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Ruf Rturbo: review, history and specs of an icon

More powerful than Porsche’s contemporary GT2, the 217mph Rturbo was once the fastest new production car money could buy. Today, almost two decades later, it remains as desirable as ever

Evo rating

It struck me at the latest eCoty test that perhaps the era of the great all-round performance car is over. In a world where so many cars can do everything well all the time, it’s natural to gravitate towards extremes, to want to mainline the wildest experiences and seek out cars that present an opportunity to feel like you’re on the edge. Of something: grip, reason, the boundary between road car and no-holds-barred racer. As power outputs continue to spiral and performance becomes more and more accessible – homogenised, even – we crave something raw, something that makes us feel alive. Brilliance is no longer enough. 

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This trend has created some extraordinarily thrilling cars in recent times and slain the monsters of old. You see a picture of an old Diablo SV and imagine it to be a fire-breathing monster, don’t you? Or shudder at the thought of an early 911 Turbo in a suddenly tightening bend. But the reality, in the context of something like a 765LT or modern GT2 RS, is that those Widowmakers from the past feel about as edgy as a butter knife that’s slipped behind a kitchen unit and gathered dust for a dozen years. 

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What hope, then, for an ageing model designed and built by a company whose very DNA is to create cars with extreme performance but wield it in a useable, understated way? Yesterday’s subtle is very often today’s unremarkable. So I approach the slim-hipped 996-generation Ruf Rturbo with trepidation. Its holistic, considered and beautifully executed approach makes me swoon. But even as my heart skips a beat I’m worried that this highly evolved 911 won’t be able to thump it off the rev limiter once the wheels are rolling. 

Understated? Subtle? Am I talking about the same Ruf that found infamy through a cult tyre-smoking video filmed on the Ring? The one with a vivid yellow 911 painting at lurid angles way before ‘drifting’ had become a thing? And this car having already blown apart the competition at a top speed shoot-out held by US magazine Road & Track at Ehra-Lessien, where the very same Ruf CTR (Group C Turbo Ruf) was christened Yellowbird having reached 211mph? Well, yes actually. 

This has always been the dichotomy at the heart of everybody’s favourite Porsche tuner. Ruf creates cars capable of outrageous things but which are also wonderfully useable, built to meticulous standards and retaining the astounding breadth of ability that has made the 911 the perennial benchmark. The integrated Alcantara or leather-trimmed roll-cages, which invisibly strengthen each Ruf, speak eloquently of this company’s unique approach. Perhaps think of Ruf as the people who kick-started the trend for bespoke, gorgeous restomodded performance icons. The only difference is they ‘reimagined’ Porsches fresh from the production line.

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This Rturbo was born in 2002 and was immediately put into service as Ruf’s official press car. Hence the signature Blossom Yellow colour. And the spec, which adopted Ruf’s preferred narrow Carrera shell (the Rturbo could also be specified with a Turbo body and Tiptronic, too) bursting with a 3.6-litre twin-turbocharged flat-six. It left Pfaffenhausen with 513bhp at 6000rpm, 546lb ft at 4800rpm and in rear-wheel-drive configuration before embarking on a glorious world tour. Road & Track achieved 0-60mph in 3.8sec and 0-100mph in 8.1sec with this car despite recording the figures in 40-degree heat. Later, chassis W09BD03683PR06037 hit 217.5mph at Nardo and starred in another very sideways video at the Nürburgring. Back then an Rturbo would have set you back £136,900, compared to £86,000 for a 911 Turbo (414bhp) and £109,800 for a GT2 (475bhp). Today you’d need around £160,000 if you fancied a 996 Rturbo. Assuming you can find one.

Now, some 17 years later, that same car is emerging from a storage facility right in front of me. The Rturbo is resting here before it leaves the UK for its new home in Sweden. The temperature is hovering around freezing, the sky is a dazzling blue and the roads nearby are filthy from weeks of rain and muddy tyres. Oh dear. And here was me wondering if the Rturbo might feel a bit too rounded for its own good. Be careful what you wish for, eh? Having said that, my nerves aren’t jangling quite as much as they might be, as this car was subject to a thorough recommissioning at Ruf in 2007 that included new everything, an upgrade to 542bhp and the addition of four-wheel drive. 

The noise is flat, hollow but sharp-edged as the engine warms through at idle. It doesn’t so much cut through the crisp air as diffuse into it, creating shockwaves as it goes. I know where the noise is emanating from, but it feels like it’s bursting from every pore of this searing yellow 911 as I circle it for a closer look. 

