Driving the Greatest Porsche 911s Ever Made

Admit it: We’ve all bought a Greatest Hits album during the course of getting into a new band as a way to discover their best material quickly and efficiently after hearing one great song. Ideally, a Greatest Hits album is full of actual hits (Tom Petty, Journey, Aerosmith) which then […]

Admit it: We’ve all bought a Greatest Hits album during the course of getting into a new band as a way to discover their best material quickly and efficiently after hearing one great song. Ideally, a Greatest Hits album is full of actual hits (Tom Petty, Journey, Aerosmith) which then inspire you to look deeper into the band’s catalog. But sometimes you find that their best material is, ah, rather limited, and the rest of the album is just a cash grab filled with covers and bonus tracks (KISS).

It should go without saying, but the quality of a Greatest Hits album is directly proportional to the quality of the band. It’s right there in the name; It’s not “best songs,” it’s “greatest hits.” This presumes that there are, indeed, quite a lot of hits to choose from, enough to make a collection worthy of being called, essentially, “best of the best,” and not have people roll their eyes at you. But it’s not a given, not by any means.

Porsche’s modern GT car program, helmed by bona fide car-guy extraordinaire Andreas Preuninger, has, with one big misstep, cranked out hit after hit for the last 17 years. I unashamedly love the Porsche GT cars, which include the GT3 and GT2 range of 911s as well as the GT4 range of Caymans. Now, for 2020, the Boxster Spyder has been fully brought into the GT program and shares its chassis with its fixed-roof brother, though it remains ‘uncredited’ with no GT4 moniker. (The 911 Speedster shares a similarly uncredited status).

You can call me a biased fan. You can point out Porsche’s problems, which certainly exist. You can call out the insane options lists and a less-costs-more philosophy more appropriate to the lingerie industry than the car industry. All valid points. But I have never, not even once, driven a bad Porsche GT car. The 911 GT3 is the gold standard of motorsport theater on the street, with obvious connections to the race cars and unique, powerful, high-revving engines, but without so many racing parts that the cars become unusable. The market agreed, and an enormous percentage of Porsche sports car sales are now GT cars. These are the hits.

Recently I got a note from Porsche asking me if I would like to sample the Greatest Hits. I could have a day on the race track with five of Herr Preuninger’s best and most focused GT cars, 45 minutes at a time. In chronological order:

  • The 996 GT3 RS, unavailable in North America and too new to legally import.
  • The 997 GT3 RS 4.0, a five hundred horsepower monster of which only 500 ever left the factory.
  • The 997.2 GT2 RS, the most powerful manual transmission Porsche of all time.
  • The 911R, the purest, lightest, and rarest of the 991-generation cars.
  • The 991.2 GT2 RS, the quickest and fastest 911 ever made.

    These cars were literally pulled out of the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart and woken from a deep, deep slumber. This is not to say Porsche let them rot away. No, sir. Each of these cars were in excellent original condition (except for new tires, natch) and some had a surprising number of miles on them, having served as development cars, marketing cars, or press cars in their past life. All five of them displayed dash plaques featuring chassis #000/XXX.

    Interestingly, and most fortuitously, in my thirteen years doing this gig full time, I have never driven a single one of these models at all (if you exclude a Sharkwerks modified GT2 RS I drove six years ago for the intro to a film before getting a flat tire and having to abort). Even more interestingly, I would get to drive them in the order they were released.

    The 996 GT3 RS feels the least like a ground-up product and the most like the kind of thing that a professional motorsport shop would build for a wealthy client’s track day needs. The bodywork is similar to the base 996 Carrera, save for the vented front bumper and side skirts, and the racing style wing is less integrated than in later versions of the car. More has been removed than added, with Recaro Cup seats, acrylic rear windows, carbon fiber roof, and reduced sound deadening. It’s stiff, tight, and uncompromised. But at the same time, when compared to the newest Porsches, its 381 naturally aspirated horsepower and 2,998 lbs is actually rather tame, even without electronic assistance. Sure, it could be kind of hairy to extract that very last tenth out of this lightweight special, but on modern Michelin rubber, the 996 has far more grip than it does power, making the odds of getting too deep into trouble slimmer than the forums would have you believe. Especially if you’re not actively suffering from the red mist.

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    The starkest reminder that this is, in fact, a period track day special is that the Gen 1 Porsche Carbon Ceramic Brakes (PCCB) take a full lap of warm up before they work at all; we’re all now spoiled by the fact that the newest carbon brakes work as well as they do when cold. But the car is light, flickable, happy to spend all of its time at or about redline, and the powertrain is diamond-cut tight. These are very valuable cars today, the most valuable of the 996 range by some margin. To drive one is to learn exactly why that is. It’s the only 996 I’ve ever actually liked.

    I forgot about it almost instantly the second I set off in the 2011 GT3 RS 4.0, the largest displacement, most powerful naturally aspirated 911 ever built. The stats are wild: 500 horsepower, six-speed manual, 2,998 lbs with a full tank of fuel. The 997 is, from a size and proportion standpoint, my favorite generation of modern 911. They are just big enough to be comfortable for a long road trip and just small enough that you can still move them within a single lane on a mountain road. Only 600 of these 4.0s ever left the factory, and they were all sold out before the first one hit a dealership. It doesn’t take long to see why: this is distilled fizz. It’s pure motorsport essence. It’s not just the booming soundtrack, impossibly stiff clutch and tight shifter. You’d find heavier flywheels on liter bikes.

