Nein eleven

Die-hard fans are mourning the passing of a motoring legend. It may not be the next 911, argues Andrew Frankel, but the new Porsche is arguably the best GT tourer of its generation.
Photography by Andrew Yeadon

There is one thing, just one small thing you need to do to fall for this new Porsche: forget it’s a 911. That’s all. Porsche makes it easy for you as you’ll have to look inside the handbook for your first sign of the legendary digits but the shape, prettier at the front, uglier at the back still makes the mental leap from the old 911 to this car automatic.

So step back. This is a new Porsche, designed to fill the twin roles so ably performed by the 911 and 928. Do not be fooled by the looks: you need to know this new Porsche does not drive, feel or even sound like a 911. To think of it in such terms is to fall into the same trap that those who thought that BMW’s 1993 M3 would be in any way like the sublimely tactile M3s that had preceded it. Some were bitterly disappointed by this news but rather more, more than ever bought the old car, flocked to spend their money on the new and abundantly pragmatic coupé.

It is the same gamble Porsche now takes. Except it is almost no gamble at all. Though some will argue, and I count myself among their number, that the appeal of the 911 has been diluted, not one of us could credibly suggest that same appeal has not simultaneously been widened too. The success of this new car seems as certain as it is, without doubt, deserved.

This, however, is not really the point, not unless selling Porsches is your business. What matters to me is this car’s identity. Five years on from the new BMW M3, I no longer have any doubt that history will remember its predecessor more fondly, despite its technical inferiority. If this new Porsche is truly to succeed the 911 in deed as well as word, it too will need to assure its place in history as well as the drives and garages of its eager new owners. This, I should say, will be some trick.

Porsche has not made its solution easy. The new car is bigger in every important dimension than that it seeks to replace. It is no longer a car to be threaded through gaps, thereby losing one of the 911’s most unlikely talents. Here, this once crucial cornerstone of 911-ness has been well and truly kerbed. There I go again, thinking this car is a 911.

By any other supercar standard, it is unreasonably wieldy around town. Visibility is superb in every direction and if there’s not much room in the back, there’s more here than in any Porsche I’ve driven. Better, the driving position is sane, the switchgear tastefully and sensibly arranged while only the overly stylised instruments truly annoy. So ludicrous are the 25mph calibrations on the offset speedometer, that Porsche feels obliged to provide a second, garish and digital speed readout within the central rev-counter.

The location of this instrument is about all that remains of the original 911 cabin concept. There’s no near-vertical letterbox windscreen, no floor mounted pedals. You can see all the switches and the heating and ventilation works as effectively and sensibly as you could wish. Some may choose to lament the passing of such madness, hut not me. Such quirks very rarely charmed, almost invariably annoyed and, besides, belonged only inside that most individual of sports cars, the 911.

The new Porsche Carrera comes complete with a flat-six engine slung out beyond the rear axle line and given that the best-known other car to adopt such a configuration was the 911, then perhaps it is good to look back and compare.

It makes a pleasant pastime. With this all new engine, Porsche has excelled itself. There is not a single area, save perhaps some elements of its noise, in which it does not best the old flat six. Despite a capacity reduced from 3600cc to 3387cc, power has been raised from 285bhp to 296bhp, thanks no doubt to the removal of one more 911 tradition and the installation of twin-cam, 12-valve cylinder heads. Less oversquare dimensions have also maintained peak torque at 251lb ft while making sure it appears slightly further down the rev-range at 4600rpm instead of 5000rpm. Significantly too, that range has now been extended hugely, with the engine providing meaningful acceleration all the way from 2500-7200rpm. The old engine didn’t get out of bed until 3000rpm and was out of breath by 6600rpm.

