Road test: Porsche Carrera 911 CS

Back to basics

Is there such a thing as anti-option list? Porsche’s new lightweight 911 Club Sport boasts a catalogue of absent extras, a horde of missing fittings which had grown on the once-raw rear-engined sportster like barnacles on a speed-boat.

Performance was not a problem; even in normally-aspirated form, the current 3.2-litre cars have few rivals. Yet with each new luxury, the flat-six range changed character and moved further away from the unadorned enthusiast’s machine. Now the bare look of the RS is in again.

Aimed, as the name makes clear, at the club competitor (who over here will be looking at the Pirelli PC GB series or the Gordon Russell Inter-Marque Challenge) the Club Sport is no more powerful than the Carrera Sport, but it is if nothing else a gesture to past days when the 911 was light and spartan. Many of the trimmings have been thrown overboard, the engine has a higher red line, and the suspension is stiffer; comfort has been, if not ignored, then down-graded in the quest for a sharper, a more urgent car than the increasingly option-loaded Carrera.

What has been removed sounds like the entire extras list of many a lesser car. Thrown out are: front fog-lamps, rear seats (replaced by a simple shelf), most of the sound insulation, bumper recoil pistons, rear wiper, electric window-lifts, power seat-adjustment, automatic heater controls, anti-theft wheel nuts, door-pocket lids, engine and boot lighting, and the passenger sun-visor. Other dietary items are the thinner carpets, simpler wiring harness, thinner starter-motor cable, and light-alloy spare wheel.

Home-market cars for Germany go further, with no glovebox lock, a simple radio, and no PVC underseal, but still weigh in slightly heavier than UK cars because of the catalytic converter. Homologated dry weight figures are 2564 lb (UK), and 2583 lb (Germany), a saving of 260 lb for us over the standard Carrera.

There are some engine modifications, too, though maximum power is unchanged at 231 bhp: stiffer mounts locate the venerable alloy flat-six which hangs behind the rear axle, and hollow inlet valves now allow the revs to peak beyond the old 6250 rpm red line. New instructions in the Digital Motor Electronics chip let the needle touch 6840 rpm before pulling the plug, giving a little more leeway in urgent overtaking manoeuvres, and fourth and fifth gears have both been raised.

From 1987, all normally-aspirated 911s have been fitted with a hydraulic clutch which is a little lighter than the mechanical one; it is still not one to keep disengaged longer than necessary, though. At the same time a new-pattern gearshift was introduced; reverse used to be opposite fifth, where a mistake would be catastrophic, but has now moved to the left of first. Yet the separation is very small and it is very easy to confuse the two.

Time has made little mark on the inside of the 911. Black leathercloth covers every panel, and the mere proportions of the interior are a reflection of the age of the design. A tall windscreen and lofty roof soar over the large high-set wheel with the plain dials close behind, the longish gearlever points backwards in period style, and the skinny handbrake has no moulded rubber gaiter to cover its painted metal bareness.

Smaller instruments butt up to the huge and brightly-lit tachometer which demands most attention, and round push-pull switches line up below. A plain console carries only heated rear window and hazard controls; the normal thermostatic heating system has been replaced by the old system of two red levers like aircraft throttles between the seats.

Only the seats (and perhaps the Blaupunkt digital radio/cassette) look recognisably modern inside: deep-contoured sides cradle and restrain the torso against the centrifugal abilities of the chassis, or more precisely its very low-profile 16in Dunlop D40 tyres which spread a hands-breadth or more of adhesive rubber between car and road. Long doors give toe-room to swing out of their upright embrace, and for the Club Sport, velour only; leather weighs too much.

Undamped by any absorbing material, a unique and characteristic medley of sounds echoes around the cockpit. Underlaying it all is the flat chugging of the air-cooled six, spiced with whirring gears, swishing bearings, and the “clunk-clunk” of the gearchange mechanism, but often drowning all else out is she reverberant thumping of the tyres. Roadjoints crack like rifle-shots, cats-eyes echo like machine-gun fire as the hard dampers punch every move of the alloy rims into the shell.

Yet the noise level is not wearing in itself; indeed the racket is quite exhilarating when the car is spurting forwards to real-world speeds inevitably far short of its terminal 150+mph. What can be fatiguing is the ride-comfort of the lightweight car; an inevitable sacrifice in the pursuit of a performance edge, of course, but one which takes its toll over broken surfaces. Hard dampers yearn for the smooth tarmac of the race-circuit, and argue noisily with the reality of drain-covers and shoddy road-mending. This can prick holes in the impressive handling envelope, too: an abrupt bump in a demanding bend can kick a wheel off the ground, breaking its grip and perhaps precipitating a momentary ship into the understeer which is always lurking at the low end of 911 performance.

More than almost any sportscar, the rear-engined Porsche displays widely differing responses depending on the way it is driven. Long-term development, one of the great strengths of the Porsche marque, pays scant attention to what might now be considered a lack of sophistication in the suspension layout; a 911 will still run high-g rings around much of its opposition.

