All in the name of progress. As the 992 lands where’s the 911 story heading? We check the plotline in the modern, water-cooled era, as expressed by base Carrera versions of the 996, 997 and 991. Words: Dan Trent. Photography: Antony Fraser.
Porsche 911 Carrera 2 shootout: 996 v 997 v 991 Which hits the modern era purist 911 sweetspot?
MODERN WORLD 911S
The 2020 Porsche 911 992 is nearly with us so, to prepare for its arrival, we’ve gathered its three modern era 911 predecessors – the 996, 997 and 991 – in Carrera 2 form to tell the story so far…
There are still those who struggle with the idea of a water-cooled flat-six in the back of a Porsche 911. But, let’s face it, we’re now two decades and three generations in and there’s no going back now.
With the arrival of the 992 another chapter in the water-cooled story is soon to be opened, this pause between the teaser rides and the first drives providing moment for reflection on where the 911 has come from since that seismic debut of the 996 back in 1997. And, more pertinently, where it’s going. The basis for any such comparison surely has to be the base Carrera, as close to plain vanilla as the 911 comes and foundation from which all other derivatives come. Put simply, for the true purist an unadorned Carrera is the purest Porsche of all.
Accepted wisdom has it that with each generation the 911 gets fatter, faster, more refined and more technically advanced. Arguments will continue to rage over which struck the most appealing balance between the apparently conflicting aims of usability and raw sports car thrills but, from the very start, the clear direction of travel has been to make each new 911 more civilised, mature and luxurious than the one before. Certainly the two decades that encompass the water-cooled era have witnessed an astonishing pace of technological development. The shift from air-cooling is the big emotional moment everybody talks about, but the 996 launched with naturally-aspirated engines, cable-operated throttles, hydraulically assisted steering and the bare minimum of driver aids or electronic assistance. The two-pedal option was still a torque-convertor auto and by modern standards it’s an ‘analogue’ car.
As 991 hands over to 992 engines are all turbocharged, paddle-shifted dual-clutch transmissions dominate and even Carrera buyers can choose from various adaptive damper packages, optional active engine mounts, active anti-roll, four-wheel steering, configurable driver modes, launch control, carbon composite brakes and much more besides. It won’t be there from the start but, within the lifetime of the 992, we’ll see the first hybrid 911 and further steps towards autonomous driving.
All this is brought home to me as I climb into the 3.4-litre 996 Carrera provided for the shoot by owner Henry Powell. A 1997 car, signs point to this being among the very first 996s to be built and it survives in commendably original condition. The hard plastics on the dash and door cards are unusual and underline its status as an early car, the inevitable engine rebuild also revealing engine components were, if not pre-production, at least from a very early phase in 996 construction. The true essence of the 996? It’s right here.
And if nothing else it reveals the idea that each successive generation gains substance to be something of a lie. 993 fans will proudly boast of that car’s solid build quality compared with the 996 and, for sure, those final air-cooled cars have a solidity about them this Carrera clearly doesn’t. It’s there in everything from fixtures and fittings to the plushness of the carpet and the feel of the switchgear.
The real shock, however, is that this 996 in some ways feels closer in spirit to early 911s than those late 993s. Few would dispute the old-fashioned quality embodied by those last air-cooled cars. But, whisper it, by that stage the Carrera had become somewhat stolid and lost some of that light-footed agility.
Dismiss the 996 as cheaply built if you want. But this one feels tightly wrapped around its occupants and its responses enlivened by the relative lack of weight. OK, it’s only less 50kg and plus 15bhp to the advantage of the 993 Carrera it replaced. But it feels quick on its feet while the sharp, responsive steering instantly puts you in a positive frame of mind.
The cable-actuated throttle has a natural and instantaneous response, too, the conventionally-hinged pedals another break with tradition but better placed and easier to use than those in older 911s. Whether you consider this dumbing down or pragmatic progress will depend on your viewpoint but, fundamentally, the 996 still feels more ‘911- like’ than many credit.
