The great escape

The new Porsche 911 GT3 is no less than a Le Mans car which has broken free from the track and taken to the roads. Matthew Franey Takes it to Wales and finds magic amid the madness.

Whether you are writing a mad test for a magazine such as this, taking a potential purchase for a test drive or sampling a friend’s new automotive acquisition, you would, I am willing to wager, find that nine out of a ten cars provide strong impressions of certain characteristics but rarely overall satisfaction. Much as you might remember a favourite scene in a film or aria from an opera, it will be superlative brakes or a slick gearchange, rather than the experience in its entirety, that remain in the mind.

A car can have a technical specification better suited to a NASA project but fail to make those separates gel and the result can be as unsatisfying as it is uninvolving. Honda’s S2000 two-seater, for example, has a transmission that is as close as you can get to perfection and an engine that takes performance levels towards that of motorcycles and racing cars, but you won’t find my name on the waiting list. It’s a fine car, but not a great car; a sportster with a sense of design by committee – “We’ve created a fantastic engine, chaps, now let’s build a car around it”.

What you are looking for is the vehicle that doesn’t allow itself to be so easily pigeon-holed; the car that is less a sum of its parts and more a package so complete that after hours behind the wheel, you find it just as hard to say what makes it good. It is just good.

Evolution is more often than not the elusive quality which allows cars to make that unquantifiable leap between good and great and there is, of course, no finer example of the Darwinian theory than Porsche’s 911. For over three decades the staple sportscar from Weissach has left hacks scrabbling for new ways to explain just what makes it so good and if, in the intervening years, it has gone from being a wild and challenging turbocharged brute to sedate, eminently capable grand tourer then at least you’ve had something different to read when the magazines hit the news-stands.

Yet a small band of Porsche aficionados mourned the fact that the 911 that had once tried to throw them not just into the hedgerow but often the next county had grown into a rather sensible motor car. The thought of driving an early 911 across Europe in total comfort was almost unimaginable. That the latest 996 Carrera is capable of whisking you from one side of the Union to the other in about the same time it took to get to the Continent in the first place, and all without adding a wrinkle to your suit, was almost too hard to bear. Fast it most certainly remains, frantic it is not.

If you were a Porsche driver who liked your motoring mixed with a heady blend of missed heartbeats and dilating pupils then over the decades you relied on the marque’s motorsport department to breathe extra life into successive 911s. The resulting Rem Sport cars were regarded as some of the finest road racers ever, but none has been made available since the 993 RS was introduced over four years ago. With the reincarnated 911 Turbo not due to return to the showrooms until the spring of 2000, it is once more the race engineers to whom Porsche have turned. The current gap at the extreme end of the 911 market is to be filled by the GT3 a car that pays homage to the marque’s on-track heritage and as a consequence delivers performance levels that are close to that of a purpose-built racer.

That the 911 GT3 owes more to Porsche’s motorsport engineers than its road car division is confirmed after one quick glance at the technical specification. Only its chassis bears any resemblance to a standard Carrera; its engine is crafted from the unit that powered the curvaceous GT1 to overall victory at Le Mans in 1998, while its suspension, brakes, steering, ride and trim levels have all been set up with the race track uppermost in mind. Indeed a 410bhp racing version of the GT3 competed in this year’s 24 Hours, winning its class; and until other marques can offer some serious rivalry at this new entry-level – a factory prepared car can be bought for the comparatively low price of £100,000 – it will continue to enjoy an easy ride.

Nevertheless, all you need do is swap the Pirelli P-Zeros on the road car for some slicks, throw out the passenger seat there are no rear perches for the kids here get hold of some Nomex and numbers and you are as good as driving a racing car. The sportier-still GT3 Clubsport driven for this test goes further still, doing away with the side airbags and replacing them with a roll cage and two constricting but brilliantly comfortable and supportive Recaro race seats.

From the outside that outlandish rear wing, an extra lip on the front air dam and some italicised badging give the game away, although if you look more closely you will notice that this 911 also sits closer to the ground than its more sedate brethren. To lower the centre of gravity the car has been dropped 30mm which means every bump or undulation in an unsmooth road is followed immediately by an unpleasant scraping sound as the nose comes into contact with the asphalt. On a more positive note, with its underside all but bolted to the road, the GT3 could scarcely be in a better position to demonstrate its simply phenomenal chassis dynamics.

If the standard Carrera has sapped some of the entertainment factor from the 911, then with the GT3, it has been returned in spades. Whether you are careering headlong into a fast, sweeping turn or hauling the nose of the car hard into a tight, mountain hairpin the Porsche displays unerring balance. Body roll has been all but dialled out of the equation adjustable anti-roll bars even allow the mechanically adept to tweak the suspension to their satisfaction which means that the car’s designers have been able to concentrate on getting the Porsche to do what really matters: stick to the road and use every percentage point of power it produces.

