Oh, Oh, Ohlins

After almost 20 years on the road, it was time to refresh the suspension on my 2001 Porsche 911 Turbo. I decided to go to the aftermarket and to install a set of Ohlins Road & Track coil overs, along with Tarett Engineering drop links. What follows are my thoughts tracking my decision making, install, and the results, along with plenty of photographs. Don't miss the before and after photos at the end...   

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10/1/2020: A Certified Rennlist Engineer

Armed with just an internet connection and a Rennlist forum membership, I have cautiously approached maintenance and modification on my Porsche.

I bought this car used in 2014 with about 49k miles. In my first few years of ownership I have addressed:

  • Maintenance, including plugs, coils, air and fuel filters;
  • Sorted an excellent tune for the local 91 octane piss water;
  • Sourced wheels and snow tires for the long Montana winter;
  • Got rid of the “bumperettes” fitted to the earliest US Market Turbos; and
  • Fielded various other little projects.
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Now, it is time to freshen up the original suspension. Which brings me to a threshold question: What to install next? 

The original suspension on my car was a compromise. This is typical of car design and engineering, which are a constant compromise between unfettered inspiration, and the practical realities of marketing, budgets, and regulations.  This is particularly evident in the suspension fitted for the U.S. Market 996 Turb (which was different for the rest of the world (“ROW”)). The Porsche marketing boffins in America wanted a softer touring type feel to the suspension which they believed would have broader appeal to wealthy U.S. doctors, lawyers, financiers and other hucksters who could actually afford this car. Keep in mind that it cost about $175,000 when inflation adjusted.

Porsche’s own budget in the late '90s was on a strict diet after the well loved but not profitable 993 era of 911s. And U.S. crash and pedestrian safety regulations differed from the ROW, requiring about a 20 mm higher ride height in front, and front "bumperettes" on the earliest builds. The result was, and still is an incredibly capable car. But even then there was room for improvement, and now the aftermarket has supplied a solution, and one with 20 more years of technology behind it.  

Revolving Garage, First Gear Media LLC
Revolving Garage, First Gear Media LLC
Revolving Garage, First Gear Media LLC

While I have heavily modified past cars, my tastes have changed over time. Part of that has to do with appreciating a more subtle appearance, part has to do with more interest in reliability, but mostly, it’s a realization that it is really hard to do better than the degree holding engineers with a billion dollar R&D budget and a career’s worth of time to devote to the project. When educated only by an internet forum full of... opinions, not to mention a limited budget, improving on what the original engineers accomplished is far from a given. But that is not to say that you can’t make any improvements. 

This is especially true where the original manufacturer was forced to make concessions that don't apply to the downstream owner. The suspension on the 996 Turbo is a classic example.

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The 996 911 Turbo suspension was different for the US market than the rest of the world ("ROW"). It was softer in corners and rode higher than most enthusiasts wanted, but at the same felt harshly damped on uneven roads. Today it’s not bad, but with 20 years of improvement in suspension technology, and a 4x4 ride height, this is one part of this car I think I can improve upon. Here are the three options I am debating:

  • Option 1, replace with original equipment: as discussed above, based on ride height alone this is off the table;
  • Option 2, ROW suspension: remains a good choice to address the height and firm up the ride, but it misses out on the latest suspension technology and yet is close to the same price as the best aftermarket kits. A bonus to the ROW suspension is that it is probably more attractive to subsequent owners than an aftermarket kit; and 
  • Option 3, aftermarket suspension: addresses ride height, captures latest technology, but is the most expensive option and my be a detraction to potential buyers.

In the end the lure of sophisticated tech that promises not only sharper handling, but vastly improved damping on all surfaces wins out. With Option 3 chosen, the next question is which system?

1/15/2020: “Image is Everything” - Andre Agassiz

First 2 pictures: 996 Turbo on the original suspension, showing US ride height,
Wheels are Forgestar F14, custom offset, Bridgestone Blizzak tires.
3rd picture: Euro ride height
photo credit pic 3: WLS Motorlegenden M. Schnabel

My criteria for an aftermarket suspension: improve overall ride quality, cost less than $3,000 in parts (arbitrary choice, but you’ve got to draw the line somewhere), and well sorted for the 996 Turbo (I’m not interested in being a test mule). Also, the amount of drop is important. While Montana roads are delightful to drive on, they are rough and a car that can't clear a big frost heave or a steep gravel shoulder will not do well out here.

While there are many good options from KW, Mouton, and JRZ, I am focusing on two very popular options for the 996 platform: The Bilstein PSS10, and the newer Ohlins Road & Track. Both are street oriented suspensions that are track worthy, and both have solid reputations. Both were recommended to me by various sources both in the flesh and in the forums. The Bilstein system was introduced first, and was long a go to staple for road oriented coilovers. Few people have anything negative to say, but a few years ago Ohlins entered the mix with Road & Track. The Ohlins clearly garner the most enthusiasm. They also look better (and as Andre Agassiz once said, “image, is everything”), and the Dual Flow Valve technology marketing lured me in like a kid to Cocoa Puffs (Made with Whole Grains!). Of course once you add the recommended Tarett extended drop links I’ll have blown my budget, but as I said, it was arbitrary anyway. So, Ohlins Road & Track it is. Mmmm, shiny and gold.

