I find that Porsche ownership is a strange thing. As a brand, they sit toeing the line of attainable sports cars and all-out Supercars. I loved my 911 for its uniqueness in that sense. Usable, rewarding and a certain feel that you just can’t match with other marques. But when I took the 718 out, I was left feeling a little empty. Sure, it looked fantastic and you simply couldn’t argue that the sweet handling and punchy, smooth turbo kicking in weren’t a good package, but it lacked that Porsche feeling that I’d grown to love. It felt like they’d took some of the Box out of the Boxster.
So I took a bit of a backwards step and thought I’d take a 981 Boxster S out. It was well-received rather widely in its time and strong residuals seemed to indicate that there must be something to love about it. The executive summary here is that after ten minutes behind the wheel, I brought it home. The long way.
Porsche is renowned for evolution; with the Boxster, Cayman and 911 now sharing a growing lineage of tweaked and fettled models resulting in what we have today. Park a late 981 next to a 718 and the uninitiated will struggle to count the differences on a hand or two. The 981 shaves some 35 kilos off the 987 and picks up the story where it left off.
My 911 was fairly modified on top of the X51 pack that it had out of the factory; but some 20 years later you can’t help but notice its age. Some of the modifications make it a little labourious to live with day to day, so I was hoping to land something that captured some of its ‘Porsche-isms’ whilst adding some creature comforts and modern mod-cons.
The first thing that I noticed when slipping into the driver’s seat (other than the Porsche-shaped key which could happily sit on display on a coffee table) was that the build quality was top notch. Perhaps what you’d expect of a modern Porsche. Everything operates with an assertive click, everything fits nicely and surfaces have a nice, tactile finish. The LED tail-lights and the pinnacle of the rear end flow into the active spoiler gorgeously. The leather seats hold you in the right places and are an ideal fit for me; although I have read of taller people complaining that they aren’t quite right for them. Maybe you either have a Porsche frame or you don’t, luckily for me I can make do (and turns out I’d soon be putting that to the ultimate test). Everything fits for me, the seating position is sublime, the rake of the flat-bottomed wheel just right.
The Porsche Entertainment Centre can be a bit intimidating on first impressions. The M3 and its iDrive combines everything in the palm of your hands, whereas in the Boxster has a fair few buttons. The layout of said buttons however is surprisingly intuitive and I never find myself floating about with my eyes off the road for too long to operate the necessities - except for setting the clock. I’ve had to google that five times and I still can’t remember how it's done.
I started her up to hear the snarl from the 3.4-litre flat-six which immediately made me feel more at home than the 718 did. Prodding the Sport button amplifies things a little, opening up the sports exhaust valves and raising the revs slightly. The 981 was probably well placed as a 996 replacement for me, sharing a similarly sized engine even if it was down on power - although I was curious on how life with the PDK would be, rather than having a six-speed. The test drive was sedate, but a week later I came back to pick her up and decided to take a cruise up through the Blue Mountains.
I always find that initial lingering buyer’s remorse is soon validated or obliterated after ten minutes on a twisty road. The drive until such a point where things got interesting was surprisingly smooth for a sports car. Bumps and deformities on the road were swallowed up with little drama. Many would disagree, suggesting that the ride is hard – which it is, particularly due to a combination of low profile tyres and 19-inch rims - but for me it’s to be expected. I’d actually find it a crying shame to have a sports car that was all soft as it erodes the sense of occasion in my opinion.
That, and the suspension in my 911 was rock-hard, making this positively well-rounded by comparison. Road noise is minimal considering this is a mid-engined, soft-topped roadster and the Bose premium sound system, as far as factory solutions go, is excellent at drowning out what noise does seep in. Highs and lows sing through with great separation, and I’m yet to hear a hint of distortion. In the past I have found switching P-Zeros for Michelins has yielded even quieter results and if the Cup 2’s that I’ve had are anything to go by, should tighten up the handling even more.
Surprisingly, the hands-free noise cancellation when talking on the Bluetooth performs well. I do a lot of my work behind the wheel (i.e. catching up with phone calls) and to my surprise, my hard-of-hearing mother asked if I was in the office when in fact I was cruising at 80km/h with the roof down.
In Auto mode, the PDK (or Porsche Doppelkupplung if you’re charging by the syllable) shifted slickly through the gears and the whole thing was seeming a little sedate. PDK is essentially two gearboxes in one, using two separate input shafts. One half drives the car whilst the other effectively pre-selects the next gear. One clutch opens and one closes in unison, making for absurdly quick gear changes. Many don’t like dual clutch boxes; but you can’t help but marvel.
There was a slightly numb feeling to the steering – owing to the electrical assistance. This is usually a big no-no from me and surely something I’d grow to miss over the sublime feedback of my 996. An hour in, and the landscape started to become a series of seemingly ending S-bends, carving out a pass through the mountains.
I shunt the gear stick to the left and the car indicates that I’m in Manual mode. I prodded my new favourite Sports button, and dropped the roof for good measure, retracting the top in five seconds or so.
Coming out of the first bend I flicked down a gear, gave the throttle a jab and was rewarded by a twitch from the rear end and a snort from the engine that piqued my curiosity. Hitting a straight bit of road and unleashing the 300 horsepower available, the progress was surprisingly quick, with the PDK preparing and selecting gears as if a co-pilot was sat in the passenger’s seat. A few more hard bends ahead and I feel myself braking later and later, accelerating sooner and engaging in this one-band symphony.
