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Review: An afternoon with the 1996 Porsche 911 Carrera 4S
Porsche certificate of authenticity. - photo by Mike Stapley

We are living in a golden age of automobile power. Even family sedans these days could beat a 1960s muscle car to 60 mph.

No matter how wonderful older performance cars are, their modern counterparts are faster and more powerful.

Driving the 1996 Porsche 911 Carrera 4S demonstrated to me how much more forceful today’s 911s are and shed some light on why the last of the air-cooled 911s hold nostalgic sway over Porsche fans.

“The 4S is an amazing blend of handling, power, 911 Turbo looks and all-wheel drive," said Specialized Sales and Leasing of Salt Lake City owner Abdul Kisana.

While it isn't fair to compare a car from 1996 to those of today, the Carrera 4S of yesteryear is by no means a slouch.

Pros

As with any Porsche model, the conversation begins with handling, steering and braking. The 1996 Carrera could give many modern cars a run for their money around the track — even if it had to yield at the dragstrip.

The 911 remains planted while driving around twisty and imperfect mountain roads, despite bridge seams and minor potholes. Many modern sports cars feel much less confident on the same roads.

Modern enthusiasts long for the hydraulic steering systems of the past, and the Carrera’s steering makes a driver feel connected to the road in a way that is truly rare these days. The Porsche demands to be pushed ever harder, and the driver is better for it.

All-wheel-drive helps the car grip the road at launch point, and the 911 speeds up as effortlessly as it comes to a stop. Canyon corners, ascents and descents did not result in any noticeable brake fade.

The Carrera 4S is famous for sharing the body stylings of the 911 Turbo without the accompanying price, and the classic whale-tail spoiler and ground effects are timeless.

Modern Porsches depend on the PDK automatic transmission for the greatest speed and efficiency. Driving the Carrera 4S with the six-speed manual transmission, the way God intended, was a treat.

Cons

Even modern Porsche interiors leave something to be desired, and the interior in the 1996 models is spartan at best. Porsche designers lean heavily on what matters to the driver, like the classic five-gauge analog cluster behind the steering wheel, rather than comforts and luxuries.

Storage space is minimal. Even the armrests on each door are called into duty for this purpose.

The leather Recaro sport seats are surprisingly comfortable but not much to look at.

The front trunk space is small and not important. This car wasn’t meant to shuttle the family to Disneyland. Two carry-ons for a weekend getaway will fit, but not much else.

What many would consider the Carrera's greatest feature is a negative for some. This is a sports car at heart and isn’t encumbered with luxuries and a pounding sound system or navigation touchscreen. The Carrera is about as pure a driving experience as one can have — for good or bad.

While this car is not lacking in power altogether, the Carrera's one weak spot is highway passing power. I had to downshift at times that a modern 911 wouldn't need to. In fifth and sixth gears, the torque simply can't pass with conviction.

In-betweens

The most fun I had while driving this car may have been the treasure hunt to figure out how to do everything, including opening the fuel filler door and engine cover, turning on the air conditioner (why are there two snowflake buttons?), setting the analog clock and finding the outside power mirror adjustments.

I even felt uncomfortable actually using a key to start and stop the engine.

The modern conveniences we're spoiled with now make the Carrera feel quirky and foreign. It is foreign, come to think of it, and the dashboard symbols and lettering common to German cars of the era replace the words and symbols most of us would easily recognize.

A piece of what looks like leather fabric covers the front driver-side fender to protect the paint while fueling. The fuel nozzle could certainly do damage if not for the protective fabric, and spilled fuel has nowhere to go except the fender itself.

The nearly invisible knob that opens the fuel filler door is a classic case of fashion over function. The simple pull lever that opens the engine cover is more utilitarian.

I found myself wondering throughout the afternoon if I’d rather drive a pure driver’s car like the 1996 model instead of a modern sports car with more power, luxury and technology.

A modern 911 would add approximately 140 horsepower and shave nearly two seconds off a run to 60 mph, all while adding about ten miles per gallon at the pump.

To this car’s credit, I haven’t decided.

Specs

Vehicle type: two-passenger, rear engine, all-wheel-drive coupe

Engine: 3.7-liter SOHC, 12-valve, flat six-cylinder with aluminum block and head

Transmission: six-speed manual

Power: 282 horsepower, 250 pound-feet of torque

Performance: 4.9 seconds, zero-to-60 mph, 13.5-second quarter mile at 102 mph

Fuel economy: EPA estimated 16/18 miles per gallon city/highway

Price as tested: $96,786; 46,720 miles

Mike Stapley is a father of two, is Business Sales Manager for a telecom company and is an aspiring novelist. Contact him at mstapley4@gmail.com
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