The $17k Convertible Challenge: ’07 Miata v. ’02 Boxster

I recently found myself with a little money and a desire to drive just about anything other than the Subaru Outback I’ve been stuck in for the last two years, so I went out to find a fun, affordable sports-car. I took my $17k budget and hit the local used car lots for some test drives, and I wound up driving an ’07 Mazda Miata Grand Touring and an ’02 Porsche Boxster back-to-back. Then I had an opinion. So I thought I’d share it. Forgive the lack of pictures – this is another experiment in reviewing, and I didn’t bring a camera with me to my test-drive. I guess I could steal photos, but that would make me feel like a jerk.

The NC Miata, introduced in ’06, has a beautiful body. The swelling wheel arches filled with just-big-enough wheels, the gently sloped hood with it’s small, neat power bulge up near the driver – these are delightful. I actually think that the “improvements” made by Mazda to the car since ’06 have made it worse. Yes, the angular headlights on the newer version are an improvement over the little ovals on the older model, but the silly, grinning air intake (which, when you slap on a license plate, turns into a stupid, buck-toothed grin) and the pointy, plastic fog-light enclosures that come off like dimples just ruin the front end for me. In ten years the showier new design will look dated, while the original NC will be another classic, small sports car – and that’s all a Miata should be.

Around back the dual exhaust pipes are aggressive without being overstated or pointless. The slightly lifted haunches make the car look like it’s about to pounce – which it is – and the rear lights actually manage to look modern. That’s quite a feat in a world where most automakers still seem to be slapping rectangular leftovers from the Eighties onto the rumps of their blah-boxes.

The ’02 Boxster is not so attractive, and, in the case of this car, Porsche’s visual tweaks over the last decade have greatly improved the overall look. But I can’t afford a better looking, modern Porsche, and I can’t afford to run a better looking, older Porsche, so let’s just stick with the entry level, ’02 rag-top.

The front end is very Porsche, which may or may not be a good thing. Those awkward eyes, that bonnet that droops towards the middle, the rounded nose; it’s not the kind of face you love, it’s the kind of face you’re proud of because it could only be a Porsche and you like knowing that your Porsche looks like a Porsche. Once you get past the car’s halfway point things start to fall apart.

The tiny side air intakes are not aggressive or sporty looking. In fact, they lack almost any sense of having been designed. They’re simply there, being useful (a trait that was fixed in ’05).

Around the back is…more of the front, and if you like the front you’ll like the back. The big, awkward eyes are here even more problematic because they’re awful shades of red and orange (something else Porsche eventually fixed). While this is a pleasant way to tell other drivers at night whether the car is coming or going, it looks bad with every color the car can be painted. Well, at least it’s a Porsche.

Oh, and the standard alloys look stupid, especially in chrome.

Get inside these cars and the Miata wins again. Yes, it’s smaller, less well-equipped, has less comfortable seats, worse sight-lines, less head room, has possibly the cheapest and lightest feeling parking break lever ever installed in a car, and is, in the burgundy Grand Touring I drove, an awful, thoughtless mixture of black and brown. It’s still better.

The inside of the Boxster has nearly as much plastic as the inside of the Miata, but in order to make it seem more expensive all the switchgear and buttons have been made bulgy, bubbly, and curvy, and they just look like they’re trying too hard. The Miata on the other hand is just what it is, a small sports-car. Yes the plastics are hard and cheap, but they’re unobtrusive, they don’t call attention to themselves, and they let you focus on driving. And when you’re driving, all you’ll care about are the wheel and the shifter, and the leather wrapped around these two gems is on par with the materials in the Boxster.

When you drive the Miata you know you’re not paying for a badge or a show; you’re paying to drive.

And what a drive! The Miata is responsive and planted, and it feels quick. Put your foot down and the two liter, four cylinder engine buzzes it’s way up to 7,000 rpm like it’s an eager puppy and there’s bacon at the red-line. The noise can be a little harsh and a lot loud with the top up, but put the top down and everything is right with the world. Power delivery is smooth, if a little weak down low. Some cars can feel twitchy when they’re in the power band, but the Miata just feels ready.

The Boxster does not feel ready. Porsche has upped the power output in the Boxster’s engine umpteen times since releasing the car, and driving a ten year old version with the 2.7 liter engine makes the reason clear: the engine simply does not feel powerful enough. Yes, the noise of the straight-six rumbling away right behind your back is delightful, and it does produce almost 50 more horsepower than the Miata, but the Boxster also weighs upwards of seven hundred pounds more than the Miata. That means that the power-to-weight ration of the two cars is very, very close, and that translates into very similar straight-line performance.

