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Carrera 4: a revelation

Proud of the new model as Porsche’s management surely is, not quite enough emphasis was given at the launch to the completely fresh appeal of the 911. It is, in fact, the Porsche type 964 which has been made to look like the 911. As Herr Branitzki explained: “It is a new car but we didn’t want it to look completely different; styling clinics convinced us that we should keep the shape familiar, so as not to shock our old friends.”

Still, it has its six-cylinder engine overhanging the rear wheels, not a place an engineer would choose for it should he be starting with a clean sheet of paper, but as with the 959 model the four-wheel drive system overcomes the inherent handicap so well that the Carrera 4 appeared to be completely vice-free, and even wanted to understeer when the rear-driven car might be preparing to give the owner the shock of his life! Modern pedal angles, an hydraulic clutch, power steering and an entirely new gear selector system combine to give the Carrera 4 a contemporary feel not enjoyed by 911 owners since the 1960s.

The Carrrera 4 has the aerodynamic, elastic polyurethane front and rear bumpers, and side skirts, that give it a modern family appearance but the doors, windows and headlamps are just as they’ve been since 1963. On closer inspection, the cooling grille in the engine cover looks slightly unusual, explained by an extending spoiler which is raised by electric motors and rods at 50 mph and lowered at six mph. Aerodynamic lift has been cancelled out completely and the Cd figure has been lowered from 0.395 to 0.320, the 4-WD . system introducing an arrow-like stability.

Nobody said that the Carrera 4 would be cheap, but compared with the 959 it looks like a bargain. Porsche charged DM420,000 for each of the 200 959s, but the Carrera 4 has a more realistic tag of DM114,500, a price that compares with the Cabriolet’s and will translate, in the UK tax-paid terms, to around £48,000.

As proud parents the engineers tend to bombard us with facts. The Carrera 4 is equipped with 110kg weight of electrics and electronics, including 43 motors, 1433 plugs and over 100 metres of cable. The engine is almost entirely new (as was the 3.2 litre Carrera’s in 1983), has dual ignition which owes more to the aircraft application than to racing experiences in the 1970s, and a compression ratio of 11.3:1, an extremely high figure for an engine that has a catalytic converter as standard.

The engine develops its 250 bhp at 6100 rpm and, with an extra 100kg in homologated weight, at 1450kg, the power to weight ratio is almost identical to that of the 231 bhp Carrera. The sleeker shape allows it to run faster without using any more fuel, but the torque figure, 228.4 lb ft at 4800 rpm, is truly impressive. Fourth gear, perhaps the most useful of all, is a real workaholic on open roads, taking the car from 30 to 130 mph in one effortless surge that can only be compared with the thrust of an aircraft taking off.

Central to the Carrera 4 is its four-wheel drive system which is a greatly amplified version of the 959’s without the gross weight, complexity and cost. A mechanical differential such as the Torsen was considered, and so was a viscous coupling, but what the Weissach engineers chose was a planetary gear-set which was set up to divide the torque with 31% going to the front and 69% to the rear. A real refinement is a multi-plate clutch, similar to that in the 959, which is electronically controlled by the ABS ‘brain’ and which, together with another clutch to lock the rear differential, will prevent any of the four wheels from spinning. What’s more, if the car is accelerated on patchy ice it could be driven momentarily through the front, or back wheels only. A simple turn-switch on the console allows the driver to lock the centre clutch and rear differential to tackle a slippery hill-start, unlocking being an automatic process at 25 mph.

The 911’s layout lent itself ideally to 4WD, the transmission being forward-facing underneath the back seats, and it was easy to install the central clutch and run a torque tube forwards to a new differential between the front wheels. The floor pan is entirely new, massively boxed around and above the front differential and designed to carry conventional coil springs and dampers, rather than torsion bars. The front suspension had to be redesigned anyway, both for the drive system and to incorporate the negative scrub geometry which is needed for the ABS system (from Robert Bosch, not the more sophisticated Westinghouse Wabco system fitted to the 959), and the third factor was the need for power steering, a weighty system almost identical to that of the 959.

All sorts of advantages are conferred by the new floor pan, some not apparent straight away. The pedals now pass straight through the floor instead of being floor pivoted, and don’t strain the driver’s ankles; the clutch is lighter and easier to operate with hydraulic control, and the gears are now operated by a stubby, remote control lever mounted on the longitudinal shaft instead of rising from the floor. The tunnel is higher than before but has been kept below the level of the seat cushions, so as not to be obtrusive, and at the same time the handbrake has been relocated and made easier to use.

