A 911 droptop for the everyman

Although it might look like Porsche is at the top of its game these days, the Stuttgart brand has seen plenty of rough spots over the years. For example, back in the ‘90s, Porsche went through a period of stagnation and financial difficulty that very nearly killed the brand, but luckily, Porsche managed to put together just the right recipe to bring it back from the brink of bankruptcy. It’s called the Boxster..

Framed as a more accessible entry into the Porsche lifestyle, the Boxster 986 was the first model to carry the Boxster nameplate, with the first-gen lasting from 1996 to 2004. The name itself is an amalgamation of the words “roadster,” a nod to the car’s body style, and “boxer,” which is a nod to the car’s engine configuration. Equipped with classic Porsche styling, faultless handling characteristics, and a rev-happy powerplant, the Boxster was a smash hit for sales, and it is now credited with playing an integral part in Porsche’s late-‘90s renaissance.

Continue reading to learn more about the 1996 - 2004 Porsche Boxster (986).

Porsche Boxster (986) Exterior Styling

  • Two-door roadster body style
  • Fabric folding roof
  • Influenced by the 356 Speedster, 550 Spyder
  • Influenced 996-generation 911
  • Central rear exhaust
  • Updated with clear lighting pieces
  • Stayed more or less the same size
1996 - 2004 Porsche Boxster (986)
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As previously mentioned, the Boxster 986 rocks a two-door roadster body style, with a fabric-folding convertible top covering the cockpit when the weather turns unfavorable.

Interestingly, the 986 was Porsche’s first road car designed specifically as a roadster model since the brand introduced the 550 Spyder in the mid ‘50s.

The exterior design was penned by Grant Larson and Harm Lagaay, and includes styling elements plucked from the Porsche 356 Speedster and Cabriolet, as well as the 550 Spyder. Although it was released prior to the 996-generation 911, the Boxster also offered many of its big brother’s styling bits, such as the rear engine cover, the front spoiler, and the headlight housings.

Up front, the Boxster gets the classic Porsche fascia, with drawn-back, oval headlight housings that feed into long, high-riding fenders. The nose is curved and rounded, with lower intakes mimicking the headlight housings in their ring-shaped appearance.

1996 - 2004 Porsche Boxster (986)
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Moving to the sides, the Boxster is low and lean, with simple body lines that neatly frame the centrally-placed cockpit.

The windshield rakes back at an aggressive angle, while a pair of intakes are located just ahead of the rear wheels. The rear fenders swoop high, falling gracefully into an equally rounded tail section.

In the rear, the Boxster seems to almost mirror the shape and design of the front end, with its sloping fender line and pulled-back taillight section. The lower bumper is also quite rounded in its appearance, while between the taillights, a small spoiler section rises and falls as needed. Underneath the bumper, you’ll find a single central exhaust section.

1996 - 2004 Porsche Boxster (986)
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In 2002, Porsche updated the 2003 model year with fresh styling bits.

While minor, the changes did help to keep the model looking new, and included a smaller glass window as a replacement for the older model’s plastic rear window. The Boxster also got new bumpers and new wheel designs as well.

A variety of lighting elements were also updated for a cleaner look. For example, the front headlight indicators went from amber to clear, while the rear taillight clusters went to gray, once again as a replacement for the older model’s amber housings. Across the pond, the side markers also went from amber to clear, although on U.S. market vehicles, they remained amber.

Contrary to the industry trend, the Boxster actually got a little smaller over the years, at least in terms of overall length and wheelbase. Although it’s not much, the small size decrease does show Porsche’s commitment to keeping the model as fun-to-drive as possible. Check it out in the table below.

Porsche Boxster 986 Exterior Dimensions

Wheelbase (1996 - 2002) 2,418 mm (95.2 inches)
Wheelbase (2002 - 2004) 2,416 mm (95.1 inches)
Length (1996 - 2002) 4,343 mm (171 inches)
Length (2002 - 2004) 4,321 mm (170.1 inches)
Overall Width 1,781 mm (70.1 inches)
Overall Height 1,290 mm (50.8 inches)

Porsche Boxster (986) Interior Design

  • Two passengers max
  • Simple, performance oriented design and layout
  • Influenced by the 911
1996 - 2004 Porsche Boxster (986)
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Stepping into the compact Boxster cabin, Porsche kept things simple and performance-oriented.

The layout accommodates a maximum of two passengers, with just two captain’s chairs included and not much else by way of extraneous features.

In addition to the exterior bits Porsche carried over from the 996-era 911, the Boxster 986 also had a similar interior design. The steering wheel is a three-spoke affair decked out in soft touch materials and high-quality stitching, while the gauge cluster includes a trio of rounded dials. The tachometer is placed centrally in the cluster, while the speedometer is on the left and an ancillary readout is on the right.

The central stack is also a carryover for the 911, with a smattering of hard buttons and knobs looking like they’re straight out of the ‘90s. The central tunnel houses additional switches as well, while the dash is a smooth compilation of solid shapes and other simple design components. The seats get decent side bolsters and once again get soft-touch materials for the upholstery.

