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...
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