When you have a chance to grab the keys to a Porsche and disappear into the Arizona desert for a few hours, you take it. It doesn’t matter if it’s the iconic 911, a spunky 914, a Boxster, or even (shudder) a Panamera, those few hours are a precious gift. Unlike the mean streets of Brooklyn, on which it’s nearly impossible to find the limits of, say, a bicycle, the vast, smooth ribbons of asphalt across the scorched desert outside Phoenix beckon you to turn the radio off and mind-meld with the machine. I had such an opportunity to drive the capable, quick, and controversial 996 cabriolet. Can this Porsche help me find inner peace in the desert?
Go to the right internet forums (or nearly any Cars and Coffee) and you’ll find the guys wearing Porsche-branded polo shirts who like to say things like “air-cooled,” and “ring times,” and who can probably recite word for word the best man’s speech at Ferdinand Porsche’s wedding. These people are sometimes called “Porschefiles” and they generally do not like the 996 generation of the 911. Introduced in 1998, this was a blank sheet, brand new car that shared exactly zero components with the previous 911 model, the 993. They say the Porsche 996 is a middle finger to the Porsche faithful, that it messed with the recipe. For decades the 911 meant an air-cooled flat six hanging over the rear wheels. The 996 kept the flat six out back but was water cooled. The car got bigger, quieter, and more comfortable. But the 996 was also a better performer in most measurable ways than the outgoing car. It was faster and safer and just as efficient, and Porsche sold a ton of them.
The owner of this Midnight Blue Metallic 2002 Carrera convertible is a life long Porsche owner who has owned multiple 911s (and a 912) since the late ’60s. You won’t find him wearing a Porsche polo shirt obsessively polishing the paint as if the car lives in the Smithsonian, or arguing with you about what a “real” Porsche is. He’s too busy still driving this 996 every single day for any of that.
And now it’s my turn. The door felt light as I opened it and I stepped in and slid down into a satisfyingly low seating position. I looked for the ignition to the right of the steering wheel. Nope… Hmm…. Ah, there! I pushed in the clutch and took a deep breath, inserted the key, and opened a storage compartment on the center console. Dammit.
I finally found the ignition (it’s on the left side of the steering wheel) and was greeted by the clicks and chirps of well hidden radar detector waking up. Full disclosure: I am not usually a convertible top guy. Most cars look and perform worse with the roof cut off. But having the engine of a Porsche 911 roar to life right behind my head was amazing. I could hear every nuance of that 3.6 liter flat 6 turning over as I backed the 996 out of the garage into the hot sun. Suddenly, the convertible sports car made perfect sense.
The clutch is a brute, requiring a lot of force, but the engagement point is easy to learn. The six speed shifter has relatively short throws and was never vague. No missed shifts all day. Compared to my Mustang GT, the Porsche has less torque down low and takes more throttle to get it happily moving, but it’s got a short first gear that makes the most of the power.
This 2002 version of the 996 got an upgraded 315 horsepower engine with improved components to avoid the catastrophic failures of earlier units. This engine likes to rev and once you hit the fat torque curve at around 4000 rpm it’s all smiles. The buff books of the day put the 0-60 times of the 996 ‘vert at around 5.0 seconds, which is certainly quick. It doesn’t really feel as fast as it is, though. At least not in every day driving. This car is less about straight line speed and more about practical, well-rounded performance. The gear ratios are well sorted and on the highway a quick downshift to 5th gear provides plenty of grunt to get around slower traffic.
My favorite thing about driving the 996 was the steering. It was precise, direct, and pleasantly heavy. Not having an engine hanging over the wheels doing the turning is really a joy. The turn-in is immediate and the car handles flat as a board. I have read complaints leveled at the 996 that the suspension is too soft. Not this car. It rides like a skateboard. I’m not sure if the suspension is aftermarket, or stock and just a little worn out, but soft is not the word I would use.
This car had the factory optional and very good looking 2-piece BBS Sport wheels, shod with nice sticky Michelin Pilot Super Sports. Those drilled rotors are factory equipment as well. I didn’t push the car to test the brakes, but the pedal feel was linear and agreeable. Speaking of pedals, I felt like I had to work extra hard to do any heel/toe downshifting. Maybe I just needed more practice.
There’s that 315 horsepower water cooled flat six. The electric fan was working overtime in the 95 degree desert sun, whirring loudly away even after sitting still for twenty minutes. As you can see this Porsche is not a trailer queen. It gets used like any other daily driver and the engine compartment full of desert dust to prove it.
In every 911 ever made you will find a the soul of a practical every day car right alongside the dominant athletic performance that has made it one of the world’s most important sports cars. Perhaps the best definition of a real Porschefile is someone, like the owner of this 996, who knows how to take advantage of both. It’s not about breathing rarified air, it’s about combusting it.
As the sun dropped lower in the sky, I reluctantly headed back into town. The direct connection to the road I felt as cactuses and desert bluffs whirred past the open cockpit was calming and addictive. Did I find inner peace in the desert behind the wheel of a 996? Well, it’s certainly the right tool for the job. And the 80,000+ miles on the odometer show that someone else finds some solace there, too.