Porsche 911 Carrera (996): review, history and specs
Performance cars have come a long way since the 996 Carrera became our first eCoty winner, but are the qualities that made it stand out in 1998 still alive and kicking today?
Issue 003. The very first Car of the Year back in 1998 was just the third go at this thing a group of guys – Harry Metcalfe, John Barker, Dickie Meaden, art editor Damian Smith and publisher Allan Pattison, plus Peter Tomalin, current editor Stuart Gallagher and a host of freelance photographers – called evo. I don’t want to pat them too heartily on the back, but you’ve got to admire the blind ambition, the tenacity to secure the cars and the commitment they showed to the cause, even when the future of this experiment was uncertain at best and downright precarious in the cold light of day.
That week in drizzly Wales set the dye for eCoty as we know it today: the best cars, the best roads the magazine could find (and afford to reach), a track element for some three-wheeling and sideways action photography, and a Porsche crowned the winner. To paraphrase Gary Lineker’s concise summation of football: eCoty is a simple game, several badly dressed people drive around like their hair is on fire for a week and in the end the Germans always win. In ’98 the German was the Porsche 996 Carrera.
This means that right now, you can buy a good example of the very first evo Car of the Year for around £15,000. A car that saw off the challenge of the, er, Alfa Romeo GTV. Not to mention the, um, Audi S4 and Jaguar XKR. OK, so the field wasn’t necessarily as strong as this year’s line-up – we live in blessed times for performance cars – but the plain Carrera also roundly beat a Caterham Clubsport, BMW M Coupe, Mazda MX‑5, the Subaru Impreza Turbo in its pomp, a sublime Lotus Elise 135 and Ferrari’s bewitching F355 Berlinetta F1. More importantly, it helped define what evo was all about – poise and composure, feedback and finesse, involvement and balance.
Me? I wasn’t there. But I vividly remember reading Peter’s fine words in primary school (or was it pre-school?), and John’s conclusion on the 996 stuck with me: ‘So much character, so much ability, so much performance so effortlessly deployed. Offered any one of the ten sets of keys for the year to come I’d have no hesitation whatsoever.’ Woah. This new water-cooled contraption was pretty damn good, it seemed. Not only good enough to beat the opposition, it also quashed any thoughts that Porsche had dumbed down the 911: ‘Steely control, athletic suppleness… You’d have to be perverse to declare the old car was better.’
Now, it’s conceivable that the guys were wrong. Almost in the same breath as declaring the 996 Carrera their champ, the team also described the Ferrari’s early days paddleshift gearbox as ‘sweeter than honey’, and somehow the rabid little BMW finished several places behind the Jag and only a point or two ahead of the Alfa. To be fair, 21 years is a very long time and I hear attitudes to drink-driving were much more laissez-faire back then. Which might also explain why Meaden’s tongue is lolling out the side of his mouth in the cornering shots. Anyway, today we’ll discover if the very first eCoty winner has still got it thanks to reader Taran Sura and his lovely, simple, slim-hipped 996 Carrera in Polar Silver. No decals, no towering wing, no gaping intakes or tricks and flicks. For a car that so upset the purists it doesn’t half look pure.
Sura’s car is the opposite of my own 996. For a start, it runs. But more importantly it’s almost entirely standard. Whilst I’ve slowly teased and tweaked mine to create a harder, more precise and more aggressive driving experience, this 996 should retain the creamy fluidity that proved so beguiling in Wales all those years ago. I suspect it might make me question my own car’s path, too. I love how 911s are so easy to mould into your own vision of driving heaven, but realise that the danger of chasing gains in one direction can be that you undermine the lovingly created whole. It might be that a standard Carrera is the very best sort of 996 on Britain’s ever-craggier roads. To find out, I’m pleased to report that Sura, photographer Aston Parrott and I are keeping it real in Essex. Thanks, guys.
