One long-standing unwritten rule of the automotive kingdom is to never challenge the golden child. From GM protecting the Corvette’s status to Porsche’s reluctance to let the Boxster muscle one over on the 911, the automotive hierarchy is something most of us grew to accept. Well, at least in the case of Porsche, that hierarchy is very much broken. This is the 718 Spyder RS, a .44 caliber love letter to the combustion-powered era of the car that saved Porsche.
The Porsche 718 Spyder RS is likely the last fossil fuel-powered Boxster variant that will ever be made. It’s a 493-horsepower lunatic of a car, with all manner of bits from the 718 Cayman GT4 RS, a close-ratio PDK dual-clutch gearbox, and a claimed zero-to-62 mph time of just 3.4 seconds. Remember when that was supercar-quick?
Since Porsche’s Porsche, it just can’t stop optimizing. The gearbox in the 718 Spyder RS is five kilograms lighter than the one in a 718 Cayman GT4 RS, the soft top is just a single layer of fabric, the entire roof assembly weighs 7.6 kg less than the already lightweight one on the regular 718 Spyder, and the aero package is all new. Manual gearbox purists aside, this should be a cracking car to anyone lucky enough to drive one. However, I’ll let you in on an open secret: Pretty much every Boxster Porsche made was brilliant, so let’s take a look back on the last 30 years and reminisce on an icon.
Thirty years ago, Porsche was in trouble. Its bread-and-butter 911 was aging, its 928 was a slow-seller, and its 968 also lingered on showroom floors thanks to high production costs and a strong Deutschemark. North American sales had slumped from 30,471 in 1986 to just 4,131 in 1992, and global sales largely mirrored these trends. It needed a savior, something fresh, reasonably-priced, and cheap to build, so management plotted out a way to survive through the new millennium.
The plan was simple yet comprehensive: Build an entirely-new 911 and use as many 911 components as possible to build an entry-level sports car with its engine behind the driver. Taking inspiration from racers like the 550 Spyder and RS 60, Porsche built a concept and rolled it out at the 1993 Detroit auto show under the name Boxster.
Immediately, the Boxster concept became an automotive celebrity. Autoweek called the Boxster concept “Best In Show,” and when the production-spec 986 Boxster launched, it was already a sensation. Here was a Porsche for Corvette money with its engine behind the driver, and although its fried-egg headlights haven’t aged with unanimous grace, it was gorgeous when it came out. Slide behind the wheel of a 986 today and you’ll find that it’s friendly, agile, and remarkably forgiving for a mid-engined car. It had none of the edginess of the Toyota MR2, nor was it nearly as isolated as a Mercedes-Benz SLK or BMW Z3.
Unfortunately, it was powered by Porsche’s first water-cooled flat-six, and the engineers got it a bit wrong. The big issue everyone talks about is the intermediate shaft bearing disintegrating and rendering the M96 engine a very expensive coffee table, but that’s just one of what feels like eleven billion failure modes. From bore scoring to reports of cylinder walls just breaking, the first Boxster was a sensational yet flawed entry-level Porsche. So, how about the sequel?
This is the second-generation 987 Boxster and it is, for all intents and purposes, the perfect daily-driver sports car. Like the 986, it drives pretty, only even more so. The steering is positively extroverted, screaming down the column so you can feel something. The interior looks and feels 20 years newer than the cabin in the first Boxster. The IMS issues were largely resolved and the cylinder cracking issue was more or less solved completely. Oh, and did I mention that the whole car only weighs about as much as a Subaru BRZ yet makes fabulous flat-six noises?
A C6 Corvette may have offered more bang for the buck, but cars aren’t driven on paper. When you drive a C6 spiritedly, it starts to feel like it’s made of jelly. From bushings to BarcaLoungers, everything seems more meant for boulevard cruising than for letting you know that you’re running out of front end grip. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a spectacularly capable car, it just doesn’t tell you everything you want to hear. The Boxster, though? It’s a driver’s delight through-and-through, even in base 2.7-liter five-speed form. Oh, and it spawned a desirable coupe variant, the popular Cayman, as well as a stripped-down Spyder model.
