911 GT3: Porsche's heartbeat
While the rest of the 911 range embraces turbocharger technology as a way to jump through fuel economy and emissions hoops, the GT3 remains the purist's choice
When it comes to the 911, Porsche might as well be selling ice cream. From the velvety dark chocolate of the Turbo model to the airy strawberry of a Targa, more than two dozen flavours of rear-engined delight are on offer. The GT3 version? Two scoops of napalm, please.
With a 4.0-litre flat-six engine producing 500 horsepower at 8,250 rpm, the new 2018 GT3 is a masterpiece of nerve-searing speed. While the rest of the 911 range embraces turbocharger technology as a way to jump through various government-mandated fuel economy and emissions hoops, the GT3 remains the purist's choice.
Purists, of course, can be somewhat insufferable. Certainly you'd imagine Porsche's white-coated engineers rolling their eyes at repeated calls to fit the GT3 with a manual gearbox, an archaic transmission option that makes the car slower. Yet, in response to popular demand, they've done just that, with a no-cost optional proper six-speed stickshift available.
Regrettably, this particular model doesn't come with the newly-available manual, but with Porsche's near-faultless PDK. However, it does come with a special extra in the form of an accompanying 2002 911 GT3, sourced from the Porsche museum. Swapping seats between old and new highlights how far Porsche has come, and how at least a small segment of the company has tried to remain close to its roots.
The original GT3 was an offshoot of Porsche's mighty GT1 racer, a ludicrously quick endurance racer that clinched first and second place at the 1998 24 Hours of Le Mans. Porsche took the GT1's 3.2-litre twin-turbocharged dry-sump heart, removed the turbochargers, brought displacement up to 3.6 litres, and added heads that can trace their development roots to the 959 supercar.
This is the "Mezger" engine, beloved of Porsche fans everywhere for its stout durability. That durability is emphasized by the tendency of early water-cooled 911s to suffer catastrophic failure thanks to the infamous intermediate shaft-bearing Achilles' heel, but even if the regular 911s had been bulletproof, the Mezger would still be special.
The Swabian-born Hans Mezger graduated from Stuttgart University in 1956 and immediately went to work on the valvetrain of Porsche's Carrera engine. He spent the following four decades involved in nearly every Porsche motorsports endeavour.
The 996 is probably everyone's least-favourite 911, but the GT3 variant defies its mass-produced feel and homely headlights to become something special. Built on the C4 platform, it's stiff and uncompromising, with deleted rear seats and racing buckets up front. Cranking the left-hand ignition over results in a slightly lumpy-sounding idle.
For all the racing heritage, the 996 is relatively quiet, and the heavily-bolstered front seats are comfortable. Less forgiving is the suspension, which rattles your brain over broken back-lane pavement.
When the tarmac gets smooth, the 996 comes alive; redline is 7,800 rpm, with 380 horsepower of naturally-aspirated joy on tap. Steering feedback is excellent, shifter action is a little loose, and pedal placement is excellent. This first GT3 is darty and alive, and loves to chase its big-winged descendant.
It's not as pretty as the air-cooled cars that preceded it, but this era of GT3 feels special. As such, it's one of the lone sought-after 996-chassis 911s out there. Prices dipped a while back, but all GT3s are now approaching collectible levels. (As an aside, the 996 911 Turbo remains inexplicably affordable and also has a tough Mezger engine; it's a performance bargain.)
Or, for $163,300 (plus options), you could simply have a new one. Stepping into the new machine is like replacing an incandescent bulb with an LED cluster: there's less warmth, but the intensity is doubled.
The new GT3 is longer and wider than the 996 and slightly heavier. Millimetre differences are amplified in person, especially due to the new model's massive rear flares.
The interior, too, is more focused, with seats that are like falling into a well. Visibility's still good, but the new GT3 is more of an enclosed cockpit than the 996. Rear visibility is pathetic, offering nothing but a view of the large orange wing.
Not that you'll have to worry about anything behind you catching up. Not with 9,000 rpm worth of flat-six fury under your right foot. The GT3's engine is no longer a Mezger unit, but it's based on the engines used in the 911 GT3R and RSR racing machines, and built on the same production line.
Being a high-revving naturally-aspirated engine, torque is rather low, some 339 lb-ft. The twin-turbocharged engine in a base Carrera offers a far more flexible powerband and daily tractability.
It does not, however, scream like this thing does. The new GT3 deals with pavement imperfections better than the old car, but it's even more uncompromising. Speed just comes on in a shrieking wave, the PDK double-clutch flicking upward through the gears with kidney-punching brutality.
The steering exchanges feel for added precision, and grip seems limitless; running the GT3 through a fast downhill section is like hooking up an IV bag full of adrenaline. It's not just the speed here, it's the delivery, the feel of a barely-tamed racing car made for street use.
Really, the limits of this thing are only approachable at the track, which is something you could say about any modern 911. However, where the GT3 is special is in the level of driver engagement it demands and delivers. In a C4S or similar, you can just punch to pass any time you want. The GT3 requires you to bring the power to a boil and then manage things appropriately.
If you'd like something a little more track-focused, the GT3RS that marked the debut of Porsche's naturally-aspirated banshee turns the dial a few clicks further. Even better is the GT3 Touring Version, just announced at the Frankfurt Motor Show, which loses the fixed wing for a subtler shape – with all the same ferocity tucked underneath.
As for this mid-spec 991-chassis GT3, it feels just as special as the old car, which is something you can't say about many modern machines. As Porsche moves further into an era where crossovers form the backbone of sales and the 911 is more a grand tourer than sporting machine, the GT3 offers hope. Porsche makes every variant of 911 you could imagine. Happily, it still makes one for people who place driving above all else.
The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.