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How to buy a 996-generation Porsche 911 without getting cheated

A silver 996 911 waits to get on a car lift for its pre-purchase inspection.

Some might call it the natural environment of the Porsche 996. These people suck.
Photo: Kyle Hyatt/Jalopnik

Buying a car is quite exciting for any car enthusiast, especially if the vehicle you are buying is one you have wanted for a long time. I know that’s true because in the last week I bought a car I’ve wanted almost my entire life: a Porsche 911.

Now, being an automotive journalist without wealthy parents, my future 911 is not my first choice for generation or model. But that’s what I can affordespecially with 911 prices still going crazy), and truth be told, it delivers the full 911 experience with very few compromises. Of course I’m talking about the 996 generation, which covered model years 1999 through 2005.

Now before you keyboard warriors start losing your collective shit on rear main joints, countershaft joints and fried egg headlightsI will say that as someone who has worked with (specifically in parts) Porsche I’ve been well aware of the potential dangers of buying a 996 for years. That’s why this article aims to help someone dodge buying a bad one.

996 Porsche 911: the chase

The first step to finding a good 996 (or any good used car) is to find it. It sounds obvious, but with the wide variety of online classifieds, forums and auto club pages, there are many more places to look than ever before. To keep things simple, I use AutoTempest to hit about 90% of major SEO sites. I also like to check forums like Pelican Parts and Rennlist because often the cars listed there don’t show up on sites like Craigslist, and they belong to enthusiasts, which can be a good thing.

Now that you know where to look, you need to know what to look for. Using the 996 as an example, you have a few different variants to pick from based on your budget. I wanted a rear-wheel drive car with a manual transmission. I’m also not too fond of convertibles and wanted to avoid non-black interior colors.

That narrows the field down a ton, but there are still more criteria to consider. With the 996, you need to decide if you want a first-generation or second-generation car. An early (1999 and 2000) first-generation 996 came with no driver aids other than ABS; it had a cable-actuated throttle rather than drive-by-wire, and a more robust dual-row IMS bearing which is the least failure-prone of all the designs. 2001 and 2002 models got an electronic throttle and the least stout IMS bearing.

A screenshot of a Craigslist ad for a 2003 911

This is the kind of Craigslist ad you want to see.
Photo: Craigslist

Later second-generation cars (2002-2004) came with a larger, more powerful 3.6-liter engine, slightly revised styling, a glovebox, better quality interior materials and clear headlights. They also sport a revised, slightly less failure-prone single-row IMS bearing and an electronic throttle.

I honestly didn’t have a major preference between first and second-generation 996s, so knowing all that, I found a very promising looking 2003 Carrera in Arctic Silver over black with a six-speed manual and a boatload of service history for a not-insane price. This leads us to…

The Test Drive

My prospective car was listed on Craigslist, and the ad offered plenty of information, halfway decent photos and what seemed like a fairly honest representation of the car. Of course, anyone who has tried to buy a used car online knows that things can be deceiving.

My first step was reaching out to the seller, Jon, who immediately came off as an enthusiast. We settled on a time to meet so I could check out the car and drive it, and not only did he show up on time, he brought the car in its natural state: clean, but clearly being used regularly, and the engine compartment hadn’t been cleaned up or detailed.

After shaking hands and bullshitting about cars for a few minutes, I began visually inspecting the 911. This is important because keeping your eyes open and knowing what to look for can save you a ton of time and money before getting further into the buying process.

A silver 2003 Porsche 911 parked in a parking space.

This is how the car showed up to the test drive: on-time and clean but not too clean.
Photo: Kyle Hyatt/Jalopnik

The car presented well and looked much the same as it did in the Craigslist listing. The body was in overall good condition, with some previous parking lot damage (since repaired) that had been noted in the ad and pointed out by Jon in person. A 911 is a low car, so peeking underneath is tough, but there were no obvious drips or smells of burning oil or coolant. I opened the decklid and the frunk and, again, no surprises. For a car with 136,000 miles, it seemed in good shape.

