I wonder if there is a single motoring journalist who has visited the launch of three new Porsche 911s. It doesn’t seem like much of a claim for people who earn their living this way, but it is. I’ve been to two, but before this month the last had been in 1997. The third I missed on account of not having been born. In the little more than 48 years since Porsche revealed a 2+2 sports car at the 1963 Frankfurt Motorshow and called it the 901 (until Peugeot cried foul and forced a change in digit), the 911 has been modified hundreds of times, but only replaced twice.
So there is rather a lot riding on this, the 911 we must get used to identifying by its internal ‘991’ call sign. It’s an odd number considering its predecessor was coded ‘997’, but Porsche says it helped combat industrial espionage in the project’s early days. Hmm.
Had its enemies found out what Porsche was up to with this car, they might have been surprised. Of course the new 911 would still have a flat-six engine behind its rear axle, but the 100mm extension to the wheelbase and the adoption of electric power steering smacked of a word not normally included in the 911’s lexicon: conformity.
And that’s exactly how it feels. The characteristics that once would have been the last thing you’d notice about a 911 – if they were there at all – are now the first. You sit in a more spacious cabin and survey a landscape of elegantly crafted surfaces, thoughtfully positioned switches and an ergonomically optimised driving position. Crank the motor (which still sounds the same, thank goodness), pull the gear selector into drive (because very few manual versions will be sold despite the novelty factor of their seven forward gears) and ease away.
You’ll notice next how comfortably this car rides, and then, as your speed rises, how much quieter it is. I’m not sure where the tyre roar of old has gone, but gone it has.
You could drive it all day, all year or all your life like this. In the role of continental cruiser or daily driver, it gives little or nothing to the Audis, BMWs, Jaguars and Mercedes that more traditionally play this role. There’s even a substantial amount of additional rear room, though it remains defiantly a 2+2.
This is exactly what Porsche has planned. There’s no car I’ve studied harder nor spent more time in than the 911, not just in my career but in my life. And I know the reasons most people buy a 911 and the reasons they would like others to think they bought a 911 are entirely distinct. However they would like to be perceived, the last car in the world most would want is one that behaved in archetypal 911 fashion, locking its brakes on the approach to a wet corner, indicating apparent terminal understeer on the way in and exhibiting actual irretrievable oversteer on the way out. What they are after is the intrepid image of the 911 driver without actually driving a 911.
Which is exactly what Porsche has provided. Goodness knows what you’d have to do to get into trouble in a 991 – certainly nothing I could throw at it during a full day of hard running in California’s Santa Ynez mountains ruffled its composure to any discernible degree. You could, of course, make it slide, and at either end, but if you turn the electronics off and try hard enough you could say the same of any rear-drive car. The point is that the car would do it only in reaction to deliberate and specific provocation. It could never happen inadvertently for there are no unforeseeable circumstances in which you’d happen to be driving with safety nets disabled, turn into a corner very fast on a trailing throttle, and then bang the throttle wide open. There are 15-grand hatchbacks that are trickier to drive on the limit than this.
At first I feared this might not be a good thing. Is a 911 with the challenge removed worthy of the name? Of course it is. Fact is, Porsche has been removing what is loosely thought of as ‘911-ness’ almost since the car’s birth. In the ’60s came the first of what have so far been three extensions to the original wheelbase. The ’70s bought the high grip, low-profile tyre, the ’80s power steering and a quicker rack to help you arrest that fast-moving tail. But the real transformation came in the ’90s with the arrival of proper, wishbone-based rear suspension for the 993 series and traction control (and a yet longer wheelbase) for the 996. The last decade saw the introduction of Porsche Active Stability Management, which works less like a Get Out of Jail Free card and more like immunity from prosecution. It’s so good you’ll often be entirely unaware of how hard it’s working to save you from yourself.
The 991 takes this to the next logical level where it doesn’t need to get you out of trouble because, unless you’re insane or catastrophically unlucky, you’re never going to get into trouble in the first place. Of course the electronics are there, but only because the market commands that they are, not because the car needs them in anything other than freak emergencies.
I know this because I was so concerned that the process of domesticating the 911 had finally gone a step too far, that I resorted to some fairly base techniques to see if, under all that sleek sophistication, still beat the heart of the world’s greatest sports car. In short, it got thrashed.
It was a humbling experience. The limit of adhesion is now so high that driving it through a curve as quickly as it will go, you fear for the reactions of other road users – not because the car is sliding (it’s not), nor using an inch more road than it is entitled to (it doesn’t), but because it’s going so damn fast. And that steering, while not so garrulously communicative as 911 die-hards might like, makes every other electric steering system I’ve tried look nothing less than incompetent.
So the result is almost two cars in one. There is the very fast, all-purpose daily weapon whose suaveness and civility will enhance your commute to work or long motorway slog. Then, if you know where to look, there’s a hard-core driving machine which, for sheer point-to-point pace, is possibly as nuts as any earlier 911 and far more prejudicial to your licence and liberty. The car’s single biggest fault is that you have to search too hard to find this other side of its character, so hard that I fear many owners may never get to appreciate what an extraordinary machine they have bought.
What astounds me is that this is just the start. In time will come the Turbos, GT3s and, lordy me, even GT2 variants – each faster and more ferocious. But if you believe in starting as you mean to go on, it’s hard to see how Porsche could have done a much better job of replacing its icon than this.
Engine: 3.8 litres, six cylinders
Top Speed: 189mph
Power: 395bhp at 7000rpm
Fuel/co2: 29.7mpg, 224g/km