I know that people swap monstrous V8s into Miatas, and I know the chassis can handle the power, but even with the standard motor the Miata just feels alive. The Boxster, on the other hand, has a chassis that seems to be constantly telling you that it could handle more power just fine. It tells you that it was built to handle more power. It’s just a shame, this chassis says, that you didn’t have the money to afford the extra power.

Turn into a corner in the Boxster and once again the car just screams at you that it could handle more. It’s got a very “on-rails” feel to the handling – but on-rails handling is the sort of thing that front wheel drive cars aim for. It almost doesn’t matter that the Boxster is mid-engined, or that it has a racing pedigree, because down here at the entry-level it just feels like…a car. You know what else just feels like a car? All the other cars.

The Miata, on the other hand, feels like a sports car. It’s limber and planted, but it also has a limit to its handling. It wants you to know that even though you’ve only got 170 measly little horses, they’ve still got enough gallop to put the tail out. I’m not saying the car feels unstable, not at all. Turn in at speed and the body rolls ever so slightly, but the wheels keep going where you’ve pointed them. Even when you’re driving fast the Miata’s as planted and balanced as the Boxster, but the chassis and the engine fit together so well, and each makes the other feel more alive. The Miata is a car that can be driven in a way that feels very fast, where the Boxster feels like it could only go very fast if you’d had the good sense to buy a Boxster S instead.

So in a straight line these two cars are nearly identical, and in the corners the Miata’s more fun. Add to that the fact that the Miata gets right up near 30 mpg while the Boxster maxes out at 25, and what you’ve got, I think, is a rout.

Oh, and I’m not even going to bother comparing the shifters, because they’re both magnificent works of art that make you feel like Mario Andretti for the half-second it takes to downshift.

Since I’m comparing these two particular cars because I am a human being who has things like budgets, and not a playboy with a Black Card, it’s also worth mentioning that even though the Miata is newer it’s cheaper to insure, cheaper to maintain and repair, cheaper to fuel, and will devalue less than the Porsche.

And if I’m talking about mundane things like money, I suppose I should also address practicality, although if you’re buying a small convertible you’re probably not overly concerned about practicality. Because small convertibles aren’t practical. But surprisingly, practicality is the one place the Boxster wins…sort of. Being a front-engined car the Miata can only have one trunk, and while this trunk is a perfectly reasonable size for a beer run or for two duffel bags for a weekend trip, it’s not all that big. I’m told golf clubs will fit, but the trunk lid is quite a bit smaller than the trunk, so unless you can fold your clubs they’re not going to be able to reach the space in which they would fit.

The Boxster has more cargo volume. Being mid-engined it can have a trunk at the front as well as the back. Of course, being mid-engined and a convertible, the trunk at the back is not particularly deep. The trunk at the front is deep…like a well. It’s like a narrow, deep, carpet-lined funnel with a spare tire stuffed into it. Sure, there’s a good amount of volume up there, but nobody owns anything that is a shape which would fit naturally into the front trunk of a Boxster. So while it does have more room for cargo, I’m not sure what cargo.

THE VERDICT

You know those people who say they’d rather drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow? Well, the Miata is for them – it’s not a race car, but boy, can it go. The Boxster I drove was a fast car with the fast taken out…the epitome of fast car slow.

If what you’re looking for is a composed cruiser with badge appeal and a six-cylinder engine, go ahead and buy the Porsche. If you’re over six feet tall, go ahead and buy the Porsche. You won’t fit in the Miata anyway. If you’re one of those people who can only think of Miatas as being driven by women or men like Corky Romano, go ahead and buy the Porsche.

But if you want a small, fun, affordable sports-car…

So what did I buy? Well, I bought a Mini, but that’s a whole other story.

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14 Responses to “The $17k Convertible Challenge: ’07 Miata v. ’02 Boxster”

  1. TomTom Says:

    A great read and very entertaining as well. I own a 2003 Miata and every word you have read is true, I also used to work for Porsche and what he said about those cars is also quite true. I bought mine only 3 months ago only because gas prices were/are on the rise (when are they not!) and instead of thanking Big Oil by maintaining the same need for their overpriced product I now spend considerably less on gas and have tons of fun running around in the process! And I used to think the Miata was a wimpy car designed for ladies. Man was I every wrong! Another nice thing, Miata owners wave to one another in passing, a very friendly gesture you don’t see much anymore. Very refreshing.