MacPherson struts and semi-trailing arms sound prosaic enough, but in fact operate unconventionally: the front strut is sprung by a fore-and-aft torsion-bar engaging with the lower arm, while the rear semi-trailing arm combines an S-shaped forging pivoting near the front of the gearbox with a flexible metal plate or arm running forward from the hub to another torsion-bar across the car. This plate locates the wheel longitudinally and vertically, while still allowing some twist to cope with the arc of action of the rigid arm.

Porsche’s figures say that the 911 can generate a cornering force of 0.85g, very high in absolute terms, but at the same time that most drivers will never use beyond 40-50% of this, which represents a safety margin which only the most determined will erode deliberately.

Fundamental to building such a margin into a rear-engined chassis is a need for significant stabilising understeer, not at high cornering loads, but at low transitional levels where a hesitant driver or one forced to lift off mid-corner would otherwise find the heavy end leading the way. It is at that boundary between an open and a closing throttle that the 60% rear weight bias is most critical, and the counteracting force is very plain.

Roll through a roundabout in unhurried fashion and you may easily find yourself crossing your arms to get enough lock on to contain the understeer. Open the throttle and the front tyres suddenly bite, transforming the car’s attitude; here is the fine accuracy, the confidence and balance of a supercar generating increasing g-forces, up to a point where very sensibly the front hints at running wide. Keeping the car between these limits, making the room needed to use the throttle in bends behind other traffic, planning gearchanges so that they will not upset the car mid-corner, these are the skills that the 911, possibly the most demanding of sportscars, constantly asks of its driver.

The shape, too, invokes this press-on spirit: a wing-line which, almost uniquely, rises from the tail to the nose, the upright windscreen, the finely-tapering flanks, all these give the 911 a forward impulsion as if it were already squatting low under acceleration. In action, of course, there is no such effect; those two round wings framing the view ahead remain level through the hardest acceleration.

In Club Sport form, the 3164cc horizontally-opposed chain-driven sohc unit has not only the same power and torque but, despite the extra available revs, describes the same graph for both as the plain Carrera. These confirm what is obvious on the road, that the engine’s urge swells more-or-less linearly from 2000 rpm up. It is a magnificent sensation; smooth power on tap at any point on the tach, expanding as the speed rises in a gruff crescendo of noise to where the torque levels off at five thousand and the power at six.

But the Club Sport driver has a moment or two extra before he needs to exploit the weighty but rapid shift into the next gear — a useful extra, because both needles spin round their dials staggeringly quickly. With 60 mph on hand in 6 sec, there is barely time to replace the left hand on the wheel between full-throttle changes; in 25 sec from rest, the driver will have shifted gear four times and covered a kilometre.

If the 911CS has a cruising speed it is on the distant side of the three-figure barrier; at anything remotely legal, the Bosch L-Jetronic injected six is happy to stick in top, or fourth, or third, poised for the small gap which will whisk the Porsche past whole clutches of traffic. Its higher top ratio means a noticeable drop in acceleration from fourth to fifth, but also brings the 70 mph revs back to a gentle 3000.

With so little weight on the front wheels, the Porsche offers the reverse of normal effort through the steering wheel: at parking speeds the unassisted system is light, whereas the weight builds up steadily under very fast cornering. At high speeds the wheel constantly dances under the hands in response to the road, but there is no need for correction; the car is directionally extremely stable.

Like any mid-engined car, the 911 can easily be made to lock a front wheel when braking on less than perfect surfaces, as on a crest, something which only the arrival of ABS will overcome, but in all other respects the braking is superb, with stopping power more than a match for the car’s abilities. The pedal takes a hefty push, but is progressive and full of feel.

A wide carpeted shelf behind the seats replaces the fold-down plus-twos, with useful cubby-holes beneath, but the keen driver will prefer to load his gear into the front luggage compartment to improve the weight bias. This is almost a useful size, except for the intrusion of the brake servo, since the tiny spare with its collapsible tyre and electric inflator is hidden under the carpet.

In offering the lightweight Club Sport, Porsche is not, of course, just catering for some customers’ racing inclinations; the CS also now becomes the cheapest 911, undercutting the Carrera by £1200. This must be beneficial for marketing, as the competition glamour of a lightweight specification sportscar will be perceived as a plus-factor even for those who will simply run it on the road— rather different from Rolls-Royce’s cost-cutting strategy with the Bentley Eight.

With its manual windows and floor heat-levers, the Club Sport does have something of the purposeful spirit of the RS models of more than a decade ago; somehow physical effort is more in tune with the way the car has to be driven. And the “Carrera CS” decals on its flanks echo the bumperless RS, though today’s car retains its tough bumpers. These, however, are mounted hard on the body structure instead of on heavy hydraulic absorbers.

On rapid journeys, their Club Sport driver will be too busy to worry about the uneven heating (the system gives instant and quickly variable heat but needs constant fiddling), the long stretch to the scattered and unilluminated minor controls, or the distant handbrake. Instead, he will concentrate on the huge rev-counter and the throttle pedal, be these are the two vital elements which make the 911 submit to the driver and not the reverse. GC