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.
Not everything has to be an investment, sometimes you can get something because you want to enjoy it.
I have driven a few Boxsters, and I probably would have bought one had John Kerry won the 2004 presidential race. (I’d test driven one just days earlier, and the dealer called me up right around election day to offer me a better price, but Bush’s win so depressed me that I wasn’t in the mood to put down the necessary money.)
My personal speed record–set in a Boxster on Boston’s Rt. 128 at around 117mph held for around 8-9 years, until I broke it at Skip Barber, Lime Rock, in ’09 in a BMW M3 (not nearly as stable as the Boxster!). In my experience, the Boxster is as good as it gets. (I wasn’t trying to break a record with that Boxster–but it just felt so good, I couldn’t help myself!)
Really informative article, thank you!! I had a chance to buy a perfect 2005 Boxster S Manual with 70k miles in Jan 2020 and my Bank(s) would not buy the deal saying the price was too high. That same car resold this year for $10k more than I was going to pay three years ago 🙁
Got my 1997 base 986 with 51,000 from the original owner three years ago for $5,000. Fore sure it needed some maintenace and upgrades that basically brought the investment to a little over $10,000 but, it’s as if the writer was reading my mind. Don’t care if the car gets no respect from others. Getting behind the wheel on a twisty road, hearing that engine sing and throwing it through the turns is an unbelievable joy and all for less than the cost of a used Kia.
Spot-on succinct insight from Dantheman. Why I own certain cars, and certain motorcycles, too.
You ignore my 2007 Mercedes 350SLK hardtop convertible. She is pretty quick and nimble, and can be bought for quite a bit less than your Boxter.
We have 4 Porsche’s, two air cooled and two water cooled. Our 2001 Boxster S has 205k miles on it. I bought it with 197k right after an engine rebuild, however the body and suspension were well worn after years of commuting and then track work. I put on a new top and opted for the smaller glass window of the later cars. (BIG upgrade, highly recommended.) I replaced most of the suspension, freshened up paint on the nose and hood, new tires, reconditioned the wheels, and have driven it like we stole it.
This is my wife and two daughters favorite Porsche, if not favorite car overall. Always ready to go for a run. The six speed keeps it entertaining, we’ve taught a lot of younger folks how to drive a manual transmission on this, including both sons in law. It’s the one car that I’m not allowed to sell.
Thanks for this article. It helps put the progression of models in perspective. I have an ’02 Z3 3.0 and love it, and my wife wants an ’02-’04 Boxster. We have been close on a few and this article has motivated her anew. Won’t be surprised now if she doesn’t own one by the end of the summer.
I have a 2004 Anniversary Edition Boxster S and it is a lot of fun. The cornering is impressive and it just drives great. It was my father’s and unfortunately it is Tiptronic, but it still makes me grin while driving
My first Porsche was also a Lapis Blue ’01 Box S 6-spd. She had the BBS wheels, which look good but are a pain in the posterior to clean. Bought her in the summer of ’05 w/ 14K mi and CPO. Then found out about IMS, but was covered for 2 yrs by CPO. In those days, there weren’t any IMS solutions other than replace the motor with the same failed design. 6 mo after the CPO expired, I traded her in on a new 2008 Boxster S Limited Edition (the orange one – #005 of 250). That trade continued my Porsche addiction. Along with my LE, I have a Signal Green Cayman S Sport and a recently purchased ’89 928 S4 5-spd w/ 56K mi. The shark is being brought back up on maint, doing jobs as I can afford it. I’ll enjoy her for a few yrs and sell her on when she’s done. I have a 987 Spyder itch I’d like to scratch somewhere down the road.
watch out for IMS bearing issues!!
Bought my wife a first gen 99′ and liked it and then in 2005 bought a beautiful burgandy Boxter with black top and tan interior. I always thought that for roughly $50K that it was under rated as it handled beautifully and was very roadworthy. Lacking power, but super nice car. Now have had 5 911’s and they too are wonderful cars that take very little maintainence and upkeep. Both good investments as far as cars go in general.
I special ordered a 1998 Boxster; waited 5 months for it, my dream car. Unfortunately, it was the worst car I ever owned. About every two weeks I had to take it to the dealer for something: countless warning lights; creaks and groans (solved by disassembling the interior and re-welding the body); failed sun visors; crazy-stupid cup holders; collapsed and twisted convertible top lid–I have a VERY thick file of service orders and knew my service writer too well. I concluded that these cars were VW quality at best. Finally the engine exploded while I started it on a supermarket parking lot. The engine was gone, and the techs had to destroy the auto transmission to remove the engine. It took almost a month to do the work, fortunately under warranty. The car never drove well after that. Every shift was a slam into gear. It went back under the Lemon Law for a full refund–at the time about $63,000. When I returned the car, the sales manager told me smugly, “You’ll be back.” HA–NEVER AGAIN!
The S is the one to buy. Bigger brakes a little more power and by 00-01, many of the early reliability issues were sorted. I had my 01 until about 90k miles when I came across a low mileage 01 996 cab. Both cars have been wonderful cars with no breakdowns and no major unplanned maintenance. The Boxster is more nimble to drive but the 996 is equally fun but a very different personality.
Actually these can be a decent investment as well as a lot of fun. I bought my 1998 Boxster with 87K miles on it in 2017 for about $9K. I paid another $1K for a hard top for it and have maybe put another $1K into parts over the years – tires, water pump, brake caliper rebuilds, brake pads, ignition switch, and misc. over the years. I’ve done all the work.
The car has always been an absolute delight – the best driving car I’ve ever had (and I’ve had and still have quite a few sporty cars). Being very light, it still has plenty of power without the turbo. (I replaced a 1965 911 with a 1967S engine with the Boxster, and the Boxster is certainly quicker than the first-generation 911). But I’m getting older, I’ve got some progressively worsening nerve damage in my left leg, and that third pedal is becoming a safety issue in a car that I drive a fair bit. The Boxster now has about 104K on it now, and I’ll soon be passing it on to a new owner after a bit of spiffing it up. I’m replacing it with a 1991 Mercedes 300SL-24 with an automatic (which I’m still shaking down). The 300SL is a really nice car and a great cruiser, but it certainly doesn’t have the feel of the Boxster.
I wont get rich on the Boxster sale, but I should make a few bucks. And I’ve had an awful lot of fun with the car. And hopefully the new owner will enjoy it as much as I have.
Great handling cars with wonderful flat 6 noises. But yes people do need to understand that there is an increase in parts cost to go along with it. Budget accordingly.
I’d be hard pressed to think of any ragtop that I wouldn’t enjoy driving on a nice spring day. I’ll put the top down on a cold December day and crank the heat up to full especially if the suns out. Make it a spry little sports, nough said. The Boxsters styling does fail me though. On spec I should like it, simple, clean, no unnecessary gimicks. Too many cars I see today looks though corporate policy requires the use of at least a dozen quadrilaterals. I think where Porsche screwed the pooch was showing the concept car. That had sort of a 356 Carrera Arbath vibe. It lost a certain something in transition. It’s not a ” love-it or loath-it” for me, it’s a ho-humness. And the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference.
I just did my 155,000th mile in my ’01 S. I gave up a Crossfire SRT-6 with about 100 more horsepower that I had for ten years because of the superior feel and handling of the Boxster. I’ve had just a few small issues with it, most of which I’ve fixed myself. Yes, I did the IMS bearing just in case (the old one was fine). I plan on running this thing until I can no longer use a clutch!
Mr. Eckart said “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.” A more true statement about the Boxster’s chassis has never been written….perfectly describes my first drive in one….and this after owning three previous mid-engine cars; none of which I would make the same statement about.