Notes from the Road, A Personal Automotive History – Issue 10: “Calling 9-1-1…”

I’m bad with spoilers; I just can’t help myself.  That huge honkin hint at the end of issue 9 probably left little to the imagination.  After dropping the NSX back off and waving goodbye at lease end, I found myself navigating even further south, all the way to West Chester PA to visit Brandywine Porsche.  Any real sports car fanatic honestly can’t skip the 911 forever given the means to acquire and own one.  Also, having had two seaters for a while, it was becoming increasingly problematic.  At this point my wife was pregnant with our daughter and our only usable vehicle was the Land Rover.  Oh, did I forget to mention that?  My car madness moves pretty fast and furious so some of these entries are going to start to overlap!  That will be the topic for the next one and a recurring theme as we alternate between changes to the “practical car” and the “fun car” in parallel.  With two drivers and a kid on the way, having two cars that could seat two adults and accept a car seat seemed prudent.  This is how the rationalization sounded in my head, anyhow.  At this time we had also just purchased the house we had been living in from my in-laws as they were having a harder time keeping up on it.  We would own it and renovate it and they would continue to live in their apartment rent free, of course, and have the cash from the sale to live off of.  My dad had also passed away at this time, so it was a period of pretty dramatic personal turmoil for me.  Work was going well, though, and I was now a tenured Microsoft technology specialist in the service provider sales vertical, with modest shares vesting and an occasional decent sales commission check.  The smartest thing would have been to just live on one vehicle and put more down on the house, but with cars I pretty much never do the smart thing!  So instead I took a cashiers check down to Brandywine and purchased this beauty:


She was a 1 owner CPO 1999 Carrera 2 tiptronic (eeee gads, again!) and a staggering array of options.  The Porsche options book is preposterous and the original owner of this example had gone hog wild.  The original sticker carried north of thirty grand in options; many of them cosmetic!  Large carbon fiber kit? Check.  Nav system and premium audio?  Check.  Large leather and large aluminum? Check.  You get the idea.  In addition he had installed Fabspeed headers and exhaust which provided a deep raspy soundtrack that was fantastic.  The 996 has really been brutalized over the years, starting pretty much with it’s birth, but I’ve always loved it.  I thought it looked great and I had no built in “anti-watercooling” bias.  As a technology guy “modern” and “new” usually strike a subconscious chord with me and I’m also a sucker for increased performance.  Experiencing the 996 first hand I became an instant fan.

Build Quality, Design and Ergonomics

To me, the 911 has always been the ultimate in both cabin layout and ergonomics.  A simple dash, a huge tach, an upright driving position, a panoramic view and an array of simple controls all well within reach of the driver all combine to maximize engagement and minimize distraction.  Like the NSX, the 911 is an extremely intimate driving experience.  In my observations on the C230 I noted that the W201 to W202 relationship was similar to that of the 993 to the 996.   I believe this holds true, but in the case of the Porsche is even more extreme.  The Porsche of the 993 era simply could not have survived to the present day.  The hand made air cooled engine was too complex to manufacture and it was becoming increasingly difficult to extract more power from it while still meeting increasing requirements around emissions and fuel efficiency.  The engineering teams went to work and under the guidance of famed designer Harm Lagaay, the 986/996 generation was born.  The water cooled M96 engine design allowed for efficient mass manufacturing and also produced a whole bunch of power very efficiently while maintaining the signature flat 6 configuration.  The same philosophical shift carried through the rest of the car.  The mass manufacturing techniques, modernization of the aesthetics, and transition to higher margin materials combined to disappoint, and even alienate, many purists.  At the same time, they worked in a huge way and Porsche returned to profitability quickly and over time has expanded and diversified its portfolio (further enraging purists), while continuing to evolve the venerable 911 and keeping it world class (again, enraging purists).  To me, as a non-purist, the 996 looked fantastic.  I suppose I can appreciate the superior build quality of the older cars, and I do notice the superior materials, but the dated design draws me back to the 996 every time.  While not up to legacy Porsche standards, the 996 build quality was still up to at least NSX standards and while the materials tend to not wear all that well (certainly not even ballpark with the near immortal 911’s of old), they can be kept looking fresh with diligent care.  The design though, is terrific and holds up even today.  With a foot in both the past (superb driving position, big wonderful tach, intuitive controls) and the future (updated dash and equipment, more modern aesthetic), the 996 cabin works really well.  In the modern 911 spectrum ranging from the 964 through the 993 to the 997 and finally 991, I find that my personal favorite from a design standpoint is the 997, followed by the 996.  The 991 I find to be too much of a departure, while I find the 964 to be just too dated for my taste.  The 993 is lovely as well and I certainly undertand the passion folks have for that model.  So the build quality issue is a bit of a mixed story.  Viewed in the context of the older Porsches the 996 is a step back, but compared to any of its competition at the time, the build and materials quality was excellent.  I ended up driving the 99 for 3 years and 40 thousand or so miles and all of the surfaces wore well.   I’m not religious with interior care, but will do an annual leather and vinyl conditioning and I am usually reasonable gentle on switchgear and the like.  The cabin stayed tight as well and was nearly rattle and vibration free with an occasional exception or two in the center console and transmission tunnel areas.  The backseats turned out to be pretty tiny, but they are still workable for a car or booster seat and perhaps a young child or petite adult.  Outside the 911 is the 911.  It is a classic shape that evolves gently over time and folks generally either love it or hate it, but everyone can recognize it.  I find that the base 911 looks a bit unfinished to my eye, especially in narrow body form, but with the optional aerokit (which I specifically sought out), the car is transformed.  I really feel the GT3 look aerokit is a must for any 911 and if I bought new, I’d have to factor that whopping $5k+ option into my buying decision (of course with Porsche MSRP continuing to skyrocket I suspect a new 911 purchase will never be in the cards!)