I suppose it’s worth reiterating just what a revolution the 996 represented for Porsche when it was launched. Longer, wider and lower, this clean-sheet take on the old rear-engined formula reimagined the 911 shape, referencing the classic silhouette but pulling at and smoothing all the surfaces to create a much more modern driving environment. Few would question it lacked the charm of the 964-era cars or the sex appeal of the 993, but the new 996 was more accommodating and much less, well, weird for people not of the 911 faith. Even better, it was lighter, more powerful, stiffer, and featured more sophisticated suspension.
Of course, the biggest change of all was the switch to water cooling for the flat-six engine. History has been rewritten to such an extent that you’d imagine this caused outrage amongst Porsche guys and girls everywhere… but these were different times. Porsches didn’t command quite such the fetishistic devotion that they do nowadays. Oh sure, people loved them and they tended to clean up in magazine group tests, but journalists and buyers seemed to largely simply treat it as another step in the 911’s relentless evolutionary march. The new 911 had a 3.4-litre flat-six that revved higher and produced 300bhp, the car was lighter at 1320kg, and in every measurable way it was faster and more capable than the model it replaced. There were – from memory and looking back at contemporary reviews – very few tears shed over the 993’s passing.
Anyway, that’s all ancient history and there are bits of the 996 that feel ancient, too. I happen to love the beautifully simple soap-bar lines, but recognise that when you pull open the door and slide into the driver’s seat it’s not all rosy. You sit a little too high even in these optional hard-backed sports seats, the steering wheel doesn’t adjust for reach and always feels a stretch too far, and whilst the Metropole Blue leather is kind of funky, I suppose, the 996 will never win any awards for its interior architecture or the feel of some of the hard plastic buttons and surfaces. Having said all of that, the 996 is extremely compact and the good visibility creates a sense of lightness even before you get going.
Twist the key and the flat-six catches with a lovely dry howl that’s evocative of that of the older cars, but there’s a crispness to the way it revs when you go to the throttle that’s a marked improvement over the sometimes stodgy delivery of a standard 993. Select first and you’ll notice a long throw and an extremely light gearshift action. It’s almost as if the lever isn’t connected to anything below and, honestly, you get the feeling the ’box will require little effort but also offer little reward. I should probably stop referencing the 993… but it’s interesting that Porsche should stray so far from its heavy, deliberate shift. It’s perhaps a metaphor for the whole car. The 996 is all about a sense of easy-going precision rather than hewn-from-granite stability.
The surface is damp in places, caked in mud in others, and the temperature is hovering at around 10deg C. Grip ebbs and flows like a river but the tarmac is choppy and coarse. Yet the 996 rides beautifully. There’s not the ruthless damping control of a modern 911, nor the laser-guided turn-in response, but the loose, limber feeling to the way the 996 goes down the road is fantastically liberating. It’s alive with messages, too. Once again, the steering is lighter than you might expect but it conveys the most exquisite detail. The slight softness immediately off centre is a reminder that the front wheels are lightly loaded, but stay patient and the front responds in kind, weighting and texture ever-changing just like the surface below and breeding confidence.
Grip levels are simply not in the same league as those of a modern Porsche – or indeed a modern hot hatch – but the 996 gives you the tools to exploit all it has and is so mannered when grip runs out that you never feel like you’re missing out in corners. In fact, although the sort of awe that John uttered in conclusion about the 996 is inevitably eroded with time – it simply doesn’t feel that fast or indomitable judged by 2021 standards – the balance of each element of its dynamic make-up is so wonderfully wrought that the feeling of absolute cohesiveness runs just as strong today as it must have in 1998 near Betws-y-Coed. So maybe it’s not awe-inspiring, but boy does it feel alive, accessible and absolutely set up to entertain.
Inevitably, Aston wants me to express this level of playfulness for the camera. Usually he’ll find a fifth-gear sweeper and ask for the car to be on three wheels, sideways and preferably belching flames, and I don’t mind admitting as grip levels spiral upwards and body control gets more and more absolute, this can be extremely intimidating. In the 996? I’m happy to try anything. The engine isn’t loaded with torque but is crisp and responsive, and with 300bhp and 258lb ft the driver always has just a tiny bit more power than grip available. In these conditions at least. So balletically sliding the 996 around is amazingly easy: turn in and feel the front bite and then gently start to understeer as you load up the rear tyres. Have no fear, because it’s pushing rather than slipping out of your hands. This is simply the entry phase to getting the best from the 996.
