The essence of the Porsche 911 hasn’t changed all that much over the years, and when something does change it usually stirs up controversy. The car you see here is my Dad’s 1999 Porsche 911 Carrera (996 generation), and it marks one of the most drastic inflection points in the 911’s history: the switch from air-cooling to water-cooling. Here in 2013, early 996s haven’t had the most love from collectors, and their value has fallen far more than most 911s. That said this is still a Porsche, and Porsche doesn’t make bad cars. I have driven many Porsches, ranging from a Cayenne V6 to the mighty 997 Turbo S. All of them have been extremely entertaining within their own context, and my dad’s car is far from an exception.
I remember the day we got this car back in the spring of 2007. I went along with my dad on the test drive. Right away, my dad got on the highway, settling into a fairly rapid cruise, and after a minute or so he simply said “I’d be stupid not to get this car.” Even though he had basically made up his mind in just a few minutes, we continued for another half hour or so, flying down back roads and having a ball. When got back to the dealer, the deed was done. Later that afternoon I got my first taste from the driver seat, and there began my hands on experience with this beautiful 911.
My dad chose this specific 911 because it featured a particularly beautiful color combination. The color is “Arena Red”, a classic Porsche color that has since been discontinued, and it sits over a rich tan interior. When we originally found the car on Ebay, it was between this and a blue/tan one, but the red inevitably won out.
The shape and styling of the 996 have been both praised and criticized. From an unbiased point of view the car features beautifully sleek lines, a somewhat stretched version of the classic Porsche shape. However, Porsche snobs will jump to point out that this car shared a front clip with the original Porsche Boxter, a big issue if all you car about is having a status symbol. That was no matter to anyone who actually purchased the car though, because it is actually quite a handsome looking thing.
Personally I love the styling of this car. I was never bothered by the lima bean headlights, and I actually think they contour well from most angles. With its sleek shape, and rich color, this 911 is usually one of the best looking cars on the road, especially nowadays when most cars only come in shades of beige.
Also, because Porsches have generally kept the same look over the years, most people can’t tell the difference between a brand new 911 and a late model 911. So when driving this car, I get the same looks from people that I’ve gotten when driving much newer Porsches. I even had the pleasure of driving this car to high school on two occasions during my senior year. An 18 year old driving a Porsche seemed to cause a decent amount of commotion, because during 4th period that day I overheard someone saying, “Did you see that Nick drove a Porsche to school today?” I must admit that I thoroughly enjoyed that at the time. I realize what a tool that makes me, but in the social free-for-all that was high school, I enjoyed any recognition I could get.
Despite being a sports car, the 911 has always functioned well in normal traffic. Being the first water-cooled 911, the 996 could be used more effectively as a daily driver because there was far less risk of overheating. The 996 was also a bit bigger than the 993, and had a bigger trunk. The result was the most useable 911 ever made at the time. My dad often uses this car for work, where he brings boxes of tools around with him, and he never has issues with space. It is also quite amusing to see the looks people give you when they think you are putting your groceries into the engine bay.
The 996 is very comfortable on the road. While I will always consider it a “sports car”, it does have many attributes of a solid grand tourer.
The front seats are sporty and supportive, but not hard. The back seats provide useable space for things, but not people. Headroom, not the legroom, is the limiting factor for most grown homo sapiens in the rear.
The interior itself has some nice leather appointments, and has a good ergonomic design. However, there are some mediocre plastics used around the cabin that are certainly suspect in a car that had a $70k sticker price. It has taken wear and tear pretty well, though, and everything still seems to function as it should.
On the road
Okay, enough of all the superficial stuff, what is this thing like to drive? In short, fun, very fun.
The car feels wonderfully engaging in all situations. If you are just cruising you can enjoy the low, slung-back posture, smooth ride, and confident feeling on the road. If you are getting a little rowdy, then you will find the driving dynamics superb.
- Steering is on the lighter side, and a lot of information reaches your fingers through the wheel.
- The car is quick to respond to any inputs you give it via the steering, clutch, brakes, or throttle, giving it a sharp, connected feeling all around.
- The gearbox feels nice and tight.
- The clutch is slightly heavy with solid feel for engagement.
- The flywheel is light, so shifts need to be quick to keep things smooth.
An issue with our car specifically, is a pretty blown 2nd gear synchro. My dad bought the car with knowledge of the issue, and it honestly sounds worse than it is. Just skip 2nd gear until the car warms up, and then it will go into gear just fine if you give it a nice tug. Having a new transmission installed would literally cost an arm and a leg, so it has been better just to embrace the car’s issue and learn to live with it.
