A new 911 starts at $90,000. Used previous-generation 991 models hover around $75,000, and older 997 models are around $30,000. Air-cooled 911s have officially reached absurd prices. Hell, a 1988 911 sold on Bring a Trailer for $34,500. It was nice, but it wasn’t anything special. Whether you want to blame Magnus Walker’s Urban Outlaw trend or collectors just being too flush with cash, for most of us, having a rear-engine sports car from Stuttgart seems out of reach. With one exception: the 996.
The 996, which ran from 1997 to 2004, is easily the most hated version of the 911. Why? It was mass-produced, had a water-cooled engine, shared parts with the Boxster, and had an engine defect that was serious but overblown. And yet it’s a fast, capable car that deliversalmost everything you would expect from Porsche. It’s also cheap for a used 911. If you’re looking to get into a pre-owned 911, the 996 is your best opportunity.
And that’s because, even though it has its merits, Porsche purists tend to loathe the 996. Here’s why.
In 1993, I toured Porsche’s factory. At the time, every Porsche being made—928s, 968s, 911s—were assembled on one line by hand. Right-hand drive, left-hand drive, yellow lenses, clear lenses. All right there. But that time has gone, and the 996 was the first Porsche to be truly mass produced. Strike one.
Per Schroeder is the marketing manager at Stoddard NLA LLC, a vintage Porsche parts supplier, and is the author of Volkswagen Sport Tuning: For Street and Competition(Engineering and Performance). “The 996 was the first break from the narrative of the original 356 and 911,” Schroeder says. “I’m not just saying that because of the water-cooled engine, although that doesn’t help, but because the entire production process is that of a modern car. Sure, it’s a totally kickass modern performance vehicle, but the links to the past have been erased with this clean-sheet design.”
With mass production came cost cutting. “[The 996] was also the first 911 built to a price point,” says Bradley Brownell, a co-host at The Cammed & Tubbed Podcast who also works at Stoddard. “As much as people complain about the cheapness of C5 Corvette interiors, the real travesty is the god-awful plastic and leatherette interiors fitted to the 996. The buttons fall out of the dash, there isn’t a single comfortable place to put an elbow, and early cars didn’t even have glove boxes.”
In addition to the lower quality interiors, the 996 also shared exterior design elements with the Boxster, driving down 996 values. Most notable are the widely derided “fried-egg” headlights. “Those headlights—ugh, don’t get me started on those headlights,” Brownell says. “Luckily you can’t see them from the driver’s seat.” Feeling slighted, most people with an original 996 quickly traded it for the next-gen 997, which addressed many of the 996’s shortcomings. But the mechanicals remained basically the same.
The biggest reason for low 996 values is the misconception that the engines have the durability of blown glass. This is one gripe with the 996 that really needs to be addressed. Some early cars featured a weak bearing in the intermediate shaft, known as the IMS. Porsche has used an IMS in its 2.0-liter engines since 1965. The IMS drives the camshafts indirectly off the crankshaft. But even before the introduction of the 996, Porsche had experimented with new bearing designs, and this development resulted in a short run of low-capacity bearings, some of which ended up in early 996’s. An IMS bearing failure results in a completely destroyed engine. Luckily, most qualified Porsche shops can perform a pre-purchase inspection and identify bearings that have been upgraded or may need to be replaced.
As terrible as a blown engine is, enthusiasts have made it seem like every 996 came with a defective engine. Further fanning the flames, Porsche’s handling of the problem was a PR disaster. But the reality is that the majority of the engines are fine. “Engine failures in [engine model] M96 in actual real numbers range from one to five percent,” Brownell says. “It’s more than there really should be, but it’s not quite as dire a situation as the Internet would have you believe.” What’s more, the problem can be corrected by a $400-$700 upgrade. According to Schroeder, you can find clean cars that have already had their IMS fixed for $15,000 or less.
So, those are the factors that have driven down Porsche 996 prices. Now here are all the reasons you should ignore them and take advantage of this steal while it lasts.
Let’s start with maintenance. Although the shared Boxster bits may annoy those who long for the air-cooled era when cars were hand-built, this also means that parts have lower replacement costs. As a quick example, Google a replacement engine for a 1997 Porsche 911, and then a replacement for the 996. In more than a few instances the price for an air-cooled engine is double its water-cooled counterpart.
A strong following of devotees and an abundance of parts also make 996 ownership enticing. “The 996 has both an active enthusiast community within the Porsche Club of America and any number of online resources that will help you through just about every repair imaginable,” Schroeder says. “The aftermarket parts industry has also kept up and kept available just about every part that will break or wear in a 996 at a substantial savings over the factory. The combined result is a car that’s a lot less frightening to own for a DIY guy than many modern Hondas.”
Also worth noting is the sheer abundance of 996s. “The 996 was one of the highest production rates in 911 history and they sold them literally by the boatload here in the U.S.,” Brownell says. “At the moment, supply is vastly outweighing demand.”
Finally, and most importantly, the 996 is a legitimate performance car. When Harm Lagaay, then head of Porsche’s style department, led the redesign of the 911, the resulting 996 was bigger while remaining surprisingly svelte. But the new look didn’t compromise performance—the 996 matched the 911’s previous 0-60 time of 4.9. “Although I like how old 911s are made, you have to appreciate the quality of engineering in the 996,” Schroeder says. “The performance per dollar is phenomenal.”
Owning a 911 always involves compromises. If you’re willing to do your engine homework (a good idea for any 911), accept a little less refinement, and deal with a few more quirks, the 996 is the 911 deal of the century. It’s a fast, livable car with Porsche engineering for the price of a used Toyota Camry.
What’s not to like about that?