  2. Gary Spy Says:

    Most of what you criticize the Boxster for, are cosmetic issues, and by definition subjective. I can’t imagine anyone thinking that a Miata looks better than a Boxster, with its lines reminiscent of the old Porsche 550 Spyder, but that’s just me. I have driven both the Boxster and the Miata on the road and more importantly on the track, and while both do fine, the Boxster handles significantly better. Any good driver would tell you that. Bump the choice up to a Boxster S, and it isn’t even close.

    • Will Kaufman Says:

      My review is definitely not at all about track use – my critique was specifically of the base ’02 Boxster, which simply didn’t feel as dynamic on the road as the ’08 Miata. And that’s part of the point of the Miata, right? To make you feel like you’re doing a lot, even when you’re doing a little. Also, the P/W for the Boxster has changed a lot since ’02.

      If I had the money, my first choice would be a brand-new S any day of the week. Or pretty much any S after the ’05 refresh.

      And as a side note, this was from my “I wanna be an auto journalist” phase; it’s a nearly arbitrary comparison for the purpose of practice. I think I should stick to writing fiction.

      Oh, and the ’08 Miata totally looks better than the ’02 Boxster. The ’02 Boxster looks kind of like a squished platypus. With ugly wheels.

      Zing!

  3. Cord I Says:

    The Miata has grown over the years, and in doing so has become more “Boxsteresque,” which rather defeats the point. Sure a Boxster S is an OK car, but it’s no 911, nor is it an old Cobra. It is a middle of the pack car in august company, held up on its badge.

    I’ll take a well set up NA Miata any day, and leave the extra cash in the bank.

    • Will Kaufman Says:

      Whenever I think about putting together a track car, my mind invariably goes to an NA or NB with a liberal helping of Flyin’ Miata sauce. I will say that both the Boxster and the Miata are headed in the right direction again, with both cars getting lighter for their refreshes. Can’t wait to see the ND.
      It’s nice to see car manufacturers prioritizing lightness going forward…except, ironically, for Lotus.

  4. Steve Morris Says:

    H-6 not straight 6

  5. Daniel Diggs Says:

    Assuming this was freshly written when posted, that you’re in America (and my zipcode, and you’re almost certainly not, but I had to pick something), that Boxster was probably way overpriced. Taking into account the passage of not-quite two years, I ran a check today on KBB: a 2004 base Boxster with standard options and miles for the age should be around $14,750, a base 2003 for $13,070. For $17k you could almost swing for the Boxster S that you think would have been so much better ($17.7k for a 2003, but a hefty jump to $19.9 for a 2004). A 2008 Miata GT is currently worth about $16.7K, so I feel like this is probably a fair comparison. 2009 jumps up to nearly $20k, but that’s still new enough that depreciation hasn’t hit, AND 2009 was a major facelift year, so that throws things off. But, anyway, know that the Miata probably should have been the more expensive car in this face-off, for what that’s worth.

    Now, on points of aesthetics, I won’t try to argue with your opinions, you’re welcome to them, but you seem to be projecting a lot of ‘classism’ onto the Boxster – that it’s purposefully underpowered, designed to make you know it, and full of chintziness that Porsche would never have allowed in a ‘playboy’ car. Remember, though, that these were pretty wan years for Porsche and they had to cut some corners to stay afloat, and the Boxster is a product of that.

    Your complaints about the interior are spot on – it’s bubbly, swoopy, and plasticy, but it is also EXACTLY like the 911s of that generation. The 911 had a couple of extras thrown in by default, but you can see the holes for them in the Boxster’s control panel. To Porsche’s credit, despite the questionable aesthetics, I find that the placement of things is very smart.

    And that’s not the only place where they share major components between the two chassis. The headlights and most of the front end are also the same as the 911. The engine is the same as the 911, just tuned differently – if you pick from years with compatible engine computers, you can drop a 911 engine into a Boxster if you want, and these days they’re going for around $6k, which isn’t a terrible price, considering the performance boost.

    My point is that, even though the Boxster is definitely an entry-level Porsche, I feel that your implications that Porsche designed it that way to rub the owner’s nose is it just inaccurate. No company is going to produce a car that is intended to mock its owner..that’s just silly.

    I’ve owned two Boxsters (’99 and ’00) and an ’09 MIata GT, and loved all three. Except the height part – I’m 6’2″ and have/had no problems with any of them, but then again I know others who have I agree with the thrust of your main point, but I don’t think I followed the same path in arriving there. The Miata is certainly a better car for feeling like you’re going fast even if you’re not, and it’s arguably a more fun car for daily thrills, but it’s not because the Boxster is lacking. A road that you can take in a Miata and have a blast at 40mph will be a cakewalk in a Boxster – as you say, it would feel like you were driving a regular car on a regular road. To have fun on that same road, you would need to crank a Boxster up to Unsafe Speed – which it will happily do, but for most people that stops being fun and starts being scary. The car is more capable than most of its drivers.

