COAL: 2002 Porsche Carrera – My Daily Driver Is A Keeper! (Part I)

2002 Porsche 911 (996)

(First Posted 2/2/2014, I decided to rename it as Part I and run it as it originally ran, Part II will follow next week.  Regular readers of this series will be shocked (shocked!) to hear that I still have this one in the stable).

I’ve wanted a Porsche since I was a little boy.  At every auto show I would drool over the latest version.  I’ve subscribed to and/or regularly read several different Porsche magazines since high school and spent much time daydreaming about the perfect color and specification of “my” car.   During my college days, I used to get stuck at a light on the 101 Freeway in the middle of Santa Barbara that was right next to the old Grove Motors dealership and they would always have a 911 in the front window for me to enjoy while waiting for the light to turn green.  I told myself that one day I would own one.

Well, college came and went.  Eventually the lights on the freeway through Santa Barbara were taken down, the freeway widened, and Grove Motors torn down and relocated.  I ended up further north and spent the next twenty years working, having a family, and sinking spare money into mortgage payments (and buying lots of other cars).  But the Porsche dream never died and I always looked at the classifieds to see what was out there.


So imagine my surprise when one day in 2012 my wife looked over my shoulder as I was on and said “Hey, that looks nice, I think you should finally get one.”  I looked at her, she laughed and said I’d been talking about it forever; although I’d gotten close to realistically considering buying one several years before, we switched houses instead and the idea went to the back burner again.

To make a long story a bit shorter, the one I really liked (that she saw) was located in New Jersey.  It was being sold by a private party, who I called.  We talked for quite a while and the next day he sent me many more pictures and a copy of the full service history of the car.  We came to an agreement, I sent him a deposit check and had him take the car in for a pre-purchase inspection at a shop different from the one that he used for service.  The results were good, with no issues to report, so we were off to the races!


We booked flights to New York (since my wife decided she might as well get something out of this as well) and upon arrival, took the train to Madison, NJ where the owner lived.  The owner picked us up at the station, took us to his home and showed us the car.  It was just as he’d described.  We looked it over and drove it for about an hour, and after that I gave him a check for the balance due and asked him to keep the car in his garage until the end of the week we were in New York City.


The car is a 2002 Porsche Carrera 2 (2wd), in Seal Gray with a black interior (the pictures seem to skew the color to the purple side).   It had covered a total of 63,000 miles when I bought it but had a new factory engine installed at the dealer 5,000 miles prior due to a manufacturing defect that was discovered.  The entire cost of that rather significant repair was covered under the warranty the owner had in place. 

With the options that were originally ordered the original bill of sale was for just under $80,000.  I acquired it for quite a bit less than a third of that.  Seeing as a new engine for one of these cars currently (as of 2014) costs around $20,000 and that it was in excellent condition, I was quite happy.


After spending the rest of the week in New York, my wife flew home.  I took the train back over to NJ, the seller’s wife picked me up at the station, took me to the house and then I left with the car.  The first stop was the New Jersey Department of Motor Vehicles to pick up a set of “transit” plates for the journey home.  I thought it would be a big hassle but upon explaining what I needed (I had researched this online in advance), the manager of the DMV took me into her office, did the paperwork herself, and gave me a set of temporary paper plates for a $5 fee.  Easy. 


Then I found Interstate 80 and started my 2,000 mile journey home.  The car was easily as good as I had expected.  I’ve driven a few 911’s over the years but it’s different when it’s your own car.  It makes a glorious noise, the acceleration is fierce, and you can feel every nuance of the pavement under the tires.  Visibility is excellent and the seats have a good range of adjustment, so it is easy to find a very comfortable position.

One of my favorite parts of the trip home was traveling through Pennsylvania.  Besides fabulous fall scenery, there are a lot of toll booths.  At first it was annoying to have to stop every now and then to hand over a dollar, then I realized that it gave me a chance at full throttle acceleration every time the gate swung up with nobody in front of me.  Of course before merging back with traffic I had to slow down again but I’m sure I was grinning like an idiot the entire time, it was so fun.


I visited a couple of friends en route to show off my new car but was finally home after three days.  On the front porch was the new booster seat I had ordered for my youngest while still in New York.  I had researched which seats fit the small back seat of the Porsche and found that a particular Recaro fit perfectly and only cost $70.  (Update 2018: I took the seat out last month, the little guy above now is nine and fits perfectly in the back seat without it.)

As you see, this is not a garage queen and I use it almost every day.  I usually take at least one and on occasion all three of the kids to school in it, I take it grocery shopping, to lunch, or out for whatever reason I can come up with.  The only days I really do not use it are when I am meeting a client or working on a foreclosed home.


