Porsche 911 GT3: We Drive the 996 and 991.2 Back to Back
Examining the beginning and current end of the GT3 line.
Driving any Porsche 911 is special. But when that 911 has the GT3 badge on its engine lid, that's when you start wondering how much your children are worth or whether Satan exists and would be willing to make a sizable down payment on your mortal soul.
We bring up the GT3 for good reason. This year marks the 20th since it debuted, during which time the line has become synonymous with world-beating performance, poise, and dynamics. The first, 996-based car launched in 1999 as a 2000 model, but the U.S. wouldn't get a GT3 until the 996.2 refresh arrived on our shores in 2004. No matter. Americans have had access to every version since, and the car now encompasses a mini family all its own, with the regular GT3 joined by Touring and RS models (and even a convertible, if you count the GT3-derived Speedster).
Each of the modern beasts seduce in their own way, and Porsche recently offered us seat time not only in the 991.2 trio but also a pristine example of the 996 (flown special from the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart) for a run up the California coast. With this impressive fleet at our disposal, we plucked the two red firecrackers from the pack and drove them back to back to see how time has improved—or otherwise affected—the breed.
The 996 is powered by the naturally aspirated Mezger flat-six, specifically the 7,800-rpm M96/76 rated for 360 horsepower and 273 lb-ft when new. To access those peaks, you need to wind the engine—this is not exactly a bummer—to 7,200 rpm and 5,000 rpm, respectively, but the gearing and torque curve are such you don't need to shift nearly as often as you might think. The race-bred Mezger is legendary for two reasons: the way it makes its output so accessible and the way it sings. Beat on it hard enough, and 60 mph is achieved in 4.8 seconds, according to the factory, on the way to a 188-mph top speed.
The modern GT3's 4.0-liter flat-six is one of the remaining Porsche holdouts against the onslaught of forced induction—the 992-based GT3 is likely to get strapped with turbos—but it's a warhead, spitting out 500 horsepower at a 8,250 rpm and 339 lb-ft at 6,000 rpm. It keeps spinning all the way to a stratospheric 9,000 rpm, at which point your nerve endings are frayed and you're left wondering if you're piloting a car or a jet engine. Let the Mezger wind back down, and your eardrums still sizzle from the sound of a million tiny lightning strikes. It's tractable, brutal, and one of the greatest engines in any car, anywhere. The performance it produces—as quick as 3.0-ish seconds to 60 and a Vmax as high as 198 mph—allows the $144,850 GT3 to shame many pricier machines. For its part, Porsche calls the 4.0-liter "well-suited for spirited driving." Uh, yeah.
The first GT3 was available only with the cable-operated G96/90 six-speed manual transmission, an evolution of a gearbox carried over from the air-cooled 993 GT2. The clutch feels unexpectedly heavy at first and the take-up point is a bit high, but it's easy to acclimate to, as is the syrupy pedal action. Inside the G96, the ratios are only slightly altered from the regular 996's and are selected via a shifter that practically guides itself into the gates.
The 2019 GT3 on our drive was fitted with the available seven-speed PDK dual-clutch automatic, which was the 991.1 version's only transmission. But after outcry from purists—and the rabid reception to the stick-only 911 R, a car that's otherwise essentially a GT3 Touring—the manual returned to the options sheet. It's our preference, even if it makes the car slower (Note we did not say "slow," as it can still hit 60 in the mid-threes.) That said, the automatic's shifts are mindbogglingly quick; teamed with the ferociously fast-revving Mezger, the PDK GT3 is more than happy to open a wormhole before you ever even thought to ask. It also features a paddle-neutral function, where you simultaneously pull on both shift paddles to drop out of gear. Let them go to kick the tail out or mitigate understeer, useful tricks for repositioning the car on the track.
The 996.1 seems downright quaint underneath compared to the 991.2, featuring struts up front, a multilink setup at the rear, and adjustable anti-roll bars. That's about it, although toe, camber, and height can be manually adjusted. It has no stability or traction control. It sits about an inch and a half lower than a conventional model, but even so won't beat you up with its relatively compliant, comfortable ride. A limited-slip differential helps put the power down, while the tires measure 225/40-18 up front and 285/30-18 out back, relatively large by contemporary standards. Similarly, the steel brakes measure a robust 13.0 inches in the front and 11.8 inches in the back.
