In Defense of the 996

On June 10, 2014 by WMac

996 C4S hero

At present, the Porsche 996 is besieged by haters everywhere.  Purists pooh-pooh the water cooling and the fried-egg headlights.  There’s the seemingly endless train of detractors ranting about the intermediate shaft bearing/rear main seal (IMS/RMS) problems.  There’s the poor 996 pumped full of hot lead after suffering such a failure.   /DRIVE’s Mike Spinelli, in a 35-minute video entitled “Here’s Why You Must Buy A Porsche 911 Today,” gave barely a mention of the 996 except to insinuate that no one should give it a moment’s consideration. The 996 gets little love, even (and sometimes especially) amongst some of the brand’s most loyal acolytes.

We shall leave out of this discussion the 996 Turbo, GT2, and GT3, as it is fairly commonly known that these variants house not the admittedly flawed M96 engine, but instead a variant of the Mezger air-cooled block from the Le Mans-winning GT1.  I do not believe anyone has disparaged, nor does anyone plan to disparage, these types.  I leap instead to the defense of the more ‘common’ 996s, especially the plainest-Jane of them, the humble Carrera.

I will not attempt to argue that the 996 Carrera is without flaw—and the flaws are not limited to the engine room.  The car’s ignition switch is prone to failure.  The unframed, cable-regulated windows can hardly be called reliable.  The interior, while passable in 1999, was badly behind the times in appearance and quality by 2005, when the 997 redesign came about.  Locating the battery underneath a locked metal lid that can only be opened via an electric switch is such a hilariously bad design decision that it can’t really be considered to have been “engineered” that way—I’m sure it’s actually some kind of German joke.  The audio control unit has shown a tendency to fail and is not inexpensive to repair or replace.  At one point my headlight switch stopped telling my xenon main headlights to turn on, and thus my car became day/VFR only.  And of course there is the dreaded M96 IMS/RMS failure, which is getting peak attention at present, as we have reached the point where the youngest 996 is now ten full years old.

Regarding the IMS/RMS: yes, it’s a flaw.  Yes, it will cost you lots of money if you choose to ignore it. You know what other Porsche had a similarly catastrophic flaw?  EVERY SINGLE 911 FROM 1969-1983.  Chain tensioners—Google it.  Of course, by now, most of the affected cars have been made right by an aftermarket fix, so we look at said cars and wax poetic about how perfect they are.  We ignore the fact that they didn’t always seem so brilliant, and we forget how long it took and how much it cost to rectify so many of them.

So, with regard to the IMS/RMS, there are steps that can be taken to minimize the likelihood of occurrence, as well as steps to minimize damage in the event of occurrence, as well as alternatives should the worst come to pass.  First, DRIVE THE CAR.  OFTEN.  FOR LONG PERIODS OF TIME.  I saw an ad in the classified section of Panorama recently for a 2002 GT2 with less than 1000 miles on it.  What a terrible tragedy.  Maybe that GT2 with its Mezger block would let that slide, but an M96 car will likely not forgive you for such a transgression against enthusiast humanity.  A Porsche (especially a 911) is not a Lamborghini or Ferrari–it is not a centerpiece.  It is meant to be used, and driven, and rained and snowed on, and packed full of groceries or people or luggage or flats of geraniums or bags of golf clubs.  It is a generally accepted truth that a barely-used M96 Porsche with very low miles is at greater risk of IMS/RMS failure than a more-robustly-used one with higher mileage.

Second, while driving the car (after the oil is warm) rev it.  Go fast.  Wind it up and hear the glorious shriek of that flat-six.  Make the engine do what it was designed to do: spin fast, work hard, and get hot.  An M96 isn’t happy with a steady diet of 2000 vegetarian RPM.  It periodically needs a 7000-RPM all-you-can-eat steak and lobster buffet.

Third, change the oil often—do it yourself, it’s easy— and use good oil (Mobil 1 Synthetic is a good start, but there’s more boutiquey stuff out there if that’s your thing).  While changing your oil, cut open and check your old filter (also easy) for any solid debris.  If you see any, STOP—do not pass go, do not collect $200.  By stopping here, you probably just saved your engine—you just need IMS replacement, which in the grand scheme of Porsche repairs is not too expensive (it’s actually somewhat similar price-wise to chain tensioner replacement).

Make it a long-term plan to implement the IMS Solution by LN Engineering and Flat Six Innovations.  This completely removes any chance of the IMS/RMS failure by replacing the flawed assembly entirely.  The same outfit also offers the “IMS Retrofit,” but as I understand it, that’s just a replacement of the flawed parts with slightly better-crafted parts, is only guaranteed for sixty thousand miles, and costs only slightly less than the Solution, as most of the expense in both cases comes in the form of labor.  If you’re going to tear it apart to fix it, it’s worth paying a bit more to ensure the flaw simply doesn’t exist anymore.

Should the worst happen before you get to getting the IMS Solution installed, it would be a sad day.  The engine will need replacing due to the damage incurred from the bits of shattered metal circulating through it.  As one might expect, Porsche engines don’t come cheap.  That’s why I’d have a hard time ignoring Renegade Hybrids’ solution, out in Las Vegas: swap your busted M96 for a Chevy LS-series small-block V8.

So there are plenty of bits of knowledge that, once one has them, make 996 ownership not seem so daunting after all.  But is all this trouble and use of brain-space worth it?  In one word: absolutely.

This blog chronicles many of my adventures in my 996.  It took myself, my wife, and my boys from Vegas to Yosemite to Monterey, and back again.  It took me to Formula 1 in Austin and to IndyCar at Mid-Ohio.  It has moved cross country with me three times in as many years.

In light of all these grand events, sometimes the everyday stuff can get overlooked.  It really shouldn’t.  Show up anywhere and get treated like a rock star.  Stun onlookers by telling them that it’s over a decade old.  Draw compliments several times a week from complete strangers—a guy in a Tesla Roadster, a guy in an old and proudly beat-up F-150, and the McDonald’s drive-thru window kids, one of whom once told me, “You look like James Bond in this car.”  Perhaps my ego is fragile, but I never tire of that particular memory.

Of course, climbing into a Porsche at the end of a work day is nothing if not cathartic.  And it’s nice to save some time getting home by tapping into the power and performance on hand to squeeze through a gap in traffic or duck through a yellow just in time.  Nailing a rev-matched downshift with the perfectly spaced pedals and taking a corner far faster than could the average beige blandmobile is always uplifting as well.  And do you think that my kids won’t forever remember that Dad picked them up from school every day in a Porsche 996 Carrera 4S?

Here’s the magic of the 996: there are so many out there right now, and they get so little respect, that almost anyone can have one and reap all of the same above-noted benefits.  All it takes is a bit of planning and awareness.  People think nothing of a $33,000 Honda Accord or Ford Fusion, but a 996 for that sum?  Crazy, right?  Except you can have a 996 for ten grand less—leaving you with more than enough extra cash to bring up to code whatever might be or go wrong.

I think, maybe a little bit, that I defend the 996 Carrera not only because I own one and love it, but because it demands a bit of knowledge and respect from its owner.  It is not just another thing to be bought, bragged about at parties, and forgotten.  Because it demands such an investment, one of time and thought, rather than just whim and money, it also offers rewards beyond what most ‘things’ can.  It almost forces you to make memories with it.

In summary: right now, 996 Carreras are plentiful, cheap, brilliant, yet surrounded by a whirling sea of discouraging myth.  There has never, nor will there ever be, a better time to buy one.

996 C4S 2

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