While the subsequent 981 Boxster wasn’t quite as lithe or communicative as the 987, it was still a benchmark car. Sure, it had electric power steering that soaked up a little bit of feel and it was heavier than the 987, but this was still a Goldilocks sports car that tread a fine line between usability and excitement. As with the 987, it eventually got a Spyder model, but this one was even more powerful. Instead of a massaged version of the Boxster S’ 3.4-liter flat-six, it got a 3.8-liter flat-six from the 911 Carrera S good for 375 horsepower. Consider this foreshadowing.
Next came the 982, and things got controversial. Due to a variety of factors including emissions targets, the series of naturally-aspirated flat-sixes got ditched in favor of a line of turbocharged flat-fours. Suddenly, Porsche’s brand new sports car sounded like a flat-brim bro’s Subaru WRX. However, I’d argue that sound wasn’t the only issue — the way torque was doled out also affected the driving experience. The current 718 Boxster makes 280 lb.-ft. of torque from as low as 2,150 rpm. Hmm. The previous 981 Boxster may have only made 206 lb.-ft. of torque, but it did so way up at 4,400 rpm as a reward for revving it out.
If you’d like to know what the difference is and don’t have access to a 982 and a 981, go out and buy some Applewood smoked cheddar cheese. Start by cutting a piece and chowing down quickly — that’s the 982’s turbocharged flat-four. It’s good, it’s quickly filling, but it feels very expensive for what you get. Now cut a much thinner slice and chew it slowly, letting it linger on your tongue. Suddenly, all these wonderful notes of cream, smoke, and bite emerge from the cheese together in harmony, surrounding your taste buds with a complex symphony of flavor. This is the 981’s naturally-aspirated flat-six. Sports cars, like good cheeses, are experiences meant to be savored, not just had for sustenance. However, the 982’s inputs are excellent and as controversial as the turbocharged engine is, it’s hard to argue that the 718 Boxster isn’t a great sports car.
Thankfully, Porsche heard enthusiasts’ cries and started to offer the GTS 4.0 and Spyder trims with a thumping-great four-liter naturally-aspirated flat-six just before a little thing called COVID-19 upturned the world. Suddenly, unless you wanted occasional-use rear seats or something to use as a grand tourer, there wasn’t much reason to buy a base 911. The baby Porsche had finally broken the unspoken rule — never outshine the 911.
Consider the 718 Spyder RS the Icarus of Boxsters. On the eve of electrification, the mad scientists in the GT division gave this little roadster a 9,000 rpm pair of wings and set it loose towards the sun. It’s too brash, too dirty, too excessive to last very long on the new market, yet I adore the thought of it. While it may cost $162,150 if you can get an allocation, you don’t even have to spend a tenth of that to get into a wonderful older mid-engined Porsche. Long live the Boxster in whatever form it might take.
(Photo credits: Porsche)
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While I’d love a Spyder RS, I’m in the minority who would otherwise largely prefer the turbo 4. Living at nearly 7000′ and working closer to 4500′ makes one appreciate the inverse relationship between altitude and horsepower. Spinning a high strung but torque deficient Del Sol VTEC up the mountain at 5500 RPM to keep it on the cam underscores that relationship.
Give me easy torque that doesn’t radically diminish as the air thins any day – most of the roads worth driving around here start at 5-7000′ and go up from there.
If I was buying one of these, I’d get the base 718 coupe with no options… which already costs CAD$82,000 plus tax. And even the base model is plenty fast with a 0-60 time of around 5 seconds.
Now having said that, for that money, I’m much more inclined to get a used Tesla Model S.
Gotta say, it’s good parsh.
Thanks Thomas for an excellent overview. May I ask/suggest that in future similar articles, maybe consider putting the model designation (i.e.: 981, 982, etc…) perhaps with the range of years they were produced before/above the first image of that specific model?
I know this may not currently be a part of the style sheet you guys are currently working with, but for ‘the story of’ articles like this one, it would make it clearer which version is which… especially useful for when the changes between versions are a bit more evolutionary (Boxster) vs. those cars where the delineation between versions is more blatant (MR2).
Thanks again. 🙂
Meanwhile, does anyone have an explanation behind the 986, 987, but then 981?
It’s the birth year of the target demographic, but with the first number missing: 1986, 1987 then 1981 because the prices went up and you’d need six more years to save.
It’s the number of people out of 1000 who can’t tell it’s a new Porsche.