The test drive offered more of the same. While I didn’t get to see a cold start because we met at a neutral location near Jon’s work, the car felt like a 911 should. The steering was direct, the brakes were strong and the engine pulled well and sounded great. The gearbox felt good too. The air conditioning worked, and the interior felt well cared for, if typical 996 cheap.

After the test drive, I went home and collected my thoughts. I wrote down some notes about the drive, the visual condition of the car and the vibe I got from Jon. This is an important and overlooked step, especially if you go and look at a lot of vehicles and have to keep track of all those experiences.

I checked out a couple of other cars but decided that Jon’s silver 2003 was the right one for me, which led to…

The Inspection

One of the most important things you can do when buying a European car out of warranty is to organize a pre-purchase inspection, or PPI. (This applies to other vehicles too, but it’s especially important with German cars of this era.) This involves you taking the car to a shop or a dealer and having them professionally inspect the vehicle to give you a clear picture of your potential purchase’s condition. People skip these because they cost money, but — and I say this from very expensive personal experience — please don’t.

Asking the seller if they’re amenable to having a professional inspection done is an important test in and of itself. If they’re enthusiastic about it, then it’s likely the car is being represented fairly, and they have nothing to hide. If they don’t agree to submit the car to a professional inspection, walk away.

Luckily, Jon was cool with me having the 911 looked over, so I arranged a PPI with a well-regarded Porsche shop on LA’s west side to make the drop-off and pick-up convenient for him.

The front of Auto Werkstatt, a European automotive repair shop.

Auto Werkstatt has been around for quite awhile now, and it’s a great LA Euro car shop.
Photo: Kyle Hyatt/Jalopnik

We’re lucky in LA to have a huge variety of quality Porsche independent shops, and in the end, I went with one that I had some experience with (I’d worked with the shop previously) and which could fit me into their schedule. This store is called Auto Werkstatt, and I would recommend it to anyone who likes the air or the water-cooled Porsche in Los Angeles.

Auto Werkstatt was kind enough to let me come over and oversee the PPI process and document it for this story. This is a great, passionately-run store that stocks most German brands, and if you’re in the area, they’re well worth a visit.

The thing about a PPI on a 911 that could throw a lot of people off is the cost. Auto Werkstatt charged me about $630 for the service. That sounds like a lot, and it is, considering they don’t fix anything during the inspection, but a really thorough look takes time (about three hours) and time costs money.

My mechanic, August, started the PPI with a visual inspection. Unlike my educated but still amateur eye, he’s a pro with nearly two decades of experience. It also has a lift, which means it can see things I couldn’t see in a Lowes parking lot, like the fact that the nuts on the sway bar end links aren’t stock. Is it stupid to point something like that? Yes. But that’s the kind of thing you want your PPI mechanic to notice.

A silver 2003 Porsche 911 on a car winch is being inspected.

Seeing your potential new car in the air before you buy it is awesome.
Photo: Kyle Hyatt/Jalopnik

As the internet will repeatedly tell you, the big problem to look for on a 996 (or 986 Boxster) is an oil leak at the joint between the transmission and the crankcase. This usually means either a rear main seal leak or a countershaft bearing cover leak. Neither is good, and fixing either means removing the transmission. Fortunately, this car was completely dry underneath. Score!

The big pitfall avoided, we proceeded to the inspection and found some problems. It’s a 19-year-old sports car with 136,000 miles, after all. The biggest is an air-oil separator that’s past its prime, which isn’t very urgent, but it’s a $2,000 job to fix if you take it to a shop. Parts alone cost nearly $600. Then one of the rear shocks leaks and all four could be replaced. I want to put coilovers on the car, so while that’s a bummer, it’s ultimately not a big deal. Finally, as we headed inside, August discovered the telltale sign of a failing window regulator. This one is a pretty easy DIY with the regulator costing less than $200, so again, no big deal.

