Dueling 911s! 996 3.4 vs 996 3.6


First off, it is with no shame that I say I am a huge fan of the Porsche 996.  I think it is a great value currently, but even when new I thought it represented a solid move along the evolutionary path for Porsche.  I happen to love the Boxster, so I don’t see (short of snobbery) why a shared front fascia should be a problem, and I have no nostalgic attachment to air cooled engines.  Water is a great heat exchanger, and coolant an even better one, and really hot things need a great heat exchanger.  Air cooling is limiting in ways that don’t make sense when liquid cooling systems have been perfected.  The 911 spends enough time fighting physics!  So with that disclaimer out of the way, the 996 haters are likely now either gone or hunkered down and prepared for aggravation!

I’ve been tremendously fortunate in that I have been able to own some truly phenomenal vehicles.  In the insanity of internet bench racing and fan holy wars, we often lose sight of just how fundamentally great any of these iconic vehicles are.  With that said, of all of the vehicles I’ve owned, no purchase was quite as exciting as the purchase of my first 911 back in 2003.  Call it the power of the marque, or my own fascination with the legend, but there was something magical in becoming the proud second owner of my 1999 CPO.  She was a basic Carrera 2, ridiculously optioned, with literally everything onboard.  The original sticker had been well north of a hundred grand.  Money adds up quickly when you add options like nav, aerokit (mandatory for me), large leather, large carbon fiber, and on and on.  In addition, the original owner had dipped a toe in the mod pool and added B&B headers and exhaust (more on that later).  Here is how she looked the day I took delivery of her back in 03:

I drove her daily (such as it is for me) over the course of four wonderful years and twenty thousand miles or so.  When we finally parted ways it was so I could make the move to fatherhood and a two ton Toyota FJ Cruiser; talk about system shock!  With the rugrat growing up a bit, and the move to the suburbs complete, I found myself able, once again, to start exploring “toy car” ownership again back in 09.  After a wild ride through some incredible, and crazy, cars over the past three years (tales for another time!), it was just this past August that I experienced an epiphamy; I am a “Porsche guy”.  I had honestly never thought this about myself.  I tend to like variety and really do find something to love in anything truly great (be it food, cars, technology, the arts, or nearly anything else).  There was something unique in that 1999 C2 though.  Something that I was never quite able to recapture in the years since.  So it was that I ended up once again in the market, searching for a pre-owned 996.  Bizarrely enough, I found the new baby at the exact same dealer where I had found the first.  The first go around it was Brandywine Porsche, I was a New Yorker who knew nothing about PA, and it felt like I was traveling to the ends of the earth to find it.  This time around I am a PA resident, the area is one I know all too well from working in the area (although it never quite “clicked” that I had been there so many years ago) and the dealership has been reborn as “Porsche of the Mainline”.  What a surprise when my salesman, after entering my info, asked “you never lived in Brooklyn did you?”  The new baby is a 2002, which makes things interesting and is the reason for this piece, less optioned, but still with my beloved aerokit.  Also a one owner, but not a CPO since that program doesn’t stretch back farther than 6 years.  She only has 26k miles though, and has been meticulously maintained, so I happily paid a bit above market for this solid, honest, car.  Here she is at time of pickup (looks familiar!):

Now it should be said that I absolutely do not intend for this to be an objective or scientific analysis.  There are some ways in which these two cars, despite appearances, are really dissimilar so this will not be apples to apples.  It is meant merely to be my observations of two vehicles that share a pretty direct lineage.  With that said, I’ve broken the comparison up into areas of interest that I think make the most sense.

Appearance

This was is close to a wash for me.  A big deal was made about the “updated front end”, by folks who have Boxster insecurity, back in 2002, but honestly as time has moved on I feel there isn’t a big difference to be found here. The clear side markers are cool (although that’s an easy enough change on a pre 02), and I definitely do prefer the slightly more subtle wing of the new aerokit vs the old “taco” wing, but these siblings are absolutely more similar than different.  The new car is a tiny bit wider and the placebo effect of that is strong and makes the car seem slightly more aggressive.  Since perception is often reality, that’s good enough for me!