With winter coming up fast I found another set of the factory wheels on Craigslist in New Orleans and had the seller ship them to me.  I mounted a set of Bridgestone Blizzak LM-60’s on them and after installing them on the car, found that it is fantastic in snow and ice.  While the front tires measure 225/40-18 for either summer or winter tires, for the rears Porsche recommends reducing the standard summer size of 285/30-18 to 265/35-18 for winter.  That’s almost an inch narrower and along with the different tread pattern and compound, there is very noticeable difference when driving on dry pavement as compared to the normal summer tires that I use.

Even though it does not have AWD, it does have stability control (defeatable) and with the engine in the back, there’s plenty of traction assuming I don’t do anything stupid.  The stability control is fairly relaxed, i.e. it does allow a bit of “fun” before kicking in, but when turned off, the car will do wonderfully balanced power slides at will in the snow. 


Porsches have always had an extensive options list, it’s very possible to go crazy and double the price of the car.  Mine was outfitted in a more normal way but still had well over $10,000 worth of extras.  Its options include PSM (stability management), the 18” Turbo Twist wheels, aero side sills (can you believe those cost $1,750 new? I like them but would not have paid for them new), “Comfort” leather seats with heat, power, memory, and lumbar, and a few other incidentals such as the painted center tunnel cover. 

The one option it does not have that I wish it did is a rear wiper.  The angle of the back window is so shallow that if you aren’t moving quickly enough, it can accumulate water and snow.  I’ve since acquired yet another set of wheels, in this case a set of the factory lightweight wheels that were a different option and new for the 2002 model year, so an entirely appropriate modification.


Porsche had some issues with this generation of 911 (996 as it is known internally and within the Porsche community).  The worst one is the Intermediate Shaft Bearing which in some of these cars has been known to fail catastrophically, ruining the engine in an instant.  Porsche upgraded the bearing several times over the production run. In all but the latest iteration, the bearing can actually be swapped out without taking the engine apart and is now recommended as a service part. 


It appears that cars that are not used regularly (i.e. very low miles), are not full with oil to the top mark, and those that are driven at low revs are most susceptible.  My car had been a chronic oil leaker since new, the rear main seal had been replaced several times and then during the last change it was realized that the bore for the intermediate shaft was out of round by 0.07mm, resulting on another leak and necessitating a whole new engine as it was not a correctable issue. 

Based on when my replacement engine was built, it has the latest and largest bearing that is considered to be much more reliable than the older ones, however it is not replaceable without engine disassembly.  Early cars of the next generation (997 model code) also had the engine with this newer bearing until Porsche completely redesigned the engines for the 2009 model year, eliminating this trouble spot entirely.


A new replacement engine from Porsche in this case means a remanufactured one as they are no longer made new.  All work is done at the factory in Stuttgart, but the real beauty is that it ships with ALL ancillaries in place.  So the water pump is new, the alternator is new, all hoses and belts etc.  Basically everything that bolts to the engine is included, meaning that many of the items that wear out over time are now new again and I won’t have to worry about them relative to a car of similar age with original engine and ancillaries.

That being said, just before I left on last summer’s now annual father-daughter road trip I heard a noise when I turned on the A/C.  Not having time to deal with it, I dropped it off at the local Porsche mechanic who diagnosed a bad pulley and replaced it along with the main belt while he had that apart.  Problem solved.


I had originally thought maintenance would be difficult as the engine is crammed in the back with a relatively small opening.  This is not so.  When I was doing research before buying the car, I noted that Porsche had made ease of maintenance a priority on this series.  It is easier and cheaper to do most things on this compared to older 911s (well, except for changing the coolant which the older ones obviously do not have, being air cooled).  Oil changes are extremely easy, the filter cartridge housing and drain plug are accessible even without lifting the car!  You can do it while on your knees next to the right rear corner of the car. 

If you need good access to other parts, removing the airbox (2 bolts) gives you excellent access to the entire front of the engine.  From underneath (by either using ramps or jackstands) you can access the transmission end of the engine and if you need to get to something on top, while tight, access is often helped tremendously by simply loosening the two engine mounts at the back of the car, which can give you a couple more inches of space. 

I replaced those engine mounts myself recently as I noted a bit of shaking of the passenger seat while idling as well as a gearchange that seemed a bit stiffer than it used to be.  Replacing them really could not be any easier, I did it in under an hour total and if I had to do it again could do it in half that time.  It solved both issues, the car shifts much smoother now and shakes less. 


Parts are expensive at the dealer but can be found for much less money with a little bit of sleuthing.  A good example is the secondary air injection pump.  They do go bad (mine currently has a bit of a squeal at startup), and Porsche will charge you over $1,200 for a new one.  However, online you can find the same exact item made by the same supplier for $300 if you are willing to throw away a yellow Bosch box instead of a silver Porsche one.  The same goes for many other parts.  The OEM supplied equivalent (usually the exact same part) is often readily available, and always at significantly lower cost.