This one’s on aftermarket Bilstein suspension but representative of an M030-equipped original car. There’s a Dansk exhaust, too, which sounds nice but from inside the car the engine’s defining characteristics are its smoothness and refinement. 300ps/296bhp is hot hatch power these days but Carreras have never been the power junkie’s option and, as a package, it just feels fun to drive and with relevant performance and gearing for ‘fast road’ driving.
I actually like the look of it, too. The fried egg lights were desperately uncool for a long time but I reckon they’re an important part of the 996 look and the car’s clean, unadorned shape is maturing nicely. It’ll perhaps never score as one of the all-time beauties. But the proportions are right and, in a modern context, it looks small and usefully wieldy compared with the later cars, a sense matched in its driving style. It’s a pleasant surprise and validation for those who’ve been going against the flow and quietly singing this car’s praises. Switching to the 997 is interesting. I might fight the 996’s corner as being underappreciated but there are no doubts its successor answered all the aesthetic questions hanging over the first of the water-cooled cars. After the shock factor of the 996 the 997 was, in some ways, a step backwards given its return to 911 traditions. But it wears it convincingly, looking simply like a modern 911 and not a lazy, retro pastiche. Inside there’s a definite step up in quality and, again, a return to more traditional looks and a more opulent, substantial feel. Indeed, you could almost write the 996 out of the story and see the 997 as the true successor to the 993.
Saying that, the central infotainment with its calculator-key sized buttons and tiny screen are dating badly, underlining how quickly things have progressed in that regard. The 996’s cabin might feel a bit cheaper and its swoopy ’90s modernism is very of its time but, without this very obvious ‘date stamp’, time is in some ways kinder to the older car.
This one has half the miles of the 996 and feels commendably solid throughout, not least in the firmness of the PASM suspension – one of the new features the 997 introduced to the Carrera range alongside now-familiar optional gizmos like Sport Chrono. In either mode it feels pretty firm at town speeds, the 997 feeling more tied down and planted, in part due to the wider track and fatter tyres (wheels went up an inch in diameter and width) but also thanks to the additional 75kg it’s carrying. Accordingly it feels a tad less urgent than the 996 but the engine is strong and the smooth, linear power delivery encourages you to spend time in the upper reaches of the rev range. Thanks in part to the 3.6-litre displacement and VarioCam Plus on the inlet side (carried over from the 3.6-litre 996) power went up to 325ps/321bhp and torque from 258lb ft to 273lb ft. Porsche claimed a 20-second reduction in the Nordschleife lap time over the 996 but it’s clear the extra speed and composure do come at the expense of some of the older car’s agility.
Another contributor to that perception is the mechanically variable ratio introduced to the steering rack, which calms off-centre response while maintaining a comparable speed lock to lock. There’s a tad less urgency to those first few degrees of steering input as a result but by modern standards the 997 steering is a lesson in weight, response and those gentle tugs of feedback through the wheel that keep you informed of what the car is doing. All the more enjoyable through a simple, slimrimmed steering wheel thankfully free of modern affectations like odd contours, mismatched materials, ugly thumb cutouts or endless buttons. Bravo.
I’ll put it down to a bad workman rather than the car but I can’t seem to get my shifts and rev-matching as smooth in the 997 as I can in the 996, which may be down to the earlier car’s cable throttle or just my lack of footwork finesse. It’s still pleasingly mechanical to drive though, not to mention a delight to look at, to be seen in and generally be around. Consensus on the day is that, overall, this represents a sweet spot in the modern 911 story and the one we’d all like to drive home in.
I may be biased, given the 997 is ‘my 911’ as in it’s the vintage I was driving on launches when it was new and my gateway drug into the Porsche world. If the 996 was full of brave, forward-thinking optimism (some of it possibly misplaced) then the 997 was Porsche taking a step back into its comfort zone and playing things a little safer. Accepted wisdom has it the 997 is little more than an evolution of the 996 and it’s true the two feel broadly similar, despite the official line the newer car was 80 per cent new.
