25 years of Porsche Boxster: An inspired drive with the inspiration
Manufacturers absolutely love to pump up the nostalgia factor and crank out retro-inspired models. Every year we see at least one capitalistic homage to an iconic car from yesteryear. These models are especially common in the world of sports cars. Despite that, it's rare when the homage and the original are as closely linked as the two Boxsters you see here -- and that's despite the 25-year gap between them.
It's even more rare that the manufacturer in question provides an example of both the inspiration and the inspired to sample at the same time. It's in that lucky position I found myself for a long weekend with this pair of Porsches. The elder was the iconic original-generation 1997 Porsche Boxster . But this wasn't just any 986. Oh no, this is the very first Boxster that arrived on US soil, so designated by the cheeky "BXSTR 1" Georgia plate.
The 1997 car, which went on sale in 1996, stayed remarkably true to the original Boxster concept that blew peoples' minds at the 1993 Detroit Auto Show. It looked like a mashup between the 550 Spyder and 718 RSK, and while some design elements were changed along the way (most notably, the side intakes rising to the fenders from the skirts), Porsche did a great job of bringing it to production.
It's that same concept the newer, special-edition Boxster references. This is the 2021 Porsche 718 Boxster 25 Years, a limited-edition model wearing copper, five-spoke shoes along with the requisite commemorative badging. That includes a production number stamped on the dashboard so your breathless passenger can sit in awe, admiring just how rare your new roadster really is. (The one pictured here is No. 6 of 1,250.)
Visually, just like you can easily trace the evolution from the concept to that initial 986 Porsche Boxster, the line from that model to the current 718 Boxster remains strong. Sure, it's easy to see the new car is bigger, and likewise those intakes aft of the doors have swollen to provide more air to match the vastly increased engine output, but most of the few styling cues that adorned the original Boxster have survived the decades.
On the interior, well, things have changed a lot more. That's generally for the better. While the Bordeaux Red leather color remains the same, on the '97 it's a sort of harlequin effect, with black and silver plastic plus plenty of sun-damaged carbon fiber mixed in. The '21 car's layout is more evenly hued, brushed metal highlights creating a clean, cool environment. They'll likely stand up to the test of time a bit better, too.
From a technology standpoint, it is of course a night-and-day difference. While I love the endless buttons on the original system in the old car, and that four-disc in-dash CD player is superb in a retro way (paired with a cartridge-based changer in the trunk to keep the tunes flowing), it naturally doesn't compare to the PCM system in Porsche's newer car. That, too, has its limitations, a continued lack of Android Auto the biggest for me, but it at least offers nav and all the various features you'd expect in a modern infotainment experience.
The primary touchpoints of the car feel similar at first blush, but driving the '97 car is radically different than the newer one. Push the long clutch down, down, down before turning the ignition key with your left hand and the car wake up with a diesel-like groan. If it's a sunny day, be careful not to burn your hand on either the bare carbon sections on the wheel and shifter when pulling out, and make sure you drop the top before you get going. The handbrake must be engaged before the motorized roof will work.
The procedure is largely the same in the new car, but the key can stay in your pocket. Here you twist the silly mock key that Porsche mounts on the dash to the left instead of just rolling with a pushbutton starter. The clutch throw is infinitely shorter while both the shifter and wheel are wrapped in Alcantara, so no worries about searing an H-pattern into the palm of your hand. The top, meanwhile, is fully automatic and operates at upwards of 30 mph, so go ahead and drop that thing while you're cruising out of the parking lot. Like a boss.
Steering in the '97 is very slow, which meant I had to brush off my shuffle-steering skills. That, combined with the long clutch and shift throws makes driving the 986 Boxster aggressively a very busy affair. It is, however, an undeniably rewarding one. With 201 horsepower spread thin across a wide powerband, the elder Boxster is slow by modern sports car standards. Hell, it's barely adequate by modern family sedan standards. But rev it out and you'll find plenty of speed plus a lovely, mechanical noise.
Finding the speed in the new car is much easier. Sure, there's nearly twice the power, with the 4.0-liter flat-6 here delivering 394 hp, but it goes deeper than that. Gear shifts take just a flick of the wrist, likewise the clutch requires just the flex of an ankle rather than a knee and a hip. The car will even rev-match for you if you want it, but where's the fun in that? The steering has less feedback but is so razor-sharp it's hard to see it as anything but an upgrade, while the adaptive suspension manages to be both more comfortable when cruising and yet more aggressive when sporting.
If there's one complaint I have with the new car, it's the exhaust note. On song, driven hard and with the sport exhaust open, the 718 Boxster 25 Years sounds fantastic, a buzzsaw roar that will make you want to dip deeper into the accelerator until you're risking your license. But when just idling around town, with the sport exhaust open or closed, the car cycles into and out of a sort of bumbling, booming note that's neither subtle nor engaging.
But that's a minor complaint in this generally superb machine, and I would say the extra money for the 4.0 flat-6 in this Boxster is well worth it over the turbocharged four in the base 718. The 25 Years edition is comfortable on the highway with the top up or down, exhilarating along twisty roads and generally feels like the six-figure car that it is.
Oh, yes, this special Boxster is an expensive car, a far cry from the simple machine that launched back in '97. As configured, this 2021 Porsche 718 Boxster 25 Years costs $104,300 including a $1,350 destination charge. That's with about $5,000 in options, so you could theoretically get into one for just under the $100K mark.
If that makes you pine for the days of the simple, base, 201-hp, $39,980 1997 Porsche Boxster, then I'd advise you take off those rose-colored glasses and have a look at the inflation curve. In today's money that Boxster would cost $67,678. MSRP on a base 2021 Porsche 718 Boxster? $63,950. Yes, they're cheaper than ever.
And that leads me to the final question: Which is the better car? In these comparisons of old vs. new, it's all too easy to fall into the trap of favoring the old one thanks to its raw character and more engaging drive. And that's certainly true here. While the 986-generation Boxster was far slower, I found myself grinning more as I hustled it through the turns.
But for anything more than a quick (slow) blast over my favorite roads, I'd take the new one. It is so much more capable and more comfortable -- not to mention more safe -- that it's hard to fault. Add in an extra dose of heritage and prestige and you have a special car that is genuinely special to drive.