Today's GT3 is stuffed with all manner of cool and/or performance-enhancing modern tech, including torque-vectoring on PDK cars, rev-matching on manual ones, available carbon-ceramic brakes (16.1 inches up front, 15.4 at the rear), an active exhaust, an onboard lap-timing and data app, carbon-fiber aerodynamic pieces, rear-axle steering, Porsche Active Suspension Management, and Porsche Stability Management (optimized for GT cars, of course). Twenty-inch center-lock wheels wear staggered-width 245/35 tires in the front and massive 305/30s out back. Perhaps the greatest trick is how harmoniously it all combines into a cohesive whole, none of it coming across the slightest bit heavy-handed or unnecessary. Oh, and there's an available front-axle lift system so you don't scrape the nose on your space-and-time-rending starship, like you might on, say, the 996. (We're not saying we did that, but we are saying sorry, Frank.)
Outside of outright performance, this is where the GT3 has perhaps made its largest strides. Two decades ago, Porsche hadn't quite leaned into the luxury thing, its cars offering bleeding-edge performance but not much in the way of outright extravagances. That shows in the 996's interior, which was even more purposeful than the regular 911's, with the rear seats, rear speakers, air conditioning, and audio system all deleted to save weight. (The last two could be added back in at no cost.) The aesthetic isn't much to rave about, either, being more than a little reminiscent of a contemporary Ford Taurus's in its plastic quality and oval shapes. The lighter sport seats are tight but comfortable, while the switchgear is functional and ergonomically sound but doesn't feel particularly substantial. Several blanking plates are present on the dash, and the GT3's rawer, harder-core nature is driven home by the metallic FWANG! you hear when the doors are closed.
Today's GT3 offers a focused cockpit, too, but it also swaddles you in Alcantara and leather, is packed with digital displays, offers heated seats and dual-zone climate control, and can be stuffed with almost anything from the 911's vast catalog of options. Yes, that means you can wrap a whole bunch of stuff in leather and get illuminated sill plates and the like. Of course, to do so would be antithetical, but even without extra frippery, this road missile gives drivers everything they need to be comfortable on the road or at the track. This is peak dual-threat.
The older car is immediately recognizable as a 996 due to the widely panned fried-egg headlamps, although the lower suspension, large but elegantly sculpted rear wing, two-piece wheels (swiped from the accessories catalog and fitted as standard), and body kit (derived from the contemporary Sport Design option) give it a less dainty stance that its less capable siblings. The once-derided 996 aesthetic has aged gracefully, and it's more attractive than contemporary opinions made it out to be.
The 991.2 looks positively gargantuan compared to the old car, and being only a couple of years old, it looks mostly like a new 911 meant to kick a lot of ass. The wing is purposeful rather than beautiful, and the overall stance is angry. The current version of the GT3 is indeed 5.2 inches longer and 3.4 inches wider, but, really, most of that impression comes from its massive flanks, chopped greenhouse, and thicker pillars. Despite that growth, though, the 991.2 only weighs 300 to 350 pounds more than the 996.
As noted, you need to really rev the old car to feel its might, and, well, opportunities to do so were few and far between. But we still managed to make it sing, quick downshifts and short accelerative blasts summoning a howl, particularly after 6,000 rpm, that we won't forget for a long, long time. The air-cooled 911's twitchiness is still here in some degree, with the steering going light in your hands for microseconds under acceleration or when you hit a mid-corner bump. In long sweepers, it can feel like you're in a sort of reverse drift, the rear end ever so slightly wanting to stay inside of the front; it's not understeer, as the car is actually perfectly balanced. With the caveat that we didn't want to wrinkle the Porsche Museum's neat toy, you can tell the 996 likes to move around, but it speaks to the driver with clarity. The handling characteristics, the deftness of the steering, and the communication from all aspects of the car make hard driving a task for both your subconscious and conscious brains. It's more work than today's GT3, but it's also more gratifying.
The 991.2 GT3 feels locked and loaded in every situation, like a mortar waiting for its firing pin to be triggered, and it really only requires a driver to determine the direction of its violent attack. It would take borderline reckless behavior to upset the car; the grip is otherworldly, the 4.0-liter will pull until you finally catch the horizon, and the steering is laser-direct and precise. The modern GT3 is pure speed and proficiency, and it simply blinks itself from corner to corner on a winding road or racetrack. It's a stupefying and incredibly fun car, but the 991.2 doesn't have the same emotional punch of the 996.1; it's just too easy to drive quickly. Great for making you feel like a hero, not so great for soul stirring.
A GT3 is deeply satisfying no matter its vintage, and the modern car is absolutely, totally bonkers. For now, given its rarity and its more organic feel, we'd take the 996. But, like, maybe ask us again in 20 years.