Whatever the case, it’s clear the 991 is a completely different beast, potentially as big an evolutionary leap as that from 993 to 996. Decisively, this is the moment the 911 took a deliberate step upmarket into a more mature, GT-like character. With the Cayman range finally permitted to fulfil its potential and offered in increasingly powerful, focused and expensive variants Porsche had a product in the range to cater to keen drivers who might previously have bought entry-level Carreras. This provided opportunity to quietly raise the entry point to the 911 range and tip its balance more toward the mature, luxury-oriented market. To achieve that the 911 had to be bigger, more technically advanced and considerably plusher, given a few options could have a Carrera rapidly closing on a six-figure price tag. Parked alongside the 996 and 997 the 991 appears from an entirely different planet, familiar silhouette or not. Although it’s only 64mm longer, and identical in width, the extra 100mm in the wheelbase, significantly wider front track and extra distance between the headlights mean the proportions are very different from the more classic 911 shape of the 997.
The perceived quality in the interior is from another age, though. There’s plenty of plastic, true enough. But there’s a crispness and modernity to the fit, finish and quality reflective of recent advances. The cues are all familiar, including the spread of five dials and the general architecture. But the 991 feels like a much bigger car and one more pampering of its occupants than any 911 up to that point.
This one – like most in the market – is a PDK and has the quirky (read, annoying) two-way shifter buttons on the steering wheel spokes. I remember on the launch for this car driving a PDK and wondering if the 991 was merely a synthesised modern interpretation of the 911 rather than the real deal. The electric steering, while better than most, is one example of where the 991 adds a level of digital compression and filtration to the driving process – if an aircooled Carrera is vinyl and the 996 and 997 are CD then this is the Porsche 911 in MP3 form. Convenient and easy to use. But losing some of its soul in its lack of imperfections. In this sense I guess it’s a truly modern car and very much contemporary in feel. On the launch I can recall my mood shifting somewhat when I eventually scored a go in the seven-speed manual, this mechanical link with the engine shifting the balance back to the 911 being a proper driver’s car.
Whatever other qualms there may be about the 991 the original naturally-aspirated Carrera engine remains a stellar feature, the more so given it’s since been superseded by the 3.0-litre turbocharged motor and stands as the last of its type in a ‘regular’ 911. The short-stroke 3.4’s throttle response is absolutely razor sharp and the sound at high revs is authentic enough to prickle the hairs on your neck. Sure, it’s enhanced with a resonator that pipes in amplified induction sound into the cabin.
But the howl as the rev needle whips towards the redline is way more exciting than either the 996 or the 997, the speed with which it gathers revs similarly in a different league. An additional 500rpm on the redline – now 7800rpm – adds ferocity the two other cars can’t match too, the body’s part-aluminium construction meaning it’s marginally lighter than the 997 despite the extra size and kit.
PDK shifts on this car are fabulously quick and delivered with a lovely zing. But you get the best of this motor with a manual and the few in the market deserve to be squabbled over if you want a modern Carrera with a sense of the older ones. If nothing else my theory that any 911 generation is best enjoyed in its most basic, ungilded Carrera form is correct.
We’ll have to see how much of this character is preserved in the 992 and whether the soul of the 911 can survive when smothered in ever more technology. Much as you wouldn’t spoil a lovely single malt by topping up the glass with Coca-Cola some things are best enjoyed neat. The fact that there won’t be a narrow-body option to enjoy the new Carrera in its most basic form is of symbolic concern to those of us who believe this is the best way to appreciate any generation. But, even then, this will be the model that will best demonstrate where the 992 is taking our beloved 911.
“The howl is way more exciting than either the 996 or the 997”
CONTACT Thanks to 996 owner Henry Powell, RPM Technik (rpmtechnik.co.uk) for sourcing the 997 and to Cridfords (cridfords.co.uk) for the 991, which is currently for sale.
