Porsche's Deadly Sin #1: 1999 Porsche 911 (996) 3.4
Great artists steal, and I’m obviously inspired by Paul Niedermeyer’s GM’s Deadly Sin series here. I am currently the owner of three Porsches, as pathetic as that may be, and I’ve experienced firsthand the many ways in which Porsche disappoints its fans and buyers. Few companies have been as comprehensively whitewashed by the media and the corporate biographers, but the truth is available to those of us who wish to look a bit harder.
We will start with the big betrayals, of course, and the unassuming fastback you see above represents perhaps the worst of Porsche’s many middle fingers to the customer base. It is a 1999 Porsche 911, known to everyone in the world as the “996”.
From 1964 to 1998, the 911 evolved on an incremental basis. As with the first and last Volkswagen Beetles, there are very, very few parts which survived the thirty-four-year journey unchanged, but there’s an amazing amount of interchangeability. It is possible to “update” a 1971 911T to look just like a 1998 Carrera 2S, and it’s also possible to “backdate” a 1994 911 Carrera to look like a classic 1973 Carrera RS. Both of these offenses against human decency have occurred many times, incidentally. Take a look here to see a rather lovely example of a “964” turned into a “long-hood” 911S, in a color that will be familiar to many TTAC readers.
The 911 was never intended to last thirty-four years. The front-engine, water-cooled 928 was supposed to replace the 911 in the Seventies… but it didn’t, so the 911’s lifetime was extended another decade. The costs and inefficiencies of building a car with a Sixties architecture tortured Porsche. A complete re-engineering was necessary, and Porsche worked with Toyota to squeeze every last dollar out of the new 911’s design.
The list of cost-cuts in the Porsche 996 can be recited by nearly every Porschephile. Frameless doors, complete commonality with the Boxster from the door latches forward, horrifying interior trim quality, drop-in assemblies provided by the lowest bidder, and the engine…
An article on the most common failures suffered by the 3.4L watercooled boxer six can be found here, but for those of you who don’t click on links, the problems range from oil leakage at the rear main seal (which is more or less universal) to cylinder head failure. In nearly all cases, the “fix” is the same: to purchase a complete rebuild from Porsche, at your expense. Figure on $15,000 or more for the “subsidized” engine.
Porsche had been “fighting” failures of the watercooled engine, which appeared first in the 1997 Boxster, from the very first car that rolled off the line. Porous engine blocks, intermediate shaft failures… the watercooled boxers were junk. This is enough for a Deadly Sin — knowingly equipping every naturally-aspirated Boxster and 911 they sold from 1997 to as late as 2008 with failure-prone engines — but, as always, Porsche raised the bar in the customer-screwing department.
During those years, Porsche worked with its dealers to deny warranty claims, place blame on customers, withhold knowledge of fixes, and generally burn every last bit of goodwill they had built up over years of… um… previous engine failures in air-cooled cars. Again and again during those years, owners of pampered, low-mileage cars found themselves paying five-figure bills to keep their cars on the road. For more than a decade, Porsche simultaneously denied knowledge of engine problems while claiming that their newest engine revision did not suffer from the problems that they were denying had occurred previously.
While waiting for his $75,000 Porsche to experience a $15,000 engine failure, the 911 owner could at least fail to enjoy the most dismal, fragile interior ever seen in a production Porsche. Buttons wore out, dashes cracked, radios committed suicide in new and interesting ways, and every single electrical component in the car seemed prone to intermittent, untraceable failure. Naturally, the fabulously low prices Porsche paid suppliers for the jumble of garbage components in a 996 were never reflected at the parts counter. The replacement cost for the “Litronic” headlamp assemblies is enough to make an NBA player weep. I saw brand-new 996s with cracked leather on the seats when the cars were still in dealerships. Make no mistake. Every possible corner was cut.
Long-time Porsche owners found the 996 driving experience to be as bewildering as the build quality. This was a quiet, flimsy-feeling car that outhandled, outaccelerated, and outbraked the outgoing 993 while never feeling anything like as substantial as said air-cooled predecessor. The flimsy feeling came honestly — amazingly in this modern era, Porsche actually cut weight out of the car compared to the previous model — but it didn’t satisfy.
The men from Stuttgart knew they had a loser on their hands, so the 996 was freshened in 2002 with a more durable, more powerful engine, interior revisions, and a facelift. The market’s opinion on these cars, however, is written in the resale values. If you had purchased two Porsches in a row — a 1998 Carrera 2S for $75,000 and a 1999 Carrera 2 for $75,000 — and put 50,000 miles on each, you would find that the 1998 car would command an easy $50K in PCA classifieds, but the 1999 would struggle to fetch $20K.
The 1999 Porsche 911 was a failure in every way but one: the massive savings realized with the new model made it possible for the company to plan new models. And since the new model in question was the Cayenne, you could say that all the news was bad, after all. But that’s a Deadly Sin for another day.
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