I have a great fondness for the Porsche 996. Not because it's currently the cheapest route into 911 ownership, but because it was the first modern-feeling 911. People can crow all they want about its fried-egg headlights and liquid cooling, yet I'd have a 996 in my stable in a heartbeat. The driving position is fundamentally sound, the cabin ergonomics are fathomable, and 996s drive with way more civility than any of their air-cooled predecessors. All except this one, if reputations are to be believed. Everyone knows the Porsche 996 GT2 isn't civil. It's the devil child, or to use the more common colloquialism: the widowmaker. That's not rubbish, either. I remember a colleague of mine, who was affiliated with Porsche at the time the 996 GT2 was launched, telling me about a customer who picked up his new one and didn't make it home. Ever.
It would've cost you £114,900 back in 2001 - around £30,000 more than a 996 Turbo. Of course, most people couldn't simply pay that and expect a GT2 to appear. This is a Porsche with 'GT' in its name, remember; there's more chance of beating Indiana Jones to the Holy Grail than getting the keys to one of those new. You have to be in the special club. If you're not, then you need to pay a hefty premium, which people were happy to do for a GT2 because it was the fastest and most powerful road-going Porsche you could buy.
Its 3.6-litre flat-six had two turbos, two intercoolers and VarioCam Plus valve timing. Going by the original press release it developed 463hp (128.6hp per litre) with 457lb ft of torque - for a bit of context, that's more than one-and-a-half times the twist of a 996 GT3 RS. Okay, the 996 GT2 was a little bit heavier than its Rennsport sibling, but we're only talking 80kg. In total it was 1,440kg (DIN), or about the same as today's 992 GT3. It was mind-boggling quick in its day, with a top speed of 196mph, 0-62mph in 4.1 seconds and 0-124mph in 12.5 seconds.
These days, BMW and Mercedes won't sell you an M5 or a E63 without four-wheel drive because they're considered too powerful to have just two driven wheels - in the hands of mere mortals, at any rate. Porsche made the same noises about the 996 Turbo. It needed four-wheel drive to be useable on the road, it said. Meanwhile, in the next room they were busy adding another 42hp, decoupling the front axle and sticking that torquey tsunami through just the 12Jx18 rear wheels, smeared with low-profile 315/30 Pirelli P Zero rubber. And then they removed the driver aids, other than the ABS. No traction control and no stability control. Those things were for namby-pambies who drove soft and cuddly cars like the Ferrari 360.
Someone at Weissach was clearly worried about the company manufacturing a litigation machine, though, because they insisted on building in understeer. Quite a bit of it if you read the road tests. This was meant to tame the rear but didn't really work. Most people who drove a 996 GT2 said that, not only would it oversteer, it oversteered with a Venus fly trap snap. It was vicious, especially in the wet. Not long after that, the reports of 996-sized holes appearing in hedges began and its reputation was born.
So right now, looking at this immaculate, black 996 GT2 in front of me, I feel like I'm about to meet the wheeled version of Regan from the Exorcist. Except it'll be me vomiting. On top of its reputation for dressing wives in black, I'm worrying about its price. This isn't one of the cheap 996s. The chaps at Bell Sport & Classic - a proper bunch of petrolheads who've gone to the trouble of sinking a Ferrari F430 V8 under the glass floor of their showroom toilet - have kindly lent us this one for the day, and it's extremely rare. One of just 16 right-hand drive Clubsports, in fact, which was a no-cost option that added a roll cage, fire extinguisher, flame retardant seats, harnesses and an electrical cut-out switch. So you'll have to hand over a cheque for £184,950 if you want it. Am I rattled? Not half, especially with the temperature barely above freezing and the roads glistening terrifyingly in the wintery HD sunshine. I decide to take it steady - build up to it slowly.