Verdict: looks are subjective, but I’ll call it a tie here.  For most folks any 911 is more similar than different to any other one honestly!

Interior Design

This one is a definite wash.  There were really no in cabin updates between 01 and 02.  I do like the 996 cabin overall, though, as I feel it is a good blend of the classic 911 style and modern automotive interior design; definitely a nice place to be.  In the years since, I think Porsche has possibly strayed a bit to far.  The 997 didn’t divert too badly, but the 991 cabin updates really have yet to grow on me and are a fairly significant change.  That’s not the subject for discussion today though, so I’ll leave it alone.

Verdict: definite tie here… the 996 cabin stayed pretty consistent throughout its life

Build Quality

This is one area where I definitely will give the nod to older generations of 911.  The 964, in particular, is just a really impressively high watermark for build quality.  From the 964 to the 993 I feel we take a step down and from the 993 to the 996 the same is true.  Possibly the 991 sets things right, but only time will tell there.  As it is, it is important when shopping for any pre-owned, modern 911, to take a very close look at all of the “soft bits”.  The leather, switch gear and plastics tend to not age so well.  Things creak and squeak a bit and crack if not protected and preserved.  I was fortunate in that both of my examples were really well maintained and everything functioned well and looked new.  The panels lined up well and the paint and sheet metal were smooth.  The exterior plastics were clear and the rubber was still fresh.  I do detect some improved quality on the 02, but nothing that isn’t in line with the natural evolution during a model lifespan as manufacturing efficiency improves a bit and small tweaks are made.

Verdict: a tie… To be blunt, 996 build quality is never fantastic… due diligence followed by vigilance is advised!

Performance

BIG disclaimer here.  My 1999 was a tip (boo! hissss! gasp!!!)  Now the tiptronic is not a bad automatic, but it is an automatic.  The 2002 ushered in 30 more HP, more TQ and increased displacement.  Add that to a 6MT and we are talking a serious slam dunk in my case.  The 2002 just feels like an entirely different car.  I am sure a manual trans 1999 would have felt much closer, but I didn’t own one of those!  Where the 1999 tip just never felt quite quick enough around town, the 2002 has the perfect amount of usable performance for the vast majority of driving scenarios for me.  It isn’t even remotely close to being the quickest car I’ve owned (not remotely), but at 2900lbs or so and 320HP, combined with a 6MT it feels extremely quick off the line on the street and has power in every gear at speed.   By the numbers the 02 probably has  a half second or so advantage over the 99 tip, but it feels like a lot more and, honestly, when it comes to driving enjoyment (real driving, not bench racing) feel is actually the most important thing.

Verdict: 2002 by a 1/4 mile!  Albeit a very unfair comparo since this is tip vs 6MT, I do feel that the increased displacement of the 3.6 is very noticeable on the street

Handling

This one took me by surprise.  I had expected pretty much no gain here and yet what I found was quite the opposite!  The physics of the 911 are interesting to say the least and the farther back you go, the more you will feel body roll and note the tendency to want to oversteer.  With the 99, much of this had been tamed, to the point where true classic Porschephiles felt the car had become “too easy”.  What then, must they think of the 02?!  PSM is something I really like a lot!  Compared to the basic traction control on the 99, it inspires a lot more confidence without taking away, for me, any of the “fun” of a tail happy(ish) 911.  It is a great complement to the balance of the car and leaves me genuinely curious about the evolution of that system and how great it must be in the 991.  The other major change influencing handling lies in the suspension.  The tweaks Porsche made are absolutely noticeable in reducing body roll and the occasional feel of “top heaviness” that the 911 can have as well as the tendency for the nose to feel somewhat light.  Ergonomics, brake and steering feel, and visibility are excellent as always.  Overall, as great as both cars are in the curves, is the better vehicle.

