Purist Carrera is a used cracker, but is the wide body 4s worth the extra bunce?
Having never been an early riser it usually would take a klaxon and an earthquake to rock me out of bed before sunrise, but the offer of keys to a couple of 996 era Porsche 911's had me in the shower at 5 am.
The clear night sky was giving way to a scatter of clouds and a shining sun reflecting off the bonnet of a very clean example of an early 996 and the swollen arches of a mid-cycle 4s.
First up was the all-wheel-drive 4s to see if it was how I remembered from a drive done a decade earlier whilst working in the trade. That one was a silver 50,000-mile example traded in at one of the group's Aston Martin dealers. The one today is grey, with double the mileage on the clock but interior and paintwork in such good condition I'm half tempted to suggest it's been clocked in the wrong direction.
Within ten minutes of finding a suitably open road, the all-wheel drive and fat tyres show the car's character. By today's standard 320 horsepower is fairly modest for a performance car, fortunately, the engine in this one is as well cared for as the rest of the car and so every ounce of power appears to still be on tap. A couple of annoyances creep in after twenty minutes, mainly because I realise that I appreciate the car more than enjoy it. Pressing on does give the fizz of enjoyment that couldn't be replicated in much newer metal with this power, but there is an odd compromise in the back of my mind. When arranging cars for this article the offer of a poorly maintained and high mileage Turbo came up. The car was bought as a project to be returned back to its former glory after being the unfortunate recipient of some personalisation early in life that was still attached. These included wheels that weren't quite the right offset with ultra low profile tyres and a suspected electronic engine fettle that was likely done when the art form was still a bit of a Wild West in comparison to today. Not that there wasn't some well established long-standing Porsche tuners out there in 2004, but the Turbo in question certainly hadn't seen them. Not wanting to muddy the water I decided it wouldn't be right to line it up against the two well cared for Carrera's. If the Turbo were here though, I think it would make a strong case for itself against a 4s. Certainly, the 4s should be cheaper to maintain and own since it lacks the complexity of turbos, but the car is so capable with its wider rear track and thick tyres that it feels a bit too civil in 4s form. For a careful owner that wants something to enjoy without ever needing to see the limits, this is the car, but pushing on in the car just delivers the same surefooted response at a higher rate of speed.
The trick of the 4s was a feeling of serene pleasure when I just wanted to soak up some scenery and appreciate the moment.
I pull over and have a look over the 4s and start immediately cursing myself for not being kinder to it. This is all the car most enthusiasts would ever want, it's powerful without being ludicrous. It has real potency when pushed and gives enough feedback without becoming unbearable. A lack of feel is the hurdle most cars stumble over today, but having so much feedback that you are exhausted after an hour because you can't stand the shaking, bumping, and push and pull of something that only wants to see the smooth surface of Silverstone is just as undesirable. The 4s walks this line nicely, and when compared with a Turbo the power is a lot more usable, flooring the throttle can be done for more than a split second without running the speedo into numbers that scare you. The joy of flooring a throttle from a hairpin and really going for the redline without letting the car get ahead of you and forcing heavy braking before you meet a farmer's field is sorely missed when driving a contender of the horsepower wars.
After lamenting over how I feel about the car, from its wide rear with its long red plastic panel connecting the brake lights to the snug wheels and the beefy front, I can't help but think this is surely the one to buy. The middle of the road between power, size, rarity, and looks, surely of all the 996's, if you can afford one of these, you should buy it...
I take it steady on my way back to the beginning of my drive to see the two-wheel drive, base Carrera shining in the sun, patiently waiting to make a case for itself.
This time I decided that rather than trying to regale the car with comments of purity and a feeling of athleticism, it would be better to go for a cruise. The trick of the 4s was a feeling of serene pleasure when I just wanted to soak up some scenery and appreciate the moment. Cars with manual gearboxes, hydraulic steering, and simplistic dashboards with physical buttons are joyous for a country drive. It reminds you that Porsche didn't have the ability to play tricks for buyers twenty years ago. It was either good to drive or it wasn't, having exquisite materials, huge screens, and gadgets were limited and so was the ability for a buyer to squeeze out the potential of a car. No digital big brother snapping at the wheels when you pushed a little too hard or soft reminders that no matter what you try, the car needs to fulfill an environmental promise of efficiency and so shuffling up the gears of PDK that is faster and slicker than any driver in a manual. These machines are exactly that, machines.
The standard two-wheel-drive doesn't feel like an overt compromise after being in the 4s, the cabin is almost identical. The power drop is noticeable but so it the slightly quicker reaction of the wheel. Achieving the progress I did when cursing in the 4s is just a matter of pushing a little harder with my right foot and being a little more attentive with the gearing. Neither has a fat wave of torque that the newest 992 does, and I wouldn't want it any other way. Both these cars needed driving, they demanded attention, and like a stubborn mule, they won't help you if you don't give them the respect they deserve.
