Porsche GT3 RS

GT Porsches are the toast of auction land, and the 996 GT3 RS is the latest to soar. But is it worth the hype?

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T

hese days, it’s almost a conditioned response; our reaction to the red on purest white, to the squirley script and the unadorned, rounded slope-backed shape. It’s a kind of heightened expectation about what that means; it’s an RS; a Porsche, a 911 – only more so. All were homologation exercises. In 1972, it said Carrera, and woe betide anyone who let the ducktail cuteness lull them into thinking this was anything less than a Group Four racing dominator. In 1984 with the 911 SC RS, it didn’t ‘say’ anything; just that pure white on the 20 cars needed to go Group B rallying.

In 2003 it said GT3 RS, in either red or blue, and with wheels to match. After three decades of the tradition, you knew that this meant lighter, leaner, keener and more alert. And probably, a little bit faster. The RS of ’03 was the less-is-more version of Porsche’s latest incarnation of the 996 GT3, which had not long taken over from the first of this higher-performance evolution, launched in 1999. All of the GT3 bloodline traced a lineage back to racing aristocracy, and the RS, with its stripped-down demeanour, brought you even closer to the track cars.

There’s something of a puzzle if you look at the spec sheets side by side; the pared-down edition weighs more or less the same as the full-fat version. On this RS, we’ve got a carbon bonnet with a lightweight badge that is simply a sticker. We’ve got a polycarbonate rear window and no back seats. But then, the standard GT3 had no back seats either. You’ll also find that the hot-driving version gets a little bit hotter still – the air-con is gone. For excitement’s sake, you might not care that some of the soundproofing has also been chucked out. And anyway, the radio’s gone too. In an RS, you want to drive harder than your average 911 pilot, so you hope the weight has gone into things that matter. Looking behind the seats, you’ll see that it has – a thick cross-braced roll cage in the rear.

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Looking around the cabin of the ’03 car reminds me of its 1970s forbear; bucket seats, full straps and that half cage. The similarity is hopefully because both were designed with almost identical intent, rather than contrived nostalgia. The dash in both was, and is, fairly standard road car – sporting chic, though more minimal the first time round. I’m liking the body-coloured transmission tunnel, brushed metal details, and grey suede with red stitching. I’ve just noticed that this car has a radio, though I don’t think I’ll want it today. In any 911, you want to hear that flat six.

If you’ve come straight from old-school and air-cooled, the sound from the back of the GT3 RS won’t be a shock, but it is... different. The 996 was the first of the liquid-cooled cars. So there’s that veiling of the higher frequencies. It’s less thrashy. Some of the hotter 911s could make you wonder if the engine bay was lined with tin. In this, there’s a modern boutique-exhaust/sports burr infused with that low, slightly asymmetric boxer burble. But yes; it’s still a Porsche ‘six’, and when it moves away there is still that (albeit more muffled) dialogue between engine and transmission. And the odd extraneous whine.

The GT3 line boasted what became known as the Mezger engines. Hans Mezger had been designing Porsche motors for almost four decades, but this lump was a genuine dry-sump unit, with its origins in the powerplant he designed for the air-cooled 911 GT1 Le Mans car. It was also a similar motor to the one found in the 962 prototype. But where that engine was able to indulge in exotic cylinder heads, the M96/72’s four-valve heads were derived from those of the still rarefied (and water-cooled) 959. So some serious and direct motorsport lineage here.

With some marques, such pedigree comes with a certain degree of ‘attitude’, but this is a Porsche and it feels anything but highly strung in the first few miles. There’s a wonderful connectedness between throttle and engine, with a lively response in the revs – like the more exotic Carrera GT – that reminds you this car has a low-mass flywheel. The RS also has a different clutch to the standard GT3. All the geartrain connections feel very mechanical, but very smooth and nicely engineered.

That balance between unrefined sports car and sophisticated GT is set differently in every 911, but no matter how much leather you put in them, there’s still the faintest trace of max’d out Vee-Dub hot rod. Talking of hot-rodding; the bolt-on Nismo-style big wing gives a hint of where this one is going – none of that discreet, speed-sensitive elevating spoiler malarkey – just slap that sucker on and you’re good to go. 