1996 - 2004 Porsche Boxster (986)
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Along with updates for the exterior, the Boxster’s facelift for the 2003 model year also brought a number of interior enhancements as well, such as the addition of a glove compartment - a popular feature for the entry-level sports machine. The update also threw in an electro-mechanical hood and trunk release, plus a new steering wheel design as well.

Porsche Boxster (986) Drivetrain And Performance

  • Mid-engine, RWD
  • Near-perfect weight distribution
  • Superior suspension tuning
  • Horizontally opposed six-cylinder engine
  • Early engines had reliability issues
  • More displacement offered later in production
  • Five-speed and six-speed transmission options
  • Displacement ranges between 2.5, 2.7, and 3.2 liters
1996 - 2004 Porsche Boxster (986)
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In its day, the Porsche Boxster 986 was noteworthy for a number of things, including its drivetrain configuration.

Unlike the ever-popular 911, which mounted its engine in the rear, the Boxster was mid-engined, moving the weight forward in the chassis and profoundly altering the car’s handling characteristics.

Power is routed exclusively to the rear wheels.

This setup offered all kinds of good stuff for drivers. Now only does it provide a low center of gravity, but the weight distribution is also nearly perfectly distributed from front to back. Combined with Porsche’s legendary chassis and suspension turning, the Boxster came with supremely neutral handling characteristics, making for loads of fun in the twisties.

While the Boxster’s drivetrain differed from the 996-era 911, its sprightly handling chops, familiar exterior and interior design, and metallic exhaust note helped to put it on par with its big brother in the eyes of buyers, a critical element to its sales success.

1996 - 2004 Porsche Boxster (986)
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Indeed, the sound that the Boxster made was part of the formula.

Thanks to its horizontally opposed six-cylinder, the powerplant emitted that all-too-familiar Porsche rasp that fans seem to flock to.

The Boxster also got the first water-cooled engine Porsche had ever offered in a non-front-engine vehicle.

Although it sounds like a successful bit of kit, the early Boxster models unfortunately saw a number of engine failures over the years due to faulty cylinder liners. The liners would either slip or crack with use, which would eventually result in a number of coolant and oil issues. Also known as a “porous” block, Porsche ended up redesigning the Boxster engine in 1999, implementing an improved casting process. The company also ended up repairing the faulty engine blocks by boring out the cast sleeves and inserting new sleeves, rather than replacing the blocks entirely.

Throughout its production cycle, the Boxster’s engine configuration evolved a bit. Between 1996 and 1999, the configuration included a 2.5-liter flat six-cylinder, after which it got additional displacement, up to 2.7 liters, for the 1999 to 2004 model years. Finally, Porsche introduced an even-more-powerful 3.2-liter flat six-cylinder for the 1999 to 2004 model years.

1996 - 2004 Porsche Boxster (986)
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Dubbed the Boxster S, the 3.2-liter cars got a significant speed boost, while the face-lifted 2003 cars were updated with a new intake and exhaust for extra go as well.

Transmission options included a five-speed automatic, a five-speed manual, and a six-speed automatic (also known as a “Tiptronic”).

Throughout its production cycle, the fastest iterations were all equipped with a manual gearbox.

In terms of output, the early 2.5-liter engines doled out 201 horsepower, while the later 2.7-liter engines from 1999 made 217 horsepower. The first 3.2-liter engines made 250 horsepower. In 2003, the updated 2.7-liter engines made upwards of 225 ponies, while the updated 3.2-liter engines made 258 horsepower.

As a result of all this constant tweaking and tuning, the Boxster 986 got quicker and quicker over the years. In 1996, the manual-equipped vehicles could hit 60 mph in 6.9 seconds and top out at 149 mph, while Tiptronic models did the 60-mph sprint in 7.6 seconds and topped out at 146 mph. Then in 1999, the manual 2.7-liter models could hit 60 mph in 6.6 seconds and topped out at 155 mph, while the manual 3.2-liter versions hit 60 mph in 5.9 seconds and topped out at 162 mph.

Finally, in 2003, the manual 2.7-liter models hit 60 mph in 6.4 seconds and topped out at 157 mph, while the manual 3.2-liter hit 60 mph in 5.7 seconds and topped out at 164 mph.

Porsche Boxster (986) Pricing

1996 - 2004 Porsche Boxster (986)
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Porsche launched production of the original Boxster in 1996 at the company’s manufacturing plant in Stuttgart, Germany, the same plant where Porsche built the Porsche 928. The Boxster was also built in Finland under contract with Valmet Automotive.

Upon its release, the Boxster sold for around $40,000, depending on options. These days, you can pick up a decent example on the used market for around $20,000.

