03-17-10 - Porsche 911 Buying Guide

This one goes out to all the internet searchers in the world. I figure I should brain dump to the wild electronic blue.

ADDENDUM : this is really a 997.1 buying guide , not an old-911 buying guide (there are plenty of those around if that's what you want, look elsewhere) ; first a buyer has to learn is that Porsche people don't ever call it a 911, you have to refer to the specific generation you are talking about, and when people say "911" they usually mean the very early models, pre-964.

Buy used. If you have any doubts, remember that Porsche makes $28247 per vehicle which is almost all the difference between new and 1 year old car prices. The cars have a pretty huge price cliff when they transition from "almost new" ( under 10k miles ) to "yuck the seat is soaked with someone else's ass sweat" ( over 10k miles ) ; you will get the best value by buying the most recent year you can get, but with higher than average miles. Also, high mileage on these cars is not actually a terrible thing; the absolutely worst thing you can do for these engines is to let them sit in a garage for months and then a nice day comes around and you go out and thrash it, which is what a lot of the low mile cars do. Also at high mileage it's more likely that a major engine problem (RMS/IMS) would have shown up by now. Also, Porsche buyers are nuts about minor cosmetic damage; that means you should of course buy a car that has some minor cosmetic flaws like paint scratches and bumper rash, and you should get a big discount for it.

Naming : "911" is the line of rear engine cars; it also refers to one specific generation of the line. Future types of 911 are either called the "2001 911" or by their numerical code name, eg. "996". Sometimes people will also just say "the coupe" which is understood to mean "current year 911 carrera".

History : Porsche repeatedly tried to kill the 911 and get traction with mid-engined (914) or front-engined (944,928) cars. Before 1999 the 911 was air-cooled (really "oil cooled" , which it still is, but now the oil is additionally cooled by water, while then the oil was just cooled by air). The old 911 is the longest production running car after the Beetle, which is interesting since it is just a Beetle (this claim is pretty bogus). Most Porsche nuts idolize the early cars which is why you need to ignore the opinion of Porsche nuts. Older Porsches were also more rare and held value better; it was a weird cult car; the modern 996+ car is not like that any more at all, it is a mass market easy to drive car with huge depreciation; some of the old Porsche nuts don't understand or refuse to recognize that change.

1999 introduced the 996 (actually 98 but you will never see a 98). The current car (2010) is largely the same as that car - same platform, same basic engine. All modern 911's are ECU controlled with air sensors and drive-by-wire electronic throttle and all that kind of shit that makes them just like a BMW or something, but they do a good job of feeling simple and pure and manual. In general the advantage of the 911 over competing cars is just that it is an incredibly well sorted car which is well designed for people who like to drive. The power is not amazing by modern standards, but the way it puts down the power is fantastic - it has less drivetrain loss than average, less throttle delay, you sit low, it's just the right kind of stiff, the ergonomics are great for real driving. They have also kept the weight pretty low by modern standards - you can get a base 911 for under 3000 pounds with all the AC and carpets intact , most competitors are around 3500.

The lineup of variants is basically the same for all the years (though they're fickle about which variant is available in what year), so first I'll go over the variants :

Basically you pick each part of the car and put them together, so you pick :
roof type : {Carrera/Cabriolet/Targa}
+ engine type : {S , not S }
+ drive type : {2wd or 4wd}
Put them together, so eg. Carrera 4wd S = C4S

Note : the Turbo, GT3, and GT2 are a separate car that is not a variant of this; I will address them at the end.

Carrera = Coupe - this is the good one. Lighter, more rigid.
Cabriolet = Convertible. This is for very fat bankers. If you want a convertible car there are many better choices.
Targa = glass top ; at some point the meaning of "Targa" changed from a T-top type of thing to the new variant which is a huge glass sliding roof. The glass roof is heavy and it's weight in a bad place - up high - which hurts handling, but I must say it is absolutely glorious inside there; it's all the advantages of a convertible with none of the disadvantages. It is a painfully uncool fat banker's car, but it's also really fucking great to be in. If you don't care about what other people think of you (which you clearly don't if you are considering a 911), this is a great car, though they are a bit rare thus hard to find cheap used. The rear glass also opens like a hatch back, which is especially great if you delete the rear seats (which you should).