It’s the minimum additional cost in Euros of of the things a Porsche dealer will recommend you have fixed on top of your scheduled service.
It’s to ensure the number badges get slightly lighter with each generation.
It’s how long, in seconds, between you starting your first drive and someone “racing” you at the lights and claiming to have beaten a Porsche.
It’s the vehicle mass, in kilograms, of how much the car would weigh without the extra mass the 911 marketing team insist is welded underneath.
When you add up the numbers 9+8+6 it’s the age of the first rebound date the lead engineer had after his divorce. 981 was a really creepy age gap too.
They throw three darts at a board and take that number away from 1000.
It’s the predicted number of times every day that another driver assumes you are too poor to afford a 911.
It’s the speed in kilometres at which the flux capacitor engages to allow time travel.
It’s how much sweat you lose in millilitres doing a tourist lap of the Nurburgring.
The guy who picks the model numbers is French.
This is magnificent. COTD nominee, y’all
This entertained me.
I’ve reached out to some extremely well known shops inquiring about a manual conversion. Historically they’d shy away, but they’re indicating they feel it’s viable now for the GT4 RS and Spyder.
I just need my allocation from my dealer, and following up with a call tomorrow. The expectation set with me was, “You may not get the first car, but you’ll get one.” I won’t get the first because I’m not some serial Porsche buyer, but I’m a nutter that gets spotted all the time by customers for doing ridiculous things in my 981 Spyder.
If I get one, and if conversion appears viable, I will do a manual conversion.
Keep us posted! Would love to read some articles about it
A buddy has a Miata and I have a Boxster base. Whenever we go to a car event and folks are talking about what they drive, I tell them that my buddy and I are there to do their hair.
When I bought my Boxster, I had some 911 envy, but punching even a base model out of corners on California 1 makes me giggle like a loon.
This Boxster? Out of my price range, but holy moly, lookit Porsche offering up all the internal combustion goodies as we get ready for the EV Boxster.
“Remember when that was supercar-quick?”
$162,150 was also supercar money.
I would do unspeakable things for this car. The Boxster was one of my first automotive loves as a kiddo. I still remember being at soccer practice one afternoon and one of my friends going WOW LOOK AT THAT PORSH BOXSTER! I had no idea what he was talking about but I turned to take a look and it was love at first sight.
For years after that I told everyone that my life’s savings were my Porsche fund. My uncle, who was hugely influential on my journey to gearhead, eventually bought me an RC Boxster for Christmas one year. He was a huge car and hobby nerd and it was legit. I actually entered it in an RC car race and won the whole thing. No one could keep up.
This is essentially the ultimate Boxster…and honestly Boxsters take way more shit than they should. They’re incredible cars, who cares if it’s a LeSsEr PoRsChE or perceived by some as looking feminine or some other nonsense. They’re iconic and if you can’t have fun with a manual lightweight roadster there’s just no hope for you. I’m sorry.
I’m a little sad this is PDK only though. It’s a great transmission and I’m probably one of the most pro dual clutch people on this site…but this car is crying out for a manual. If they can offer one in the GT3 I’m not sure why they couldn’t offer one here. Tis a small nitpick though, this is still dream car/bedroom poster material with a PDK.
When I drove the OG Boxster, I fell in love. And stayed that way until the Cayman came along. Even then, it was just the latter’s looks that made it seem most desirable. I find the 986 easier on the eyes than later models, too.
Never drove one long enough to face IMS bearing woes or scored cylinders. Wish I had. If I could afford to score a fully sorted original — or get one reasonably enough that I could cope with the trouble points — I’d do it in a heartbeat. The price of new ones makes my eyes water.
It’ll be a sad day when Porsche finally abandons its wonderful IC engines and goes full buzz-bomb.
As a 911 owner HQ’d in Wisconsin, this is the first time I’ve seen these cars compared to cheese. lol. Next week I expect “which car epitomizes different types of cheeses” or something from Torch. Which car best equates to limburger?
Also bonus trivia: The designer for the original boxster is from Wisconsin and went to design school in Milwaukee.
The car that best equates to Limburgurger? Well I suppose that would be the ones that were made in Limburg. Many stars if you can name them without googling!
I love me some limburger!! Given it’s infamous aroma, a little goes a long way usage and affordability it’s gotta be the Golf/Jetta TDI of cheese.