Does bigger mean better for Porsche’s third-generation Boxster soft-top sports car, and which of its variants has the edge over the others?

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1996. John Major was in Downing Street, Hong Kong was in British hands and Justin Bieber was in nappies. And a mid-engined two seat convertible, called the Porsche Boxster, rode to the rescue of an embattled German sports car manufacturer.

The Porsche Boxster saved the company and all these years and three distinct generations later, it’s lost none of it appetite for wearing its undies outside its tights. A supercar it may not be, but a superstar among sports cars it most undoubtedly is.

The Boxster has chokehold lateral grip and plenty of traction

Like its predecessors, the latest 981-series Boxster has more than a little in common with those other Porsches – the Cayman and Porsche 911 – that chose to place their engines behind their drivers.

This pragmatic sharing of technology and componentry is the very philosophy that dragged Porsche out of the pit of despondency last century and it’s still working well today.

But the Boxster has another job to do, one trusted to no other model in Porsche’s ranges. It is the cheapest Porsche you can buy, so stands at the gateway of marque ownership. 

On top of all its other duties, it’s tasked also with welcoming new people to the brand and making a statement: we are Porsche, and this is what we do. 

On the strength of that argument relationships will be forged that could result in a lifetime of Porsche ownership. The Porsche Boxster is as important as that. 

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Porsche Boxster alloy wheels

Broadly speaking, the Porsche Boxster has been treated to the suite of modifications – Porsche would say improvements – as that which turned the 997 generation of Porsche 911 into the 991. 

Most fundamentally the structure has changed from a conventional and predominately steel platform to a hybrid formula of which almost half is aluminium and the remainder made up from steel and magnesium.

Even the entry-level model is great to drive

It’s been done like that to save weight (which it does to the tune of 40kg despite the car being longer and wider) and improve crash performance, an attribute for which we will have to take Porsche’s word. The wheelbase has been extended by 60mm (which is substantial but not game-changing like the 100mm stretch given to the 911), yet despite this Porsche claims the structure to be 40 percent more stiff than that of its already extremely rigid parent.

There’s a new design of front suspension, albeit still strut based, providing a wider range of tuning options while at the back Porsche didn’t feel there was much wrong with its extant multi-link design so in the most part it survives.

Engines are naturally normally aspirated flat sixes – though the time will one day come when these words will need to be modified to incorporate the existence of a four cylinder motor – the S model retaining its 3.4-litre capacity but the standard car shrinking from 2.9 to 2.7-litres though with its power being tickled up from 255bhp to 261bhp. The S packs a substantial 311bhp punch, an improvement of 5bhp over the car it replaces.

Numerous ways of enhancing the mechanical specification further still are available but, like all Porsche options, eye-wateringly expensive. You can choose carbon ceramic brakes, active anti-roll bars, a sport chassis with a 20mm ride drop, torque vectoring (which comes with a limited slip differential) a sports exhaust and dynamic transmission mounts.

Bear in mind however that adding this little lot and a PDK transmission to your Porsche Boxster’s specification will put a five figure sum on the purchase price.


Porsche Boxster instrument cluster

One of the many benefits of Porsche’s policy of sharing so many components across its ranges and thereby benefitting from massive economies of scale is that, in many cases, what is good enough for an entry level Porsche Boxster has also to be good enough for a top of the range Porsche 911, so it’s always the Boxster that benefits.

And nowhere will you see that benefit more clearly than in the cabin. An architectural transformation first seem in the Porsche Panamera and then the Porsche Cayenne and 911 has now reached down and turned the Boxster cabin from an ergonomically irritating and only superficially pleasant place to an interior of genuine quality that’s almost as good to use as it is to survey.

Raising and lowering the Porsche Boxster's roof is a quick and simple task

The dials follow Porsche tradition with a central rev-counter flanked by a smaller speedo and a third gauge where all manner of other displays, from the navigation directions to the trip computer can be summoned. But your eye is naturally drawn to the centre stack with its sensibly sited and clearly labelled switchgear.

Still progress remains to be made. The driving position, though improved, continues to offer too little legroom to tall drivers, the pedals are slightly offset and while there are no shortage of storage areas on board, all are useless for anything other than tiny items like pens.

The navigation is an unbelievably expensive option and hopelessly off the pace of the latest systems from other German companies. That said and years after everyone else, Porsche has finally got around to providing a DAB digital radio though, of course, it’s an option for which you will be required to pay dearly.

The roof mechanism is fantastic: it works at the press of a button and folds simply and neatly behind your head in a matter of seconds. Refinement with it in place is adequate and wind management with the roof down quite exceptional.


Porsche Boxster rear quarter

Despite being a two seat, mid-engined Porsche, not even the Boxster S, let alone the standard Boxster, sets its stall out based on flat out performance. Even the fastest accelerating of the lot – an S with PDK and launch control – won’t crack 5sec to 62mph. There’s an Audi TT RS Roadster that’ll do it in 4.2sec.

But unless you’re one of those types with an unusual penchant for bar room banter, this should not affect your feelings towards the car. For Boxster drivers, the thrill comes in the way that performance is delivered.