Tech and photos
996 CARRERA 2
Model tested: 996 Carrera 2
Engine: 3.4-litre flat-six
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Top speed: 174mph
0–62mph 5.1 secs
Max Power: 300bhp at 7400rpm
Max Torque: 258lb ft at 4600rpm
997 CARRERA 2
Model tested: 997 Carrera 2
Engine: 3.6-litre flat-six
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Top speed: 177mph
0–62mph 5.0 secs
Max Power: 321bhp at 6800rpm
Max Torque: 273lb ft at 4250rpm
991 CARRERA 2
Model tested: 991 Carrera 2
Engine: 3.4-litre flat-six
Transmission: 7-speed PDK
Top speed: 189mph
0–62mph 4.8 secs (with PDK and Sports Plus)
Max Power: 350bhp at 7400rpm
Max Torque: 324lb ft at 5600rpm
The 991 is a handsome looking machine, but its size takes it beyond the sports car and into the realms of the GT.
Below left: Last of the normally aspirated 911s. This 991 3.4 will surely be prized over the later 3-litre turbos in the future.
The 991’s cabin is a bigger and more luxurious place. PDK 7-speed features in prominent, raised centre console. Screen is small by last of the line 991 standards The 991’s limits seem almost beyond reproach, even on our damp test track on an autumn day.
The 997 C2 can be provoked in a way that the 996 can’t, thanks to the extra torque from its 3.6-litres.
Engine carried over from the gen 2 996 C2. It’s the torque that you notice over the gen 1 996’s earlier 3.4-litre engine. Porsche concentrated on getting the curves right on the 997, after the rather flat-sided 996. And, of course, a return to the round (ish) headlights Interior was a marked improvement in terms of materials. In a world of touch screens, the myriad of tiny switches give the 997’s age away.
Kicking up the autumn leaves, narrow bodied 996 is the perfect size for thrills on UK roads Swoopy cabin architecture is very ’90s. Check out the radio/cassette, a nearly defunct medium even in 1997!
Below: Optional 18in ‘Turbo twist’ alloys, is how most 996s were specced. Right: 996 aficionados will hail this as an early, cable throttle M96 engine, for ultimate feel and control.
Devoid of any sort of electronic intervention, save for switchable traction control, the early 996 is practically old school 996 shape is ageing well, after a shaky start. This is one of the very first off the production line in 1997, and one of the very first UK registered cars.
OWNER VIEW – HENRY POWELL
Although a car nut through and through Henry never considered Porsche ownership a life dream and more or less fell into the 911 world by accident. With memories of his father’s old crossflow Caterham he’d been looking at getting a ‘proper’, raw, rear-wheel drive sports car in his life and had originally been looking at Lotus Elises.
But it’s a small world, and when former 911 & Porsche World contributor Adam Towler called round in his 996 with his kids in the back it was Henry’s wife who spotted the potential of a 911 for a car nut with a young family. Henry’s path was set and a 996 was on the list, albeit with some specific requirements. “Fried egg lights were a tick,” he says, “and I wanted an early one anyway because of the more analogue feel and reputation for being simpler and more reliable. I researched the hell out of it but still ended up with one that blew up within nine months!”
In Henry’s case that was bottom end collapse he attributes to most of its 100,000 miles to that point having been covered within the M25, but vendors Portiacraft honoured their warranty commitments and he took the opportunity to invest in futureproofing the engine with additions like Hartech Nikasil cylinder liners and, 5000 miles on, he’s not had any further wobbles. He admits to being obsessed by any new noise, smell or flicker in the temperature gauge but appreciates the originality of the car, its rare early build slot and the unique features those bring. Most of all it drives beautifully, with a back-to-basics rawness and true 911 spirit few 996 critics would ever credit. Haters gonna hate as the kids say but proof this is a proper Porsche is there the moment you get behind the wheel.