Springtime has a funny way of playing with your decision-making skills, especially if you live up north. The thaw in 2014 began in late March, after a particularly harsh Northeast Ohio winter, and that first glimpse of warmth made up my mind: It was time to own a convertible again. That June, I brought home a 2001 Porsche Boxster S.
It wasn’t just the emergence from that year’s polar vortex and its negative temperatures that sent me hunting for a ragtop, however. I’d gone without open-air driving since 2006, when I built my road-going Miata into a race car. So I knew what all convertible people know: Once you get the bug, it’s hard to go without.
To be honest, the Boxster hadn’t even been on my radar. I’m not a Porschephile, and it was on a whim that I decided to take one for a test drive. The mid-engine induction noise seemingly plumbed directly to my ears was the first hint that the Boxster would be a good fit. That was soon followed up by gleeful discovery of the chassis’ poise; after catching an eager, cold-tire tail rotation with a flick of my wrists, I was smitten with the car’s balance and communication.
As I began searching for the right Boxster, that little buzzkill called rationality entered my internal chat. I heard it out. Yes, the intermediate shaft (IMS) issue—a bearing that is internet-famous for its potential to grenade these early water-cooled engines—was well-known by that point, but so were the signs and solutions. The “Porsche tax” on parts meant that there’d be a premium over the Miata parts I’d gotten used to buying. That said, a bit of research, knowing that I could perform most maintenance tasks myself, and the pull of that initial drive overcame any lingering doubts. I set about finding the best one I could afford.
My search took a while, and I drove several cars before settling on mine. Unlike prior Porsche models or more modern limited editions like the Boxster Spyder, there were plenty of pedestrian first-gen Boxsters out there to choose from. Before the Cayenne and Macan SUVs started printing cash for Porsche, the addition of the Boxster as a close sibling to the 996-generation 911 helped turn the company’s fortunes around. The first generation Boxster (986, in Porsche-speak) sold in droves, with 164,874 produced from its debut as a 1997 model through 2004. In its debut year alone, the Porsche sold 55,705 of them, beating the company’s 1992 total global sales by 40,000 cars. Porsche was well on the road to redemption by way of runny-egg headlamps and water-cooled sixes out back.
In addition to the sheer number of Boxsters on sales lots, there was great variation in what was available, as Stuttgart incrementally improved its little savior over the years. Initially introduced with a 201-hp 2.5-liter flat-six, the base car’s engine got a .2-liter bump in displacement in 2000, upping horsepower to 217. The S was introduced in 2000 and included a 3.2-liter, 250-hp engine, six-speed manual transmission option (the base came with a five-speed, and Porsche’s Tiptronic torque-converter automatic was available on either trim), larger brakes and wheels, suspension tweaks, an additional radiator, and split exhaust tips. The updated “986.2” arrived for 2003, its most obvious changes including revised front and rear fascias, clear turn signals in place of the amber strips, and a glass rear window in the convertible top. The base car received tweaks to reach 222 hp, and the S got an eight-horse bump up to 258.
I found the ’01 Lapis Blue Boxster S you see here in Allentown, Pennsylvania. After viewing a wealth of photos and securing a clean bill of health via a detailed pre-purchase inspection from a local Porsche dealer, I flew out to pick up the car.
Since then, it’s been a joyous go-to, and the car I find myself choosing for short trips, or those golden hour just-because bombs through rural back roads. All of its attributes score well on their own, but the Boxster’s seamlessness is what sets it apart. Roll into the firm brakes (there’s always more on tap from that pedal), grin at the engine’s trademark scream through the heel-toe downshift, and feel the steering’s granular precision as it loads up on the dive into the corner. String a few of those moments together a couple evenings a week in the summer, and you’ve got a cure for most any woe.
Nearly as happily, over nine years and 24,000 miles, my Boxster S has been trouble-free. To be fair, though, it has required more than Toyota appliance-level maintenance. I’ve followed the prescribed schedule, including replacing items like the water pump, plugs and coils, and air-oil separator. I also added an LN Engineering oil filter kit for better filtration, and I send my oil out to the analysts at Blackstone Laboratories for testing with each change. Looking forward, at 22 years old and 77,000 miles, the car is about due for a suspension refresh.
What’s not to like? Lest I come off sounding like these cars are trouble-free, I should stress that if you’re planning on buying one, find an example with good maintenance records. Once you own it, keep up with it. They can get expensive if you get behind on repairs. Do your research, too, as some engines are more reliable than others; early cars have a dual-row IMS bearing, for instance.
Porsche strangled these cars from the factory with tiny intakes and exhausts to keep them from nudging 911 territory. The sound, and a few ponies, can be freed up with updates like switching to the second-gen intake and a larger plenum and throttle body, along with an aftermarket exhaust.
Inside and out, the styling is an acquired taste. Personally, I prefer the 986’s lines to the more buttoned-up 987, though the interiors aren’t nearly as nice as newer Boxsters.
If you’re considering a convertible from this era, you have a few options, and it’s good to cross-shop—this hobby is about finding what you love, after all. Looking for nimble, crisp driving characteristics? The Boxster, Lotus Elise, and Honda S2000 all arrive at that target in different ways, each with its own personality. BMW’s Z3 in its various guises offers a classic roadster experience, though it isn’t quite as sharp or sporty. You could even toss in a fifth-gen Corvette convertible for kicks—it’ll handily outpace a Boxster S and offers its own glorious soundtrack, but doesn’t feel nearly as alive when the roads begin to get windy.
After sliding into a trough in 2017, 986 Boxster values have been on the rise. They’re still outshined in the market by their competition, with values of the aforementioned S2000 and Elise appreciating more rapidly. A few factors are at play, but you could argue that the Honda benefits from the current enthusiasm for Japanese sports cars, while the comparative rarity of the Lotus gives it a boost. Add in the love-it or loathe-it Porsche aesthetic of the era and concerns about reliability, and the Boxster’s trailing values start to make some sense.
Another factor in the Boxster’s slower appreciation is its interest across demographics. Boomers lead the share of insurance quote data on these cars, with 47 percent of quotes sought. That outstrips their overall market share by over 13 percent. Gen X makes up 30 percent of quotes, effectively tracking with their share of the market. Millennials and Gen Z pay comparatively little attention to the first-gen Boxster, which may tamp values in the longer term if trends remain the same.
You can still find a good driver-quality 2000–02 Boxster S for under $20K, which represents a tremendous value for the experience. The 2003–04 models will fetch a few grand more, and the added tweaks like the glass rear window that comes with the later models are more sought-after. While other convertibles from the era continue to appreciate, and younger buyers are flocking to BMWs from the early 2000s, attention for the 986 Boxster is steady at best, a bit wanting at worst.
From my perspective, that’s OK. I know my car’s never going to be an expensive collector piece. That frees me from worrying about where to park it and enables me to perform minor upgrades without concern for absolute originality. I bought this car for how it makes me feel, and for the fun of using it and working on it. If you go about your car purchases the same way and find yourself itching for some top-down fun, give the 986 Boxster a look.