996 REACHES 20
The 996 generation 911 is 20-years old this year. Maligned by many, it’s time to acknowledge the 996 for its place in the 911 pantheon. The 996 is Porsche’s line in the sand, which separates the old school, classic aircooled 911 with the modernist water-c
Time flies and the modern 996 generation of the 911 is practically a classic. We line it up against the 993
The 996 model 911 is 20-years old. Come again? How did that happen, I mean it doesn't even look 20-years old, it looks sort of modern, which it sort of is, even by today's madly technically progressive times. It was born into the digital era, it's familiar with the internet, it's got stability management and other modern stuff. It's based on the platform sharing concept with the Boxster. I mean, how modern is that? Maybe it's because anything pre-2000 and the new millennium, now seems and sounds old, but 1997 does indeed feel old. Or maybe it's just me that's feeling old. I was, after all, a rather more youthful 31 when the 996 was launched. I know which has aged better!
Now to look at it another away. The 996 is a 911, so in that case in 1997 it was actually 34-years old, given that the 911 was launched in 1963. Technically yes, but the 1997 996 was a clean-sheet design and so represents a return to ground zero. Aside from its engine location and styling cues, it shared nothing with the air-cooled cars that came before it. The 996 represents, then, the start of the modern 911 era and, along with the Boxster, the start of Porsche's modern day evolution into the world's most successful car manufacturer. Much was expected and much
more was delivered, even if there was the odd hiccup along the way.
It's easy to underestimate the challenge that Porsche faced in creating a new, modern 911. No other sports car had been evolved like the 911 had, and no other came with the mystique that surrounded the 911 either. A flawed concept to start, and one that had cheated its own demise at least twice. Even at its launch, the number of air-cooled, rear engined cars could be counted on one hand, and the majority of them had been designed by Porsche in the first place. Think Beetle, think 356, think Corvair (not a massive success) and Renault Alpine (but watercooled) and that's about it, from a sports car perspective.
But the 911 had become the de facto sports car, using its arse-about-face layout as a positive, which in many ways it was. However, the temptation for Porsche to abandon the 911 layout must have been pretty powerful, oh, for all of five minutes. The move to a water-cooled 911 would be a big enough challenge and sell to the 911 faithful, without a fundamental shift in layout and, besides, to what? Mid-engined? Er, that would be the Boxster and that had come first. The Boxster and the 911 were developed in tandem, two for the price of one.
The modern Porsche 911 had to happen for the company’s survival. It had developed the air-cooled 911 into a corner and needed to turn air into water. It's testimony to Porsche that they kept it going for as long as they did, but then that is also to make a virtue out of a necessity and the 911's future was no longer in the past. Too small, too noisy, too expensive to make, too limited a market, by the early ’90s, the writing was on the wall. What could be seen as dithering and a lack of funds, was actually Porsche's desire to get it right. They reasoned that they would only have one shot at replacing the 911 and they were probably right. No pressure then...
The story is well documented and I'm not gong to go into it in great detail here. The driving force to Porsche's revived fortunes and modernisation was Wendelin Wiedeking, recruited in the early ’90s to turn Porsche around. New models were the only answer and Porsche would have to spend its way out of trouble. Referred to internally as 'The New Generation', two new models were proposed, one being the mid-engined Boxster, the other being a new 911 – the 996. The 'New' of 'New Generation' was as much a reference as to how the cars were to be manufactured as to their design, with the aforementioned shared platforms and components. The Boxster took
its inspiration from the ’50s mid-engined race cars, like the 550 Spyder, while the 991 took its inspiration from, well, from the 911. Both models were launched within a year of each other and straight into a worldwide financial boom. They took Porsche from niche to mainstream in one hit. Right product, right place and right time and a testimony to Wiedeking's direction allied to senior designer, Harm Laagay's vision of what a modern Porsche should be and designer, Pinky Lai's nuanced take on upscaling the 911 for the fast approaching new millennium and beyond. The current 991 and the 997 before owes its
existence to Porsche getting it right first time with the 996.
So time to celebrate the 996, then. But how? How to really assess and analyse where the 996 really fits into the 911's 54 years? Well, in order to see how far something has come, you need to look back, which is why we've invited two cars along to this near coming of age 996 celebration. To really understand the 996, we first need to drive its predecessor – the 993 – and really get to grips with Porsche's air-to-water transformation.