From the moment you tug the GT3 through a change of direction and feel how swiftly and accurately the car alters tack it is apparent that they have met their target. At low to medium speeds the response to steering inputs is strong enough to push you deep into the winged Recaros; at high speed it generates genuinely extreme cornering forces. Drive a GT3 long and hard enough and you will inadvertently give your neck and shoulder muscles a true workout.

That’s not to say that you don’t have to work to earn those stresses and strains. Buy a 911 GT3 expecting a sanitised A-to-B machine and you are buying the wrong car. This is still a 911 and therefore still comes with a few hundred kilos worth of engine and gearbox slung owlthe rear wheels. What that means in terms of traction is good news indeed; the Porsche can cope with all its 360bhp, however you choose to use it. In the wet you can spin the Pirellis easily but under anything other than precipitous skies you need to really abuse the throttle pedal in an attempt to be profligate with your rubber.

Weight out the back also translates into that archetypal 911 trait: oversteer; but it’s oversteer that for once you have to work harder than you might expect to provoke. Exiting low speed corners with lock wound on, a distant vibrato rumble resonates from the differential as the transmission grapples with the power delivery. The efficient way in which it manages this means that unsettling the tail of the car is not as straightforward as you might imagine. Indeed as the rear squats down, the front of the Porsche lightens enough to induce quite high levels of understeer, the nose scrabbling sideways towards the wrong side of the road. For those uninitiated to such understeer it may be an unnerving introduction to the limits of this car’s adhesion. Ease back gently on the throttle and you can tuck the nose back into line. Do not lift off in blind panic unless you want to see understeer metamorphose rapidly into something rather more exciting…

But by stamping hard on the power can you force the 911 to step out in time-honoured fashion. It isn’t quite what you might expect from a rear-wheel driven Porsche but as a trade-off against the exhilarating traction it is a price worth paying.

There does, of course, have to be a compromise when you engineer added grip and balance into a car and in the GT3’s case it comes, much as you might expect, in a distinct reduction in ride quality. Suspension is firmed up considerably and on anything other than perfect roads the low profile P-Zero tyres – all 285mm of them at the rear, 225 at the nose – feel as if they are the only things doing any damping. Catch a wheel in a rut or groove and the nose shimmies against the horizon. It’s a sensation that adds to impression of highly strung racer and might be considered a genuine hindrance in a road car were it not for the steering.

Power-assisted and exactly three turns lock to lock, it reacts accurately and positively to inputs. Each high-speed shimmy is acutely countered, each line into an apex as easy to master as you could wish. Compared to the 996 Carrera the GT3 feels alive in your hands and another intrinsic part of the overall package falls into place.

All that’s really left are the bits that make the Porsche go and stop and these, as you will know if you have ever had the good fortune to drive a 911, are the bits that the marque excels at. The dry-sump 3.6-litre flat-six engine stakes its claim as one of the finest powerplants on the market. Racing heritage abounds here as well, with lightened pistons and titanium con-rods helping the engine spin all the way to 7800rpm. Peak power is produced right at the top of the range – 7200rpm – but its 273lb ft of torque is on hand from a more frequently visited 5000rpm. It is around those revs that the GT3 also envelopes you in a crescendo of induction howl quite simply one of the most enticing noises in motoring today. Throttle response is on a par with the aural assault, an asset when you are adjusting the 911’s attitude not just with the steering but also your right foot. Far sharper than the standard 996, it is one of the first things you will notice when you are looking for what makes this car different.

Despite its motorsport pretensions, this is not an engine which will cough and splutter at the first sight of a 30mph sign. Power delivery is smooth at first, brutal towards the end and matched to the short ratio six-speed gearbox, acceleration times are on a par with other supercars. Sixty miles an hour from standstill arrives in less than five seconds while the more critical still in-gear bursts are as impressive – make that jump from 50 to 70mph in second gear and it will take you just 2.2 seconds. Porsche suggest its top speed is 188mph, a figure I have no reason to doubt.

Just as you can reach three figures in no time, you can shed them in even less. Take a look at the bucket seats and you will see two slots for a full racing harness. My advice would be to invest in one. Under hill deceleration the Porsche’s performance is unparalleled. The same could not be said of the black lines you will leave on the road as the 330mm vented discs and anti-lock system bring the wheels chirruping to rest If you think the tyres will have taken a battering, imagine how your forearms might feel.

If all of the above makes the 911 GT3 sound like the sort of uncompromising superear that is only suitable for race tracks and cross country sprints then I have done it a disservice. Admittedly it is a rather noisy counterpart to its more refined elder sibling but you should not strike it from your list for that alone. Air-conditioning, front and side airbags, a superb stereo and well-laid out cabin go some way to positioning this car ahead of the lightweight and raw RS 911s that have gone before. What is also on offer to the 40 lucky owners who will fork out £76,500 to buy one in right-hand drive is attitude. It’s attitude sourced from knowing that this is not a car thrown together by disparate departments, but a car seamlessly moulded into one of the best 911s to roll out of Weissach. If you want really want to know the definition of ‘complete package’, it’s time to try a 911 GT3.