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A new owner’s first impressions of his 1999 Porsche 996 Carrera

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Article and photos by Rob Sass

I’d never owned a water-cooled Porsche 911 before. In fact, until I took Executive Director Vu Nguyen’s black 1999 996 Carrera for a short drive, I’d never even driven one. Their performance-to-dollar ratio (0-60 miles per hour in 4.6 seconds and 174-mph top speed for under $20,000) has always been incredibly attractive even if the car itself isn’t generally regarded as the best-looking iteration of the 911.

I always thought that if I bought a 996, I’d want a warm-climate car, one that had never had a below-freezing start. I’m partial to Northern California cars and looking at the Bay Area Craigslist for me is about as reflexive and involuntary as breathing. In fact, if I’m not perusing the site in my spare time, it’s probably a good idea to check my pulse. 

My first look turned up the usual assortment of super high-mileage junk with dubious maintenance but there were a couple of ringers thrown in — a Speed Yellow 2001 Carrera and a black/black 1999 Carrera, both coupes. I eliminated the Speed Yellow car for a number of reasons. Having just sold a Dakar Yellow BMW E36 M3, I could only surmise that the yellow 911 would attract even more attention from law enforcement than the M3, in which I got my first moving violation in 15 years. Plus, the seller was firm at $21,000 for a car with 85,000 miles and no IMS service history.

I almost skipped past the black car because 99,000 miles are a bit more than I wanted to see. But they say you buy the previous owner as much as the car, and I liked what I saw in the ad: Within the last 15,000 miles the owner had installed an aftermarket IMS bearing with pressurized direct oil feed, rear main seal, air/oil separator, clutch, water pump, radiator, and had the engine completely re-sealed. The car rode on nearly new Pirelli P-Zero Rossos (as opposed to a less confidence-inspiring set of worn, bargain Sumitomos) and had a comprehensive, two-inch-thick file of paperwork including the invoice, the window sticker, and even the manufacturer’s statement of origin (MSO). The tool kit was complete down to the pair of gloves in the original green cellophane bag.

The 996 had just two previous owners and service stamps from Sonnen Porsche in Marin County up to the 75,000-mile service. Everything was tidy and well-cared for including the interior and paint, which showed no sign of any damage or repair other than some minor chip touch-ups. The car drove beautifully, the fluids were all fresh, and the A/C blew ice cold. This felt like a no-brainer. 

The seller and I arrived at a price of $16,000, which seemed fair in light of the records and the recent work versus the miles. It was the second time that I’d bought a 911 in the Bay Area. The last time was in 2012 when I bought a really nice Rosewood/Cork ’82 SC in San Jose for just $12,800. Amazing how times have changed. 

I had toyed with the idea of driving the car back east after Werks Reunion, but I just didn’t have a three-day road trip in me after having been gone from my family for nearly a week. Reliable Transport had the car to my door in just about the time it would have taken me to drive. I’ve now spent over a month with the 996, so I thought it might be a good time to record some first impressions:

Things I like about the car: 

