996 TWO V FOUR
The basic two-wheel drive Carrera is arguably the purest 996 you can purchase. The C4S is almost certainly the prettiest. Let battle commence
Base 996 Carrera 2 or full on 996 Carrera 4S? Time to find out with a back-to-back test
Is that really what it all comes down to? Is the choice between the subtle, slim-hipped 996 Carrera 2 and the widebodied, all-wheel-drive beast that is the Carrera 4S merely a matter of substance versus style? Or is this comparison of modern classics rather more complex?
To find out, it takes a back-to-back drive on the same roads and on the same day. Only then can the true contrast in characters emerge. And so it is that we find ourselves navigating tight and twisting roads of the Cotswolds aboard fighting-fit, factory-spec (well, very nearly) and enthusiast-owned examples of these beautiful and beguiling driver’s cars.
As it happens, the 996 generation as a whole is currently experiencing something of a renaissance. Prices of all variants are on the up as Porschephile punters increasingly wake up to the 996’s compelling overall proposition. Nowhere else in the 911’s extensive and illustrious back catalogue can you achieve quite the same compromise between modern capability and usability, on the one hand, and unfiltered analogue involvement on the other. What a treat this is going to be. Truly, what an honour.
But before we slide back behind the wheel, let’s recall what separates these two early-2000s Teutons on paper. The C4S famously sports a wider body courtesy of an additional 60mm across its voluptuous rear hips. With that comes what Porsche’s original press release characterised as, “running gear and the brakes that correspond to those in the Turbo.” In other words, firmer and lower suspension plus bigger brakes than the Carrera.
In terms of engine power, however, the difference is precisely nowt. Both the revised second-generation 996 Carrera 2 and its upmarket Carrera 4S sibling run exactly the same 3.6-litre M96 flat-six motor producing 320 metric horsepower at 6800rpm alongside 273lb ft of torque at 4250rpm. It’s this shared powerplant that’s probably the source of much of the scepticism that sometimes applies to the C4S.
With no more power than the standard Carrera but additional kerb weight of around 100kg, not to mention the theoretical powertrain losses of all-wheel drive versus rear-wheel drive, the result is that the C4S is actually slower than the Carrera. It’s hard to imagine that happening today, Porsche selling a premium model that isn’t unambiguously faster, such is the precision with which it micromanages its current product range. Carrera S is slightly but unambiguously faster than Carrera. Carrera GTS
marginally quicker than Carrera S. GT3 incrementally trumps GTS. And so on.
These 996s are not new cars, of course, so prevailing product hierarchies don’t apply. Thus, the C4S is slightly slower despite commanding more money on the open market than the Carrera. Really good C4S examples are now knocking on £30,000 while a decent Carrera can still be bought for just under £20k. That either would blow the doors off a £500,000 1973 2.7 RS in a straight line only underscores the disconnect between outright performance and perceived value in the wider classic and modern classic market. More to the point, both are very quick cars by any sane metric. The Carrera will hit 62mph from standstill in five seconds dead and is good for 177mph while the C4S is just one tenth behind in the sprint and only 3mph off the Carrera’s ultimate pace. What matters, then, is the experience each offers, not the numbers.
Of course, said experience reflects the numbers at least in part. That’s obvious the moment you step aboard owner Jonathan Lagan’s delightfully clean Carrera. If the two-wheel drive model is the purist’s choice, then silver paint over a black leather interior is the perfect minimalist expression of that pursuit. Combine the thin-rimmed steering wheel with the relatively simple cabin architecture and the immediate ambience is that of a no-nonsense driving machine. The immediate dynamic sense, meanwhile, is of a very quick car indeed.
In theory, just 200ccs and 20 horsepower separate early 3.4-litre 996 Carreras from this facelifted 3.6. But that doesn’t fully capture the manly muscularity of the upgraded engine. Critically, however, the 3.6 isn’t all about torque. Yes, it is tangibly more forceful in the mid-range. But it spins to the 7300rpm cut out with freedom and vigour. In fact, the 3.6 achieves a very slightly higher specific output than the 3.4. Lazy it most definitely ain’t as it flings the slim and compact Carrera across the Cotswolds. For a blast on your favourite B road, you absolutely, positively do not need any more performance.
It’s a musical and impeccably refined motor, in mechanical terms, too. There’s no sense of strain, no harshness or vibration, just silky smoothness and that signature flat-six howl as you chase the redline. Say what you want about the M96 motor’s mechanical durability, but it’s a fabulous engine to actually use. But what of the rest of the car? In isolation, the second gen 996
“What matters is the ” experience each offers, not the numbers
Carrera majors on competence. Yes, you sense that rear-biased weight distribution. Lumps, bumps and other sharp intrusions can expose the limits of the standard Carrera’s vertical body control. The mass transfers in and out of corners are also telegraphed pretty clearly. This isn’t a car you tip nonchalantly into turns like a late model Cayman. It needs a little more thought than that to set it up, to get the nose working on corner entry.
What it doesn’t feel, at least not in isolation, is conspicuously clumsy. The Carrera is fundamentally grippy and together on first impression. As Jonathan says, “it’s a very balanced car and a great way to learn how to drive a 911.” As for the steering, it’s a delight. Virtually uncorrupted and yet precise and full of feel, it’s an absolute highlight and it makes the steering in every 911 that follows seem at least a little artificial, a tiny bit contrived, starting with the variable-ratio rack Porsche fitted to the 997.