The S is notably more flexible than the standard model

Both the Boxster and Boxster S engines are among the smoothest of any kind in any car in the world and your enjoyment can begin in any gear at any speed.

But where the standard engine is sweet throughout the rev range, it’s only really strong past its 4000rpm torque peak, whereafter it’ll run for its red line like a starving man after a meat pie.

By contrast the S does that almost regardless of revs, so you notice the additional flexibility in performance even more than the performance itself. That old adage about there being no replacement for displacement is alive, well and living under the Boxster’s engine cover.

Your choice of transmission is easy. We like and admire the PDK auto, enough for it to be the gearbox au choix were this a test of the Porsche 911. But the manual option in the 911 is a seven speed manual which is actually too much of a good thing.

The six speed manual Boxster gearbox, is by contrast a complete peach with perfectly judged ratios and the best change quality in the business. It also happens to suit the roadster’s more recreational character.


Porsche Boxster side profile

There must be very little doubt that the Porsche Boxster is the best handling convertible any five figure sum of money can buy.

While the delivery of its performance is merely preferable to that of any other car in the class, when talk turns to pure handling ability, it blows everything else that even most the imaginative of minds might conceivably describe as opposition into oblivion.

It's lighter and more balanced than rivals like the Z4

The starting point is a structure so stiff – despite that wheelbase extension – that all the usual talk of compromised rigidity is utterly redundant. Unless you decide to go off-roading in your Boxster, there is no apparent penalty for its convertible configuration at all.

What’s more, this car is light: at 1310kg it’s 165kg lighter than either the equivalent Audi TTS or BMW Z4. But most of all, what it has and they lack is balance.

You expect a mid-engined car to generate buckets of grip because its major masses are all centralised within the wheelbase. What is less easy to predict from a configuration designed to lower the polar moment of inertia is that such a car should offer also handling that is not only neutral but also relentlessly forgiving.

The limit is high, high enough to be beyond the reach of most sane people on most dry roads in the UK most of the time. Body control is outstanding, good enough to question the wisdom a spending a near four figure sum on Porsche’s PASM active suspension management.

We’d also suggest you think long and hard before spending another similar sum on torque vectoring and the limited slip differential that comes with it. For track driving it’s a must, but if the car’s going to be almost exclusively on the road, we’d leave the set up as passive as possible.

In any event, if you do lose grip it will be at the front and come with breakaway characteristics as gentle as we’ve seen in a mid-engine car. Now the Boxster S has a decisive advantage because you can use its additional torque to bring the back of the car into play and neutralise the tendency to understeer.

As for the steering it is of course accurate and linear and comes with a pleasingly large wheel and slow rack. But the feel it provides needs to be qualified: for an electrically assisted system it’s as good as they come, but it has not yet recovered the ground lost when Porsche abandoned the old hydraulic arrangement for the current generation of Boxster.

People don’t buy cars like this for the silkiness of their ride, but the Boxster’s still pretty good, absorbing more than enough of the every day imperfections of our roads to provide no credible grounds for purchase to be denied on comfort grounds alone.


Porsche Boxster

The Porsche Boxster is a thirsty car with even the standard 2.7-litre car showing just 34.4mpg on the combined cycle.

Despite it’s extra weight and slightly stronger acceleration, the BMW Z4 sDrive 28i posts 41.5mpg. Even the 1540kg Mercedes SLK350 its 3.5-litre engine and over 300bhp achieves nearly 40mpg.

Try not to go overboard on the options if you're buying new

But at least with a 64 litre fuel tank, the Porsche Boxster will still post reasonable mileages between refills.

Porsche offers a three year unlimited mileage warranty and an impressive 20,000 mile service interval. As for residual values, Boxsters have never struggled to stave off depreciation and so long as Porsche is not too greedy and oversupply the new model, we expect the reputation of the model and the company behind it to maintain this status quo.

Indeed the only thing likely to lead to financial embarrassment is over enthusiasm with the options list. The car comes with just four standard colours – anything else costs more. And if you want fairly basic stuff, like a wind deflector, DAB radio or Bluetooth, all will cost extra.

Porsche even charges for the floor mats. So keep the options to the essentials (including navigation) unless you’re happy to splurge thousands on items the car doesn’t really need and whose cost will largely be lost the moment you write the cheque.


5 star Porsche Boxster

It is not enough for a car to be the best in its class to earn a five star verdict. Five stars are reserved for cars that don’t so much head their class as transcend them.

This is what the Porsche Boxster does. For anyone who cares at all about driving, it is so far ahead of any accepted rival that to choose another over it on these grounds alone would be little less than perverse.

Everything a classy sports roadster ought to be, albeit at a price

Yes it’s quite expensive to buy and can rapidly become far more expensive still if you’re trigger happy with the options but given the experience it provides, the build quality, the likely residual value and the way your heart leaps every time you see it, it’s hard not to see the value in the thing.

So the only difficult decision is whether to go for the standard car or spend the extra on the Boxster S. Normally we incline towards a less is more approach, but here we feel the S has just enough of an edge to justify its price.

But that particular question is one where there’s no such thing as a wrong answer.

Indeed, deliberating over which new Porsche Boxster to park outside your house is about as nice a problem as it is possible to have.

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Porsche Boxster 2012-2016 First drives