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    This is one of the most precise cars I’ve ever driven. It can be placed perfectly at every single corner entry and manages to maintain plenty of front-end grip at track out. There are few more satisfying machines ever produced in the entire history of the car. Vibrations come at only the most pleasing frequencies, and the lightning-rev nature of the engine means you actually have to pay closer attention than any other GT car on your downshifts; blips need to be tiny to match revs on the close-ratio downshifts. If Porsche sold me that exact car, now almost 10 years old, brand new on the showroom floor today, I would think it was incredible.

    The 997.2 GT2 RS is the most powerful manual-transmission car ever offered by Porsche, making 10 more horses than the iconic Carrera GT: 620 horsepower and 516 lb/ft. From 3.6 liters. It would do 60 in the low 3s and crack 205 mph on the ‘Ring, on its way to a 7:18 Nordschliefe time, ten years ago. It makes 120 horsepower more than the GT3 RS 4.0, with only a 22-lb weight penalty. Most interestingly, it marked an appearance of Variable Turbine Geometry (VTG), which allowed the GT2 RS to build boost in neutral for a launch, the first time this technology was used in a production car; normally a turbocharger only builds boost under load. Only 500 were made, making the GT2 RS the rarest of the rare in terms of modern production Porsches.

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    I’ve driven huge-power 997 Turbos before, all the way up to 1500 horsepower runway monsters. What makes this car stand out is not how scary it is putting all that power to the rear wheels, but how manageable. After life on the edge with the RS 4.0, the GT2 RS feels less twitchy and far, far easier to drive fast, with a massively wide powerband that requires a squeeze of the throttle rather than a stab coming out of each corner. Unlike tuner Porsches, this car is a pussycat at mild throttle application, not getting bent out of shape at all, and is also massively stable at all speeds. That’s not to say you couldn’t overdrive it on track and get yourself in trouble. You could, very easily. Missing a shift and locking the rear wheels up at corner entry could cause all kinds of problems. Thinking yourself a hero and going full off/full send by smashing the throttle on the exit, not squeezing it, could cause hundreds of thousands in damage when you come into contact with the wall.

    But the fact that you can use all the rev range, and not just the top half, makes this one of the most flexible, usable, and accessible of all the GT cars, an ironic twist that applies to the more powerful GT2 range in general. The fact that it shoves rather than screams its way to 200 mph is really its defining characteristic.

    The story of how the wonderful 911 R came to be is well documented. To summarize: During the development of the 991-generation GT3, which was PDK-only, the GT team had an engineering mule kicking around which had the new 4-liter GT3 and a manual transmission, but, for stealth purposes, without a big wing. As it turned out, that mule was everyone’s favorite, not the self-shifting GT3 sold to the public. Preuninger convinced the suits to build and sell versions of that mule as a limited-edition production car, and the greatest collective car-flipping scheme of our time was born. Secondhand cars with asking prices knocking on the door of a million dollars overshadowed what it was actually like to drive a 911 R: absolutely off the chain.

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    The 911 R is even lighter than the GT3 Touring, with magnesium and carbon panels where the regular GT3 got metal. It’s a much bigger car than the GT3 RS 4.0 of six years earlier, but it has the same power, better weight distribution, and is only 52 pounds heavier. It leaves off the aero, but adds in Porsche’s spectacular rear-steering system. The shifter is somehow even better than the 997 GT3’s, with laser precision and the exact right heft.

    Perhaps most importantly, the 911R wasn’t built to go racing. It was built as pure fun. Rather than asking the fastest way around the track, someone carefully considered the most fun way around the track, and stopped when they found the right answer. Find me the owner of the highest-mileage 911R on earth, and I’ll show you someone whose priorities are in order.

    The 991 GT2 RS is the quickest and fastest 911 ever made. The power numbers are obscene: 691 HP and 553 lb/ft in a car that still returns reasonable fuel economy and relatively clean emissions from a 6-cylinder engine. By the standard set in this crowd, it’s not particularly rare; 1,000 cars left the factory. If you spend your Sunday mornings with the Malibu car crowd, however, you’d swear they sold ten times as many: the average SoCal car show has at least half a dozen GT2 RSes, frequently painted Chalk or Miami Blue, but occasionally in Body-In-White or Guards Red.

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    And if you add up where we’ve been today, you can see how so many roads lead to the current GT2 RS, a car fast enough to run around the Nordschliefe in 6 minutes and 47 seconds, but also usable enough that people frequently daily them. It’s the only automatic car here, which is just as well, because it’s so ridiculously fast that you’d have a hard time keeping up with the shifting yourself, and because, trust me, you’ll be a lot more comfortable at this pace with both hands on the wheel. This example featured the optional Weissach package, which means that it has pretty much every exotic material in car building somewhere on it: magnesium, titanium, carbon fiber, polycarbonate, and probably a dozen more. Even the suspension is made of carbon fiber.

    It’s the pinnacle of Porsche 911 performance, with every technology the company has ever developed (save for AWD) in one package. And you pay for it: this car cost nearly $350,000 new, the most expensive 911 ever sold. And it’s definitively the fastest.

    But not the best. That honor, in my opinion, goes to the 911 R. It’s fast enough that even a jaded sportscar tester like me would never crave more power. The inputs are telepathic, but the flywheel isn’t so light that I had to reprogram my entire body from driving other cars. It’s comfortable, usable, collectible, and very, very special. And by seeking fun, rather than pure speed, it speaks right to the joyous driver in me. But I’m being very picky. This is now The Best Of The Greatest Hits.

    Porsche’s GT program is the Tom Petty, the Journey, the Aerosmith of what they do, consistently refining a style that is uniquely theirs in a way the audience always wants more of. The lineage of their work shows progress without forgetting roots, and they’ve enjoyed increasing success and admiration as their product develops. If they can keep it going, we will likely have a second Greatest Hits record to sample sometime next decade.

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