This year the 911 will change dramatically, perhaps beyond recognition. Is the Carrera S a fitting farewell for the current 911? Andrew Frankel reports
On July 15 last year, a Porsche 911 Carrera 2 rolled off the line in Zuffenhausen. Apart from bearing the unusual livery of the local Swabian police force, there seemed little of note to mark what was, in fact, a momentous event in the 48-year history of the company. It was the one millionth Porsche to be built.
In isolation, that figure is perhaps not so remarkable until you consider that, if you remove the Audi-powered and built, cut-price 924, the 911 accounts for half of all Porsche production to date.
So why are you and I not surprised by this news? We should be. Sure, the 911 had been in production for 33 years at the time but the 356 survived for 17 years, the 914 for six; the series started by the 924 saw a score of summers and the 928 attained its majority. End to end, the production of all non-911 Porsches is more than 60 years long.
Simply put, Porsche is the 911 even if Porsche would like it to be otherwise. Incredibly, the 911 has survived unscathed not only its marketplace rivals but also assassination attempts from within. When Porsche launched the 928 in 1977, scooping on the way the only Car of the Year award to be given to a sportscar, contented sighs rippled around Stuttgart: the 911’s successor had been found and the blade could at last be slipped between the ribs of its most faithful soldier. 20 years on, it is the 928 which moulders in the grave while its intended victim steps out its inimitable dance above.
But now the knives may be out once more. Within a year, Porsche is going to produce the 911 replacement. It will not be as blatant as the 928: it will look like a 911, may be called a 911 and even have a rear-mounted engine but, if not 100 per cent new, it will represent such a change as to make all others in its history look like minor facelifts.
I do not seek to knock the new car, codenamed 996; if it is less than truly wonderful none will be more surprised than I. But, based on the platform of the new Boxster and taking more than 40 per cent of its mechanics and systems. I will be equally surprised if it carries over that authentic 911 feel.
What is certain is that the 911 you see before you, the new Carrera S, will be the last before the new car appears and, as such, may very well be the final flourish of this most distinguished and enduring of sportscars.
Essentially, it is the flesh and bones of a standard Carrera 2, wearing the wide-bodied skin of the fearsome Turbo. Given that, its £65,450 list price, £4200 more than the basic, entry-level 911, might seem a little steep until you consider the extensive detailing that comes complete with the package. First, larger 17in alloy wheels are specified with 31mm spacers to extend the track sufficiently to fill the wheel arches. These come covered with 205/50 section tyres at the front and 255/40s at the back in place of the taller and more narrow standard tyres. Shorter, stiffer springs lower the suspension by 10mm at the front and twice that at the back.
The remaining alterations are entirely cosmetic and, thankfully, subtle enough to add an individual character to the Carrera S without resorting to the gaudiness that has afflicted some Porsche specials in the past. There’s a split rear spoiler, various steel grey inserts around the gear lever, handbrake and instruments, while Carrera S lettering in the rev-counter and a steel sunroof are all standard, too.
The result is a 911 which, while actually less broadly capable than the stock car upon which it is based, presents itself with a more readily identifiable and immediately appealing character.
What you notice first is the ride quality or, more accurately, its absence. Those stiff new springs, ground-smothering ride height and short-walled tyres have contrived to rob the 911 of its once compliant attitude to everyday lumps and bumps. Certainly, progress is extremely firm but, as a result of superlative damping, it is not as harsh as you might fear.
For typical 911 enthusiasts, this will be more than offset by the way the description of the road surface is conveyed to the driver in still greater detail. A standard 911, when driven hard across undulating terrain, can feel a little soft and lacking in ultimate body control through tough dips and humps. In the Carrera S, as long as it’s dry, this feeling of slight unease has been eradicated entirely and replaced by a sense of implacable commitment to the job ahead. It attacks corners with added verve and clings to the apex with a determination remarkable even by the impressive standards of the breed.
Only when it’s wet do these modifications count against the 911. Because of its new super-stiff chassis, the tendency is for the front tyres to skate across the surface of streaming corners rather than cut through the water to the tarmac below, lending a slight air of adventure to fast driving that most would probably choose to be without. In extremis, this 911 will still look after your interests to a point far beyond that suggested by its historical reputation, but it remains as well not to abuse the privilege of driving such a car.
Most of which, it should be said, comes from that engine, still with its six horizontally opposed cylinders, air cooling and priceless noise. Can there be another motor ever built whose power output has all but quadrupled during the course of its life, or one that, regardless of whether you’re in a 110bhp 911 T or 430bhp GT, still sings the same essential song?
Given that the 285bhp produced by the Carrera S’s 3.6-litre version roughly splits the difference between these two points, its acceleration might not be expected to be that memorable. Porsche’s claimed 0-62mph time of 5.4sec is patently conservative, as is the 168mph top speed. down from the 171mph of the standard Carrera 2 because of the extra drag of the Turbo body and the added 30kg it must carry.
And while such figures are undoubtedly of merely academic interest, rather more compelling is the sense of acceleration on the inside. Sure, despite variable length inlet manifolding, the engine will not pull at any speed in any gear. Put your foot flat to the floor at 3000rpm in third and the resulting forward thrust is, frankly, disappointing. Torque does not really flood the rev range until 4000rpm is dialled up and does not reach its peak until 5250rpm, just 850rpm short of maximum power. Hit it right, though, and the rev-counter needle will fairly fly round the dial with real urgency.
Because of this, this 911 truly needs its six-speed gearbox if you are to sidestep the need to rev the engine excessively in order to avoid being becalmed below the power band in the next ratio. With six closely packed ratios, though, this is never a problem and, with a change quality that’s well matched to the unfashionably and delightfully light flywheel, speed can be added effortlessly, smoothly and enjoyably.
As much as any other, though, this 911 is not simply about hard driving. In truth, it was never the 911’s pure speed which has allowed it to survive all these years. What 911s have always done, and the true secret of their success, is to provide performance broadly comparable with the prevailing supercar standards of the day combined with an everyday usability not far removed from a hot hatchback. Like its sisters, this 911 feels as at home in town as on the open road, in the rush hour or on the race track.
If this Carrera S is, indeed, to signify the final farewell to the 911, then the model will leave on an entirely appropriate note. One of the greatest 911s ever built it is not, but an entirely authentic and honourable member of the noble family it undoubtedly is. We wish it well.