical. The fuel tank is just under 17 gallons, giving a theoretical range (based on the S’s 35mpg combined figure) of nearly 600 miles.
More good news in this department. The 981 handled superbly, arguably better than any other sub-£100k convertible, thanks to its wondrous combination of a super-stiff lightweight chassis with terrifically well judged suspension.
All models had Porsche Stability Management (PSM), the combined traction and differential braking control system. This was not to be confused with the PASM electronic active damping system that continually adjusted damping rates to suit the state of the road and the driver’s style. Cars with PASM ran 10mm lower than those without. The GTS, which had PASM as standard, rode 20mm lower than non-PASM’d Boxsters. If a car you’re looking at has PASM, switch it from Normal to Sport (or Sport+ if it has that too) on your test drive. You should be able to tell the difference between the settings.
The 981’s electro-mechanical steering wasn’t as feelsome as the hydraulically-assisted system on earlier Boxsters but it was incredibly accurate. Active drivetrain mounts that were included in the Sport Chrono package and a limited slip differential with Porsche Torque Vectoring were good Boxster options.
Basic 981 Boxsters came with 18in wheels, while the S had 19s and the GTS and Spyder had 20s. Refurbs will be between £100 and £150 a corner. The 265 section rear tyres allowed for a more playful rear end than drivers of the 295-tyred Cayman GT4 might experience.
Depending on usage, it’s fair to expect 25,000 miles from a set of 981 brake discs. A complete set of discs and pads should be around £1,200 from an independent. Brake vacuum pumps have been known to blow. Tyres should have the Porsche N-rating (N1, N2, or N3).
Some 981s have shown underbody corrosion which owners of earlier Boxsters wouldn’t have experienced. 981 front bumpers are prone to picking up stone chips, so cars that are being sold by dealers will often have had new paint applied. That isn’t a problem in itself as long as the work has been carried out properly and the colours match.
Obviously you should check the roof for smooth operation and have a sniff in the cabin for any signs of damp, as these would suggest there’s a problem with sealing either of the roof or a window. There have been reports of roof-mech sensor problems and very rare instances of improperly glued-in windscreens.
The GTS had active lighting, which as per Porsche’s usual love for acronyms was called the Porsche Dynamic Light System. In the + version of PDLS, the full beam would switch on and off automatically. In no version was PDLS as theatrical as BMW’s ‘dancey’ adaptive lighting. Delamination of the headlight pods could create a kind of cracking effect on the edges.
Not only did the Boxster have a roomy cabin – side to side at least, check the legroom is suitable if you’re on the lanky side – the mid-engined design effectively gave it two boots, the front one with 150 litres and the one behind the engine 130 litres, useful for continental jaunts. You also got a lockable glovebox for when parking with the roof down.
Although the cabin was beautifully put together with lovely materials in the usual Porsche style, there were some reports of warping or poorly glued-in door cards coming adrift. That was a warranty fix, so check the cards on any car you’re looking at.
The standard upholstery was Alcantara. Part-leather trim and bi-xenon headlights distinguished the S from the base model, while the GTS’s sports seats were all leather. All Boxster seats were very comfortable with electrically adjustable backrests, but they do wear quite easily and seat heating was (rather meanly) a payable option. The standard kit list wasn’t that long. Air con and a CD audio with plenty of connectivity functions and a seven-inch colour touchscreen were the main items included. New car buyers had to pay extra for Bluetooth, parking sensors and digital radio, so ask if these are fitted to any car you’re interested in. Air-con pipes corrode and condensers could fail, but that was by no means exclusive to the Boxster. What was more Boxster-specific was the unusual tendency for some heater blower fans to need a helping hand (literally) to get them started. Eek.
A 2019 airbag recall on the gen-four Boxster (718) was extended to gen-three 981s built in the 12-month period after June 2015, so check that the new control unit and software have been put into any car you’re looking at. Some owners have had trouble with malfunctioning door locks that could only be opened from the inside, and with non-working seat memory functions. Others have had random electrical codes for things that weren’t even fitted on their 981s. Good battery management is important on these cars.
Which gen-three 981 Boxster is best? There’s no real answer to that because they’re all brilliant, with even the basic 2.7 being more than quick enough to give you bucket-loads of sporting fun. The cheapest 918 wouldn’t necessarily have to be a privately owned car, but for a full Porsche-approved car with the two-year warranty, you should expect to pay up to £5,000 on top of non-OPC prices.
Buyers will of course generally pay more for bigger (if not always significantly better) versions of most cars. Any dynamic advantages the GTS offered over the S were hard to discern because the S was just so good, but the GTS chip did add a nice edge to the 3.4 motor, the suspension mod was worthwhile and the equipment levels were higher. Prices for this desirable model run from around £40k to about £60k.
What about the Spyder though? Within a year of their release in 2015, low-mile Spyders were fetching £30k premiums. Six years on, the very best late Spyders are still not far off that £90,000 mark. Age has eroded prices of the earlier cars a little, but because even the oldest Spyders are not exactly old and they only made 2,400 of them in total (more than a third of which went to the US), UK buyers will still need more than £65,000 for one with 25-30,000 miles on it.
At the dream-realising end of the market, as noted at the beginning you can pick up a 981 for £23,000. There was one at that price on PH Classifieds while we were writing this, but it was sold just before we went to press. Sorry about that. The next most affordable one was this white three-owner 2.7 manual with 64,000 miles. It’s just exited the OPC servicing network in favour of a specialist and is priced at £25,497.
At the top end, you can pay nearly £87,000 for this 2,500-mile Spyder but we’d be tempted to save over £20,000 by going for something like this 28,000-mile Spyder in Guards Red for £66,980. In the middle ground, how about this PDK-boxed 48,000-mile GTS in rather lovely Sapphire Blue with heated black leather for £47,995? A professionally repaired Cat D/N Boxster S is available from under £30k, but if you want to skirt around that, here’s an early 45,000-mile PDK S with a full Porsche service history for £34,000.
Search for a used Porsche Boxster 981 here
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