What lies beneath

On the surface it’s just another 911. But in its 45th year, Porsche’s flagship has undergone an internal revolution
By Andrew Frankel

If the normal rules of car development applied to the Porsche 911, it would have been dead 30 years ago. Indeed and as you will remember, that was when Porsche tried to kill it with the blunt instrument that was the 928 only to find its 15-year-old son less than willing to meekly accept its fate. The lad is all grown up now and for its 45th birthday has received an update that, at first glance, seems very appropriate to the Porsche way of doing things and all the more attractive for that.

There is little that’s showy about its redesign – you can’t even call it a facelift because save for some unsuitable LED running lights, a few minor bumper changes and a new centre console inside, its appearance has barely been touched. Refreshingly, all the effort has been directed at the bits you can’t see.

The engines, for instance, are entirely new even if their 3.6 and 3.8-litre capacities look superficially similar to those they replace. This means that while the original air-cooled engine lasted 34 years, the first water-cooled 911 motor made just 11. These engines are of course more powerful and economical and produce less CO2 thanks to lower weight and, crucially, direct fuel injection. In addition Porsche has thrown away its unsatisfactory Tiptronic automatic and replaced it with a seven-speed double-clutch semi-automatic transmission that works in much the same way as a DSG box in a VW Golf, except that the seventh ratio is ultra-long allowing further savings in fuel and CO2. Indeed if you choose a basic Carrera with this gearbox it is unique among supercars in avoiding a Band G tax disc.

And it doesn’t stop there. Being Porsche there is an entirely new braking system and extensive modifications to the suspension, which retains its basic architecture but has otherwise been entirely reworked. So far so good.

But you don’t have to do more than turn the key to glimpse the first sign of an issue that goes on to affect, and some might say infect, every moment you are at the wheel.

I’ll stop short of calling it a problem because to many customers it will be a welcome development, but to readers of this title I suspect what follows will be greeted with less than total approbation: you can barely hear the bloody thing. This new motor is so smooth it’s as if there are not six horizontally opposed pistons shuttling up and down their bores but a couple of gallons of silently churning cream.

Even the basic Carrera is now a properly quick car, its 345bhp coming within 10 horsepower of the outgoing Carrera S’s output, but when you seek to make the most of this performance, the 911 responds more in polite agreement than howling approval. Naturally the new S, armed with 385bhp, is quicker still but so lacks the drama you might expect or even hope for from a 911, that it looks quicker on paper than it feels on the road.

As for the PDK box, apart from an extra gear, it offers nothing VW and Audi have not made available on everyday hatches, saloons and estates for years. It changes quickly and cleanly and works particularly well in its automatic mode, but I made the mistake of thinking it would add something to the driving experience, as the purely manual paddle-shift ’boxes used by Ferrari do.

Worse (and quite astonishingly given that this is Porsche we’re talking about), it has made a complete mess of the shift controls. All I – and everyone else I have ever spoken to about it – want are two paddles behind the wheel, one (on the right) to change up, the other to change down. Particle physics it ain’t. The only argument is whether they should be static or rotate with the wheel. For what it’s worth, I incline towards the latter. But Porsche provides not two paddles but four buttons sited not behind the wheel but actually on it. Those you can see on the front both cause the gearbox to change up, those mounted on the back of the wheel are responsible for downchanges. And as if having to push when you’re conditioned to pull is not bad enough, the upshift buttons are so badly located you need to operate them with the side and base of your thumb, which will never feel natural. In short I can see its point for those who use their 911s for commuting, but for those wishing for more than mere transportation, it is to be avoided.

But these revisions are not all bad. The changes to the suspension in particular have made it a yet more capable and even more reassuring means of getting yourself from one place to the next in absurdly little time. Of course the current generation of 911 is a big, wide car compared to the snake-hipped originals, but compared to anything like an Audi R8, it is still compact and easy to thread through gaps. That slight bobbing of the nose exhibited by 911s at the exit of corners when the car is right on the traction limit has been exorcised and while some might regard that as a further dilution of the car’s character, it’s not something that I’ll be missing, particularly as it allows you to make even more of the 911’s finest and most enduring talent – its ability to put its power where it’s needed on the road.

As is the case more often with all generations of 911 than any other car I have known, the simplest, most basic is best. A manual Carrera is the pick of the bunch with the sole proviso that you select the PASM active suspension option, not so much because it improves the handling but, curiously, because it does wonders for the ride comfort which is not quite good enough with the purely passive suspension. Even so, I’d probably fail to take my own advice and get a manual Carrera S, not just because it has PASM as standard but its wheels are prettier and I’d hope that one day I’d wake up and really be able to feel its extra power.

It will be interesting to see what contribution the new 911 can make to turning around Porsche’s fortunes in this country. Sales this year to the end of May were down over 20 per cent over the same period last year and tougher times still seem to be ahead. That said, Porsche has weathered worse storms and done so from a position incomparably less profitable and advantageous than the one it enjoys today.
I also think that this new 911 will find favour among most of its typical customers who are looking for an all-purpose, everyday car with the right badge and the right look. To them the fact it’s now quicker, more frugal, grown up and serious will be an entirely good thing. But as someone who saw in the original 997 the first true successor to the air-cooled cars of yore, I will continue to lament that these technical improvements have been achieved at the cost of so much of the old car’s spirit.