Almost everybody who loves cars loves the 911. Unless, of course, we’re talking about the 996 generation, made from 1997–2004 and perhaps one of the most vilified performance machines in all of car-dom. The 996 was the car that killed the air-cooled flat six, usurping the far more desirable 993 that preceded it. The 996 replaced the 911’s iconic round headlights with a shape vaguely reminiscent of a runny fried egg. The 996 came from the factory with a fatal flaw that could result in catastrophic engine failure.
I’m probably not making a great case for the 996 right off the bat, and on the surface, the odds are stacked against it. The thing is, though, that despite its faults, the 996 wasn’t as bad as many make it out to be. Today it represents pretty good value on the used car market, especially while air-cooled cars continue to trend upwards in price. As long as the significant issues with the car have been resolved, you have a relatively reliable, relatively practical and relatively affordable version of one of the most iconic cars ever made. Haters be damned.
This wasn’t just the first water-cooled 911, it was the first 911 since the model’s inception to roll on a completely brand new chassis and suspension. That means a larger — but sleeker — body and of course those new headlights. You know what it also means? Better handling. While earlier 911s tended to dangerously oversteer under heavy cornering, this was something engineered out of the 996.
In fact, in a 1998 review, The New York Times compared the 996’s handling more favorably to the earlier 993. Their analysis? “The  was substantially noisier at all engine speeds, and its handling characteristics, as good as they are, proved far inferior to the new car’s… By every measurement, on or off the track, the new 911 is superior to the old one.”
And that doesn’t even get us to power. Yes, Porsche switched to a water-cooled engine design to meet increasingly stringent emissions standards, but it also allowed them to add four valves per cylinder and to generally squeeze out more power. The base 993 Carrera, for example, was making 268 horsepower out of a 3.6-liter flat-six, while the comparable 996 made nearly 300 horsepower from just 3.4 liters; the later car, thus, was 0.7 seconds quicker to 62 miles per hour form a standstill.
That sort of progress is meant to be expected as time marches forward, but it illustrates just how much of a leap the 996 was. Yes, air-cooled Porsches will always be lusted after, but the 996 is very clearly not without its merits. What’s more, it’d make a reasonable daily driver, too. A long-term test of a 1999 Porsche 996 from Car & Driver lauded its “everyday practicality and reliability” even after accumulating thousands of miles of winter driving.
No discussion of the 996 is complete without mentioning the infamous intermediate shaft (IMS) bearing. The shaft connected the crankshaft to the camshaft by a ball bearing. The problem was that there was no way to lubricate this bearing and, in time, it would dry out and fail. Well, sometimes it would; a class action lawsuit cited that the failure rate was somewhere around 10 percent on 2000 to 2005 model years. What’s more, it would happen seemingly at random, with no warning signs. When it went, the fix was to replace the entire engine.
So, when searching for a 996, search for a model that’s had the IMS bearing issue resolved (and the paperwork to prove it). If you find a car that you like but hasn’t had the IMS bearing replaced by a more effective aftermarket upgrade, use that to your advantage when bargaining the price and budget for a fix after the transaction. According to Jalopnik, two proven replacement bearing kits both cost around $1,000, and you can even install a sensor that detects bearing wear.
IMS bearing issues aside, most purport the 996 to be fairly reliable, at least for a German sports car. One more thing to consider checking, though, is for any signs of the cylinder head and liners cracking. When getting the car inspected before purchase, make sure a borescope inspection is done to see if there’s any sign of this.
The beauty of the 911 is that they made more versions than you can shake a stick at. The cheapest versions today remain the more basic Carrera and Carrera S, which you can still find under $20,000, though better examples are in the low twenties. Expect to pay more of a premium for the 4 and 4S models, the latter which is prized not just for its AWD and higher engine output but its wider hips at the back. Expect those to run in the high twenties and low thirties. And do you want to know what’s really crazy? You can still get the batshit Turbo model for under $60,000. The coveted GT3 version will set you back somewhere around $70,000, but that’s still cheaper than later generations. There’s also the GT2, which has held its value well and still sells for well over $100,000 today.
Engine: 3.4-liter flat-six; 3.6-liter flat-six; 3.6-liter twin-turbo flat-six
Transmission: 6-speed manual; 5-speed “Tiptronic” automatic
Drive: RWD; AWD
Horsepower: Between 296hp and 476hp
0-62mph: Between 5.4 seconds and 3.6 seconds