Driving Impressions

From a driving dynamics perspective I will say that the 911 is absolutely one of the finest cars I have driven and trades punches with the NSX blow for blow.  The NSX is a bit more visceral, but the 911 steering feedback and feel is just a bit better.  The NSX is livelier in the upper rev band, but the Porsche flat 6 has noticeably more grunt (torque) down low.  Both offer incredibly supportive seats, perfect driver position, and a panoramic view.  In the Porsche you sit more upright and have more a feeling of surveying the view from above whereas the NSX cockpit gives the feeling of putting you on the road.  Both cars feel light and small and, as I’ve reiterated numerous times (this is a big one for me) wonderfully intimate.  The tiptronic transmission was a decent automatic, but honestly makes the 911 a bit of a different car with less absolute performance (60 coming in 5.2 seconds rather than 4.8), but also reduced gearing efficiency.  In either form throttle response and feel is excellent though, as are the fantastic brakes (excellent, though surprisingly heavy feel, huge power, minimal fade), and perfect chassis and suspension.  The early 996 models could feel a bit top heavy and did exhibit some body roll, however, and the communicative steering coupled with the light front end can make the nose feel light.  That sensation fades at speed, though, as the car settles down for business.  The 911 is one of those rare beasts that feels more and more stable as the speedometer climbs, all the way until you reach its limits.  The soundtrack from the Fabspeed setup was great, but had a bit too much drone in cabin for my tastes.  I much prefer the standard Porsche Sport Exhaust which, to my ears, is one of the greatest exhaust systems available on any car, OEM or aftermarket.


I had no issues with the 911 other than basic maintenance.  Being a Porsche, everything was expensive and doing the full front and rear, rotor and pad, replacement rang up to nearly $3000 at the dealer (ouch!).  Luckily this was my only really major maintenance item. Sourcing parts online and finding a great independent is a great idea for any Porsche owner (of course for those who can, doing ones own wrenching is even better).  I tend to use the dealer for the sake of having that history available with the car when I sell it and also for the convenience of things like loaners, kid friendly waiting rooms, pickup and delivery, and the like.


So what was the verdict in the 911 vs NSX battle?  For the automatic versions of both of these cars I’m going to call it a draw.  While very dissimilar in their approach to rewarding the driver for going fast, the both deliver pretty equally.  The 911 was a bit quicker, the NSX felt a bit better, the 911 was more convenient, the NSX was more exotic, the NSX build quality was probably a bit better, the 911 design was noticeably more modern, and so it goes.  Spoilers are becoming a trend for these entries so I’ll just say that I would eventually come to experience the manual trans versions of both of these cars and the outcome was a bit different, so stay tuned!


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