With deep regret we record the death of F/Lt. John Seth-Smith, a test pilot to…
With the advantage of 10 years’ growth and evolution,does Porsche’s current 911 turbo now eclipse its supercar parent, the benchmark 959? Roger Bell arranged a family reunion to find out
Ten years ago it was being hailed as a towering vision of the future, as the greatest of the great. In espousing German technology at its breathtaking best, Porsche’s 959 did more than nudge the supercar benchmark: it massively advanced it. Apart from being sensationally quick and accomplished, this 197mph systems testbed was also comfortable, civilised, even tolerably practical – qualities that distanced it from the ferocious Ferrari F40 and ill-fated Jaguar XJ220, if not the later McLaren F1. Despite its competition heritage, you could thread the 959 through modest gaps, slot it into multi-storey car parks, trundle it down bumpy tracks, even convey kids and chattels. You could use it, in fact, as an everyday car. That few owners did says more about the 959’s role as blue-chip investment than heroic driving machine.
In 1987, no production sibling could approach the speed and ability of Porsche’s awesome wundercar. In the decade since, though, the 911 Turbo has evolved from a rear-drive rocket of nervous disposition into a four-wheel-drive paragon that makes most other thoroughbred supercars look absurdly overpriced. To quote from the blurb, the current flagship embodies greater performance, technology, innovation and safety than any previous production Porsche.
So, is the 959’s number up? Has the Carrera Turbo, yours for a paltry £98,000, finally eclipsed its legendary progenitor? It was in search of some answers that we arranged this head-to-head between Porsche GB’s white 911 Turbo and Charles Ivey’s silver 959, nearly 10 years its senior. That both cars had just 9000 miles on the clock added spice to the contest. Only one of them could emerge as the ultimate expression of the most enduring and respected sports car ever made. Or so we thought.
Any original 959 owner who resisted the temptation to cash in on the crazy classic/supercar boom of the late eighties has my respect. Porsche specialist Charles Ivey is one such owner. He’s seen the value of his car rise from DM420,000, £145,000 – Porsche’s heavily subsidised price to 200 privileged buyers to something approaching £1million before falling back to its current value of around £200,000. That’s roughly twice what you’d need for a new 911 Turbo which and here’s one important difference between the two cars is much easier and cheaper to maintain.
Ten years on, the squat, voluptuous 959 still looks like a 911 on testosterone. Like some over-muscled bodybuilder, it’s a caricature of the real thing, made all the more menacing by gaping air ducts and cockpit superstructure that’s too narrow for the swollen tub that bears it. Bloated wheelarches, linked at the back by an elegant wing (giving zero lift at speed), accommodate lovely starfish alloys carrying ample rubber. Mind you, the 911 Turbo’s hollow-spoked wheels are even bigger and lighter, its tyres shallower and wider, all the better to grip with. Aesthetically clean, balanced and cohesive though it is, the latest (and last) iteration of the 911 is not such a monstrous eyeful as the bulging, belligerent 959.
Conceptually, the two cars have much in common: rear-mounted flat-six engine, twin-turbo 1.4 induction, six-speed manual gearbox, variable torque-split four-wheel drive. End of story? Hardly. The 959’s 2.85-litre quad-cam, derived from Porsche’s Le Mans racers, has four valves per cylinder, water-cooled heads and 450bhp. Like all other production 911s, the air-cooled 3.6 of the Carrera Turbo has single overhead camshafts and only 12 valves. Although power is down, at 408bhp, torque is up. What’s more, it peaks at much lower revs than the 959’s.
It shows. There are two distinct levels of performance in the 959: brisk and scary. The difference between the two, aurally and dynamically, is dramatic. Even with the tacho needle swinging freely, there’s no sensational thrust from the first of the two sequential turbos at much below 5000rpm. When the second one cuts in, doubling the boost pressure, the wail of the engine hardens into a spine-tingling bellow, and hard shove becomes brutal kick. To any unsuspecting passenger, it’s an unnerving eruption of violence, like a lighted rocket beyond recall.
The 911 Turbo’s massive muscle is much more accessible. Although of the same family, its engine is softer, quieter, lazier more gentle giant than ferocious beast. It doesn’t kick quite so hard as the thrilling 959 at its peak, but it kicks earlier, more progressively, without the vibro-tingle you feel through the throttle and gearlever in the 959. While the 959 languishes off boost – as it will if you’re not alert the 911 Turbo, with one small, quick-reacting KKK blower per cylinder bank, is off and away. The 959’s peaky, lag-prone engine needs revving to keep the turbos on song for the next gear. The 911 Turbo’s doesn’t. Vicious acceleration is never more than a prod of the throttle away in anything lower than top. Although the 959 has six gears, only five are marked on the gearknob. As a ploy to get round noise regulations in first, Porsche labelled the lowest ratio G (for Gelande, off road) as if it were not normally used. Second was marked first, third second and so on. Lever throw is short, the action snicky, satisfying. Whereas the 911 Turbo’s gearlever moves with cushioned ease double-cone synchromesh has made shifting 40 per cent lighter – the 959’s snaps home. The impression that you’re in a thinly veiled competition car is heightened by a sharp, over-centre clutch. Hydraulic assist makes the 911’s lighter and more forgiving, especially in traffic.