What these statistics fail to convey is the startling smoothness of this water-cooled flat six. It pushes the Porsche forward with a truly turbine-like shove, gaining strength with every rev as it should and providing a level of performance no standard production, normally aspirated Porsche has ever enjoyed. This is only surprising until you realise it possesses the same power as a 911 Turbo of just 10 years ago yet weighs 60kg less than the outgoing 911. Even so, the fact that it will reach 100mph in 10.5sec, quicker, for instance, than a Lamborghini Diablo VT, still raises an eyebrow. Fast though it seems, the sensations within the car do not speak of such ferocity. Only when travelling at more meteoric pace does this new Porsche and, remember, this car’s purpose is only to open the account of an entire range of cars to come feel as fast as the figures suggest. It will sprint from 120-140mph in 6sec flat and still have the business end of fifth and all of sixth gear to come. Push it all the way and you’ll find the speedometer, which runs out of numbers at 175mph, makes no claim the car cannot fulfil.

The gearbox, oddly, is less impressive. I have no quarrel with its ratios, judged to make maximum use of the torque and, ultimately, to take the 911 all the way to and not one step beyond peak power in top gear; the problem is the quality of change. In the lower ratios, particularly from first to second, it’s notchy and can baulk badly when the oil is cold unless you take an unreasonably long time over the change which, given the lightness of the flywheel, is something you feel loath to do. I suspect, however, that this problem is peculiar to this particular car whose first few thousand miles of life will have been spent being flogged around race-tracks by testers well versed in the procedures required to extract such extraordinary performance figures. Impressive as they are, they are not produced without putting unusual strain on an engine’s driveline.

I say this simply because I have never before had a problem with a Porsche six-speed gearbox and think it sufficiently unlikely that they’d now drop the ball, to give the benefit of the doubt for now.

Now it gets critical. As you will see from the photographs, I took the Porsche to Thruxton to find out how it handled. I was less interested in its ultimate speed than I was in its ability to entertain both on the track and on the way there and back. By the time I headed back up the M3, there was no longer any doubting either the Porsche’s mammoth abilities or its small but significant failing.

The first thing you should know is that, so long as the road is dry, grip is not an issue, certainly not with the optional 265/35 ZR 18 rear and 225/40 ZR 18 front Continental tyres fitted to the Porsche. I’m not sure it provides quite the ultimate adhesion of, say, a Ferrari F355 but what tiny difference there may be on paper is, in real life, entirely immaterial. On any dry public road, unless you deliberately provoke it or drive at suicidal speeds, it will round, without effort, any corner you point it at.

This much should be no surprise. With that much rubber on the road, traditional but effective strut suspension at the front and a rather more sophisticated multi-link arrangement behind, a wide track and light weight., it would indeed be surprising if it did not possess a magnetic attraction to the road surface.

What is less predictable is that this Porsche will forgive behaviour that would have had any previous Porsche, with the possible exception of the most recent Turbo, heading for the hedge. For a start it has traction control which will rein in all your excesses unless you actively switch it off. Attack corners at a rate that requires wide open space or, preferably, a race-track to make safe and you’ll find that, ultimately the nose peels away from the apex in quite strong but consistent understeer until you raise your right foot for an instant; then it snaps straight back to your original line without question or suggestion of going the other way.

So you start to abuse the car and chive it in a way you’d never have attempted in a rear-engined Porsche before. You approach the corner much too fast, turn-in and brake hard. Only then will the old physics reveal themselves. Even Porsche cannot defeat the law that says if you throw a hammer handle first, the heavier head will overtake it in mid-air. But even then, even as it slithers swiftly sideways, there’s nothing savage in the response and it requires only reasonably swift correction with the wheel and a quick stab of power to execute quite beautiful power slides. It makes you wonder whether the reason Porsche unproved the steering lock of this car so dramatically over the old 911 was entirely for parking practicality. The simple if academic truth is, this Porsche can be held relatively simply at an angle denied to the previous 911, which would have long since run out of opposite lock.

This, perhaps, is not the point. Perhaps I should tell you more about its deft damping which, back in the real world, does more to promote stability than would the turning circle of a London taxi. You pay with an undeniably firm ride but the reassurance to be gained from feeling the ride height remain more or less constant over crests and in dips is more than adequate recompense. You should know, too, about the brakes, larger even than those on the old 911 and more capable than ever of killing speed with unquestioned authority.