At speed and pace, the low-speed numbness is replaced by an assured precision. The steering gains a weight that always lets you know what the car is doing as the body rotates around you. Then there are the brakes. As I get more and more daring, the brakes remain firm, modulated and frankly, brilliant. There was no hint of fade, just consistent, predictable performance without ever feeling too grabby or slack at any given speed. Combined with the sturdy composure of the chassis you really start to be involved with each act of the ballet.
The flat-six takes centre stage in this orchestra of octane and whilst subtle around town with the sports button deactivated, it springs to life with a vengeance when it matters. Sports mode, when closing on the redline in third gear, is simply intoxicating as the engine and exhaust let out a throaty yelp. The throttle response is tightened up and the naturally aspirated 3.4-litre screams as it hurtles you along producing 315bhp at 6700rpm. The throttle response is crispier than a bucket of KFC, with no catapulting as you’d get with a typical turbocharged car. The induction from the mid-mounted engine gulping in air level with your ears, the exhaust burbling as you ease off the gas, the smell from the hot engine and rubber as you slow down. Three hours had passed like a lucid dream.
Okay so there isn’t as much of a presence of mid-range torque but much like my M3 (more so, in fact), you soon learn that this car isn’t about shredding tyres and out-gunning V8’s from the lights. The progression is linear and predictable and you can just flow through corners. Whilst you’re aware that you’re not in the ultimate performance car, you never once feel like you need more.
My time taking trips through the mountains however was short-lived as I now had to relocate back to WA in five days. But I couldn’t bring myself to hand over my new infatuation to the car-carriers, and in a spur of the moment decision I decided that I’d somehow pack an apartment’s worth of contents into the Porsche and make the 4000 kilometre commute.
A 32-inch TV behind the passenger’s seat, a bag of clothes in the footwell, laptops, toiletries in the front-trunk or ‘frunk’ and the back bursting at the seams with shoes, car cleaning products and books. My initial thought was amazement that this little sports car could swallow so many of my worldly possessions in such a way that I could still drop the roof and enjoy the car as intended. The small setting of the cabin seemed to become a Tardis of practicality. I took the cross-country route heading up past Port Augusta, and hitting the Nullarbor, before eventually cruising past the Goldfields of WA and ending up at home.
Being a (in hindsight, probably none-too-wise) spontaneous trip, I scantily prepared fuel stops and provisions - namely a ten minute google of ‘are there fuel stations along the Nullarbor’ followed by grabbing three litre-bottles of water and a can of tyre sealant at the nearest servo. After sending a text to a buddy to narrow down the search if I happened to disappear at any given day, I was on my way.
I clocked up around 1,000 kilometres a day driving on average for ten hours, starting at 7am each day and getting off the road by 4.30. I’m no engineer, but I quickly came to the conclusion that a kangaroo (or as I’d later come across, a meter-tall eagle) would make light work of a sports car, even with a cubic meter of shoes in the front end.
I didn’t once get struck by back pain throughout the trip, and the spritely, punchy engine kept things interesting, especially in the rare moments not spent in a straight line. The whole affair was fault free and at pace I even managed a 6.9 litres per 100 kilometres, which I struggled to comprehend in a sports car. For context, my partner’s Honda Jazz averaged the same and that didn’t do the century sprint in 4.5 seconds.
The Boxster S is one of those cars where I really don’t have much to say in the summary of things I don’t like. I hate the PDK’s steering wheel mounted toggle switches. They feature a gear up and down on each side and it’s simply a fumble to use. Give me paddles any day. In fact, I actually preferred to use the stick to chirp up and down the gearbox; and it does make me wonder if this is one of those cars that I would actually enjoy the art of driving more if it had a manual gearbox. Similar to sitting in a car making "vroom, vroom" noises, having the manual operation via the gear stick gave back some of the engagement that you’d get in a three-pedal car, and I find myself reaching for it whenever the road gets more engaging.
Being the stick is normal sized as opposed to the short, stubby selector you often get in dual clutch cars, it gave a good alternative to the wheel-mounted buttons. Despite its capabilities, it very much epitomises a car that you enjoy driving rather than a car that needs to be out-and-out fast, and the PDK seems like it would be more useful in a car with more power. I’ve driven a GT2RS and it makes much more sense there.
The Boxster has been flawless for me, although for a brief period the PSM would de-activate until the car was restarted, which is something that I'll need to keep an eye on (I would suggest it had to be a sensor or wiring). The car wasn't being driven much at the time and I later discovered a slow-puncture which could have been the culprit. Outside of that, I have changed the oil a couple of times, but I've only put on 8,000 or so kilometres since purchasing it at a guess.
All in all I’ve had a couple of fantastic adventures with the Boxster S over the past two years. It was once regarded as a ‘poor man’s Porsche’, but as testament to how things have improved, the 981 will lap the infamous Nurburgring a second faster than a base E92 M3; the territory of things such as the lightweight Alfa 4C, the Audi R8 V8 and the 996 911. At $150k when new and now falling under $90k they are representing ever-better value for money.
It’s the quintessential sports car. Usable day to day, but feels at home on a long, twisty, Ray-Ban clad drive on a Sunday morning. In my humble opinion, it simply looks stunning from all angles - stationary or not - and piloting it around town instantly tugs at the emotions that we live in as petrolheads.
It seems that I mention it when thinking about cars from the 2014-2018 era more and more, but with climate change making things smaller, more efficient and turbocharged, cars like the 981 are starting to represent the last hurrahs of cars that truly feel like they have a soul and capture your heart.