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We Get Behind the Wheel of Every Porsche 911 GT3 Generation

Up close and personal with the cars that helped create a legend.

The Beginning: 996.1

The Porsche 911 GT3 story starts with this car. Launched in 1999, it was essentially a parts bin special—a performance 911 cobbled together using bits and pieces from other models. The brakes were lifted from the 996-series Turbo, the wheels were a Porsche Exclusive option available across the 911 range, as was the biplane rear wing with its curlicue stanchions. Fixed back sports buckets replaced the standard front seats. The rear seats were removed to save weight, along with the air conditioning, sunroof, and the audio system's rear loudspeakers. A different front splitter, some side skirts, and a GT3 badge on the rounded rump completed the transformation.

It's hard to imagine now, but Porsche didn't have a ton of money when this car was developed. Porsche R&D chief Horst Marchart, the man who'd designed the 996-series 911 so that much of its front body structure and other parts could be used to create—at low cost—the Boxster, spent wisely, however, creating a powerplant that used parts from the air-cooled, dry-sump race engines developed by legendary engineer Hans Mezger, but with water-cooled cylinders and heads. It developed 355 hp, 60 hp more than the standard 996 engine.

Not surprisingly, it's the engine that today defines the 996.1 GT3. Charismatic and characterful, with a precision to the throttle response that few engines can match even today, it's fluid and flexible and smooth all the way to the 7,600-rpm redline, the barrel-chested roar that's the signature tune of old 911s filling the cabin as the revs rise. "The engine really talks to you," Porsche GT boss Andy Preuninger says. He's right.

Compared with today's GT3 manual, the transmission has a long throw and a wide gate. You need to take a little time with it. The rest of the car feels like a slightly sharper version of a regular 996, the front axle bob-bob-bobbing over imperfections in the road while the rear end rumbas. The dynamics remind you how far 911s have evolved over the past 20 years—the 996 will push on corner entry unless you lift off slightly to load the front tires. Then it's back on the gas to walk the tightrope between understeer and oversteer.

It's a trip back in time, this car; almost any modern 911 would be quicker and more composed on any given road. But this ur-GT3 remains one of the most important 911s ever built.

The Sweet Spot: 997.1

If the 996.1 911 GT3 was all about the engine, in the 997.1 what we now understand as the essence of the GT3 concept started to coalesce. The surgical clarity of its transmission, steering, brakes, pedal weights and heights, and overall chassis balance represented a clear step-change from its regular 997 911 siblings. But the engine was still the heart of the car, the water-cooled 3.6-liter flat-six boasting a new intake and a new exhaust compared with the 996 versions. Official output was 415 hp, though Preuninger admits some engines made close to 430 hp.

It feels different from the impressively linear 996.1's powertrain. There's a subtle surge from 4,000 rpm, the timbre of the exhaust becoming more resonant, and the sensitivity to throttle inputs more obvious. Whereas the 996.1 engine would rev to 7,600 rpm, the 997.1 engine redlines at 8,400 rpm. Although preternaturally smooth and tractable throughout the rev range, it begs to be taken to 6,000 rpm and beyond, a precision instrument that joyously rewards you with racecar levels of response.

The six-speed manual transmission has a rifle-bolt action, with a short throw and a mechanical feel. The brakes—this was the first 911 GT3 offered with Porsche's PCCB carbon-ceramic setup—react instantly to pressure on the pedal, hauling the car down from triple-digit speeds with unquenchable authority. And there's much more feedback from the front end than in the 996, more initial response and more sustained grip, the dialog between tire and tarmac more clearly telegraphed through the Alcantara-covered rim of the steering wheel.

The 997 redesign got rid of the awkward "fried egg: combined headlight and turn signal graphic of the 996 and began to accentuate the hips over the rear wheels. The rear graphic looked similar, but the engine cover flowed into the rear bumper surface rather than capping it, making the car look sleeker from the side. And, of course, the 997 was the first 911 GT3 to have its exhaust outlets at the center of the car. That's now a GT3 trademark. Another GT3 trademark pioneered by the 997 is the extensive use of Alcantara inside.

Launched in 2006, today this is in many ways the sweet-spot GT3, way more affordable than the later 4.0 and, of course, the 991 models. Whereas the 996 GT3 feels like a classic car and demands to be driven accordingly, the 997 911 GT3 feels modern. And it's still faster and more rewarding on a fun road than many much younger sports cars.

The Benchmark 991.1

Controversy dogged this 911 GT3 when Porsche revealed it at the 2013 Geneva Show. The 991-series Porsche 911 on which it was based was bigger and heavier than the 997. The legendary Mezger engine, which traced its origins all the way back to racing Porsches of the '80s, had been replaced by a new 3.8-liter direct-injection flat-six that developed 475 hp. And there was no manual transmission; a specially calibrated version of Porsche's PDK dual-clutch automated manual was the only choice. The power steering was electric. It had rear-wheel steering.

The purists were outraged. Until they drove it.

It just takes one run to 9,000 rpm in third gear to remind you why the 991 Porsche 911 GT3 quickly silenced the hot take experts. The engine's power delivery is so linear, right from idle, and it never seems to run out of revs. And the noise! The urgent, edgy snarl of the flat-six gets a steely, manic edge over 7,000 rpm. It's epic, almost vintage 911, with a digitally remastered hint of air-cooled clatter. There is nothing else like it.

It's not until you drive them back to back that you understand exactly how the 991 makes the 997 feel a little looser, a little lazier. It's not just the manic response of that engine, especially when it's in its happy place, with the tach needle dancing above the 8,000-rpm mark. It's the wider track at the front. And the rear-wheel steering. Especially the rear-wheel steering.

The 991 911 GT3 feels much sharper on initial turn-in, both in terms of steering response and the way the tires bite than any previous-generation 911. But what makes the front end work so brilliantly is the rear-wheel steering, which not only helps initiate a rapid change in direction but then works to counter the pendulum effect inherent in a chassis with the engine slung out behind the rear axle. It allows you to exploit the advantages of the 911's unique layout, especially its traction out of corners while minimizing the disadvantages.

In 2018 the 991 GT3 got a new 4.0-liter engine with a new crankshaft, new valvetrain, and a new intake system. Power went up to 494 hp at 8,250 rpm. The engine mods and hundreds of other detail tweaks helped make 991.2 even more responsive and more exhilarating to drive than the 991.1. And now the 991.2 GT3 is about to be replaced by the 992 GT3.

It's hard to imagine how the 2021 Porsche 911 GT3 could be a better car than the existing model. But the man responsible for how the ultimate driver's 911 has evolved over the past two decades is confident we'll approve. "It'll be the best GT3 ever," Preuninger says, "because it will be the newest one I've done. I always say that, and I never lie."