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It doesn’t take long. The 996 isn’t as shockingly small as an early air-cooled car by today’s standards, but compared to a 991 or 992 it really is low, narrow and compact. The Rturbo crams a lot into a small footprint, though. At first the gaping Turbo-esque front looks a little heavy-handed without the wide hips that would usually balance it out, but pretty quickly your eyes are diverted to the tiny low-drag mirrors, those classic Ruf 19-inch alloys and the intakes atop the rear wings that so clearly reference the Yellowbird. I love how it’s got that nonchalant ‘if you know, you know’ confidence but also manages to appear special, a cut above, even to those who, well, don’t know. Something about the detailing, the ride height and the bespoke rear wing create a powerful presence. 

Oh man, I love these high-winged GT3-style seats. They’re definitely on the narrow side and perhaps set a little higher than you’d expect, but they feel so good. The steering wheel is a bit of a stretch even with the column fully extended, and the shifter for the six-speed ’box is about two inches lower than you’d naturally expect. The driving position and manipulating the controls smoothly is deeply ingrained in my muscle memory though, so it takes seconds to adjust. Inside it’s all standard 996 fare – simple, neat and functional but not exactly awash with lovely materials. Luckily, the Ruf steering wheel is thinner than many I’ve tried and feels just right, and the green-on-black dials and the proliferation of Ruf badges are a nice reminder that this is not any old 911. I particularly like the graphic etched into the signature side mirrors. Honestly, though, you really don’t need visual clues to notice…

Quality might not ooze from the interior but it flows like a torrent from every move the Rturbo makes. This is not the car I expected, but every mile further reinforces the realisation that it’s very much the car I need. It’s resolutely not a 996 Turbo. Too focused, too light on its feet, too damn exciting. Nor is it a GT3. Too supple and so expertly honed to be a road car first, while just happening, I suspect, to be a riot on the track too. A GT2 is harsher, less forgiving and hence less playful at road speeds. The Rturbo cherry-picks the best bits from the 911 range, refines each chosen element, adds its own unique twist of massive performance and yet still manages to be more than the sum of its parts. Within ten minutes I’m smitten and wondering how the four-wheel-drive system can act so aggressively on the one hand but gift such natural, easy control. This thing is incredible!

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Despite the wickedly purposeful ride height, the Rturbo tracks along the surface with real composure. The damping – bespoke Bilsteins – is superb, offering just enough compliance but leaving the 996 absolutely keyed in to the tarmac. If you’ve driven many 996 or 997-generation cars you’ll notice the added rigidity of the Ruf’s structure, too. The reinforced platform adds a depth of polish that benefits every element of the car’s dynamic make-up and creates a measured, accurate and responsive character. There’s something of the GT3’s lightweight agility here, but everything is honey coated. 

It’s little wonder that the car feels so dialled in when you look at the extent of the work carried out by Ruf. The chassis features adjustable suspension, a GT2 transaxle and reinforced clutch and Brembo six-piston calipers. The engine is, of course, similar to the 3.6-litre twin-turbocharged unit found in the 996 Turbo, but with bigger KKK turbos, modified VarioCam actuation, a new intake system and a freer-breathing exhaust. GT3 engine mounts are also adopted to keep that mighty engine locked tight to the chassis. It’s this detail – and the GT2 rear differential – that gives the best clue to the Rturbo’s character. Yes, show it a long enough straight and the Rturbo will do 217mph. Which is cool. But make no mistake, this thing loves to turn.

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There is no traction control. At all. So it pays to treat the Rturbo with respect. The exhaust is a little boomy at low revs and there’s just a hint of shunt as you shuffle through villages. However, once free from other traffic and 30mph zones the Rturbo has a steeliness about how it delivers its power – booming torque bleeding into howling top-end power that’s cut short as you stutter into the limiter. On these hemmed-in, heavily crowned roads the Ruf squirms and wriggles with the effort of getting all 542bhp to the surface and you feel and hear the rear wheels slip and then sense power being diverted forwards. Now the fronts scrabble and scrape and the process of torque being shuffled and cajoled into forward motion goes on through second, third and deep into fourth. The Rturbo is seriously quick, even if your internal G-meter has been recalibrated by 2021’s scintillating supercars.

The performance is all the more forceful because you can feel the mechanics of it. Steering feedback is not quite as textured as in a standard 996, and the smooth, light motion does occasionally leave you guessing for a split second when you ask the Rturbo to change direction. However, the GT2-sourced rear end is so transparent that it barely seems to matter. You can feel the diff lock hard and early (in fact the car judders like a GT-R at low speed and you’d swear somebody has fitted a spool diff back there) and where you might expect this four-wheel-drive 911 to feel a little ponderous and nose-led, the balance is resolutely neutral. It wants to play. 