Additionally, as with many cars and especially ones owned by enthusiasts, there is much online help as well.  That same secondary air injection pump that I mentioned just above can actually be taken apart and the bearing inside replaced for under ten dollars with a little bit of time and some common tools.  The whole procedure is documented step-by-step with photos of the entire assembly sequence online, along with practically anything else you might want or need to do to the car.


As I mentioned, my car is a 2002 which was the year that Porsche introduced several major changes to the line relative to the first few years.  Most obvious is the front end; previously it shared the lights and front end with the Boxster.  Starting in 2002, the headlights look like the Turbo model’s and the bumper was redesigned to allow more air into the radiators and brakes. 

The engine was enlarged from 3.4 liters to 3.6 liters, the exhaust is louder and sounds better. Inside, the car gained a glovebox and cupholder and the buttons on the dashboard were not glossy anymore, giving them a higher quality tactile feel.


Does this house in L.A. look vaguely familiar to the U.S. audience? Hint: “Here’s the story, of a man named…”

Besides the power and handling, one of the things that I enjoy is the fact that it gets excellent gas mileage.  In July, my daughter and I decided to go to the west coast.  We visited friends in the San Francisco area and then drove down the coast to Los Angeles.  After a few days in each place and in between at my alma mater on California’s central coast we headed back home. 


On the first day of the trip we made it all the way to Reno.  Our average speed for that leg was 74mph, and the fuel economy readout indicated 27.5mpg (around town I average around 20mpg).  The car has enough luggage space as well.  We were able to fit my daughter’s carry-on sized roller bag, my large duffel bag, and a case of O’Dells finest beer for my California buddies in the surprisingly deep front trunk, or “frunk,” as it is known.  On the way back we also filled the back seat with groceries from Trader Joe’s, which we don’t have here (yet).


The engine in the car is a 3.6liter flat-6.  It produces 320 horsepower at 6800rpm and 273 lb-ft of torque at 4250rpm. In my car’s case, that power is routed through a 6-speed manual transmission to the rear wheels only.  With a curb weight of right around 3000 pounds, it is extremely responsive to the throttle pedal and has a very strong mid-range, although it’s no slouch at any speed.


I get a little thrill out of the rear spoiler as well.  Normally tucked down onto the engine cover, it rises once you hit 75mph, then it stays up until you get below 25mph again.  I can just see the top edge of it in the rear view mirror when it is up.  There is also a manual override button in the footwell in case you want/need it up at other times, such as when in traffic on a very hot day and a little more air is needed in the engine bay. 

That being said, I’ve never had a problem with the engine cooling or warming up properly.  I have used it in temperatures as low as zero degrees Fahrenheit (last winter here in town) and as high as 120 degrees (driving through Las Vegas this past summer), and it never missed a beat.


About a year ago (as of the first posting of this), a friend of mine that belongs to the local Porsche club invited me to attend their “Eiskhana,” which is an autocross held on a frozen lake just outside the town of Georgetown on this (east) side of the Rockies.  The lake surface was completely frozen with a bit of powdery, patchy snow across it but no traction whatsoever.  The course that was laid out with cones included many turns, a complete circle and a slalom near the end just before the finish straight.  

Attendees included about fifty different Porsches of all types, front engine, rear engine, 2WD, AWD, old, brand new–basically the gamut–so I was very surprised and delighted to find that I finished in second place of all the Porsche entrants, not just in my class (2WD with snowtires), but even those with AWD and/or studded tires!  I was just using the Blizzaks.  However that does not mean that I was carving around the course, it was more a matter of trying to anticipate which way the car was going to rotate and when to apply throttle or brakes. 

My fastest run was with the stability management turned completely off, and I know at one point, I was traveling completely backwards while I was in gear, with the wheels spinning in the forward direction.  It was a lot of fun and also instructive as to how the car would behave in a no-grip situation in a completely safe environment with nothing to hit and nobody to bother.


Frankly the car is exactly what I was expecting.  I was not completely sure if forgoing AWD would be the best idea, but it turned out great.  The only time snow is an issue is when it is too deep, however in that case the AWD version would have the same problem. 

It has been very reliable (I’m knocking on my wooden desk right now), is comfortable to drive, gives me a thrill every time I look at it, and as far as I am concerned, is a fantastic value.  If anything happened to this one I would be looking for another one immediately, which is about the highest praise anyone can give their car.


I am glad that my 42nd vehicle is one that has brought me much joy, but as it is the most recent one I’ve bought (15 months and 12,000 miles ago) it is also the one I have to end this series with.  I’ve very much enjoyed sharing my car history with all of you and have had a lot of fun reading the comments (good or bad, appreciative or incredulous as they may have been).  Like the man said, “Every Car Has A Story.”  I’ve enjoyed telling the stories of my 42 “extended test drives” as you’ve called them and reliving a lot of memories.  Thank You!

Updated July 1, 2018 – Alright, here’s the exciting news: I still have this car!  At going on six years of ownership this is the longest by a couple of years that I have ever owned a car.  Come back next week for the rest of the story…