911 "base" (Carrera/Cabriolet/Targa) - don't buy this, it's for retards and fat (but poor) bankers.

911 "S" - the "S" is a huge upgrade over the base for not much money, it's obligatory. You get a bigger engine, bigger brakes, bigger rims, better suspension, standard PASM and other sport options, better air intake, better exhaust, it's just upgrades all around, you really cannot pass up the "S".

"2" vs "4" (referred to as C2S or C4S for example for the Carrera 2WD S) - this was the hardest buying decision for me. The "4" gets a few bonuses, like pre-pressurized brake lines and larger brakes from the turbo, as well as the wide body and larger tires. The "4" also gets 100-150 more pounds of weight (though most of that is in the front which is not a terrible thing), and a bit of understeer and a slightly more numb feeling. In the real world, the 4 is actually faster in almost all scenarios in the hands of 99.99% of drivers, however the 2 *feels* faster because it is lighter and there's less drivetrain loss and lag - you get the engine in the back directly driving the wheels in the back which makes it super responsive. If you do get a "4" you should go for the 2009+ variant. I think 90% of the fat banker buyers should be getting the 4, because it is more practical and safer for the shitty driver; serious enthusiasts probably should get the 2 for the tighter feel and wacky tail-out fun times.

Now we'll go over the years. The 996/997 has been basically the same but tweaked over the years and there are some major differences :

The 996 generally (1998-2004) is the ugly stepchild of recent Porsches. It's very ugly, the front end is identical to the old Boxster front end, the interior feels to me just like a Dodge Stealth, and the steering feel and throttle and brakes and everything just feel a lot worse than the 997 (even though they are fundamentally the same).

996.1 : 1998-2001 : 3.4L engine (300 HP) : do not buy these. They are known for engine failures (RMS is just a small leak problem while IMS is a major engine failure) and the 2002 has a lot of upgrades.

996.2 : 2002-2004 : 3.6L (320 HP) : adds variable valve timing, better aero and stiffer chassis, lots of little improvements over 996.1 , mostly sorts out the engine failures. This car is much hated, though it's actually not a bad car, so it should be available for under $30k , and if you do a bunch of mods it could be a nice car. I still don't recommend it, because if you are thinking of a 996 you can get a GT3 or Turbo for so cheap (see later).

997.1 : 2006-2008 : 3.8L (S) (360 HP) : lots of improvements over the 996.2 - bigger engine, bigger rims, brakes, handling more sorted, clutch feels a lot better, better steering feel. Adds PASM adjustable sport suspension (you are getting an S of course so this is standard) which is very good. Oversteer is extremely well sorted now through suspension and alignment and tire sizing, if anything the cars slightly understeer out of the factory. PSM (electronic traction control) is very good - keeps you going straight without interfering too much.

997.2 : 2009-2010 : 3.8L DFI (385 HP) ; big engine improvement, moves to direct injection which gives more power, more economy, more torque. Fixes the IMS problems by having no IMS. The biggest improvements however are in the automatic (PDK) which gets the 7-speed double clutch from the Turbo, and the C4S which gets the electronic 4WD from the Turbo (PTM) (the old 4S had mechanical viscous clutch 4WD which is less effective as a 4WD but maybe is better at making the car feel like a RWD). If you're considering a C4S, especially an automatic, the 997.2 is a big win over the 997.1 ; some indications that the early engines are not sorted (eating a lot of oil); they also have tuned the suspension to be a bit more dead out of the factory, so the 997.2 is even less tail-happy and a bit more numb than the 997.1 , but you can easily have this fixed aftermarket if you want more snap. Also if you want an automatic (PDK), you must get a 997.2 with SC (Sports Chrono), the earlier automatics suck (tiptronic), and normally SC is worthless, but with PDK it is a must. Another huge change for 997.2 is that an LSD (Limitted Slip Differential) is now standard (on S/PASM cars anyway, which you are of course getting), so that's a nice bonus. Right now these cars are hard to find cheap used, however you can still find unsold 2009's at dealers and they are offering big deals on them.

