Forward progress: Driving the modern Porsche 911's greatest hits

With a new GT3 on the horizon, Porsche rolls out some of its best modern 911s for a truly special day of driving.

Steven Ewing Former managing editor
Steven Ewing spent his childhood reading car magazines, making his career as an automotive journalist an absolute dream job. After getting his foot in the door at Automobile while he was still a teenager, Ewing found homes on the mastheads at Winding Road magazine, Autoblog and Motor1.com before joining the CNET team in 2018. He has also served on the World Car Awards jury. Ewing grew up ingrained in the car culture of Detroit -- the Motor City -- before eventually moving to Los Angeles. In his free time, Ewing loves to cook, binge trash TV and play the drums.
Steven Ewing
8 min read
Porsche GT Lineup
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Porsche GT Lineup

Here are five of Porsche's rarest modern 911s. And I drove 'em all!


Complaining about a new Porsche 911 variant before the car even debuts is a rich tradition kept alive by internet commenters. "It'll be too soft!" they shout. "No manual? No thanks!" they moan. Yet with each new generation, the 911s keep getting better and better and better. It's almost like Porsche knows what it's doing.

Want proof? Check out this modern 911 bucket-list lineup: the 996 GT3 RS, 997 GT2 RS, 997 GT3 RS 4.0, 991 R and 991 GT2 RS. These are some of the company's best sports cars, and they were all developed under the watchful eye of Porsche's GT car chief (and generally cool dude) Andreas Preuninger, whose next act is the 992-generation GT3. The peanut gallery is already twitterpated with speculation about whether or not the new uber-Neunelfer will be properly hardcore. But after a day spent driving Preuninger's greatest hits at the Porsche Experience Center near Los Angeles, rest assured, this rare big-picture look proves that progress is a very good thing indeed.

Porsche 996 911 GT3 RS: The homologation special

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Let me start off by drawing a line in the sand. The 996 generation was the tipping point between classic and modern 911s, simply because of the major switch from air- to water-cooled engines. It also marked the point at which Preuninger got involved with GT car development, which makes it easier to tie everything together in this story. Ahem.

The 996 GT3 RS is what's known as a homologation car. Basically, it's a vehicle built to comply with motorsports guidelines requiring race cars to be based on models the company will actually sell to the public. Porsche wanted to use some new hardware on its 996-generation race car -- most notably, some suspension bits -- so it had to offer at least 200 examples of a road-legal 911 with these parts. Thus, the 996 GT3 RS was born, though it was never sold in the US.

Thanks to a number of carbon fiber parts, the 996 RS was 100 pounds lighter than a standard GT3, and could lap Germany's legendary Nürburgring Nordschleife circuit in 7 minutes, 43 seconds -- 4 seconds quicker than Porsche's turbocharged GT2. Incidentally, the GT3 RS also featured one of the first applications of Porsche's ceramic composite brake technology, which is still used today.

This car really resets the senses, yet there's a clear link to modern GT3s. You can rev the bejesus out of the 375-horsepower flat-6 engine. The six-speed manual gearbox has long throws and a heavy clutch. The whole experience is, in a word, chatty. The car never stops talking. You feel it through the steering, through the chassis, through the vibration of the windows at speed. There's no traction control or stability control, but because of the RS' highly communicative nature, you always have a sense of exactly how much grip is available under each tire.

Everything about the GT3 RS is about going fast with incredible confidence -- and that's a theme that carries through to every subsequent 911.

Porsche 997 911 GT2 RS: The secret weapon

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The 997 GT2 RS exists because car dudes are competitive. Preuninger once said this car was a skunkworks effort -- an internal pat on the back developed by Porsche's motorsports division with the sole purpose of reclaiming the GT2's title of quickest production car around the Nordschleife.

The GT2 RS wasn't a homologation car like the GT3 RS, but Porsche thought it deserved the RS, or Rennsport, moniker anyway. And since the GT2 RS was Porsche's most powerful road-going car at the time, the RS badge was duly earned. The twin-turbo 3.6-liter flat-6 produced 620 hp in a car that weighed only 3,020 pounds. Hitting 60 mph took just 3.4 seconds and the RS could top out at 205 mph. Those numbers are incredible by 2020 standards, yet the GT2 RS is a decade old.

Driving the GT2 RS, you get a sense of how laser-focused this car was on its mission of fast lap times above all. Porsche's Active Suspension Management adaptive dampers, recalibrated stability and traction-control systems, sharp steering and a quick-shifting manual gearbox all perfectly set this car up for peak driver enjoyment with outstanding precision. This car can seriously cut a rug.

Oh, and that Nordschleife time? Porsche ran a 7:18 lap, besting the standard GT2 by 14 seconds and cementing the RS' place above cars like the Chevrolet Corvette ZR1, and even Porsche's performance halo, the . With its huge power and limited-production status (only 500 were sold worldwide), the GT2 RS could've been the 997-generation 911's final act, a real go-out-with-a-bang moment. But the company had a final love letter to enthusiasts up the 997's sleeve.

Porsche 997 911 GT3 RS 4.0: The swan song

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The GT3 RS 4.0 wasn't built to one-up the GT2 RS. The RS 4.0 was an ode to the free-breathing, stick-shifting, motorsports-derived 911 GT3 range -- a sports car for road use, not for sheer lap times. The RS 4.0 ran the Nordschleife some 9 seconds slower than the GT2 RS, and its 4.0-liter engine produced 500 hp compared to the GT2's 620. But despite this spec-sheet disparity, I'll argue that the RS 4.0 feels altogether more special. It's what a GT3 should be.