The cable-operated feel of the gear shift is a bit lacklustre, and the steering takes some adjusting to. After stepping out of the BMW M440i I'd driven up in, the GT2's rim seems super thin - of course, you could be steering with a bent drainpipe and it would feel thinner than a BMW steering wheel - but this is thin by standard comparison. It feels great, though. The steering is quite slow at first and light - bordering on vague around the straight ahead. Part of that is the way any weight drops in and out over the cambers of the road, but the GT2 doesn't tramline like a GT3. It doesn't feel like there's a lot of caster, either, because with less than a quarter-turn of lock on it doesn't seem keen to self-centre. Add a bit more lock and that all changes. The weight builds and remains more consistent, and the hydraulically assisted set-up is very talkative. Once you've acclimatised to it, it inspires confidence.
The front end doesn't bob as much as I remember old 911s doing. And I was anticipating a much softer car - more like a Turbo than a GT3. It feels much more like the latter, though, which is partly because the GT2 sits 20-millimetres lower than the Turbo. The ride can be quite punishing over really broken surfaces, but most of the time it's liveable enough, and, in return, the body feels properly tied down - more than some modern 992s. I asked the guys at Bell & Sport Classic if anything had been changed on the suspension. They told me the hardware is all standard but aren't sure whether the settings are - it's all fully adjustable, of course. Apparently, the previous owner has driven it on track, so I suspect not, and it certainly doesn't feel like the understeery GT2s I've read about.
What about the dreaded snappiness? Well, I didn't get a sense of that, either. Now, I wasn't pushing hard because I respect the car and its status - not to mention the trust implicit in being given something this rare and valuable to drive. But an hour or so into our time together I feel much more at ease with it, and where the road has dried in the sunshine, I'm happy to push it a little. The limited-slip diff certainly feels tightly wound because you can sense the rear moving as you apply the throttle, but only to help the nose into apexes. It's predictable, though, not edgy. Meanwhile, the traction is excellent. Obviously, you can overwhelm it by being an idiot, but judicious use of the throttle creates no issues.
By this point, the road is drying enough in places to give it some. The boosted Mezger motor doesn't have quite the same, crisp throttle response of a GT3 (when you heel-and-toe, for example, it needs a more concerted blip). Time hasn't mellowed is its performance, though, because it still registers as brutal. There's a lot of lag but enough natural torque to mask it and keep the GT2 driveable off boost. But when you hammer the throttle it hammers you right back. It starts off with some old-school expectancy as you can hear pressure building then, at somewhere around 4,000rpm, wham, with a side helping of wallop. And the noise of the flat-six, which until now has been bassy and rich, is almost drowned out by the force of the air rushing through the pipes behind my head.
All of which amounts to a real eye-opener for me. I've never driven a 996 GT2 until now and, to be honest, it wasn't a 911 I particularly aspired to. Ultimately, I favour natural aspiration to forced, which is why I've always been drawn more to GT3s. Yet this GT2 has levelled the playing field. It's still ridiculously quick but far more approachable than I thought it would be, given its unwholesome reputation. Whether that reputation was always built on a myth, or it's just that this car has been set up really well, one thing's for sure: there's nothing inherently wrong with the 996 GT2.
I'm amazed by how approachable it is and how modern it feels in a lot of ways. The shell seems to be really stiff and the ceramic brakes (they were standard on the GT2) are absolutely brilliant: great pedal feel, not too boosted and I'd say as strong as anything current. It means that the GT2 sits in that sweet spot of classic cars: old enough to feel classic without feeling classically crap. So the next lucky owner won't simply be getting a car that looks great, they'll be getting something great to drive, too. I had enormous fun in it. And you needn't take my word for it: just listen to Walter. Not only did Röhrl lap the Nürburgring ten seconds faster in a 996 GT2 than he managed in a 996 GT3, afterwards he said that the GT2 was very forgiving on the limit. So just maybe it's time to forgive it its sins. Although, from where I was sitting, this 996 GT2 is more sinned against than sinner.
Specification | Porsche 911 (996) GT2 Clubsport
Engine: 3,600cc 6-cyl twin-turbo
Transmission: 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 463 @ 5,700rpm
Torque (lb ft): 457 @ 3,500rpm
Top speed: 195mph
Weight: 1,440kg (DIN)
On sale: 2001-2005
Price new: £114,900
Price now: £184,950
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