2011-2012 will bring a major overhaul and is currently codenamed the 991.

Buying options on the 997 : (a general note : options may cost a huge amount when you buy the car new, but on used cars they are worth almost $0 ; do not pay more for a car because of options ; if someone tries to tell you the car is worth $5k more because it has PCCB, tell him you're sorry he wasted his money on options that are worth nothing in resale).

Sports Chrono : must get this with PDK on the 997.2 (it gives you a faster-shifting more aggressive mode for the automatic; must have; also gives launch control; those cars also have the ability to switch the 4WD to 2WD on C4S models which is pretty cool). On other cars all this does is give you a "sport" button which remaps the throttle to be a steeper curve. Basically it just makes e-gas have a *= 2 factor on it, so that 100% trottle comes on quicker. That's retarded and actually hurts lap times because it gives you less fine throttle control.

PASM : this will be standard (you are buying an S right) and it's good.

19" rims : this will be standard (you are buying an S right) but it's not good. 18" rims are preferred - they are much lighter, let you buy cheaper tires, give a softer more comfortable ride, and are at worst neutral on performance (and might help).

Bose stereo : terrible, avoid. Adds weight and might make the audio quality worse. The car is so loud the stereo quality doesn't matter anyway.

Nav & PCM : terrible, avoid. Much improvement in 997.2 (PCM v3) , so if you need electronics get a 997.2 ; otherwise just use an aftermarket nav system, or pull over and use your iPhone.

Parking assist, dimming rear view mirror, headlight washers, TPMS, etc. etc. - none of this is good, avoid it all. Even if you think you want it, it seriously does not work well, avoid. Like it's not just overpriced, but having it is worse than not having it.

X51 package : performance package that boosts HP about +25 ; this is a very nice kit (exhaust, headers, intake, valve flaps, cylinder heads), which you should definitely get on a used car if you can find it cheap. Definitely not worth the $$ on a new car (but you aren't buying new cuz that's ridiculous with a Porsche). The OEM X51 kit is way way better than any aftermarket 3rd party intake/exhaust mods. (ADDENDUM : x51 is really a very good deal in a used car and you should get it if possible; it also includes a lot of upgrades to make the engine more reliable and handle track G's better, such as a better oil pan and extra oil scavenge pump, better cooling, better cylinder heads, etc. The value is really not about the small power boost, it's that the car can handle heavy use without blowing up.)

Tiptronic (automatic) : avoid because you're not a fat boring lazy banker. Also because the PDK in the newer cars makes this look like stone age dogshit, so these cars will suffer badly in the resale market. (If you do want an automatic, that's a good reason to get a 997.2 instead of a 997.1).

Ceramic brakes (PCCB) : this is a pretty "meh" option ; definitely don't pay more for it. In theory it's cool because they basically don't wear or fade with use, and for a street car they might be a cool thing, but they do crack under very high heat track use, and when they crack they cost $10k to replace, so maybe not an awesome thing for a car you will track (and if you don't track, then normal pads are fine).

Okay, now on to the GT3, GT2 and Turbo . These are significantly different than the other cars, even though they obviously look very similar. They have different suspension, engines, intake & oil coling, and body panels. The Turbo generally has the latest technology, which then moves down to the base cars in the next model. Most significantly and what sets these apart as a family from the other 911 cars is that they are actually built on a different engine. All the 996/997 GT3/GT2/Turbo cars are based on the same engine : the Porsche GT1 race engine from 1996-1999. This engine was brought to the retail 911 for the 996 GT3 in 2003-2004 ; even though it is a 3.6L flat 6 like the normal 911, it is a totally different engine that revs higher, can take more heat, and has a true dry sump for oil cooling which lets it sustain over 1 lateral g without drying out. (technically it's the M64/GT1 engine, while the main line of 911's has an M96/M97 engine). There's not as big of a difference between 996 and 997 variants of these cars as there is with the base cars, because these cars have stayed with the same GT1-based engine the whole time (eg. a 996 GT3 vs. a 997 GT3 is not a huge difference, just body style, some suspension degrades, addition of electronic nannies, stuff like that). The main difference in 996-997 on these cars is the body style and the tech doodads. The GT named cars are quite clear - they are named by the race class they are designed for ; GT1 is the highest race class, then GT2, then GT3. (* addendum : the 997.2 Turbo is now the DFI "9A1" engine as the 997.2 line, just with a Turbo stuck on it; the 997 GT3 is still the M64/GT1 engine, and the 996 and 997.1 Turbo is also an M64/GT1 engine).

