Many people wish the Porsche 911 996 wasn’t made at all. The engine was cooled by water and not air, the body was blander and the signature round headlamps were replaced with fried eggs. As complaints go, the 996 surely suffered the strangest. It’s a pity because these same features made the 996 the most significant 911 since the original in 1963 and a future steal on the classic car market.
Today, complaints against the 996 are trivial. Porsche is on the cusp of electrifying its range and the 911’s dynamics are almost unrecognisable from earlier models. The 996 has become something of a sweet spot, combining the smaller proportions of older cars with the refinement of newer models in a package boasting unmatched affordability. The 996 was unloved but did wonders for Porsche. The water-cooled engine wrote the blue-print for future power-trains, some of which became all-time greats. It was given the first all-new chassis since 1963 and redefined what a 911 could be. Gone were the rear-engined horror stories and cramped cabins, replaced by a user-friendly destroyer of German autobahns. It was the 911 for Budgens and Brands Hatch. It’s no exaggeration to say the 996 is now the most affordable of all the iterations and the easiest route into 911 ownership. The controversy surrounding the 996 has stunted it’s growth on the classic car market compared to earlier 993 cars, which many enthusiasts regard as the last “true” 911. Ignore it. The 996 is a fine sports car.
As ancient as the late Nineties and early Noughties feel, the 996 is not an old car and demands a different approach to find the right example. For instance, while the 996 was engineered to be pounded around the Nurburgring, one of the problems you may encounter is actually underuse. As with many premium machines, owners have a tendency to garage their cars and keep the miles off to chase appreciation. While it leaves the car in mint condition the owner may have missed the advised service intervals. Check the service history to ensure it has been taken out of storage from time to time and regularly inspected. Despite its galvanised body shell and modern construction, rust can be an issue. Any rust on the body (with the exception of the door handles) is likely related to an accident or road salt, so check if rust has crept between panel gaps and sills. Make sure to inspect the underside of the car for signs of structural damage. The headlamps can also suffer from condensation-related rust.
The 996 is infamous for its Intermediate Shaft Bearing (IMS) fault. Internet forums are brimming with horror stories and false information, but don’t let this put you off. Recognising the issue is half the battle won. The IMS sends power from the crankshaft to the double overhead camshaft. Starved of oil it can disintegrate altogether. The real danger is not the disintegration but its lack of detection. The impending failure offers no warning signs and can fail unexpectedly. This causes valves and pistons to clash, resulting in colossal damage and demanding an engine rebuild to rectify. Thankfully only 5% of cars are thought to have been affected, and the common belief is if the car has passed 50,000 miles and shows no sign of issues it will most likely be okay. Check for a rattle when the engine is cold, as this can be a sign of a faulty IMS. Oil leakages are also a giveaway. Find out whether the IMS has been replaced. If it hasn’t been changed it isn’t necessarily the end of the world. Consider having it done when the car is in the garage for a clutch replacement. Cylinder heads and liners are also liable to cracking on early 3.4-litre cars, although like the IMS it was only in small numbers. Check for coolant in the oil and have the bores inspected.
When inspecting manual cars, if the clutch feels heavy, it could be a sign it’s on the way out. Check the coolant pipes for rust on tiptronic variants.
When out for a test drive, listen for any rattles or creaks from the suspension over bumps. It could mean a control arm needs to be changed. Control arm replacement costs are relatively low, while labour costs are also inexpensive due to the simplicity of the job.
Ensure the automatic boot spoiler works by popping it up and down a few times. There is a button in the cabin that manually raises the spoiler when the car is stationary.
Squeaks and rattles from the leather and interior trim is sadly inevitable for a car of this age. We can thank our potholed road network for that. The overall cabin quality is superb so there isn’t anything glaring to worry about. Ensure the air-con is working and take note of any warning lights.
The looks divide opinion but the 996 drives like a 911 should. While newer cars have all but dialled out the characteristic understeer, the 996 still requires a slow-in, fast-out driving style. The 996 is surprisingly small for a modern 911 and can be used everyday with ease. A great turning circle, narrow width and low dash scuttle means it’s as easy to place on the road as a Volkswagen Polo. Don’t be alarmed by the manual gearbox’s long and loose throw, it remains an accurate and pleasing ‘box to use. The GT and Turbo variants are fitted with early versions of the Meztger engine used in 911s all the way up to the 997 GT3 RS 4.0L. It is undoubtedly one of the all-time great engines and prices of cars fitted with it continue to skyrocket.
The 996 is the entry point for 911 ownership and, if you choose wisely, remains a bargain. The price for a good example of a Carrera with under 80,000 miles on the clock and a solid history is around £15k-£20k. There’s no right and wrong about which model or spec to choose, however the manual has weathered the years better than the Tiptronic and - with manual sports cars a dying breed - could potentially become valuable. Cars with darker interiors have also been known to demand price premiums. The real research is necessary under the skin. Look for cars that have had the IMS replaced and been regularly serviced. While the 996 is temptingly cheap, do your homework before settling for a sub-10k car. You can quickly spend that much rebuilding the engine if the IMS fails. Post-2002 cars are the ones to look for if your budget can stretch thanks to the revised 3.6-litre engine. They usually go for around £25,000. Turbos values are around the mid-£30,000s to £40,000 mark, while newer Turbo S models hold their price at around £50,000. GT3’s hover in the £70,000 realm and GT3 RS’s are regularly sold for hundreds of thousands of pounds.
If you’re after a GT model - i.e. GT3, GT3 RS, GT2 - keep a lookout for signs of regular track work. Unlike many of its rivals, the 911 is a reliable machine able to be used everyday and used hard, sometimes resulting in serious wear and tear. Look for evidence of salt corrosion, crash damage and caned brake pads, which could mean expensive replacements.
The Porsche 911 996 represents a rare opportunity for inexpensive 911 ownership. Forget the criticism. The 996 was the first 911 of the modern era and demonstrated you could have sports car thrills in a reliable, refined package. It is no coincidence that it kick-started an age of massive sales success for Porsche and its blueprint is still used in 911s to this day. Quick, comfortable and with styling that has aged gracefully, as long as you do the homework there’s never been an easier way to become a Porsche 911 owner.
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