Not for the first time in a 959,1 was aware of disquieting clicks and clonks from the transmission on sharp bends and manoeuvres. Something to do with the limited-slip diffs. Nothing so uncouth mars the refinement of the 911 Turbo, which has a much simpler 4×4 system.
Proven the hard way, in Porsche’s all-conquering Paris-Dakar raiders, the 959’s complex transmission put simply, a ‘black box’ controls the output of torque-splitting multi-plate clutches – is a lot more versatile, if not without quirks. You can, for instance, set with a column lever the torque split most appropriate for the prevailing conditions. Technical overkill? So it would seem for road use, given that Porsche downgraded the 959’s system for the 1988 Carrera 4, and later replaced it altogether in 1995 after an 18-month gap without a 4×4 911 – with a much simpler, lighter and cheaper arrangement based on the ubiquitous viscous coupling.
VC technology serves the 911 Turbo more than adequately. Wheelspin is nigh on impossible to generate in the dry, and you can power through bends safe in the knowledge that awesome grip, traction control (operational up to 44mph) and linear clout will prevent the sort of unruly antics that made the original Turbo tricky to tame. You have to be hustling hard – harder than is normally possible in the public domain – even to get a hint of the mild, stabilising understeer that Porsche has dialled into the chassis of both cars. Cornering powers are simply sensational, the sense of security enormous, safety underpinned by the reluctance of the sticky rubber to relinquish grip. There are those who assert that in curbing oversteer, even throttle-induced cornering attitude, Porsche neutered the handling of the 959 and the 911 Turbo, rendering both too tame and uninvolving seriously to entertain. Do not believe them.
Given the sensational limits of both cars, it would be difficult to establish a pecking order for handling and roadholding without track testing, but I’ll wager it’s a close run thing. For a start, the 911 has more rubber to grip with. Superior multi-link rear suspension, too. Even though it weighs more, the 911 Turbo seemed to me (though I’m not sure to Charles Ivey) the sharper car. If anything, it turned into corners with even greater resolution and alacrity than the 959.
Despite the presence of power assistance, both cars have wonderfully tactile and communicative steering. What 911 has not? You don’t fight the kickback over pocked and undulating surfaces so much as relax your grip and let the car sort out the bumps in its own inimitable way. Call this uninvolving? Not from where I sit, especially on bumpy secondaries which can induce in both cars a dancing ride and a deviant line as the firm, short-travel suspension, better suited to smooth roads, meets its match. To hit the mighty ABS-backed brakes hard in either car is to experience monstrously powerful, head-snapping retardation. Again, it’s the manner of the doing, not the performance, that separates the two. The 959’s pressure-sensitive brake pedal hardly dips at all, making fancy heel-and-toe footwork virtually impossible for my size 10s; more’s the pity. The 911 Turbo’s brakes are softer, more conventional, better set for blip-and-brake changes – though no less easy to modulate smoothly.
Because of its additional controls (to adjust the dampers, ride height and torque split), never mind its extra instruments (no other 911 has a water temperature gauge), the 959 has the busier, more workmanlike clash. A smarter, plusher cabin, too. That of Charles Ivey’s lovely Komfort (few customer 959s were the starker Sports), richly upholstered in two-tone leather, made the black-trimmed 911 Turbo look funereally drab. Can’t think why I criticised the last 959 I drove for its poor scats, unless they were different from the embracing high-backs of Mr Ivey’s car. So snugly are you ensconced behind the wheel, the nuggety ride of both cars passes largely unnoticed on smooth tarmac.
Audi’s Ferdinand Piech – a member of’ the Porsche dynasty – is reported to have said that each 959 cost £468,000 to make. Priced at less than a third of its true value, then, the most collectable Porsche of them all really was a bargain, even before rocketing in value on the crest of a boom. The 911 Turbo will never be so cherished, revered or valuable. As a hedge against inflation, it doesn’t even reach the starting blocks. And yet, at under £100,000, it cocks a snook at rival exotica, 959 included, in pretty well every department except that final, manic assault on the senses.
After 10 years, the 959 is still the faster, more exciting car. Neither Charles Ivey nor I had any doubt about that. To have driven a 959 in anger is to have marked your card for life. The bellow of the engine, the explosive acceleration, the crushing g-forces… the car’s dynamic abilities are so sharply focused, so sublime and indelibly penetrating, they tend to overshadow its flaws. For all that, the 911 Turbo offers a broader spread of virtues, and far fewer niggles. That it’s perhaps 15mph slower all out than the 959 is of no consequence. What matters is that it’s as fast perhaps even faster in real-life motoring because its enormous power and grip are so easily exploited. If that makes the 911 Turbo the quieter, easier, smoother, tamer, less demanding car of the pair a cut-price 959, so be it. Who’s arguing
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