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2/24/2020: “Just Do It”

As my grandmother always said, “if you want something done right, then hire someone who knows how to do it right.”  She also said, “if life gives you milk, make lemonade.” So consider the source. But anyway, I must admit I’m ashamed that I’m not car guy enough to do this myself, but I also want these things installed the right way up. If it were his car, my Revo Garage partner Dan would do it himself, and probably do it well. Fuck Dan. I’m going to one of the only two mechanics in this entire valley who has experience with Porsches, and his name happens to be Dan. He works at an Audi/VW dealership so I'll call him Audi Dan, but used to work for Porsche. We were connected by a fellow Porsche enthusiast, and I got a really good feel for the relationship. He was fine with me buying all the parts myself, and he is going to install them, and perform the alignment over the course of the next week. His estimate is for 10 hours for install and alignment. Unfortunately that'll be at Audi/VW dealer tech rates, but they are actually lower than the rates of the local Porsche indy shop.  

Revolving Garage, First Gear Media LLC
Revolving Garage, First Gear Media LLC
Revolving Garage, First Gear Media LLC

While I didn't impose upon "Audi Dan" (not "Revo Dan") to take pictures of the install process, if you're interested in seeing the process, check out the BBI Autosport thread on Rennlist, here. It details a substantially similar install on a 996 Turbo.   Stay tuned...

3/2/2020: The Aftermath

Last Monday morning I dropped my car off with the requisite parts inside (gotta love the versatility of a 911!), and by the end of the day Tuesday the install was complete, the alignment performed, and the car was awaiting pickup in a quiet corner of the repair bay at the Audi/VW dealer. Audi Dan dialed it up right. He booked 10 hours for the whole project, which, without having done any real comparison shopping, seemed reasonable to me (for reference, BBi said they spent 15 hours on their, albeit including a corner balance). The results are as good as I hoped.

Revolving Garage, First Gear Media LLC
"After" shot of 996tt lowered on Ohlins R&T

Specs and Driving Impressions:

The spring preload was set to Ohlin's specification/recommendation (5 mm), and the ride height was set to what is described as the "target" height in the owner's manual. By my own measurements, the front is about 20 mm lower than US stock height, and the rear about 12 mm lower (ground to peak of fender well, see pics from before above, and after below, measurements before settling). After a week of driving, this seems to be an appropriate height for the local Montana roads. If you want to drive your car here for more than about 2 months a year, you need to be prepared for adverse weather and road conditions. The current ride height (which I believe to be about ROW height if not a tad lower) is still functional and not a handicap.

The dampers are adjustable front and rear, starting at "0 clicks" for track use up to "20 clicks" for street use. Audi Dan set mine at 15 clicks, so well into the "street use" range, which I think is appropriate for the local conditions. Before describing driving performance more fully, I should specify that I am currently on a full winter tire, the Bridgestone Blizzak LM-32. These are noticeably squishier than the Bridgestone Potenza S02As I run in the summer. This is especially evident in the steering feel, and I have what I believe to be a slight imbalance in one of the front wheels that I feel at speed. I won't really be able to exercise the new suspension until I mount my summer setup. Regardless, the car instantly feels more taught on the Ohlins. Body roll is reduced, and squat and dive under braking and acceleration are noticeably reduced. I think it is fair to say that the damping is overall better with less crashing over harsh features, and very quick recovery from uneven road surfaces. We have a notorious road in town with very bad frost heaves, camber towards a ditch, and a generous 60 mph speed limit. This road is an amazing test of a cars suspension, and the Ohlins did quite well. I will say that although these are very well damped, I would not want them any stiffer for local conditions.

Alignment was set to Porsche spec for the Turbo, except for the front negative camber, which was set closer to GT2 specification at 1.1 degrees (neg). The car is driving beautifully for street driving, tracking straight and with little tramlining. The car was not corner balanced. The installer did not have corner balancing capability. Is this necessary? Should I seek it out (may have to drive to Billings or even Salt Lake City?) Please provide your comments on that below.

Revolving Garage, First Gear Media LLC
Front after install
Revolving Garage, First Gear Media LLC
Profile after install
Revolving Garage, First Gear Media LLC
Rear after install

The Stance

The big visual differences are the drop and the front negative camber.  To my eye, the difference is night and day. The car sits flatter, the front wheel gap is less pronounced, and on the whole the car looks more purposeful. Interestingly, most non-enthusiasts see no difference whatsoever. My wife has absolutely no idea what I'm on about. I admit it's a small amount of actual movement, but the overall effect is a radical change to my eye. I'm thrilled with the results.

Here are before and after shots, one on top of the other:

It's only been a week, and I've driven sporadically at that. There is more to be done including playing with the damping, sorting out the vibration from the tires (that was there before the install, so I don't believe it's related), and perhaps even tweaking the ride after some time has gone by. Also, the look with the stock turbo twists with the summer tires should be quite different, and I'll continue to get a feel for driving dynamics once the summer rubber is on. I'll continue to update as my thoughts progress...

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