Under that big carbon fibre blade is a very retro-looking, duck tail-like fin. But again this is a thoroughly modern appendage; it’s an air collector, which uses pressure build-up to keep feeding air to the 'bay at high speeds.

But maybe it’s not a great idea to go all out and get too familiar with the machine until you’ve felt your way around it. It is a 911 after all and like all its older siblings has its engine where no one in their right mind would want to stick a large weight on a sports car – one big pendulum. One of the model’s chief paradoxes has been the desire – almost need – in any new iteration, to be a true old-school 911 while still pushing the technology forward.

I’m liking the fact that the car still feels small. And I’m still sitting on the floor with floor-mounted pedals and shifting a floor-mounted gear shift – you know – one with connecting rods and stuff. Like the older cars, everything here is close; the gear shift hard by your thigh, and the relatively large, tactile steering wheel between your knees.

The RS’s steering is one of the car’s most engaging assets. It’s meatier than a standard GT3, again enhancing that track car feel. You seem to feel every nuance of the road’s surface through it, and yes, the tarmac will now and again lure the front wheels into following ruts and cambers, but the car’s response to your input is very direct and its turn-in to bends is immediate. Its accuracy, coupled to this Porsche’s almost uncanny grip on the asphalt, gives you huge confidence in the machine.

The six-speed manual gearbox too is likewise precise and beautifully-weighted. The shift is always quick to the right cogs, the engine’s powerband so easily accessible. Does it do that 911 thing where the car is pretty disinterested until 4500rpm? There’s a lot less of that. The big torque sits lower in the rev range than the standard car, some 273lb-ft at 4250rpm. But of course, it does get exponentially more lively as you pile on the revs. And the motor gets more exotic, more track car-like in its tone.

Go down a gear, drop your right leg and the RS quickly becomes a fiercely rapid machine, though rarely is it trying to get away from you. Your whole concentration can be focused on the line, controlling the Porsche with tight, smooth, from-the-shoulders gestures, never wrenching the car from you, even in tight turns.

A great thing about a 911, and more acutely this RS, is how it bonds with British roads; the furious build up of power you can unleash on long, arcing A-road curves, the progressive bite of the brakes – the car keeping its balance, and the weight-shifting, ducking and diving along B-roads. Though not so much diving – the new, firmer suspension has dialled that out. But there’s still great weight-poise-angle management with the throttle – making the nose
bite just before the turn, or pushing the car almost into a drift over the apex. 

It’s that level of intimate, nuanced control that makes the RS the most involving Porsche of its generation.

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The Modern Classics view

The RS achieves a curious feat which only a small band of machines manage to achieve. It’s something to do with things unfolding rapidly yet never happening too fast. 

In taking ever more liberties in spooling out the power in the twisty lanes, the rear end at last decided to take a slightly different line to the front. Not with the alarming ‘catch this, sucker’ attitude of the 1970s Turbo, but more with an instinctive ‘this is how we’re doing it’ you’d sense as an ice skater when you know you’ve positioned yourself to drift slightly. You know it because your legs are connected to your backside and to your gut. And in that same way – rubber-to-steel-to-rump – you feel the GT3 RS and the linear progressiveness of its gestures.

That sums up the RS-ness of the machine. It’s not the power. In fact, if you look at the spec sheets (again), this thing isn’t really any faster than the standard GT3. It’s the connectedness, the involvement and thereby the intensity of the ‘mechanical’ driving experience. 

Did I still long for an air-cooled 911? Despite the older models’ occasionally slightly bonkers demeanour and the facial expression of an amphetamine-fed frog, I once reckoned no new 99-whatever would ever take their place. But this 996 ‘special’ manages to retain almost all the qualities of the air-cooled cars while bestowing tech which, largely, only enhance its character and abilities. 

Good grief; out of all the variants gone and those yet to come... could this be the perfect driver’s Porsche 911?