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The Rturbo’s character is quite a shock. Performance is Turbo+ but the agility, the lightness of touch and the way you can thread this 542bhp needle along a glistening British lane is something else altogether. The engine is fantastically muscular, the short-shift gearbox is precise and can be hurried yet retains a finessed, oily slickness, and once you’ve got through that slightly disconcerting dead phase in the steering the Rturbo feels fabulously straightforward. Commit to the throttle and you’ll rip through corners with balanced poise; lift and the nose tucks in neatly and then you can drive out of turns with the outside rear tyre smeared into the surface and wheel speed and road speed deliciously out of kilter. Exaggerate those inputs and the Ruf slips quickly into oversteer, all the while driving forward hard and distributing power efficiently to help smooth your inputs and keep any oversteer contained. It’s fabulously entertaining and, despite huge performance and plenty of grip, the Rturbo never feels like it requires absurd levels of commitment to come alive.

Maybe that’s the Rturbo’s real magic. When the possibility came up to drive this car I imagined a trip to gorgeous, empty roads, a place to really exercise one of the most special 996s on the planet and reveal all of its secrets. Sadly, even the best laid plans mean nothing in these strange times, so instead I get one day on roads in Northamptonshire, Warwickshire and Oxfordshire.  Other traffic is light but persistent and the dream of a vast, empty landscape to play in and interrogate the Rturbo descends into snatched moments here and there between villages, roadworks and farm vehicles. A recipe for crushing frustration. 

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Yet all I can remember is smiling. Feeling the way that 3.6-litre engine, swollen with boost, picks up the car on part throttle in fourth or fifth and throws it into the distance, the narrow body seeming to carry no drag at all. One stretch of dual carriageway is enough to make me believe this thing would breeze through 200mph. More impressive still is that the high-speed potential doesn’t come at the expense of low-speed engagement and capability. There’s such fabulous consistency to the car’s responses, and such athleticism. I’d somehow expected a 911 erring on the side of long-distance effortlessness, but the Rturbo is closer to a Motorsport division car with just enough extra refinement to make the idea of blasting across Europe seem wonderfully appealing. 

Funnily enough, the reason I was invited to drive the car at all was because the new owner was worried that the four-wheel-drive system would be too clumsy and take away some of the excitement. He was considering returning the car to Ruf to switch it back to its original rear-drive configuration and wanted a second opinion on the idea. In the event, the drivetrain felt so intrinsic to the experience I couldn’t imagine it any other way. The four-wheel-drive system and, crucially, the adoption of the GT2 differential, make 542bhp and all that torque useable without reducing the thrill one bit. This level of performance in a rear-drive 996 chassis could well be a step too far. Indeed, when an Rturbo participated at eCoty in 2001 without front driveshafts, it left us dazzled and amused but ultimately felt like a parlour trick rather than a fully realised driver’s car. This thing is altogether more impressive. 

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I can’t help but slowly circle it on foot one more time. We’re back at the storage facility and, I’m rather ashamed to say, the Ruf Rturbo looks a little worse for wear. Mud is streaked down the sides and the wheels are caked in brake dust and road grime. Sorry, Johan, it was just one of those days. But I just want to look at it ticking and chattering in the harsh winter sun. In fact, I don’t want to give the Rturbo back. Somehow everything coalesced to make today feel almost dreamy. Maybe it was that the conditions suited the car’s talents perfectly, maybe it was a rare Blossom Yellow highlight in a world of relentless grey lockdown, it’s hard to say. However, what I do know is that this Ruf buried itself so deep into my affections that I’ll never forget it. Perhaps the newest, wildest breed of supercars are capable of offering an even bigger thrill, a hit so extreme that it makes all your senses feel absolutely alive. Those moments will be few and far between, however. The Rturbo is a reminder that brilliance in all situations, on any sort of road will have never-ending appeal.

Huge thanks to Johan Bonnier for the loan of his Rturbo and to Tuthill Porsche for facilitating the loan. You can follow Johan on Instagram and enjoy his adventures with his stunning collection of cars, including NSX‑R, F512M, Nissan Skyline GT-R Nismo 400R and 911 SC RS.

Ruf Rturbo specs

EngineFlat-six, 3600cc, twin-turbo
Power542bhp @ 6000rpm
Torque575lb ft @ 4000rpm 
Weight1530kg
Power-to-weigh360bhp/ton
0-60mph3.7sec
Top speed217mph
Price when new£136,900 (2001)
Value today£160,000

This story was first featured in issue 285.

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