BY ANDY ENRIGHT
If ever a sports car could be described as a legend, the Porsche 911 is it. Around in one form or another for over a quarter of a century, the 911 had carved a reputation as a slightly malevolent, air-cooled rear-engined beast. In 1997, with the launch of the '996' series, the 911 had 'malevolent' and 'air-cooled' struck from its vocabulary. These water-cooled Porsches were a huge step forward, their dynamic excellence silencing most of the critics who felt it heretic to liquid cool a 911. The handling was transformed as well, giving the 911 a more mature, benign personality. Tracking down a good used 996 series Porsche 911 is a quick way of jumping the waiting list without taking a wrong turn down the road to financial ruin. Here we take a look at the seminal 911, the rear wheel drive Carrera 2.
Models Covered: (2 dr coupe, 2dr convertible 3.4, 3.6 petrol [Carrera 2])
To understand the direction Porsche's thinking was taking in the development of the 996 series 911, one must track right back to 1978, to the development of the 928 model. Designed as a replacement for the 911 model, the 928 never caught the public imagination, even in its final GT versions. The 911 meanwhile, underwent significant development, Porsche finally realising that killing it off would mean slaughtering the goose that laid the golden egg. Sacrificed on the altar of brand equity, the Porsche 928 nonetheless showed the future direction for 911 models. Porsche's R&D Chief, Horst Marchart, realised that the next generation of 911 had to attract customers who used to be attracted to the Porsche 928 and Mercedes SL, whilst at the same time being able to see off the sort of sports cars 911s traditionally ate for breakfast - cars such as the Honda NSX and Lotus Esprit V8. If 'Type 996' was anything less than a pure 911, the purists would be up in arms. But if it remained an expensive weekend toy, the company's future could hardly be assured. Given these constraints, what Marchart and his team achieved is quite remarkable. The 996 series was launched in the UK in October 1997, with two variants being available, the 3.4-litre Carrera 2 (for two wheel drive) coupe manual and a Tiptronic S semi-automatic version with steering wheel gear shifting buttons. 2001 saw a revision of the 911 Carrera 2, with turbo-look headlamps, revised steering and suspension, some interior upgrades, but most importantly of all, a 3.6-litre engine which developed 320bhp. The cabrio version's hood was amended and it also gained a glass rear window.
What You Get
Whichever model you choose, you'll find yourself with a car that ironically, is actually more closely related to the smaller Boxster than the previous shape 911: over 40% of the componentry is shared. You notice this most of all inside, where the previous haphazard array of knobs and switches has been replaced with the Boxster's far more cohesive layout. There's more cabin space too - but don't let this lull you into thinking of the new 911 as a realistic four-seater. It isn't. The front boot's bigger too, but you still can't fit more than two bags in it. Antilock brakes and twin front airbags are included, although side bags and the excellent Porsche Stability Management electronics are extra. The Convertible features automatic roll-over protection, but you don't tend to see too many of the soft top cars around, possibly due to the unintended cosmetic similarity between it and the much cheaper Porsche Boxster. All the 996 series 911s feel incredibly well built. The cabin, which even in the previous generation 993 series had far too much VW Beetle DNA evident, is now befitting of a serious sports car. Certain design cues remain; the slab sided dashboard and simple switchgear, and that Weissach crest staring at you from the steering wheel let you know that you're about to get a return on the millions Porsche have invested in research and development.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
This 911's engine, although maybe not as charismatic as Porsches of yore, is nonetheless a reliable unit which has yet to show up any significant problems. Check the tyres for wear and also have the rear axle and suspension inspected as heavy acceleration from a standstill on a dry surface leads not to wheelspin, but to quite severe 'axle-tramp.' This is a condition where the rear of the car judders under the torque of the drive going to the grippy rear tyres and is a potentially damaging and uncomfortable sensation. A whining axle or drive shaft will bear testament to this. Go over the bodywork carefully looking for evidence of accident repair. Although the 911 holds the road well, there are no shortage of drivers who feel that Porsche ownership means special dispensation from the laws of physics. Check the condition of the alloy wheels for kerbing damage. Check the bodywork, especially the bonnet, as this can easily be damaged by owners slamming them onto protruding items in the front boot. 911s are very colour sensitive, and dark blue, white and green cars are harder to shift than ever-popular silver and black. Otherwise insist on a proper Porsche main dealer service history, invest in an HPI check and buy the best you can afford.
(Estimated prices, based on a 1998 Carrera 2) Consumables for a 911 are almost laughably cheap. You'll pay £15 for an air filter, £4 for each spark plug, £10 for an oil filter, £16 for a alternator chain, and £15 for a fuel filter. Offset these costs by running any 911 exclusively on synthetic oil.
On the Road
The switch from air to water-cooling was realistically the only solution for the technical team if they were to achieve the tougher goals set in terms of emissions, economy and refinement. The chances are that you won't care about the first two (though they are much improved). Aural accompaniment however, is a different matter altogether. The 911's noise has always been an integral part of its appeal. That flat six has always produced the most marvellous mechanical music. At full throttle, there was never a finer automotive ensemble. Nor is there still. Though the orchestra has been tempered somewhat at lower revs, press the new pendant-mounted throttle a little further and the engine is restored to full voice. The difference is that you're not stuck with this bellow when you don't really want it. On the motorway, you can talk over the engine; heavens, you can even hear the stereo. Around town, you don't get the feeling that the car is constantly straining at the leash. Instead, it will happily potter around as long as you can resist the temptation of the open road, particularly if you choose the optional Tiptronic semi-automatic gearchange with its steering wheel-mounted controls. Once you do venture on to open tarmac, a theoretical 174mph is possible, with rest to sixty occupying a scant 5.2 seconds in the 296bhp Carrera 2. Though this is slightly faster than the old models, Porsche's real achievement is in making the latest cars actually feel slower. You could credit this to any number of factors; the lower engine noise, the slippery new body's greater wind resistance, the lighter power steering, the awesome new brakes. The 320bhp models don't feel significantly slower than most air superiority fighters. Perhaps the real reason, however, is to be found in the reduced amount that the new car demands from its driver. You don't feel every bump or sense every crevice and the result is that cranking on, several disbelieving glances at the speedometer are required to confirm just how fast you're travelling.
If you can't afford a 996 Series Porsche 911, don't drive one. Resist the temptation. Just say no. As one of the best driver's machines around, it will transform you into a motoring malcontent, cursing your previous car's flabby steering and gutless throttle response. If you can afford one, look at a few and go for the best you can afford. Chances are you'll be keeping it for a while.