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km : First Drive

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19 December 2011

In all the automotive world, I can hardly imagine an assignment more intimidating than being asked to create a new Porsche 911. On the one hand, you’re obligated to satisfy the expectations of legions of hardcore Porschephiles, purists who at times have wished nothing more than their precious beast be left alone. On the other, you’re required to balance tradition against the realities of a modern marketplace, where conquest sales and legislative concerns weigh heavily into the planning. Just as when a royal marries a commoner, the best you can hope for is a smooth continuation of a most respected lineage and a gracious new member of the family. At worst, you bring down the monarchy.

Michael Mauer is now a member of that rare pantheon, having accepted the task of creating the sixth generation of this most iconic sports car, which arrives in February. The badge on the engine cover reads simply “Porsche,” but its silhouette instantly says “911.” When you speak of it, you will likely distinguish it by its internal code, 991. And from there, I’ll cut to the chase — it’s good. Really good.

If there’s one thing any new 911 must be, it’s a sports car. Balanced and agile, with a direct connection to the driver’s soul that starts at the throttle pedal and passes through the steering wheel, brakes and seats. Capable of awakening at least four of the five senses, maybe even all of them. The new 911 Carrera does just that, despite being the largest, most technologically sophisticated version of the car in its nearly fifty-year history. It was no small feat.

The foundation of the new Carrera is a completely new unibody structure that pairs high-strength steel with aluminum for greater robustness and rigidity without any additional weight. In fact, the body-in-white is some 160 pounds lighter than the outgoing 911 model (997). The skeleton of the car — imagine a pressed sheetmetal roll cage — is formed of ultra-high-strength steel, while aluminum is used for less stressed panels like the floors, door panels, hood, fenders, engine compartment lid and roof. The diet isn’t limited to the bodywork either; even components as mundane as the front struts contribute more than four pounds to the weight reduction effort. In base form, the new 911 Carrera tips the scales at 3036 pounds, compared to 3186 for its predecessor.

At 176.8 inches long (+1.0), 71.2 inches wide (unchanged) and 51.3 inches high (-0.3), the new 911 occupies virtually the same space as before and remains the most compact sports car in its class. Concerns about it becoming bloated with age were grossly overestimated. The dimensional change that commands the most attention is the additional four inches of wheelbase, a move that helps neutralize this 911’s chassis as the engine is now closer to the rear axle and less extremely positioned from it relative to the rest of the car’s mass.

Power for the standard 911 Carrera comes from a 3.4-liter direct-injected flat-six. Despite being down on displacement by two-tenths of a liter compared to its predecessor, it’s actually up on power by five horses and equal in peak torque at 350 at 7400 rpm horsepower and 288 lb-ft at 5600. Admittedly, the loss of displacement means these figures arrive at higher engine speeds, by an additional 900 and 1200 rpm, respectively. A 3.8-liter moves the 911 Carrera S as before, but power is up by 15 to an even 400 horsepower at 7400 rpm with a similar rise in torque to 325 lb-ft at 5600. These new numbers are also a result of faster revving, arriving at their peaks a similarly raised 900 and 1200 rpm again.

Thrust is delivered to the rear wheels, at least until the Carrera 4/Carrera 4S models arrive after the initial model launch. A pair of seven-speed gearboxes is offered up, one with a human-operated clutch and the other one mechanized. The standard gearbox is notable for being the world’s first seven-speed manual transmission in a passenger car.

Porsche deserves kudos for not only continuing to offer a true manual gearbox, but for also upping the game with the additional cog when others are still shoving six-speeds at us. Truth be told, however, that additional shift makes more work for the driver, something you don’t realize until you’re hammering it hard on the open road and actually lose track of what gear you’re in. Both sixth and seventh gear are technically overdrive ratios, but they’re numerically low and intended as “driving” overdrive gears. Perhaps I’m lazy or just getting old, but with seven gears to row, the PDK gearbox starts to look pretty attractive, especially considering how well it works in sport mode. For those who prefer to do the gatework themselves still, the manual shifter has a solid, connected feel — important considering how much of a workout it will likely get.

I drove both manual and PDK versions of the car, both Carrera S models. For a pure sports car, the 400 horses of the S are all the car genuinely needs to be entertaining, though power junkies will no doubt want to hold out for the extra hundred or so horsepower that the inevitable 911 Turbo will deliver. Equipped with the PDK and optional Sport Chrono package, which incorporates launch control, the Carrera S will shoot to 62 mph in just 4.1 seconds. The 350-horsepower 911 Carrera will do it 4.4 seconds so similarly equipped. Because you can’t possibly shift faster than the PDK, either version equipped with a manual transmission will take an additional 0.4 seconds to do the same sprint.

Delivery from the naturally aspirated boxer is smooth and linear; it’s an engine that loves to explore the far end of the tach. The soundtrack, augmented by an acoustic resonator — Porsche calls it the Sound Symposer — piped through the rear of the cabin when the sport button is pressed, is intoxicating. The wonderful valvetrain song of past Porsches is muffled to death on this watercooled motor, but it nevertheless registers a distinctive, technical-sounding note that could really only come from Zuffenhausen.