Not bad is not it ? So with that out of the way, August took the car for a brief test drive. The car had stood still overnight, so we could see a good cold start, thankfully without big plumes of smoke or anything else untoward. The test drive was uneventful, and August confirmed my feelings about the overall driving experience. It’s solid.

The underside of the engine of a 2003 Porsche 911.

The infamous Porsche M96 flat-six engine.
Image: Kyle Hyatt/Jalopnik

The last part of the PPI is something that you as a home player are not able to do no matter how skilled you are. This involves hooking up a Porsche dealership computer, aka PIWIS, to the car to see how it was driven and check for stored trouble codes.

By “how the car was driven” I mean how long the car was at or around the red line, and even how long it was above the indicated red line. I don’t know if this kind of electronic tale is unique to Porsche, but it can indicate how well a car has been driven. This car has only had 11 ignitions over 7900 rpm and has not suffered, which is good. But the engine posted 18,202 firings between 7,300 and 7,900 rpm, which August says is a lot.

It sounds crazy, and it kinda is, but this is a car that’s meant to be driven hard. Considering the overall mechanical condition of the car, high-rpm driving isn’t the end of the world. This might put some buyers off, which would be understandable, but I want a car that has been well used and maintained since I plan to drive it anyway.

A man wearing a Boston Red Sox hat looks at a computer screen inside a 2001 Porsche 911.

Auto Werkstatt’s August investigates the car’s over-revving with a dealer-level scan tool.
Photo: Kyle Hyatt/Jalopnik

In the end, August gave the car a thumbs up, even going so far as to mention that the thorough inspection generated one of the shortest post-PPI listings he’s seen. That’s a big win, and it means I’ve found a good example and one worth buying. Which I did, for less than $30,000.

A final word on Porsche IMS bearings

So as I mentioned before, if you’re talking about a 996 gen 911 or a 986 gen Boxster you’re going to have a bunch of people warning you about the dangers of the IMS bearing and its ability to take out an entire engine s ‘he fails. The problem was widely publicized and many people made good money selling replacement bearings and installing them.

Here’s the thing, though: it’s not that bad. Failure rates are much lower than you might think. Breathe. Everything is fine. Nothing’s fucked up here, man.

IMS is a hot topic because it is a small problem that can turn into an extremely expensive engine rebuild. It’s something you can’t easily see or definitely test. It’s easy to scare people into spending $3,000 to preemptively replace the bearing (and the clutch while you’re at it, if it’s a manual car).

A 2003 Porsche 911 has the engine hood open.

The 996’s reputation as a ticking time bomb is a bit of a stretch, and with a little common sense, you can keep yours in one piece (probably).
Photo: Kyle Hyatt/Jalopnik

Porsche claimed failure rates for early two-row IMS bearing cars were between 1 and 3 percent. It’s tiny. Even the most failure-prone version, the 2001 and 2002 narrow single-row bearing cars, have a claimed failure rate of less than 10%. That’s a big deal, of course, but now that we’re 20 years later, most cars that were going to break down probably already had one.

So the moral of the story is that you shouldn’t be afraid of a shiny, affordable sports car just because of a serious but over-reported problem. If a car you’re looking at has had the bearing replaced with an aftermarket solution, that’s great, but those cars will have a price premium associated with them. If rolling has not been done, cool. Watch your oil filter during services (which you should do regularly) to check for metal particles. If you are very proactive send your oil for analysis by a place like Blackstone Labs and purchase a magnetic drain plug as the bearing material is ferrous and will collect on the magnet.

If you need to do a clutch change or have a big rear main seal leak or an IMS cover leak, you should replace the bearing while you’re at it. It would be silly not to. But there’s no reason to spend a lot of money if you don’t have a specific reason. Just enjoy your car as it should be. That’s what I’m going to do with my freshly made 996 PPI.

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#buy #996generation #Porsche #cheated

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