The 993 was, of course, the ultimate
evolution of the air-cooled 911 and as such the most modern too, while still retaining all the 911’s fundamental attributes. There was no mistaking where it had come from. Climb in blindfolded and just statically operating the controls would be enough for any 911 enthusiast to feel immediately familiar. Start it up and that unique whirring, air-cooled clatter is unmistakeable. Take the blindfold off and the interior is easily traced back to the 1963 original. From 1968 on the dimensions are pretty much the same, the doors, floorpan, roofline and windscreen all virtually interchangeable. All these virtues work both
for and against. For the 911 diehards, it’s charm and continuity, but to the non 911 believer it’s all part of the 911 enigma.
Our 993 is a late 1995 car, with Varioram and a full 285bhp. It's been a while since I've driven one and as ever it's a struggle to get my 34in pins under the steering wheel and then skew them to line my feet up with the pedals. Instinctively I go to shove the seat back for a bit more room, but there is no more to be had. The upright windscreen is virtually in my face and, with my hand on the top of the steering wheel, I can extend my middle digit to touch it. The seating position is very upright for a sports car, but the visibility is all the better for it, although the 993's flattened front wings can't be relied upon as a reference for pointing the nose into a corner, unlike every other 911 up to and including the 964. All in all it feels very compact and very 911.
Time for a drive. Twist the key in the ignition – which as per tradition sits between the steering and the door on the right – and the motor churns, whirs and catches. The clutch and brake pedal sprout from the floor, as does the throttle. They feel weird to start with, as does having to lift your heel from the footwell to operate the clutch, but it's all part of that 911 thing. The gearchange is long, but smooth, with a slight rubbery twang to its movements. Getting both first and third involves a slight physical dipping of the left shoulder. Co-ordinating the clutch and working up though the gears requires positive co-ordination and deliberate input. It's not difficult to drive as such, but it's not a car to be driven on autopilot. It demands interaction.
The steering is power-assisted, but not as we know it in modern terms. It's heavy and damped at the dead ahead, with just enough response to make turning into a corner a less physical effort. Turn in? It's surprisingly slow to be honest, reminding you to give the upright wheel more of a turn next time. Even so, the nose is not one for turning with great vigour, a legacy of the rear engine layout. All this, of course, is a rather analytical description of what's going on. What's missing here is the built in drama and noise of the air-cooled 911 experience. Even in the 993, with its advanced rear suspension, there's a whole lot of moving going on and a whole lot of chatter and feedback through the wheel.
There's a sense of involvement and
deliberation. There's little that's being done for you here. Want to go fast? You need to make it happen. The 993 won't take kindly to hamfisted inputs and being needlessly thrown around. You need to be smooth or it will get scruffy, quickly. It's entirely analogue, with no safety systems to save you should it go wrong. That said, you have to be spectacularly violent to get it terminally out of shape. By the time the 993 came along, Porsche had well and truly mastered the swinging sixties design. The 993 is a wonderful thing, a truly living thing, but it had reached the end of the line in terms of what was possible. It could be traced back to 1963 and, by the mid ’90s, it really felt like it.
So to make the step from developing the past to creating the future. For Porsche this was an almost existential moment, its one giant incrementalleap as steps. opposed For to us the it’s previoussimply a matter of swapping seats. Here we go...
Of course it's impossible to wipe from memory the last 20-years, but imagine if this really was the first time you had made the transition from the old to the new? The 996 we have here is a lovely example. In default silver it's an early 1998 Carrera 2, modestly specced and all the better for it. It belongs to 911&PW reader, Brian Gunn, and aside from the GT3 wheels (which may have been an option, but we're not sure), it is as it was when it left the factory, right down to the fried egg headlamps. Perfect.
Viewed now and next to the 993, the 996 is very much a 911, albeit one that's been smoothed of its previous curves, which was the criticism that was applied at its launch.
The machismo.looks compared996 almost hadto It timelessthe lost was currentsome almost andof 991 feminine.the usefully generation911s narrowNow 911. it Of 993, coursebut thenit's dimensionallyit had to be, not bigger only thanto the accommodate the water-cooling apparatus or radiators etc, but also because it was considered no longer acceptable to expect driver and passenger to literally rub shoulders. But still the 996 is by no means big, even if sliding behind the wheel after time spent with the 993 is like getting into the Tardis.