One of the greatest aspects of this 911 is the way it feels when you really open the taps. It’s not so much the raw ferocity of the acceleration as it is the feeling of ever increasing momentum.The hum of induction bellows deeply from the 3.4L flat six as you bury the throttle, and your surroundings blur as the revs climb. With a quick shift there is no sense of a pause, you just get this epic feeling of pure, uninterrupted trust. Each new gear seamlessly carries the speed built by the last, and there is a wonderful sense of satisfaction that comes from perfectly executing such shifts yourself.
I recently had a chance to open her up while merging onto a completely empty stretch of freeway. Nothing feels more natural, more perfect than a Porsche at full chat on an open road. These things are built for speed, that is their purpose, and experiencing a Porsche flat out is like cutting a steak with a perfectly sharpened blade. All is right in the world, and the car fills you with excitement and enthusiasm for its experience.
Back in 1999, 300hp was pretty impressive, but these days that number is far more common. What the numbers don’t tell you is how the car uses its power. Keep in mind that Porsches are specifically designed for speed, meaning that 300hp in this context goes a lot further than in more typical cars. The Porsche’s gearing is rather long, and while its in-gear accelerative force may not match that of my modified Subaru STi, it swallows speed in much larger gulps. That means a typical 3rd gear pull on a back road will have you breaking the law much faster, and much further, than you would have thought. I can assure you, 300hp is more than a healthy amount for a car like this. There is plenty for fun, and plenty to get you into trouble.
When the 996 came out people could barely believe that it could achieve 177mph with 300hp on tap, but its slippery aerodynamics were its ace in the hole. In fact, I am hard pressed to think of a car that uses 300hp more effectively than this. I have seen 0-60 claims as low as 4.6 seconds, and 1/4 mile times in the low 13s. All still on par with many of today’s fast cars, and it all comes down to weight. Porsche says this 911 weighs a touch over 2900lbs, and that is a lot less heft to haul around than most of the two-ton behemoths we have today.
Low weight and its slippery aerodynamics also help fuel economy. The EPA rates the 1999 Porsche Carrera at 15/23mpg, but I found 25.5mpg during my own test, which consisted of a 50 mile highway journey cruising between 80-85mph. That is a good bit faster than the optimal speeds for fuel efficiency, but I figure that is how most people will drive the car. That said, my dad has seen 27mpg when cruising around 70mph. So this Porsche is fairly economical, especially for a sports car of its time.
While Porsches are phenomenal highway cars, they really come to life while blasting through corners. My dad’s car handles great, but like all 911s you need to be aware that the engine is in the rear, and adjust your technique accordingly. 911s are a bit tricky to learn, but over the years I have eased up to learning how to drive a fast, rear engined car pretty well.
The key is getting the car turned in early because once you get back on the gas all the weight will shift to the rear and the front tires will have no grip. This car has amazing traction coming out of a corner, but just takes some finesse to get turned in smoothly.
In any 911 it is extremely important that you keep your driving smooth because with all that weight in the back, they can spin around in an instant. For this reason I always tend to play things on the safer end of the fun range when driving my dad’s car. Its limits are high enough that you don’t need to push it too hard to have a blast on the road. As a fun handling street car the 996 is perfect for attacking back roads on sunny weekend days. It is also far more approachable for normal drivers than the older, air-cooled 911s.
Dollars and sense
As I said before these early 996s are not holding their value too well. We paid $30 grand for this car back in 2007, but decent examples can be had in the $20 grand range today. If you’re willing to roll the dice on maintenance, you can even find some in the teens. Keep in mind that these costs will be high, regardless of what you wind up paying for the car; a Porsche is still a Porsche.
We have had a few small issues with our car, namely one with the door lock, which cost a lot more than you would think to fix. This is not a car to buy if you are extremely cost-conscious. At this point an early 996 is a great 2nd car to buy, something you won’t need to rely on every day. While functional reliability is solid, if something does go wrong, you may need to save up to fix it. Our car has been pretty reliable in the years we have had it, but even routine maintenance has been pretty pricy at times.
Performance wise, this 996 is one par with a modern Nissan 370Z, but it is a much better car to drive. There is just more connection between the car and the driver in the Porsche, and it feels like a more complete package. Plus, last I checked 177mph is still pretty darn fast here in 2013, surely more than enough for most buyers in the price range.
The moral of the story with my Dad’s 996 is that it is still a proper Porsche, through and through. Sure many people complain about air cooling, but the reality is that it improved the 911 in every practical respect. This car is an unbelievable amount of fun, and I come away smiling every time I drive it.
Special thanks to Dad for letting me take the car out every so often.
WoM Score: 1999 Porsche 911 Carrera
Primary Function: Performance: 2
Secondary Functions: Luxury(2) Practicality(2) MPG(2): 2
Visual Appeal: 2
Build Quality: 1.5
Value for Money: 2
Final Score: 9.5/10