As its name suggests, the GT3 RS 4.0 had Porsche's first application of its 4.0-liter flat-6 engine in a road car, with forged pistons, titanium connecting rods and a crankshaft borrowed from the 911 RSR race car. All 500 hp was available at a screaming 8,250 rpm, routed to the rear wheels through a six-speed manual transmission. Carbon-fiber sport bucket seats were standard and lightweight materials were used throughout the body structure. The 4.0 was wider and lower than the base GT3, with a redesigned rear wing, central exhaust and dive planes on the front bumper. The aero changes were enough to result in 426 pounds of downforce at its 193-mph top speed. High-speed stability is golden, friends.

Everything I love about the 997 911 comes alive in the GT3 RS 4.0. The great steering, the excellent balance, the unflappable cornering characteristics. Those fat, staggered tires offer a world of grip, and there's nothing as sweet as hanging on tight in a hairpin turn before winding that big engine out and revving it 'til the cows come home when you shoot down a straight. I love the crisp gearbox and the roar of the large-and-in-charge flat-six.

This GT3 RS might not be the outright performer the GT2 RS is, but if I had to drive one home, it'd be the 4.0-liter car every time.

Porsche 991 911 R: The muscle car

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I've heard a lot of folks say the 911 R was just a precursor to the GT3 Touring. But... no. The 911 R is unapologetically brutal. It's loud, harsh, crass and so addictive. Sure, it's a lot like the Touring in the sense that both use the GT3 chassis, a naturally aspirated engine, manual transmission and they don't have a huge wing on the rump. But while the Touring exhibits a sort of softer side of Porsche's GT formula, the R could really just be named the 911 Arrrrrgh. (That's a growl, you guys.)

The 911 R's 4.0-liter engine was plucked from the GT3 RS, with 500 hp at 8,250 rpm and 338 lb-ft at 6,250 rpm. A six-speed manual was the only transmission, and it came with Porsche's automatic rev-matching feature, which a lot of people hate, but I fully embrace, partly because I think technology is neat and partly because I'm just kind of lazy sometimes.

Wide, 305-section rear tires wrap lightweight 20-inch wheels, and rear-axle steering virtually reduces the 911 R's already-modest length while cornering. The 991-generation 911 was a big step up technologically from the 997, but all that tech worked to improve the formula. The electromechanical steering is as satisfying to use as Porsche's older hydraulic setups, and the active chassis tech keeps the car flat as a pancake at all times without rattling your teeth out over rough pavement.

Porsche cut 110 pounds out of the GT3 RS to make the R, thanks to a hood and front fenders rendered in carbon fiber. The roof was made of magnesium, the rear seats were removed, there's less cabin insulation and the car didn't come standard with air conditioning or a stereo (though you could add them back in for no extra charge). This is the sort of stripped-out, rough-and-rowdy sports car that bean-counters often don't like to admit enthusiasts actually want. Porsche? It sold the entire 991-unit global allotment before the cars even hit the road. If you got one, I'm peanut butter and jealous.

Porsche 991 911 GT2 RS: The superstar

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I'm actually quite glad that I drove the 991 GT2 RS car right before the 996 GT3 RS, because the newer car put everything into perspective. The 996 was where Preuninger started, yet all of his work culminated in the 991. The link between race cars and road cars is clearer than ever now, and the latest GT2 RS shows that we should not bemoan the march of progress. Whereas it would've been laughable for a GT in the 996 era to have an automatic transmission or electronic driving aids, the GT2 RS uses a full arsenal of modern tech to great effect.

The specs tell part of the story. The twin-turbo 3.8-liter flat-6 cranks out 700 hp. Extensive use of lightweight materials keeps the weight at a low 3,241 pounds, and an optional Weissach package shaves off an extra 40 pounds thanks to a carbon-fiber roof, carbon-fiber chassis components and magnesium wheels. All told, the GT2 RS can hit 60 mph in 2.7 seconds and top out at 211 mph. When it ran the Nurburgring Nordschleife in 2017, the model set the production car lap record with a time of 6:47.3.

This specific British Racing Green GT2 RS continues this story. This is the car Porsche used to set lap records at Road America and Road Atlanta, as well as a bunch of other tracks across the US. This is the car that set a new standard for Porsche's GT models, and it's still a benchmark among sports cars today.

And yet, it's relatively easy to drive. The seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox is smarter and quicker than I'll ever be, keeping the engine right in the heart of its powerband. The sophisticated suspension tech lets the GT2 RS slice through corners like a scalpel, the car never once feeling like it's about to get squirrely. I can drive this thing harder and harder and harder and it just. Keeps. Going. It never wants to give up, and I never want to give it up. And that's not something I could say about the more "pure" 996 GT3 RS.

Porsche 992 911 GT3: The next big thing

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The new 911 GT3 will debut sometime early next year, and it'll keep a lot of Porsche's GT rhythms alive. It'll have a turbo-free 4.0-liter engine. There'll be a manual transmission, too. The new rear wing will provide ample downforce, the front suspension will use double-wishbone architecture and the whole thing should weigh around 3,100 pounds.

"It's always exciting to start from scratch. It's a lot of pressure," Preuninger told my colleague Henry Catchpole when he got an early ride in a 2021 GT3 prototype earlier this year. But he's confident the new 992-generation 911 will form the basis of something really special, saying the car "gives us a lot of new parameters to play around with to get even more performance."

Considering the evolutionary excellence of Preuninger's prior efforts, I'm not the least bit worried.

Watch this: We sneak a peek at the new Porsche 911 GT3