Yet you need also to know that, for all this pure and impressive ability, the Porsche lacks something and it is here, no matter how hard you try, that you cannot avoid comparison with the old 911 because if you have driven one, you will not be able to drive this car without thinking about it. And this is where staying fair is difficult. Is it right to criticise this car for possessing worse steering than the old 911, when it’s still considerably better than that of its two most important rivals, the Ferrari F355 and Honda NSX, cars which, at least, are still in production? Had the old 911 never existed, no one would dream of criticising the tactile responses of this new car; on the contrary, they would be lauded. Yet you try opening any authoritative magazine and read an article on driving this car which does not lament the removal of such interaction between the car and its driver.

I think it’s a fair call. This Porsche’s most likely customers are not Ferrari or Honda drivers but other Porsche drivers and you need no futher justification for such criticism.

So how serious is this fault? It depends upon the individual. If you are a traditional die-hard 911 fan, it is likely to prove cataclysmic. No-one in this country represents the breed better than 911-racer extraordinaire Nick Faure, from whom I possess an unsolicited fax reading:

“I have just been to Germany to fulfil a dream a sadly shattered dream – of collecting a brand new 911 replacement. Is this the beginning of the end?”

To others, to you perhaps, it is considerably less significant. If you can just forget the old car, then this new Porsche presents itself as an almost absurdly attractive proposition. As a GT it runs both Jaguar’s XK8 and Aston’s DB7 close (only excessive tyre noise spoils long-distance cruising) while its entertainment value is a league ahead of the British. As a device in which to cross a continent and then provide fun upon arrival, you’d need a Ferrari 550 Maranello and another £79,000 over the Porsche’s £65,000 price before finding another to do the job significantly better. In this respect, it is the car the Porsche 928 never quite managed to be.

And that, truly, is the secret to falling for this car. Forget the name, for it is no 911. Think of those things that made the 911 what it was: from its dimensions, past its air-cooled engine to its mad interior with its floor-mounted pedals; none has survived. A passing resemblance and a flat-six motor in the boot is all that remains of the old car.

Think of it, instead, as a crushingly able sporting GT, a superfast all-purpose missile that provides more pure ability for the money than any other competitor. Judged in such terms, the argument it makes for itself is utterly compelling.

I, for one, will miss desperately the old 911. It seems ridiculous even to suggest there has ever been a better sportscar. But I think it a mistake to make it the dead albatross around the neck of this new car. Forget the 911. It is gone. The new car may not be a true 911, but it is a fine car and a great Porsche. Ultimately, it is that which matters most.

Thanks to Thruxton Circuit for the use its facilities.

Racing improves the breed

The new Porsche 911 may look less attractive as a road car than its predecessor but, as a racer, its lines are superb. The new GT3 is the latest in a line of racers designed to compete in the Porsche Pirelli Supercup championship. Its engine capacity rises to 3.6-litres, its power output to a rousing 360bhp with dry sump lubrication, while its suspension, steering and brakes are all uprated to race specification. The car costs DM179,150 which, at the exchange rate at the time of writing, makes it no more expensive than the road car.

If its predecessors are anything to go by, it should be a lot more amusing. I spent a day at Hockenheim with its 911-based predecessor and went home unable to remember when I’d last had as much fun. Despite boasting only 300Iohp, it was powerful enough to boot the back out all around the twiddly bits before the pit straight. It roared in all the right places, possessed brick wall brakes and managed to make me look vaguely competent. More than anything though, it was riotously entertaining, possessing enough agility to make short work of a track while never hinting at any latent malevolence, unlike the Ferrari F355s and 348s which buried themselves in the gravel seemingly on every other lap.

There’s one more reason why you should pay attention to the new racing Porsche 911 GT3. In its specification, particularly that of its engine, you will find the best indication of the likely direction of the rood car upon which it based. A new road 911 Carrera with a 3.6-titre, 360bhp engine? It probably already exists.