Porsche Boxster (986) Competition

BMW Z3 Roadster

1996 - 2002 BMW Z3
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BMW unveiled the latest sixth-generation Z at the 2018 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, but the nameplate stretches way back to 1989. When it comes to picking out a competitor for the original Boxster, the second-gen Z3 model (1996 to 2002) is a good fit. Developed on the same platform as the 3 Series, the Z3 Roadster initially came equipped with a 1.8-liter and 1.9-liter four-cylinder engine, although in later trims it came with larger inline six-cylinder powerplant. The Z3 is also one of the few non-British cars to be featured in a James Bond film, making a brief appearance in GoldenEye in 1995.

Read our full review of the 1996 - 2003 BMW Z3.

Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class

2005 Mercedes SLK-Class
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Mercedes first introduced the SLK class in 1996, with the first generation lasting until 2004. Like the Porsche and the Bimmer, the Merc offered sporty, compact, open-top fun, but with a dollop of extra Benz-branded gloss on top. Making the go is a supercharged inline four-cylinder, while later models (2000 and above) came with a supercharged 3.2-liter V-6. Output ranged as high as 349 ponies in the top-ranging SLK32 AMG, enough to send the RWD roadster to 60 mph in 5.2 seconds.

Read our full review of the 1996 - 2004 Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class.

Final Thoughts

1996 - 2004 Porsche Boxster (986)
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While most of the performance world turns to high-riding SUVs and crossovers to make a buck, it’s comforting to know that small, quick, fun roadsters are still part of the emergency plan should sales start to stagnate. Indeed, the remarkable success of the first-generation Boxster should be the first thought when the market’s taste for the current body style du jour is finally sated.

We’ll see what happens with the segment, but for now, the Boxster is undoubtedly a fantastic model to point to when it comes to a brand getting it “right.”

  • Leave it
    • * Early models had engine issues
    • * Plenty of competition on the used market
    • * Do people still buy sporty compact roadsters?

The Story Behind The Car

1996 - 2004 Porsche Boxster (986)
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Porsche first began work on the 986 Boxster back in 1991, immediately after the Tokyo Motor Show.

At the time, Porsche was hampered by a number of financial difficulties, with declining sales numbers and an aging product line that desperately needed a breath of fresh air. Luckily, just such a model would soon hit the drawing boards.

Simply put, Porsche needed some kind of follow-up to the 928 and 968, something that was both innovative and exciting, but also affordable, all in the name of higher sales figures.

To that end, Porsche took inspiration from the hugely popular Mazda Miata and gave the green light to a proposal from Grant Larson in 1992 for an entry-level, lightweight roadster model. By January of 1993, the Boxster Concept was ready to show to the public, making its initial debut at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

After additional development, Porsche came up with the first-generation Boxster, also known by its internal designation of 986. Porsche launched the prototyping phase just before the end of 1993, extending it into 1994 before an official production launch in 1995. The finalized production car first hit the scene in 1996, and lasted until the second-generation Boxster was introduced in 2004.

1996 - 2004 Porsche Boxster (986)
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Upon its launch, the Boxster 986 generated a huge amount of enthusiasm among drivers and critics.

The eye-drawing styling, faultless handling, and six-cylinder wail all contributed to a swell of interest for Porsche, and as a result, sales numbers spiked considerably.

The Boxster also helped a good deal with Porsche’s parts sharing and cost-cutting programs, both of which were aided through consultation with Toyota.

Near the end of its production cycle, the first-generation Boxster secured its position as Porsche’s largest-ever volume seller, holding the title until the company introduced the Cayenne SUV in 2003.

Of course, the massive increase in interest didn’t go unnoticed elsewhere in the market. In 1999, German tuner RUF created its own high-performance iteration of the Boxster called the 3400S, which offered more power thanks to a freshly tuned version of Porsche’s 3.4-liter flat-six engine. Plucked straight from the tail of the 996-era 911, this ‘six made as much as 310 horsepower - a sizable boost compared to the stock model’s 200 ponies. RUF also added additional components for enhanced chassis rigidity, as well as bigger brakes, new aero components, and bigger wheels wrapped in stickier rubber, not to mention all the requisite badging to make it stand out as an RUF model.

1996 - 2004 Porsche Boxster (986)
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Eventually, the first-gen Boxster 986 was replaced by the second-generation Porsche Boxster 987, which debuted at the Paris Motor Show in 2004.

That year also brought the 550 Spyder 50th Anniversary Edition, which offered a bit more exclusivity with a maximum of 1,953 examples produced.

Upgrades for the 550 Spyder included a GT Silver Metallic paint job, which was the same color as the Carrera GT concept Porsche debuted in 2000. Inside, the 550 Spyder got cocoa-brown leather upholstery as standard, plus grey natural leather as a no-cost option. The cabin also received special paintwork for the trim and an upgraded Bose sound system. Complementing the special paint were two-tone grey and silver wheels from the Carrera, measured at 18-inch wheels in diameter and capped by 0.2-inch wheel spacers. Final touches included the Boxster S sport exhaust, M030 sports suspension components, and a “batwing” center console.

In 2016, Porsche announced the new mid-engined 718 Boxster roadster, which shelved the naturally aspirated flax-six the Boxster was known for with a new four-cylinder powerplant.

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