Thankfully, Porsche stuck with the flat-six recipe.
The 996-generation Porsche 911 is officially 25 years old. The 911 everyone loves to hate debuted at the IAA International Motor Show in Frankfurt in 1997, and Porsche fanboys were immediately apoplectic with rage.
You see, Porsche went into the 996 generation looking to "break old habits." This meant an all-new water-cooled engine, fried-egg-shaped headlights, and an interior shared with the equally new and puritanically hated Porsche Boxster. We weren't there because we were 12 and had no idea what a flat-six was, but we like to imagine the Germans congregating outside the showgrounds, writing perfectly constructed letters to Porsche: "Zis vill not do." If they only knew what was coming five years later...
Anyway, it could have been much worse.
"We experimented with the engine because the air-cooled two-valve-per-cylinder designs were at the end of the road technologically in terms of emissions and power," said August Achleitner, head of Technical Product Planning, Vehicle Concepts and Package including Special Projects from 1989-2000. "And air-cooled four-valve boxers didn't work due to various hotspots that we couldn't get a handle on. In 1989, a compact V8 was even fitted in the rear on a trial basis, but that idea was also discarded. So that brought us to water-cooled, four-valve boxer engines."
The 911 could have ended up with a V8, which would have sucked. There are more than enough V8s out there, but more importantly, apart from an Italian V12, there is no sound more iconic than a Porsche flat-six howling at 9,000 rpm. At the time, Porsches weren't as widely appreciated as they are today, so Stuttgart might have gotten away with it. We feel sorry for people in an alternate universe.
As for appearance, Porsche needed to save money. That's why the 996 and the first-gen Boxster are identical from the B-pillar forwards. The egg-shaped headlights caused outrage when they debuted on the 911, but Porsche's chief designer in the 1990s, Harm Lagaaij, had good reason to think they'd work on a 911.
The headlights debuted on the Boxster, which made its first public outing at the Detroit Motor Show in 1993. The crowds loved it, and it was named "Best of Show." Even though people liked the Boxster, Lagaaij was still concerned about how crowds would react if they simply pasted the same front end to a 911. But there were more pressing matters.
"The pressure and the imperative of saving the company was the top priority," said Lagaaij. Porsche was on the verge of bankruptcy and not nearly as flush as it is today.
"The program envisioned that we would sell a total of at least 30,000 units of both vehicles with a good return on investment," says Achleitner. The Boxster was launched in 1996, and the 911 followed in 1997. Despite the controversy, the plan worked. That's precisely how many Porsche sold per year.
This freed up some cash, which allowed Porsche to broaden the appeal of the 996. A cabriolet was launched in 1998, and six months after that, Porsche introduced an all-wheel-drive 911 Carrera 4 in Coupe and Cabriolet versions.
The famous AWD Turbo was introduced in 2000, though Porsche knew it would introduce the go-faster, grippier version to compete with Italian stallions right from the get-go.
"In the design of the 996, we made the transmission tunnel sufficiently large that an all-wheel drivetrain would fit into it. That required some compromises: due to the parts-sharing plan, the Boxster also had this same detail, although it was never available with all-wheel drive."
We also have the 996 to thank for the current GT3, which was invented "almost by chance." Due to changing motorsport regulations, Porsche built an offshoot of the 911 as a road-legal homologation vehicle and as a spiritual successor to the exquisite 911 Carrera RS.
"The commercial success and the unit numbers were not great at first," concedes Achleitner. "And yet the 911 GT3 marked the beginning of the establishment of an independent brand - because, with the 911 GT3 of the 996 generation, we established a clear difference between an everyday 911 and a motorsport-inspired road car."
These days, we can't imagine the 911 range without the GT3 and GT3 RS.
The 996 was also responsible for the manic GT2. Yes, there was a 993 GT2, but the 996 version was a track-only 911 Turbo-based 455-horsepower beast and the first model to get ceramic brakes as standard. This eventually resulted in the bonkers GT2 RS as we know it today, which wore the Nurburgring crown until recently when Mercedes-AMG snatched it away.
Just wait until the new GT2 RS comes along...