We’ll return to those thoughts and Jonathan’s Carrera in a moment. First, let’s jump into Simon Ghent’s stellar C4S. No question the C4S has huge kerb appeal, it’s a much more exotic beast to eyeball. Remarkable, the difference those mere 60mm across the hips can make. Inside, it’s more or less identical bar a few flourishes Simon has added in the form of the neatly stitched and freshly covered steering wheel, gear shift and hand brake.
As soon as you pull away, however, the contrasts come flooding in. The first thing you notice is just how much more solid and sorted the C4S feels. Subjectively, it’s as if the whole car has had a build quality upgrade. Dynamically, it’s that little bit tighter and more modern than the standard Carrera. Ultimately, that impression translates into nearly everything the C4S does. Take the chassis balance. Compared to the Carrera, the C4S is significantly more planted and composed. Virtually nothing upsets its stride. In fact, it almost feels midengined. Unlike the Carrera, then, which comes with something of a learning curve, the C4S is a car you can jump straight into and drive hard. The comparatively neutral balance and the super precise but less chatty steering give immediate confidence.
“The C4S is a car you ” can jump straight into and drive hard
What’s more, this car’s short shift gear selector, along with some slightly fruity back boxes and the nicely set up pedal box that all 996’s enjoy combine for a really precise and rewarding downshift experience. Straight away, you feel comfortable heel and toeing relatively late into corners, improvising rather than planning ahead. This is a car that makes you feel on top of your game right from the get go. Likewise, the small tweaks Simon has made add up to far more than sum of their parts. The precision of the short shift and the glorious noise from those backboxes make for a very memorable drive. As Simon says, “the more than adequate power and incredible handling make the 996 C4S a perfectly balanced but practical sports car for the road.” This is an awfully pleasant car to pedal. The feelgood factor is high, that’s for sure.
In short, it’s a much more modern driving experience all round than the vanilla Carrera. The downside to all that is the relative lack of interactivity and involvement, something you could argue is a failing of many a modern machine. With the wider stance, the flatter and tighter body control and the seemingly infinite traction on offer from the huge tyres and all-wheel drive, there’s a somewhat one dimensional character to this car. Everything is so completely under control, so utterly ‘on rails’. Even pedalling pretty enthusiastically, in road-driving terms at least, you rarely get that sense of approaching the limits, of unlocking the chassis or flirting with the edge of an adjustable envelope. The C4S takes everything in its stride.
If you read that and find it resonates, then the C4S’S steering may be a minor problem, too. It’s fantastically firm and precise, but it’s also marginally less transparent and delicate than the Carrera’s. It puts that little bit of distance between you the driver and what the car is doing. Similarly, you’ll register that the C4S’S outright performance is less vivid in a straight line. Of course, this widebodied beauty is comfortably quick enough for public roads. Lordy, one can cover ground quickly in this car. But it’s as much the stability with which the C4S puts power down as the very slight deficit in outright pace that shrinks your impression of the available performance compared to the Carrera. It’s that composure again and it works both for and against the C4S.
Time to step back into Jonathan’s sleek silver Carrera. Suddenly, the rear-engine bias feels much more distinct, the whole car narrower and less stable, less composed than before. The shift also feels a little long and a little loose. But critically, the plain Carrera is even livelier and purer than ever. The relative lightness of the rear-drive car’s nose really stands out now, the mass of the engine and how its influence on the
Carrera’s balance through corners is constantly in flux all the more obvious. Get that under control on turn in, through the apex and out the other side and you’ll unlock a whole new level of handling prowess.
Overall, then, how best to characterise the difference between these modern 911 classics? The C4S is undeniably sorted. It’s the most polished, the finished article. If you like what the C4S offers, you can simply buy one and enjoy it. It’s super competent straight out of the box and it wants for nothing. It doesn’t need lowering to look good, its wheels are in perfect visual proportion, there’s plenty of body control and chassis capability on offer and all the performance you actually need. It’s a its sound, the way it makes strange noises fantastic all round package. and feeds back every bump and dip in the
The plain Carrera, on the other hand, road. You know you are sitting in a 911,” feels more a blank sheet of paper, a starting says Jonathan of his Carrera. “Its feel when point rather than a final dynamic destination. loaded up and blasting out of a corner It’s not as resolved as the C4S as standard, always makes me smile. I also like the way but it’s more alive and it oozes with it looks. It was the jolt that moved the 911 untapped potential to tune it to your aesthetic forward. On standard suspension it’s very well behaved and I’m looking forward to a trip to the Nürburgring later in the year. This was an important model for Porsche and I don't think people give it the credit it deserves.”
As for Simon, he reckons his C4S, “isn't the fastest. It isn't the newest. It isn't the most hallowed. And yet the noise it makes and the way it gets me down a twisty road is particular taste. That’s not at all to say it’s just incredible. Having a 996 is like being in fundamentally flawed in standard a small secret club that I am immensely specification. Rather that the core character pleased not to be missing out on.” That final of the car is less contrived. There’s more sentiment surely says it all. The most space for any given owner to create important lesson here isn’t the comparative something dynamically bespoke. pros and cons, as fascinating as they
Speaking of owners, perhaps it’s the certainly are. It’s about the common custodians of these incredibly charismatic excellence shared by every 996. That surely cars that should have the final word. “I love won’t remain a secret for long. PW
“The plain Carrera ” feels more a blank sheet of paper