Motormouth revisits the 2003 996 generation Porsche 911 GT3 RS with a drive at the Nürburgring to find out how this modern classic stands up to today’s standards of performance – hint: extremely well
Porsche has been using the RS tag exclusively on 911s for 46 years. Standing for rennsport, or racing, these RS machines have always been the embodiment of Porsche’s knowledge and experience, of countless Targa Florio and Le Mans and Nordschleife victories. The licence plates, being the crucial bit.
The first RS car set the puristic theme that follows to this day: it was 1972, pants were ridiculous, skirts were small, displacement was big, and the Carrera RS 2.7 launched weighing barely 900kg, with 210bhp from the pre-turbo flat-six and a top speed of 240kph. It went against the jackhammer sports cars of the day, just raw driving, and Porsche planned to limit production to 500 examples for their most devout customers, but in the end they built over a thousand. Today one of these would cost you a million dollars – in its own time, the 2.7 was priced at 33,000 Deutsche Marks, or about 60,000 of today’s US dollars.
Successive RS cars followed but it wasn’t until 2003 that Porsche really bridged the gap between its racing and road-going 911s, with a 3.6-litre flat-six producing 381bhp, or more than 100 horsepower per litre. You got a roll cage right out of Weissach, racing stripes, polycarbonate rear window, single-mass flywheel, and in total a 50kg saving over a GT3. Zero to 100kph isn’t startling in the GT3 RS but it’s quick enough at 4.4 seconds, perfectly complementing the car’s response – as ready as it is to always answer an opening throttle with immediate pull, this car is also about momentum as it is about its instant power delivery.
The Germans quoted a top speed of 308kph, but here at the Nürburgring we’re keeping a somewhat respectful distance to the bumper of Porsche’s driving ace Matthias Hoffsümmer’s brand new 2018 911 GT3 RS leading us around for a few laps. This is a museum example and we at Motormouth would prefer the car returned to Porscheplatz 1 in one piece.
Stepping fresh out of a 2018 GT3 RS, the original ‘fried-egg’ 2003 model is a revelation, from the delicate door action to the sparse interior. Even the smell was bottled in Weissach those 15 years ago, and the first water-cooled 911 generation still smells like an old luftgekühlt Porsche. It’s the smell of familiarity and before you turn the key with your left hand there is an urge to just go.
Visibility is unrivalled and it’s a compact enough car so you can soon start pushing without being intimidated by size. The steering wheel is so huge you grip it and crack a laugh, and the rest of the car just keeps the smile going. Analog gauges that strike you as revelatory with their simple, legible font, are such a contrast to today’s digital screens and dozens of full-colour distractions vying for your attention.
Enough can’t be said about the wonderful steering, probably the best steering of any 911 ever. The rim is thin, hard, dimpled, and free of any clutter – multifunctional wasn’t a hot marketing term in 2003 yet. You feel the car push wide on entry like a good 911, and with a bit of brakes the front end pulls in, the steering works with the road, it falls away from the crown and tracks a bit side to side giving everything away. It’s very special, and light at speed, maybe nervous at first, but immensely inclusive in the driving experience. As excellent as the 996 GT3 RS is, you feel like you’re the one doing everything. The car depends on you, and it’s nice to be depended on.
The engine is piercing, sadistically loud and beautiful. It’s Hans Mezger’s finest, and it’s hard to have mechanical sympathy for this flat-six when a car wants nothing more then to rev. This thing is so obviously designed to be driven you feel a need to sit there flicking the gear lever around and heaving in your bucket seat urging the machine on, like a kart off the line, before you’ve even pulled away.
With composite panels and plenty of lightweight tricks at work from the Weissach racing department, the GT3 RS weighed in with a kerb figure of around 1,360kg. This means it’s lighter than today’s 718 Cayman, and nothing in a sports car is as apparent as weight. Or lack of it, and the 996 GT3 RS seems to sometimes just skip over the surface, treading the path of least resistance. I know it sounds counter productive – tyres have to grip, not skim the road – but it’s just so agile on its Pirellis.
This kind of driver engagement is almost impossible to find today, outside of a few track-day specialist marques.
However long you search inside, too, you won’t find a traction control button – there is no electronics here. It’s just your right foot and the old bum meter.
The 996 GT3 RS comes alive whenever you start stretching the flat-six towards the 8,000rpm limit, and you have to work to keep it tracking straight over bumpy roads because this nimble little sports car (in 2003 you wouldn’t have described it as little, but it’s over 120mm shorter than a 2018 GT3) just wants to go everywhere the road goes, mark every bit of territory surfaced in bitumen.
Mezger’s engine only gets better the further up the rev range you go, and almost chugs along at low revs like it’s got hot cams, turning all lumpy and impatient, only really invested in the whole thing once you take it past five or six thousand. Then the thing starts wailing, and the power doesn’t relent. It’s one of the great masterpieces of engine design.
The six-speed ‘box throws are slightly long, and just superb, fighting back against your palm every time the lever drops into gear with a slick clack into place. You will shuffle the thing all day for absolutely no reason but to feel the satisfying mechanical motion, and blip the throttle every time you downshift because petrol mixing with air under pressure is the greatest sound known to man. This kind of driver engagement is almost impossible to find today, outside of a few track-day specialist marques.
For years the 996 generation 911s had to endure ridicule for those headlights, and the regular Carreras currently represent great value at least until everyone realises it and they too explode in price one day soon. The GT department cars, sadly, have never been a secret and even the most abused examples, with nothing but track miles under those Pirellis, still cost at least $100,000.
Considering what an eye-opening, visceral experience this 15-year old 911 can be, with 140 less horsepower than today’s GT3 RS, we’d consider it a bargain at any price.
2003 Porsche 911 GT3 RS
3.6-litre flat-six | six-speed manual transmission, rear-wheel drive | 381 horsepower and 385Nm of torque | 0-100kph in 4.4 seconds and a top speed of 306kph | $100,000 – $300,000