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

911 Porsche World - - Contents -

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

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