  1. The Power. By today’s standards, 296 horsepower doesn’t sound like a whole lot. But the 996 Carrera was a very light car at just 2,920 pounds, and the 3.4-liter engine is plenty torquey. Peak torque is actually at 4600 rpm, but most of it feels like it’s available much lower in the rev-range, which extends to a Ferrari-like 7300 rpm. And, it puts the power to good use. 0-60 mph in 4.6 seconds (according to Road & Track’s February 1998 test) is plenty quick.   
  2. The Steering. I’ve always held the manual steering of a pre-964 911 as the paragon of automotive steering. It’s quick, communicative, and light enough in most situations. The bump- steer you occasionally get always seemed like a reasonable trade for a rack and pinion system otherwise so perfect. If you doubt this, just drive any 1970s or 1980s Ferrari and try to enjoy steering that doesn’t become usable until well over 60 mph. The 996’s power assist does everything that you want, heightening the sensation of quickness without sacrificing the tactile nature of the old manual rack. I like it.
  3. The Shifter. Having come out of a series of cars with the 915 gearbox, (I’ve never owned a G50-equipped 911), the 996’s shifter feels otherworldly. If I had to quibble, I might like a little more of a feeling of heft or resistance to it, but that’s picking nits. 
  4. The Room. I’m not a big guy, so air-cooled 911s fit me just fine. But I have two little boys, and they like cars. The extra 3.1 inches of wheelbase, 1.2 in. of width, and 6.7 in. of overall length make for back seats that are doable for a pair of kids and their car seats. They love the car, and I love going places in it with them. Watching the surprise of the other parents dropping their kids off at school when they see my two little scamps climb out of the back of a 911 is pretty priceless.   
  5. The HVAC System.  Classic air-cooled 911s have comical HVAC systems scattered in various places throughout the cabin, from the lower dash to the console to the handbrake area. Prior to the 964 and 993, it’s mostly ineffective. The 996’s A/C is ice cold and the heat is, well, hot. 
  6. The Sunroof. I’m 5 feet, 8 inches, so I don’t care about how much headroom the sunroof takes up and I despise the term “slick roof.” The opening area of the sunroof on a 996 Carrera coupe is huge compared to the slit that you get on an older air-cooled car or on a 928. It’s probably 2/3 the size of the removable roof on a 944 and there’s very little buffeting on the highway. Well done Porsche. 

Things I don’t like about the car:

  1. The Fuel Tank Size. I’m used to 20-plus-gallon tanks on a 911. The 16.9-gallon tank in the 996 combined with its 15 miles per gallon city rating (and my enthusiastic right foot) make it seem like I’m spending an inordinate amount of time at the fuel pump. 
  2. The Outside Door Handles. If you’re going to make a stylistic gripe about the 996, the headlights are first targets of most writers. I personally don’t find them objectionable. I remember when the car was new, it was a bit annoying not being able to tell a new 911 from a Boxster at a glance in your rearview, but objectively, there’s nothing aesthetically wrong with the lamp units themselves. The door handles, on the other hand, bug me. They’re as generic as something you’d find on a Korean mid-sized car. It’s your entry point to the car, and this is a Porsche dammit, they should be special. I mean seriously, wasn’t the tooling for the old handles fully amortized by 1998? Why not just keep using those? And while I’m on the subject of doors, the classic 911 “ping” when you shut the door is sadly gone, replaced by a solid thunk that is as generic as the door handles. The fact that the car is some 45% more rigid than the already ingot-like 993 I suppose is some consolation. 
  3. The Fuel Filler Flap. There’s no denying that the 996 was built to a price and nowhere is this more apparent than the flimsy fuel filler flap. In an air-cooled 911, there’s a stout cable-operated inside pull-release, and when you shut it there’s a firm, mechanical click to the securing latch. On the 996, there’s no release or securing mechanism at all. You just pop the thin metal flap open and shut. I suppose it saves a little weight, but it just feels cheap to me. 
  4. The Switchgear. I’m not a fan of shiny, oval buttons that look like something out of an early 1990s Taurus. Enough said. 
  5. The Steering Wheel. Porsche is a car company with a history of fitting beautiful and hideous steering wheels with little in between. My car has the four-spoke airbag wheel. It’s simply looks awful. Again, like the door handles, it doesn’t necessarily detract from the driving experience, but why do the two things that you’re in direct physical contact with the most have to be ugly? Maybe there’s no direct German translation for former Jaguar boss Sir William Lyons’ famous quote, “it doesn’t cost any more to make something pretty.”
  6. The Sound. Actually, this is more like the lack thereof. I understand that Porsche was concerned about EU noise regulations impacting the last of the air-cooled cars, but I think that they went overboard on shushing the 996. Fortunately, it’s easily remedied and probably will be by the time you’ve read this. 
  7. The Engine Compartment. It’s enough to make an air-cooled Porsche fan weep. Massive aluminum fan, cam covers, plug wires, an old-fashioned distributor — you could see and identify it all in an air-cooled car. Black plastic and a “move along, there’s nothing to see here” feel define the 996 engine compartment. Sigh. 

If you’ve gotten to the end of this, you might conclude that my list of gripes about my new 996 is pretty trivial compared to my list of likes. You would be absolutely correct in this assessment. The 996 is an absolutely brilliant car for very little money and I couldn’t be happier with it.

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