The same clearing I reached before is now a bit busier, one notable is a Porsche Boxster, sitting in the sun with its roof down. A quick walk around the Carrera 2 leaves me in two minds, from the front and side profile I prefer the slimmer body. It sets itself apart by having a footprint that is firmly a sports car, instead of a supercar. The 4s felt more complete though, the wider rear gave it a more purposeful stance but is likely why it felt overly secure and surefooted when it really needed just a notch less of containment to really be fun.
Without question, if you want to buy a 966 to really drive, the Carrera 2 is your car. Three minutes from getting back in and heading toward my original start point and I'm grinning. It isn't just that having less power means you can spend more time pushing on, but in Britain at least, it fits on a flowing country road much better. The slimmer frame and narrower tyres mean you can sit on the edge on a B-Road without feeling like you need to chew up a little of the opposite lane. My concern would be using the car for more than weekend work. The 4s offered up a lot of these thrills and gave the impression it wouldn't object to being your only mode of transport, even as it's twenties birthday approached. The Carrera 2 would no doubt be able to report for duty each morning it was required, but it would be like wearing running shoes everywhere you went, yes they are comfortable, however, they are best when used solely for one purpose.
Halfway along my drive and feeling comfortable on some empty back roads I start taking liberties with the Carrera 2. Pushing more than I should and enticing the rear, an experience that is both fun and sobering. The pendulum effect of a rear-engine is still on display in the 996, not as lethal as earlier iterations, but it's certainly there. It would take some getting used to if you haven't been in one before. Twice I nearly push too far, once deliberately, the second a result of a loose road surface and too little respect.
On arrival the 4s remains where I left it, a side by side comparison has me scratching my chin so long I worry that I may reach the bone.
The Carrera 2 plays the honesty card very well, and for a British B-road it's the better car, the 4s couldn't take me any faster, and neither would I wanted it to. On a circuit I'm in no doubt the 4s would be quicker, but unless you are a complete hooligan or have so little regard for your license and other road users that you can't understand why every trip results in flashing lights and beeping horns, you would struggle to get much more from the 4s. A-roads and anything with two lanes the 4s will pull away, the same can be said for wintertime. Real commitment would be needed from a Carrera 2 driver to hold onto the rear of a 4s when the road is wet.
Speed is only part of the equation though. There is more fun to be had from a Carrera 2, you can spend more time on the throttle, you can hug a narrow corner without the terror of curbing a wheel and it feels can scare you. The 4s doesn't want to deliver fun to the same degree, it is more refined. Push it and it will respond, push harder and It will hold on longer than you probably will, but it doesn't have an edge. It also has a demeanor that is satisfying when you aren't alone on a country lane. I miss the Carrera 2's playful character but it isn't completely gone, the cars are too similar for that. The 4s feels like someone started with a Carrera 2 and wanted to make it better, rather than a creation of its own merit and this plays to its favour.
So which one, taking budget out the equation for a moment, if you are looking for a car to enjoy at the weekends with a primary objective of having fun in, the Carrera 2 is the one to buy. For anything more than that, including a desire for some touring, enjoyment in poor weather without being scared, and making a very boring trip a little bit special, go for the 4s. The Carrera 2 will still be capable of all the above and if you never step foot in a 4s you won't feel like you are missing out.
Prices for these cars meet around the mid-twenty thousand mark but expect a much cleaner and lower mileage Carrera 2 for this price. The prices diverge, from here with a cheap Carrera 2 for ten or eleven thousand, but expect a few bills. All the way up to forty thousand for a top draw 4s. If budget is key to the decision then buy the nicest Carrera 2 you can afford, there is simply less to go wrong, and for the everyday enthusiast, it will be 8/10th the car of a 4s in almost every situation. With a £30k budget, a well-kept 4s would be a wise choice.
Finally, maintenance, again if you have other commitments and the Porsche needs some man maths to justify the spot in your garage then go for a Carrera 2. The IMS has become infamous but isn't a problem on every single car. Still better to either pay a bit extra for one that has had it replaced or budget £1000 to get it done. Apart from a Carrera 2 has few other weak spots, but check for uneven tyre wear and find out when the brakes were last done before handing over any cash.
The 4s is slightly more complex with its all-wheel-drive but isn't known to have any major faults. Much like the Carrera 2, shop around and get the cleanest one you can afford. The 996 is fairly simple to work on and so don't be too scared by service history without Porsche stamps but quiz the owner on any history that wasn't with a specialist. Some of these have been maintained on the cheap because most places will work on them, but there is also a lot of Porsche enthusiasts out there that know their stuff but decide not to silo themselves as a specialist.
For those still on the fence, after standing in front of both of them for five minutes after the driving was done, I took the 4s up the road and back again. It was the one I wanted the last impression with. You won't be disappointed with either, but if the budget allows go for the 4s.