    Anyway, in summary I think that, despite their apparent similarities, these are actually deceptively different cars. The Miata is great for cheap thrills – it’s a fantastic all around little sports car. The Boxster is great for cheap thrills – it’s not got all the creature comforts you might expect in a Porsche, but it still performs like one if you ask it to.

    Glad the Mini worked out for you – that’s another superb little car.

  6. Rude Dog Says:

    All this needs is the upkeep comparision: Prices for insurance, oil changes, brakes, shocks, tires, etc. It’s not over when you throw your buy-in money down. And yes, I did move from a NA ’92 to a NC 2009 but did so because I like the smiling grill.

  7. Paul Johansen. Says:

    Thanks to everyone for this well considered info about these two fine sports cars. I’ve been considering buying one of either, hence the reason I’m here. However, an awful amount of words and space has been wasted on opinions about aesthetics and general appearance which is totally irrelevant to me as these views are inherently subjective by nature and beauty is “always” in the eye of the beholder. To me the Porsche oozes class and restrained dignity and the Mazda is more like an overblown Austin Healey Sprite but who cares? I’ve driven and owned several NA’s and NB’s but the NC wiped the floor with all of them for shear exhilaration, tightness and road feel. Having said that my last NB was an 1800cc turbo that went like a veritable rocket ship but I still prefer the NC for its eager enthusiasm, balanced and more refined feel that the NB seemed to lack. It would be very hard for me to enjoy a sluggish feeling car after owning that thing, so going by what I’ve read above, I won’t even bother driving a Boxster. Besides I hate to think what it would cost if one threw a con rod or broke the gearbox! Lovely looking though, leaves the Miata for dead in that department, I mean who doesn’t stare at a Porsche?

  8. J.R. Says:

    If you honestly think the boxster gets beat out by a miata then do us all a favor and leave the Porsches to people who know what well engineered cars are. If you bought a boxster you’d be stealing it from someone with common sense.

  9. Bob Says:

    I’m about an inch over six feet and I want a Miata. For me, I don’t want stereo or other controls on my steering wheel, nor do I want intrusive cup holders on the doors that bruise my knees. BUT, I also want a cheap thrills car.

    Do I go with an NA and take the crap that goes with an old car, or get the NC and deal with the “modernized” Miata, along with a little more interior space and performance?

    Miataphiles RSVP!!!

  10. Bob Says:

    First to Bob’s RSVP request: Its probably way too late, but I would (and did) go with neither – – get the NB!

    From this (me) Bob: Wonderfully written piece – tip of the hat for posting such a thoughtful and entertaining read that goes straight to a dilemma I too was facing when I first read it a year ago. I am over 6′ tall (barely) but STILL bought the Miata. Got it, as fate would have it – from a guy whose pal owned a Mini, but he liked the Miata better after a week-long trade, or so he says to me, the prospective buyer of his car! Mine’s a 2004 whose side door panel does not destroy my knee as does the NC’s and I love it.

    Best of both worlds: I am leaving for a Florida vacation where I will be renting a 2014 Boxster S (the one that goes fast-er) to see if I “need” to sell my Miata some day. For now, that little $7,000 sportster puts smile on my face every time I put the top down and hop onto the twisties of Blue Ridge foothills.

  11. Jumpiebeen Says:

    From my experience, owning not just Boxsters and Miatas, but MR2s and various other every levels, the Porsche line wins every time. I used to be dead set against them because of the cost and [what I perceived as] uncomfortable sears.

    My daily driver is now a ’01 Boxster with over 200,000 miles on it (and it runs like it were new). I can still take hairpin turns through the Vermont mountain back roads at 90+ mph without so much as a mouse fart from the tires or the suspension…something I would never dream of doing in a Miata or an MR2 (I’ve owned over half a dozen of each).

    The expense is the main drawback. Porsches are expensive…even at the entry level. Police tend to look at it as much as everyone else does, which tends to be a bad thing in the end (but worthwhile imo).

    “And that’s part of the point of the Miata, right? To make you feel like you’re doing a lot, even when you’re doing a little.” -kind of like a pocket p****? Personally, I’d rather have a real car.

    Anyway, I do realize this is an old article. But, I had to comment being it hits on two of my favorite three cars. 🙂

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