Acoustic panels are fitted under the carpets and the engine is partially encapsulated, something Porsche has been working on for a number of years, reducing the sound levels very substantially. The familiar and very distinctive Porsche flat-six sound is still heard, and becomes loud in the higher reaches of the rev-range, but it is not intrusive in everyday use. In contrast with the conventional 911, which feels terribly old-fashioned but has such charisma that you easily forgive and forget, the Carrera 4 has 90% of the charisma and feels so modern that there is nothing to forgive. The steering no longer feels alive and responsive to every contour of the road, and there will always be those who say that the 911 has lost its particular charm, but for each of those there will be a dozen who’ll welcome its comparative modernity, and the taming of its vices.

The traditional element has been carried through to the interior, for although Porsche had to come up with a new fascia to incorporate air bags for the American market, the five main instruments look much as they did before, switches and controls remaining haphazard. Central are the 300 krn/h speedometer (on the German registered launch cars) and the tachometer, marked as usual with white dashes to 6800 rpm and in red to 7600 rpm, the instruments being handsome and extremely legible, as ever.

Turning the ignition key produces the characteristic engine noise immediately, Bosch Motronic engine management doing its job impeccably, and as soon as you drive away the Carrera 4 feels rather different. The engine has lost its gruff, rural accent for a start, and is almost inaudible when the car is cruising at moderate speed. The steering isn’t just weighty but actually feels rather heavy on mountain roads, while the suspension allows improved ride quality without compromising the roll-free cornering powers. Wheels are 16-inch diameter forged alloy discs, 6-inch width at the front and 8-inch at the rear, our car being equipped with Bridgestone RE71 unidirectional tyres developed for the 959; BF Goodrich tyres are also homologated , but no others are fitted at present.

The handling characteristics are very different indeed, but it takes a while to stop expecting the Carrera 4 to behave like any other 911. Understeer is the usual characteristic at low, medium and even high cornering speeds, and you can only step the rear wheels out by lifting for a moment then chucking the car at the corner. The infamous 911 pendulum effect has been eradicated, and on the launch in southern France a series of bends, in the Alpes Maritime, was taken so easily that it became a challenge to make several runs, each a little faster than the one before, just to find out where the limits lay. Ultimately, when prudence prevailed the Carrera 4 still had something to spare, a margin that could only be measured on a closed track. The 959 forgave me for braking deep into the Castrol chicane at the Nuburgring, where a normal 911 would have spun violently, and eventually I was convinced that the Carrera 4 would be equally unperturbed by driver errors.

Tyre life should be more equal on a 4WD car, perhaps longer too, but the preview fleet was clearly working hard on coarse, fast roads and evidently the Bridgestones were practically worn out at 6500 kilometres, though evenly front and rear. All the same, the car took off like a frightened mountain goat when faced with an uphill start on a shale surface.

It is uncanny to watch the mirror and see the rear spoiler rise at 50 mph. You don’t hear it, the car doesn’t feel any different, and you simply have to accept that it contributes to the Carrera’s outstanding stability at high speeds. Apparently 25% of 911 owners choose to have the fixed rear wing installed for its benefits but the majority feel that it spoils the classic shape, so the retracting wing clearly has aesthetic, as well as technical benefit. A tiny control button inside the lid will extend the spoiler for cleaning and servicing.

The 911 classic has inevitably been softened by increasing sophistication, but that really doesn’t concern the purists so long as the rear-drive car continues to be available, perhaps in more sporting guise in future. Perhaps the 964 does lack the sharpness, the pur sang, of the 911 despite a top speed of 161 mph, and a time of 5.9 seconds for the dash from standstill to 62 mph. Perhaps it is sanitised and modernised, but above all it retains the essential character of the 911, is far more practical for all-season use, and has banished the anachronisms that weren’t all lovable. It is, too, a car that should help Porsche to survive as an independent concern, something else which the purists should think about.

It is, as Herr Branitski said, “the 911 for the next 25 years, the concept that will help our favourite model to reach its 50th anniversary eventually.” A sobering thought, but no-one who drives the 911 Carrera would argue with the possibility, for it remains an outstanding Car. MLC