Automotive progress is an incredible thing. It means if you step out of the latest BMW M3 and into the original E30 version, you feel like you’re barely moving. It means exotic supercars from only a decade or so ago would get blown into the weeds if they went up against a modern hot hatchback, and it means that the new turbocharged Porsche 911 Carrera S has exactly the same power as the monstrous 911 Turbo from only two generations ago.
That’s why I currently find myself out in the sticks somewhere near London, staring at a brand new 991.2 911 Carrera S and the 996 911 Turbo belonging to CT friend John Marcar, who’s very kindly tossed me the keys for the day.
I must confess that this is actually the later ‘X50’ 996 Turbo which does mean it’s a little more powerful - 450bhp compared to the 420bhp in the Carrera S - but when you’re talking about power figures starting with a number 4, you can’t get too hung up on an extra 30bhp. On paper at least, it accounts for just one tenth shaved off the 0-62mph time, with the 996 dispatching the benchmark sprint in 4.2 seconds as opposed to 4.3 in the 991.
Those are the cold, hard facts dealt with, but how about the subjective area of looks? Thanks to the evolutionary design approach from 996 to 997 to 991, at first glance there’s not a lot to separate the two, but there are key differences. Sure, there are the obvious details like the 996’s ‘fried egg’ headlights (maligned at the time, but I like ‘em), but the 991 is on the whole a lot more muscular looking, with its bulging arches and gob-full-of-grilles look. Oh and yes, those are GT3 wheels on the 996, which were already fitted when John bought the car. Yes, he does get a lot of Internet rage from purists about them, and no, he doesn’t care.
Moving on from angry people off the Internet, it’s time to get behind the wheel. And while there aren’t many differences to spot on the outside, you’ll find a hell of a lot that’s different on the insides of these cars.
Porsche has become known for impeccable interior build quality, so after arriving in the sturdily built 991 and stepping into the 996, I get a bit of a shock. Everything feels a tad cheap, and although this 14-year-old example has a reasonable-ish 60,000 miles on the clock, parts of the interior feel heavily worn.
Then there’s the leather trim on the dashboard, which has a weird bobbly effect which has appeared over the years. I’m not a fan of the almost entirely red 991 interior - it makes it look like a mafia hit has taken place inside the cabin - but it’s certainly the place I’d rather spend time in.
Trying to ignore the obvious drop in quality, I twist the very ordinary key (no silly car-shaped shenanigans going on here, unlike in the 991) clockwise, waking the rear-mounted, 3.6-litre twin-turbo flat-six. It’s all rather quiet and low key compared to the 991’s theatrical spike of revs on start-up, but there’s that distinctive Porsche six-pot clatter filling my ears with the warmth of familiarity.
The 991 is a very quick car that feels quick, but at no point have I found it shockingly fast. The 996 on the other hand? Keen to find out, I press the accelerator pedal right to the floor in second gear, and at first, not a whole lot seems to happen. Nothing, nothing, nothing, and at 4000rpm, the turbos come on song and I’m violently pinned back into the driver’s seat as the Turbo launches forward in a brilliant lesson on why performance stats so often mean sod all when it comes to how fast a car feels. And the Turbo feels outrageously fast.
The power is never enough to overwhelm the four-wheel drive system though; other than the occasional chirp from the rear tyres, the Turbo gives the impression of near endless grip. That continues when you get to a bend, where you also find a neutral chassis, great chassis communication, and plenty of feedback through the steering. Plus the ability to spit you out of any corner exit with venom, so long as you’re in the right gear and have the revs high enough.
Ah, the gearbox - the only disappointing part of the 996’s drive. Compared to the slick, short-shifting seven-speed ‘box in the Carrera S, the six-speeder in the Turbo has a long, clumsy throw that makes it easy to miss-shift at first. To make matters worse, the knob’s a girthy thing that’s hard to grasp even with my big hands. It feels all nasty and plasticy, too.
It’s a relatively small complaint though. When you step from a modern car into something from 10 or so years ago, you’re usually presented with a car that feels a lot softer, and a lot more slack, but that’s not the case with the 996 Turbo. It feels remarkably tight and together for a 14-year-old car, and is still a hugely exciting thing to drive.
Sliding back into the Mafia Hit Red cabin of the 991, and it’s clear that while both of these cars have twin-turbocharged flat-sixes, the 3.0-litre lump in the back of this Porsche behaves completely differently. This time there’s no waiting until 4000rpm to make progress. Peak torque comes in below 2000rpm, and it’s after just 2500rpm that things start to get jolly exciting.
This is of course the controversial 911 since it has a downsized turbo unit replacing a big old 3.8-litre naturally-aspirated lump, but it’s stupidly impressive, and I just don’t agree with all the moaning that it’s somehow lost the ‘magic’ of the N/A. It still has that distinctive flat-six clatter in the low end, it still howls in the mid-range, and it still screams at the top of its lungs in the final moments before you bang home another gear.
The only thing missing is a redline beyond 8000rpm (here, peak power comes in at 6500rpm and the redline is at 7200), but that’s a small price to pay for how much more potent this new turbo engine feels at the low and mid-range compared to the old N/A engine. It’s not just where it comes in either, there’s also more of it: the 368b ft of twist on offer might be a little down on the bonkers 996 Turbo’s 457lb ft, but it’s 43 more than you enjoyed previously.
All this makes for a more versatile car: pretty much whatever gear you’re in you can be sure you’ll get a decent amount of thrust when you boot it out of a corner, so you don’t need to be stirring the seven-speed manual gearbox much. But on this road, I’m finding myself shifting more than I perhaps need to, because unlike the clunky ‘box action on the 996, the change here is short and joyfully precise. It’s easily one of the best manual gearboxes around at the moment.
That’s not the only difference between the two cars. Body control is tidier here, and that’s despite the fact that - thanks to the wonders of modern suspension technology - the 991 rides way, way smoother than the 996, even with the adaptive dampers turned up to their angriest setting. Meanwhile each little jinx of the steering wheel sees the nose darting in exactly where you want - you might lose a little feedback with the 991’s electric power steering setup, but it makes up for it with ruthless speed.
Building the pace up, I’m beginning to feel the rear boots move around more. Only natural since the front wheels aren’t powered here, but the reserves of rear-end grip are vast: unless you live in deepest, darkest Scotland, I’m not sure why you’d need to bother with the Carrera 4.
"They may be similar on paper, but to drive they are so, so different"
With all the photos in the bag and plenty of time behind the wheel of each car, I watch the 996 disappear in my review mirror as I head home in the 991, making the most of the cosseting part of the newer Porsche’s split personality for the rush hour slog home. This gives me ample time to consider these two Porsches: a 911 Turbo, and a turbo 911.
Sure, they may be similar on paper, but to drive they are so, so different. The 991’s comparatively gentle building of boost, much more linear power delivery and very un-turbo-like throttle response are all terrifically entertaining to exploit, but the the 996’s explosion of power and torque high up in the rev range makes for a car that’ll shock you with its performance, even though it’s almost a decade and a half old.
Both are winners here: the 991.2 for proving turbo power hasn’t spoilt the party, and the 996 for still having what it takes to make you feel like you’re about to lose bladder control every time you slam your foot down. What a great pair of cars.