Turbo : (often called the TT, as in "996 TT") a bit like a C4S with the better engine & a turbo stuck on it. Also the latest tech doodads to control all that power, fancy brakes and suspension and all that. Cabin is just like a C4S. Obviously an awesome machine, but I really don't like this car; it's not ideal for the track, and the problem is that it's not fun until you are over 100 miles an hour, which makes it pretty impractical in the US. This car is made for blazing on the autobahn. On the plus side, 996 Turbos can be had for quite cheap now.

GT3 : RWD, naturally aspirated, a bit like a stripped C2S with X51 but really a whole other beast. Stripped of weight and unnecessary doodads like computers. The lower tighter suspension makes this not a very practical street car. Also all that power in the rear-engine RWD layout makes this car much more tail happy than the C2S (which is tweaked to soften up the oversteer tendencies). The 997 GT3 has a lot of the modern tech doodads (PSM, PASM) which make it more liveable on the street. The 996 GT3 is the last really raw non-teched-out Porsche, and they can be had used for quite cheap, this is my recommendation for a real raw track car. vs a C2S the car has a much lower rotating weight due to light weight fly wheel, lighter rims and brakes. This is a great car, and a tempting buy because it basically takes a 911 and does all the mods to it that you wish you could do if you're a serious driver, but if you are buying a car that's mainly for the track and a bit uncomfortable on the road, there are better options (like a Cayman or Lotus if you just want fun, or a Nissan GTR if you really want speed, or a Corvette for RWD madness, or lots of other things that are all much cheaper). The only advantage of the 911 over its rivals is its practicality, and the GT3 throws that away.

GT2 : this is a GT3 with a turbo stuck on it, or a Turbo that's been converted to RWD and stripped of weight and made stiffer. This is a ridiculous dangerous car and you should not buy one. This is the one car that really carries on the 911 legacy of being an out of control killer .

Of course there are various other variants (GT3 RS, Cup, etc. etc.) but you aren't going to buy them so whatever. You should be able to get a 996 Turbo or GT3 in good shape for $50-60k now.

Some good guides :

Deutsch Nine history of the models
PorscheDoc's 996 buying guide
Grant Neal's 997 in detail

If you are shopping, do not trust any dealer or private guy about what variant or options a car has. Ask them for a photocopy of the first page of the service book, which will have the VIN and option codes. Then enter them here :

VIN code guide
VIN Decoder
Option code Guide
Option code decoder


Most people will recommend a PPI ("Pre-Purchase Inspection") when buying a used Porsche. I got a PPI and it was pretty worthless, because Porsche mechanics use it as a way to make free money from people who don't know Porsches, and they don't really care if you get a good car or not. So, I'll tell you what you should look for. I do recommend that you get a PPI, but rather than letting the mechanic just check the car out for you, ask for this specific information :

1. DME readout of CELs and overrevs. They scan this with an OBDII reader and should get a page of information. Have them send you an exact copy of what they get from reader, not just their opinion on it. What you want to see is no overrevs in range 4 or 5 (range 1-2 are okay, range 3 is iffy). (you can also buy your own OBD reader and do this yourself)

2. Compression test - this is the only way to tell if there's damage inside the engine. You want the compression number on each cylinder; this should only cost about $100, any more and they are ripping you off. In particular if the engine has been run too hot or oil-starved, the cylinder liners can be gauged or warped out of round, and then they will not seal properly and you'll see reduced compression on that cylinder.