Going light with the bodywork and suspension components pays dividends in agility, chassis communication and ride comfort. Chassis manners are undoubtedly the best ever in a 911. Two-stage electronically controlled dampers are standard on the Carrera S (optional on the Carrera), allowing the driver to choose from standard or sport settings. Even in the standard mode the ride remains firm, especially over small road imperfections — there’s no denying you’re in a sports car — but there’s a layer of suppleness as the chassis deals with bigger obstacles.

Better still, the handling is the most predictable ever for a 911. Unlike past 911s, the likes of which great men have spent lifetimes attempting to tame, this new one doesn’t punish you with death for mid-corner indiscretions. In fact, it’s incredibly neutral regardless of what you throw at it. This may be the 991’s biggest single departure from tradition, whether you like it or not. Thank a standard torque-vectoring differential for saving your ass.

Electric-assisted power steering is standard on this 911; we admire the efficiency concept of EPS, but have been let down in the past by systems that dial out too much of the road feel and offer the driver little sense of what’s happening where the rubber meets the road. They also tend to be a bit dead in the reaction department, responding to driver inputs after a split second of latency. Not so this one, which feels natural in weight and effort at higher speeds and lightens the load just enough at low speeds. Porsche’s setup is the one that other manufacturers will be dissecting and attempting to decode as this technology travels downstream in coming years.

It wouldn’t be a 911 with lousy brakes, and the stopping hardware lives up to expectations set long ago. The brake pedal, hinged from the top as with all previous watercooled 911s, is like a bionic appendage to the driver’s right leg. Communication is clear and concise. Dead travel is virtually nil; as soon as pressure is applied to the pedal, there’s noticeable action at the wheel. The pedal remains firm throughout its exceptionally short travel, too. Four-piston aluminum calipers bite onto 13-inch perforated and vented rotors at each corner on the base 911; the Carrera S gets a slight upgrade in the form of six-piston blocks and 13.4-inch discs up front. If you want more stopping power (and virtually indestructible pads and rotors) there’s always the option of ceramic composite brakes, resplendent in their screaming yellow glory.

On the meandering asphalt of Central California, the new 911 leaves little doubt that it is indeed still an eager, road-ready sports car rather than another powerful but overburdened “grand touring” better suited to highway cruising. An onslaught of derivatives with turbos and all-wheel-drive will no doubt follow suit, but the new Carrera and Carrera S represent the purest expression of the original 911 concept: a balanced, athletic sports car that can be driven everyday with no compromises. Not as visceral as its earliest ancestors, sure, but a witness to their spirit nonetheless.

First impressions are important, so while you may have to drive it to be fully convinced, one quick glance at the 991 conveys its lineage. Both inside and out, the new 911 is every bit, well, a Porsche 911. The headlights are round, as they should be, and they sit at the front of those timeless raised fenders that serve as twin peaks for the valley floor that is the front compartment lid. Down the side, the classic 911 door shutlines live on; the greenhouse graphic jumps back two generations to a shape more closely resembling the 901/964/993 series. Out back the taillights return to a more horizontal shape.

Modern concessions include a standard 19-inch wheel package (the Carrera S gets 20s) wearing 235/40 and 285/35 rubber, and the optional sunroof now slides over the top rather than in, making for a larger panel as well retaining all of the headroom.

The look is fresh but evolutionary, perhaps to the point that casual observers may have a hard time telling from the 997 it replaces. But if a contemporary Rip van Winkle had fallen asleep during the Reagan administration and awoken today, he’d know right away this was a new 911.

The same must be said of the interior. From the driver’s seat, the view is familiar but updated. The top of the dashboard follows the same graceful contour that it has for decades — an exceptionally horizontal housing interrupted by a mild hump to accommodate the five-gauge cluster before fading away gently to the center of the dash and continuing its horizontal path to the passenger’s side A-pillar. Of course, one of those five gauges is now a multi-function, full color TFT screen capable of displaying anything from trip computer data to navigation graphics.

Porsche’s flight deck center console, which first debuted in the Panamera sedan, is reinterpreted into its most minimalistic rendition for duty in the 991. There are far fewer switches to confuse the driver. In stark contrast to old 911s, with their virtually absent and nearly vertical center console boxes rising from the floor below the dash, this new one starts behind the front seats and elevates to meet the dash at the midway point. A new seven-inch full-color display offers 3D mapping with the optional navigation system, a big improvement over the previous model.

Where the new 911 differs most from old 911s on the inside is cabin width. The front seating space is comfortable for two travelers, who won’t feel forced to share elbow space on the middle armrest. Porsche’s standard seats are fit for duty right out of the box, but the optional sport seats “plus” make the most of the driving experience. One tradition the new 911 holds out is the laughable rear seating. The extra wheelbase should make the rear space more accommodating, but it’s an illusion. Packaging dictates a rather high position for the rear seat cushions, meaning any extra legroom is defeated by a lack of headroom for anyone who’s successfully moved on from second grade.

At the end of the day, the new 911 represents exactly what we’ve come to expect from Porsche. It pays respect to its forebears everywhere you look, while still managing to be thoroughly modern. It remains the archetype of the sports car genre, and that’s as much as anyone can ask of it. Better still, if history has taught us anything, it’s this: As good as this newest 911 is, Porsche will only continue to make it better. Long live the king!


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