Verdict: the 02 wins here.  Great changes by Porsche that clearly set the trajectory that has lead to the 997 and 991

Driving Experience

I’ll admit that here my bias is big.  Auto, even dual clutch auto (and I’ve owned some of the best of those) just lacks something when compared to a truly great manual.  And if there was ever a truly great manual, the 996 is it.  The clutch feel, gear shift action and driving position are all sublime.  I honestly believe that to fully experience what the 911 is it must be experienced with the manual.  So for me, there is no comparison here.  Combine improved handling, improved performance, and the pure experience of the manual and it is a huge backboard breaking slamdunk.

Verdict: the sum of the parts is strong.  Solid win for the 2002!

Conclusion

In conclusion I think it is reasonable to say that both of these cars are winners and neither will disappoint.  As with many things, you buy the best 911 you can afford.  The pre 02 3.4 and the 02+ 3.6 are not so different that there should be any remorse though!  That said, the changes introduced with the 02 are noticeable and were extremely well executed.  If you can swing it, the 02+ is definitely the way to go (not to mention that the reliability concerns diminish a bit – out of scope for this discussion but worth noting).  And with that, more car porn!

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3 thoughts on “Dueling 911s! 996 3.4 vs 996 3.6

  1. david barry

    I enjoyed your essay. Well presented and engaging. One thing really piqued my curiosity. You remark that the 3.6 is NOT EVEN CLOSE (I think you used italics) to being the fastest cat you ever owned. Your comment suggests (to me) that you’ve owned not one but several cars that would leave the 996 in the dust. So, what are they? I know you don’t drive a Dodge Hellcat. Or a 650 HP Corvette. Or the big-buck McLaren. And of course, for reasons of taste alone, you wouldn’t own a Bugatti Veyron. As a former auto magazine writer, I’ve driven some fast cars. Fastest was the Porsche 959. Granted, that car is way out of date. But it’s still pretty damn quick. And in two street excursions in two different 996s (one stick, one tip), I felt as if I was driving the fastest car I had ever steered on the street. (I forgot to mention the AMG Hammer).

    You don’t sound like one of those big-buck guys who buys 200 MPH cars like fashion accessories. So, to stop me from writing any more, please tell me the cars that were SO MUCH faster. I’m intrigued. I currently drive an E34 BMW M5, which is know is one of the slowest cars on the block. Only it doesn’t FEEL slow when you open up the six throttle bodies above 4800 RPM.

    I’m going to sell it because I don’t need four doors. I do need speed, and my brief test drive (at what we used to call Holbert Porsche in Warrington), made me think the 996 was it.the fastest street car I had ever driven. I know there are many, many production cars out there that are considerably faster. But because I particularly resonate to what I consider your cultivated taste and sensibility, I’m curious about the cars you’ve owned that are so much faster. None of my business, of course, but I can’t help asking.

    Thanks, and thanks for writing such perceptive commentary. .

    David Barry
    New Hope, Pa.

    1. Hey David,

      Thanks for reading and great question!

      In this case the two GTRs I owned (the 09 flashed with Cobb, the ’14 stock), the stage 2 Evo X (LICP, UICP, turbo back, intercooler, flash) and the supercharged 3.2L NSX were all a fair bit quicker in any objective measure.

      That said, speed isnt everything as you know and i still count the 911 as absolutely the most satisfying and well balanced car Ive owned even if the base 996 isnt the absolute quickest/fastest thing on the road.

      1. david barry

        Thanks for the reply. Yep, you had much faster cars. But I appreciate what you say about what I’ll call the 996’s all around brilliance. It’s a LOT faster than any car I ever owned – and I love its nimble handling. To get that level of performance for less than $30K (I’ve never bought a new car and never will; too much depreciation) makes it one of the best buys in my lifetime. I’m shopping for a Carrera 4 S. That way I won’t have to leave my play car in the garage all winter.

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