The 996 generation of the Porsche 911, introduced for the 1999 model year, was the most radical change for Germany’s sports car since the model’s debut in 1963, mostly for one simple reason. Generations of 356 and 911 owners had associated Porsche with air-cooled engines, but with the 996, Porsche’s signature model would from then-on be a water-cooled car. The engine itself was largely the same unit as in the Porsche 986 Boxster, but with a 10.5 mm larger bore and 6 mm longer stroke for a total of 3,387 cc as well as larger valves. It was smaller than the 3.6-liter unit of the 993, but with four valves per cylinder, VarioCam control and numerous other advances, the 3.4 was both more powerful and more efficient than the engine it replaced.
Speaking of the Boxster, this new entry-level Porsche was designed concurrently with the Porsche 996, and the two cars shared many components both inside and out. In fact, they look nearly identical from the A-pillar forward. In part because the Boxster came out a year earlier, the 996 drew plenty of criticism for looking too similar to the cheaper entry-level Porsche. The “fried egg” headlights of the 996 and Boxster didn’t win too many fans among the critics, either, and the softer lines that were purposely penned to look more relaxed than the 993 led many to bemoan the loss of the muscular bulges and haunches of previous 911s.
As for driving the 996, many critics expressed some degree of disappointment as well. Some element of the 911’s essential character had been lost for the sake of refinement, but few could deny that it was objectively a better car in just about every measure. A Road & Track test of an early car concluded that “the new Porsche is a significantly faster and, yes, a better car. Perhaps we shouldn’t think of the 996 as a better or worse 911, but rather as a different one retuned by smart engineers for modern expectations. Times change; something gained for something lost.”
The 996 was also the first truly mass-produced 911. Every step of the production process was fairly cutting edge. Inside, occupants sat lower than they had in the 993 and had more headroom as well as more luggage space, despite retaining the same height and similar dimensions.
In 2000, the Porsche 996 Turbo was introduced. Similar in concept to 911 Turbos of the past, it had a 3.6-liter twin-turbo flat-six that made 415 hp and 415 lb-ft of torque driving all four wheels. The engine architecture on the Turbo was distinct from the normal 996 Carrera, and could be visually distinguished from the normal car by its wider stance, more aggressive styling and different wheels.
2002 saw a facelift for the 996 range, with more pleasing headlights derived from the Turbo model, different wheels, new front and rear fascias, and interior improvements that included, finally, a glovebox. The stroke of the engine was also lengthened for an overall displacement of 3.6 liters, and power was raised to 320 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque while fuel economy also improved. A Targa model returned to the 911 range as well in 2002, and Porsche introduced the Carrera 4S model, a “Turbo-look” car that was lower and wider like the Turbo and had Turbo brakes and wheels but did without the forced induction and extra expense.
Porsche also introduced two special lightweight versions of the 996 platform. The 996 GT3 was derived from the Carrera, but was stripped of much of its convenience equipment and had stiffer suspension, better brakes and improved aerodynamics as well as 360 hp (later 380 hp) from a naturally aspirated unit related to the engine from the 996 Turbo. The more exclusive GT2 version, meanwhile, was similar in concept to the GT3 but had more aerodynamic enhancements and two turbochargers to produce 489 hp and 484 lb-ft of torque. The Porsche 996 GT2 was also the first Porsche road car with carbon ceramic brakes.
The regular production 996 lasted until 2004, although the Turbo, Turbo S and GT3 lasted until 2005. It was replaced by the mechanically similar but visually distinct 997. The 996 was a big change for Porsche. It used fewer parts, required less time to build and was more profitable than the 993, but was also noticeably quicker. Despite this, it is possibly the least coveted 911 of them all. The loss of air-cooled engines is only one part. The styling was not to everyone’s taste, there were numerous complaints of the interior quality not being up to snuff for such an expensive car, and the JD Power & Associates survey dropped Porsche from seventh to 15th place in terms of quality after the introduction of the 996.
And then there’s the infamous intermediate shaft (IMS) bearing failure that tarnished the reputation of both the 996 and the Boxster. Bearings on the intermediate shaft that drives the camshafts indirectly off the crankshaft only failed in a very small percentage of cars, but failure of the bearing meant catastrophic engine failure (requiring a rebuild) and Porsche did not handle the issue well from a PR perspective. By now, though, most owners will have performed preventative maintenance and most buyers are reasonable to expect the issue to have been addressed. Other than the dreaded (and somewhat hyped) IMS bearing issue, though, the 996 can be relatively easy to own and cheaper to maintain than the 993. Porsche also made over 175,000 996s, so there are plenty to choose from on the market at any given time.