3. Check for oil weep on the engine, particularly in the front. Obviously a seller can hide this by cleaning the engine, but they usually don't. Obvious oil weep near the engine-tranny mounting is a sure sign of RMS leak.

4. Check for bent suspension parts, cracked coil packs, and rust on the exhaust. These are all easily visible on the bottom of the car when its lifted.

ADDENDUM 3-1-2011 :

if for some reason I was buying a new 997 right now it would be a GTS for sure. The GTS is a 997.2 (9A1 DFI), it's RWD but with the wide body from the 4WD car, has the x51 Powerkit option standard for +20 hp, alcantara interior bits, some aero body bits, a nice rear-seat delete option like the GT3. In non-America it also comes with sunroof delete, but in the US that's not an option. Basically the GTS is a good set of options, and you actually get them at a discount, unlike the retarded "Sport Classic" or "Speedster" which are just 997's with a ridiculous markup for no reason. Personally I wish they would have done a bit more weight reduction for the GTS, but instead of a real lightweight enthusiast car, what they did was make the GTS the car that all 997's should have been all along. At 408 HP it's actually got the power to match its rivals. (the only thing not to like about the GTS are the absurd center-lock wheels, but you can opt for normal lugs).


Tom Forsyth said...

> The old 911 is the longest production running car after the Beetle

There's much argument over that in automotive circles, as follows.

Original 911: 1963-1989: 26 years
New 911: 1989-present: 21 years.
Added together (yeah, right): 47 years.

Beetle: 1938-1985 (Europe/US): 47 years.
including sales in Mexico: 1938-2003: 65 years.

Lotus/Caterham Seven: 1957-present: 53 years.

Morgan 4/4: 1936-1939;(WW2);1946-1950;1955-present: 62 years.

So the Beetle wins by a whisker, but only if you include the Mexican sales. Alternatively, you can give Morgan a credit for WW2 because they didn't exactly have a choice about suspending production!

The 911 comes 4th in the list even if you cheat outrageously :-)

Do I win an internets?

cbloom said...

I don't think cars no one has ever heard of count ;)

But yeah, even if it was true that statistic is not exactly something to be proud of. Yay we haven't changed our car in 50 years! Buy one!

cbloom said...

While we're at it, we can debunk some other Porsche statistics.

1. Porsche just got #1 again in the JD Power survey of "long term reliability". (long term = 3 years in JD Power land). The stupid thing here is that this is the number of problems as reported by the owner - not the number of times the car was taken for warranty service or anything objective like that. Jaguar for example often does well in this survey even though we all know their cars are shit. Porsche owners just lie.

2. They often make some vague claim about having the most cars still on the road, like "over 70% of Porsches ever made are still in service" and claim that is the most of any major manufacturer. I have no idea how true this really is, but even if it is true it is no reflection of reliability, it's just a reflection of how much old people love the old Porsches and are willing to keep pumping rebuild money into them to keep them going.

cbloom said...

A proving counterexample is Honda :

Of course Honda has vastly better build quality and reliability than Porsche (if you look at the actual number of warranty service claims for example), but Honda always does poorly on the JD Power surveys cuz the owners are unhappy whiners.

And of course Hondas have ridiculously good long term reliability. But they don't do great in terms of % of cars still running, because when an old Honda has a problem, you just throw it out.

It's also funny to me the way Porsche nuts will spout nonsense about how reliable the cars are in one breath, and then in the next sentence tell you how you need to baby it to keep it healthy. Don't drive it when the engine is cold. Let it idle a while when starting, and then again when stopping. Double clutch it to save the transmission, and don't rest your hand on the shifter. Feed it only the best gas and oils. It's so reliable!

cbloom said...

Oh, and more problems with the JD Power survey : it's per year not per mile. Porsche are driven around 5k miles/year on average which is very low. Consumer Reports gets this all wrong too by counting number of faults per year.

A better way to rank things would be cost of service per mile driven.

Another problem with the survey is that it's across the whole manufacturer lineup, not by model, and most other manufacturers had some shit cars mixed in.

old rants