A New Beginning: 20 years of the water-cooled Porsche 911


Sharing nothing with its 993 predecessor, the all-new Porsche ‘996’ 911 of 1998 was a turning point for the sports car icon, taking it in a brave new direction

‘Can a 911 that shares not a single component with its predecessor still be a 911?’ 

That was the question Porsche posed in a brochure for the new-era 911 in 1998. Of course, it answered it with an unequivocal ‘yes’, and declared that ‘never before has a Porsche incorporated so many changes’. And it was right. On its arrival two decades ago, the 1998-2004 ‘Typ 996’ 911 was the most divisive 911 of them all. Or, as Porsche put it, ‘everything we know so far’.

Porsche 911 996 rear

Chalk and cheese, light and dark, good and evil, the 996 upset the Porsche purist applecart in a big way. If the outgoing 993 was good, then the 996 was very definitely evil. Why? It tore up the 911 rulebook and junked all the ingredients of the classic 911 recipe, creating a new and very different flavour of Porsche sports coupé. One which left some Stuttgart aficionados with a bitter aftertaste, it was caused by adding water to the traditional 35 year-old 911 formula.

Porsche 911 collection

After three-and-a-half decades, Porsche’s classic staple was served with an engine cooled by water, not air. While it was undoubtedly a very modern decision, it caused consternation, with many refusing to see the technological merits of updating a performance car icon in such a way. But, the 911 had been thrown more than its fair share of lifelines since the early 1980s, and this was just the latest. Inheriting many technologies from the 928, supercar-baiting 959 and even its 964 and 993 predecessors, it was time for Porsche’s golden child to move with the times.

Porsche 911 996 engine

It didn’t matter that the quad-cam, 24-valve, 3.4-litre flat-six engine now pumped out 300bhp – for some, air-cooling was as much an integral part of a 911 as its rear-engined layout and curvaceous lines. Even the looks weren’t sacred: the 996 also boasted the first comprehensive going-over of the 911’s signature shape since the original car’s glasshouse debuted in 1963. While the ‘fried egg’ headlamps added a little family resemblance zest, their commonality with the mid-engined Boxster was perhaps a step too far. A move which was much needed, the baby roadster’s borrowed parts kept costs down.

996 front

It was obvious to most that the 993 was prettier – arguably the most beautiful ‘classic’ 911 – but advancements brought by the Porsche 996 were abundant in number: there was a much more modern interior at last (though the trademark central rev counter and left-hand keyhole remained); ceramic brakes debuted; refinement was increased; emissions and drag were lowered; and the first completely new chassis in 35 years ensured a sharper driving experience.

The Stuttgart marque devotees may have cried into their Schwaben Bräu, but the hallmarks that made the 911 great were still in place, too – 38/62 front/rear weight distribution and the multi-link rear suspension from the 993 continued the iconic Porsche’s rear-biased handling traits, and the engine still howled like all the best 911 voices before it.

Porsche 911 996 Turbo

That cry and capability was amplified through a number of variations including the 420bhp, 4.2 seconds-to-62 Turbo, 444bhp Turbo S, as well as the lightweight and focused GT3, GT3 RS and truly fearsome 462bhp GT2, all of which offered less kit for more thrills. There was also the all-pawed Carrera 4 and 4S, while the electric-roof Targa effectively made the 996 a posh semi-convertible hatchback, which – with the exception of the sportscar racing GT1 version – was as far away from its no-nonsense sports car roots as it was possible to get.

Whatever the purists’ opinions, there’s no doubt the 996 was a Porsche pioneer. Just like astrological air and water signs, luftgekühlt and wassergekühlt Porsches now sit more happily alongside each other. It may have been the superstar Porsche’s biggest watershed moment, but the Porsche 996 paved the way for every water-cooled 911 since. And that’s every 911 since – a whole two-decade and counting legacy.