Now take a breath off the throttle – no need to snap it closed – and balance is restored, then slowly swings the other way. This, right here, when the car feels almost weightless and in stasis, waiting for your next command, is pure 911 and pure heaven. It comes from the cohesiveness I mentioned earlier and the feeling that a million miles have been covered before you, right in this zone, by seriously talented people who know what makes a driver’s car special.
Pour in some more power – the engine really starts to bite over 4500rpm or so and gets more and more impressive as it zings around to the 7300rpm limiter – and the rear simply arcs around, so in tune with your throttle inputs, and the steering seems to fall onto the perfect amount of corrective lock. It’s so easy and fluid but never feels toy-like or inconsequential. You’re dictating every millimetre without stress or sweat but somehow it still feels like a game with high stakes. That’s the real magic of the 996 in 2019: fast enough to thrill yet so accessible that every drive is peppered with moments of unforgettable action.
Even the rangey, lightweight-feeling six-speed ’box comes good at speed. There isn’t the deep mechanical connection of a short-action, ultra-precise shift – the sort you’d find in the Cayman GT4 or a new GT3, for example – but it’s so quick and easy to use and pretty soon you’re batting it around just for fun. Of course, judged by today’s standards the flat-six really does require work to extract its best. We’re so used to huge, turbo-enabled torque that comes on strong and sticks around for the meat of the rev range that it takes time to readjust to a car that needs revs to really fly. It’s no chore, though. In fact, you wonder quite who decided that a torque plateau from 1500 to 5000rpm was a good idea in the first place. Feeling the engine work through all its phases, its voice morphing in pitch and intensity and power inexorably building until the final rush to the limiter, beats the instant gratification of a fat slug of torque, that’s for sure. Overall, it’s safe to say that the 996 Carrera still stacks up today.
I guess the ultimate test would be to throw it into eCoty in 2019, and I’ve no doubt that such an exercise would highlight just how far performance cars have come these past 21 years. It wouldn’t see which way the Mercedes-AMG A45 S went on any sort of road, compared to the GT4 it would feel soft and imprecise, and I’m sure the iron control of the Mégane Trophy-R right at its outer edges would humble the once-mighty Porsche still further. They’d all have more grip, better braking performance, greater endurance and, probably, be capable of delivering individual moments of pure adrenaline that would be out of reach for the Carrera.
Yet somehow I don’t think it’d be a bloodbath. Like so many 911s before it, the first water-cooled car understood that absolute performance is just one element of a sports car’s make-up. It provides the initial thrill, but over time there are more important things to the driver – connection, balance, poise and simply a sense of control over the car’s every move. The 996 nails those attributes, and whilst it seems almost absurd to think that at the first eCoty this 300bhp coupe was considered to sit on the boundary between sports and supercar, it’s much easier to understand why it captivated all who drove it. Light, agile, brimming with character and with a mission to give the driver all the tools and encouragement to pick apart a craggy Welsh road in whatever style they saw fit, it cherished all the things that this magazine was created to celebrate.
Over the years people have bemoaned Porsche’s dominance of eCoty, but to me it’s always been a point of pride that evo has so often rewarded the very best car of the year rather than bowing to pressure and abandoning those principals. There have been exceptions – the facelift 996 Carrera placed only fifth in 2001, the 991 Carrera repeated the feat in 2012 – but for the most part Porsche’s ideals have aligned almost spookily with our own. The inconvenient truth is still the truth, and if a Porsche, be it a 996 Carrera in ’98 or a Cayman GT4 in 2019, offers more excitement and dynamic talent than any other contender then it should rightfully be crowned an eCoty winner. I hope this magazine continues to tell it like it is for the next 21 years.
Porsche 911 Carrera (996)
|300bhp @ 6800rpm
|258lb ft @ 4600rpm
|Price when new