In the 996 you sit low, rather than perch. The windscreen slopes at 60deg rather than an upright 55deg. The pedals are perfectly located and hang rather than pivot from the floor. The gearlever can be operated via a flick of the wrist rather than a full shoulder input. There is no driving contortion required. That's progress and we haven't even got going. Oh, sure, some of the plastics are a bit disappointing and the frameless door clanks rather than clunks shut, but the overall feel is of a cohesive design rather than a rambling collection of parts and add-ons. Twist the chunky key in the damped ignition and the 3.4-litre, 300bhp flat-six catches
For Porsche the 996 was an almost existential moment
immediately. It's smoother and more refined than than the air-cooled clatter of the 993, and sounds rather more sophisticated. Dip the light clutch, find a gear and crank the wheel, all in one fluid, intuitive and co-ordinated movement. Brush the throttle and the engine crackles and the revs leap. Compared to the 993, the 996 feels like it’s got a lightweight flywheel.
To be comfortable behind the wheel and at one with the controls is half the battle. It's what makes a car inviting to drive, and that's how the 996 feels and on the road it’s a revelation. Making the same leap 20-years ago must have been a real eye opener, and let’s not forget, for all that it’s fashionable to deride the 996 these days, there were very few movers and shakers in 1997 that didn't concede that the 996 was simply better in every way than its predecessor. Not for nothing did it win just about every magazine car of the year contest.
So how does it feel? Firstly, you can place the 996 exactly where and as you like. There is a progression and linearity to the steering that just isn't there with the 993, which you steer with your arms, rather than your wrists. The 996's steering is lighter, too, but much more delicate in terms of feel. The 996's longer wheelbase allows for a more neutral stance and you can feed in the power progressively to change its attitude. It hits apexes rather than avoids them and simply makes the 993 feel clumsy in the way that it flows and moves down a piece of road. Direction changes are instant, complex sequences of bends become thrilling, mixing some light oversteer with a corrective flick of the wheel and a corresponding kick of the throttle, at which point the back end sits, the front goes light and the 996 rockets out of the bend. It's quite simply more fun, more satisfying and more consistent and consistently about 10mph faster in every situation.
And boy is it fast too. Back in the day, the only thing that would a touch a 996 C2, was a Ferrari 355. It's a sub 5 second 0–60mph machine, with a top speed of 175mph and with a power delivery that is almost elastic in its flexibility. Yes, the later 996 gen 2 had more torque from its 3.6-litre engine, but it didn't rev as savagely as the 3.4. Conversely, though, with its tall sixth gear, it's a supremely capable mile-muncher and will deliver an easy 30mpg. Porsche practicality. It was ever thus and the 996 is as much a GT as it is an outright sports car, although compared to the current 991, it's still small enough to be given a hard time on a typically ragged piece of British B road, with involuntarily breathing in every time something appears in the opposite direction. The quality of its passive suspension will have you questioning the iron fist control of the latest generation of 911, too.
In numeric terms the gap between the 993 and the 996 is exactly three. Quite what happened to the 994 and the 995 is anyone's guess. The 996 isn't quite such a dramatic leap, that it feels like it's skipped three generations over the 993, but it certainly feels like it’s skipped at least one, such is the huge improvement over the machine that it replaces. For years Porsche seemed almost paralysed into a make do and mend evolution of the 911, until finally it had no choice but to act. Modernising the 911 has been Porsche's single biggest achievement of the past 25years, closely followed by the Boxster. They are the foundations of Porsche's huge modern era success and both modern classics in their own right.
So, 20-years on and the 996 is in an odd place. Lauded at its launch and selling in huge numbers, largely to a non enthusiast base, its ubiquity has been its undoing. The 993, meanwhile, as the last of the air-cooled 911s, its future and status is assured. The 996's time will come, though. It's a 911 after all, and if there is one thing that we've learnt in recent years, that is pretty much enough. The market has yet to catch up with its significance, but surely as night follows day, it will and early models like this, with manual gearbox and plain old Carrera 2 spec, will be in demand. PW
The 996 is as much a GT as an outright sports car
It’s a 911, but not as we know it. That’s how the 996 felt when it was launched in 1997
Left: Bennett at the wheel of the 996, which is a comfortable place to be given its sports car/gt duality. Below: Brian Gunn brought along the 996. It cost him £11,000 and it’s pretty much his every day car
Final evolution of Porsche’s flat-six develops 285bhp. Complex shaping of the inlet manifold indicates that this 993 is fitted with Varioram. Interior barely changed from 1963 original, save for plusher materials. Dimensionally its near identical
Left: Rear guard. Styling might not have been entirely successful on the 996, but from the rear it was spot-on and unmistakeably 911 in its curvature