BACK TO BA­SICS BOXSTER

Vol­un­tar­ily swap­ping a 987 Cay­man S for an early 986 Boxster is a pretty hard sell for­most peo­ple. For Jeremy Laird, it’s the route to­more re­ward­ing and en­dur­ing driv­ing en­joy­ment. That’s the plan, at least...

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Look, I know what you’re think­ing. And I don’t en­tirely dis­agree. In ob­jec­tive terms, mov­ing from my tweaked 3.4litre Cay­man to an early 986 Boxster is a ret­ro­grade step. The Croc was faster, stiffer, han­dled bet­ter, braked harder, was more er­gonomic in­side and mostly bet­ter built.

So, you won’t be sur­prised to learn I’ve had my mo­ments of doubt. For sure, the 987 was the nicer lux­ury good and by a mile. In terms of im­age and sta­tus, it had a feel good fac­tor the 986 can’t ap­proach. What’s more, the 986’s body con­trol on the fac­tory springs and dampers is pretty or­di­nary, its body rigid­ity rather tragic. In­deed, the whole car feels much less sub­stan­tial, far less ro­bust. The Box’s chas­sis bal­ance is a bit naff, too, thanks to the lu­di­crous fac­tory tyre stag­ger with the 17-inch wheels, which pairs 205 sec­tion boots up front with 255s at the rear. I quite like a whiff of in­her­ent un­der­steer to man­age via a lit­tle 911-style trail brak­ing. But the stan­dard setup doesn’t half make the 986’s chas­sis feel dull and dumbed down.

Dis­pas­sion­ately speak­ing, then, the Cay­man was sim­ply the su­pe­rior car. Prob­lem is, pas­sion does come into it and when it does it tends to cloud out cold, hard logic. In the end it’s the ex­pe­ri­ence that counts, not the numbers. If I could mea­sure it, for in­stance, I’d say the Box sounds roughly 78 times bet­ter than the Cay­man. But I can’t. So I must merely make the sub­jec­tive claim that the older car is far more mu­si­cal. That, in the prover­bial nut­shell, sums up the 986’s strengths. They’re nearly all in the sub­jec­tives.

Some of that is still easy to iden­tify and com­mu­ni­cate. I can tell you, for ex­am­ple, that the 986’s steer­ing is more trans­par­ent and ana­logue, that there’s more chas­sis feed­back, that the gearshift gives a greater sense of phys­i­cal con­nec­tion to the trans­mis­sion. Like­wise, it’s im­me­di­ately

ob­vi­ous that the 986 feels more rear-bi­ased in terms of weight dis­tri­bu­tion (whether it is or not, doesn’t mat­ter, what mat­ters is how it feels), where the 987 is neu­tral to the point of rel­a­tive bland­ness.

Then there’s the brake pedal, which has more firm­ness and pro­gres­sion than a stan­dard 987 (though per­haps a lit­tle less than the tweaked pedal in my old Cay­man). Or the throt­tle and clutch ped­als, which both op­er­ate with lower lev­els of com­puter in­ter­ven­tion. I’m con­fi­dent there’s less in­ter­fer­ence with throt­tle in­puts with the 986’s e-gas sys­tem, and the silly throt­tlede­lay dur­ing up­shifts cour­tesy of the 987’s up­per clutch sen­sor switch def­i­nitely isn’t present on the 986.

Just as im­por­tant, how­ever, are the in­tan­gi­bles, the things you ap­pre­ci­ate al­most sub­con­sciously, el­e­ments you can’t quite crys­tallise into in­di­vid­ual at­tributes. Over­all, my im­pres­sion is of a sweeter and more spe­cial driver’s car. Just bim­bling down the road at low speed, my sense of the ma­chine is much more acute in the 986. The 987 felt a lit­tle or­di­nary un­til you set its pants on fire. In those terms, the com­par­i­son be­tween the 986 and 987 is the clas­sic con­test be­tween an­cient and modern. What you lose in com­pe­tence, ca­pa­bil­ity and pace with the older car, you gain char­ac­ter, feed­back and driver­ma­chine con­nec­tion. It was ever thus, eh?

That said, the Box does have some ob­jec­tive ad­van­tages, too. Most crit­i­cally, it doesn’t come with nearly as much risk of ma­jor en­gine fail­ure. The 3.4-litre M97 lump in the Croc was a mas­sive li­a­bil­ity in terms of its propen­sity to score a bore or two and that played a big part in my de­ci­sion mak­ing. In terms of all the other pros and cons, it was a finely bal­anced de­ci­sion. Had my con­fi­dence been high that the Croc’s lump was good for at least an­other 50,000 miles, I prob­a­bly would have stuck rather than twisted de­spite my mixed feel­ings about the driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. But it wasn’t and that meant I had to pre­fer the Cay­man to the tune of a likely £12,000 en­gine bill some time in the next two or three years. Which I don’t.

The Box, need­less to say, will need a few tweaks. The body con­trol wants tight­en­ing up and some nar­rower 235 sec­tion rear tyres will dial out the worst ex­cesses of the built-in un­der­steer and also un­lock a lit­tle ac­cess to near-limit yaw. Mean­while, now that I’m back in a 986, you might think my time with a 987 was a waste of time and money. But that isn’t truly so. Not only did I hugely en­joy my time with the Croc, I also learned a lot about what really mat­ters to me. With the 987, I was at least partly chas­ing new­ness, snazz­i­ness and sta­tus. Ul­ti­mately, it was the same men­tal­ity that sees peo­ple beat each other up over al­lo­ca­tions for the lat­est GT car they’ve never driven that com­pelled me to buy a 987. And it’s not the ba­sis for a last­ing and ful­fill­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

Now I’ve ticked the shiny and new box, in rel­a­tive terms, I can get on with fo­cus­ing on the things in a sports car that pro­vide me with the most en­dur­ing and re­ward­ing en­joy­ment. I’ve never really been about new­ness and sta­tus when choos­ing a car. But with the Croc, I’ve worked that silli­ness out of my sys­tem. The 986 is a car for me to en­joy, what any­one else thinks doesn’t fac­tor. It’s still a com­pro­mise, of course, the Box. No sin­gle car can give you ev­ery­thing. That’s an­other thing I learned with the 987. But the 986 gives me more of what I care about most in a driver’s car. It’s just a happy co­in­ci­dence that 986s are so crim­i­nally un­der­val­ued and I can have what I want for so lit­tle money. PW

Jeremy buys a Boxster. Really, we might as we just call the mag BoxsterWorld, with three 986 3.2 S mod­els on the ‘Projects’ fleet. Still, that’s rather telling as to the Boxster’s abil­ity and amaz­ing value

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