When the Porsche Boxster show car debuted at Detroit in 1993, it created a lot of excitement.

The new, smallish, two-place convertible sent writers off to research the joys and frustrations of owning 356 Speedsters and roadsters. When the 1997 Type 986 Boxster finally arrived in showrooms three years later, pent-up customer demand assured their popularity. Road testers were predominantly enthusiastic, while Porsche enthusiasts were of divided opinions — as they always are whenever anything really different is introduced.

The pejoratives were that it was a chick wagon, a baby Porsche, underpowered, had some structural engine problems, and, after the initial run, it was not even built in Germany.

The positives related to its low initial pricing at $39,950 MSRP, mid-engine placement with balanced weight distribution, excellent road manners, and a high, visceral fun factor. Fifteen years later, what’s the scoop? How good a car is it? What should a potential affordable classics buyer look for?

So what is it?
The first Boxster was delivered in the fall of 1996. It carried a newly designed, water-cooled, 4-valve, 2.5-liter flat six with 201 horsepower. A 5-speed stick was standard, with a 5-speed Tiptronic optional. The Tiptronic was nice for traffic but added 88 pounds at the wrong end of the car.

Brakes were four-pot calipers inside 16-inch or 17-inch wheels. The suspension was appropriately sophisticated Porsche: McPherson struts with coil springs over two tube shocks, transverse aluminum arms, and aluminum wheel carriers. The power folding top featured a magnesium frame and retracted in seconds. One somewhat novel design element was that fresh air ducted in through the driver’s side rear fender inlet and hot air exhausted through the same duct on the passenger’s side.

Trim and wheel changes followed with optional 18-inchers in 1998, along with side airbags. Litronic lights arrived in 1999.

In 2000, Porsche increased the base engine to 2.7 liters, 217 horsepower and introduced the optional “S” engine, at 3.2 liters, 250 horsepower. Both engines redlined at 7,200 rpm. These engines delivered 0–60 mph times of 6.2 seconds and 5.7 seconds, respectively. The suspensions were upgraded. The S came with a 6-speed gearbox, “Big Red” brakes with cross-drilled rotors, twin exhausts and a padded top. Most of these S features became standard on the base model during the next few years.

In 2003, Porsche moved to new engines. The base engine had 225 horsepower and the S increased to 258 horsepower. Glass replaced the easily discolored plastic rear window. There were new bumpers, more wheel packages, a more “growly” exhaust, and the Boxster’s first ever glovebox.

In 2005, Porsche launched a substantially revised Boxster, which was designated the Type 987. That car was a substantial advance, but it is not within the scope of our Affordable Classic profile.

A special model Porsche has produced a couple of intriguing special model Boxsters. One of them was on the initial Type 986 platform: the 2004 “550 50th Anniversary Edition.” It celebrated Porsche’s first racing prototype, the Type 550 Spyder that hit tracks in 1953. They built 1,953 examples and loaded them up with 18-inch wheels with painted centers, silver brake calipers, heated seats, sports suspension, 260 horsepower, special metallic “GT Silver” paint, and your choice of a cocoa interior and top or a more traditional black top over a dark gray interior.

The gremlins
Some readers may have heard about engine problems with early Boxsters. The issues were real, especially on late 1998 and early 1999 models that had flawed metallurgy in their aluminum cases. The problems tended to occur very early on and Porsche installed a lot of new engines under warranty.

A second catastrophic issue, intermediate shaft failure, arose later and wasn’t really designed out of the cars until mid-2006, so all Gen One Boxsters are susceptible. Again, Porsche replaced these engines under warranty, but the failures are still occurring — even years later.

Boxsters will also shed oil, which is usually called a rear main seal failure. However, our favorite mechanical expert says they are often leaks at the bearing cover or rear case bolts. These issues need to be carefully researched when you consider buying an early Boxster.

Bargain Boxsters
The earliest cars — from 1997 to 2001 — are quite inexpensive, sometimes under $10,000 with mileage. They make great commuter cars, kids’ cars, and third Porsches for beach runs. If your research at a Porsche dealer’s computer shows that the engine already has been replaced, you might well have a bulletproof Boxster for a giveaway price. Jump on it. If you’re looking at a low-mileage, late-1998 to early-1999 car, the best move is to steer clear. You might never have an engine issue, but then again, you might — and now, many years later, you might have to fight to get warranty replacement.

The sweet spot for Boxsters for regular use is likely the 2003–04 models, choosing between the base model or S as you prefer.

Some road testers have preferred the base model, as they feel it is a more accurate throwback to Porsche roadsters of yore — slightly decontented — but a tad lighter and every bit as much fun. Prices here run $13,000 to $19,000 for base models and perhaps 15% more for an S. Sometimes S models carry small premiums, and if that’s a plus for you, go for it.

Pre-purchase inspections a must
Do not shy away from a Boxster because of the possible engine problems, but absolutely get a pre-purchase inspection at a reliable dealer or independent shop with expertise and interest in Boxsters. An oil leak is a demon to fear because it can indicate a larger lurking problem. One specific oil leak will portend the intermediate shaft failure, and you’d like to catch that early. Crash damage also dictates that you run to the next example.

Finally, Boxsters are not ideal candidates for self maintenance, so budget in regular shop trips.

There are a lot of excellent used Gen One Boxsters that should provide years of satisfying, spirited driving. Go try one. You’ll like it.

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