Madness at the Extremes: 2014 Porsche 911 Turbo and Turbo S

By all rights, we're not sure that a 520- or 560-hp Porsche 911 needs to exist. That's a lot of might for a rear-engine car once known for playing spin-the-bottle with inexperienced drivers. But the 911 Turbo (and now, Turbo S) has always been about extremes, and the new 991-chassis edition has more breadth than ever, serving up a serene about-town yin to the mad-king-o'-the-autobahn yang.

So forget the subtext. Is the new Turbo ungodly fast? Why, yes. Zing out of the traps using launch control, and your lower intestines feel like they're uncoiling. Passengers get an unwell look, shading pale and sweating. In Sport Plus mode with optional Sport Chrono, the Turbo coupe shocks your system from a standstill to 60 mph in 3.0 jagged seconds, a Usain Bolt–like blast to either glory or motion sickness. The Turbo S, with an extra 29 lb-ft of torque and standard carbon-ceramic brakes, is even quicker.

The price to play? $149,250 (Turbo) or $182,050 (Turbo S).

We tested both models in northern Germany and found them a little distant, almost impersonal. In Sport mode, the 3.8-liter twin-turbo flat six has to be coaxed to make more noise than a contemplative sigh. Click into Sport Plus and it's a new machine -- fully awake, all systems cocked. An air-bladder-controlled front spoiler unfurls from the underbody and the rear wing is unsheathed, snapping into the air like a switchblade.

Exploring the limits on secondary German roads seemed a sure way to get fed to the Dobermans, so Porsche sent us to the Bilster Berg Drive Resort, a very fast, up-and-down kind of place designed to unsettle a chassis. Fortunately, Porsche engineers employ all kinds of magic to keep the Turbo pointed (mostly) straight, including PTM, PAA, PDCC, PASM, and PTV Plus. In somewhat plainer parlance: active all-wheel drive, active aerodynamics, active antiroll bars, active electronic dampers, and torque vectoring. Dynamic engine mounts lack a special acronym. Active rear-wheel steering angles the back tires up to 2.8 degrees for a shorter turning radius (a dandy 34.8 feet) or 1.5 degrees in sync with the front wheels above 50 mph.

To the Turbo's great credit, it can haul ass around a track if you drive it correctly. The ample tech doesn't shut you down, it abets your cause. Still, our first few laps were a lesson in power-induced understeer: too much too early and we missed apex after apex. The Turbo does not care for traditional methods. Instead, this idiosyncratic machine likes to move around, including four-wheel drifts at triple-digit speeds. Once we got comfortable and began to trust, we used it to our advantage. Induce slip angle and get it turned early, threading onto the gas at the apex, and then full blast. The rear-wheel steering and torque vectoring had a lot to do with making it all work. The Turbo isn't the best 911 to drive, either on winding roads or the racetrack, but it is a 911, and an extreme one at that. The spirit is definitely willing.


Horsepower -- Too Much?
More Power Is Always Better, Right?

There is no such thing as too much horsepower. It's a truism as old as Daimler-Benz, as solid as a Chevy small-block. Mo' power is mo' better.

Hallelujah, believers, for we're living in the platinum age. Remember the quaint days of yore when the Dodge Viper broke the 500-hp barrier and we all went gaga? Our dreams were too small. Glance over a new-car list today and take your pick of specimens like the Nissan GT-R (545 hp), the Audi RS7 (560 hp), the SRT Viper (640 hp), and the Ferrari F12 Berlinetta (731 hp).

Horsepower has become a commodity, a nice bump to the company bottom line. The primary component of the BMW M5's $7300 Competition Package is the increased output of the twin-turbo V-8: 575 hp instead of 560. The 40 extra hp in the 911 Turbo S costs a premium of $32,800 over the shrinking-violet Turbo. It makes us wonder: are we simply dining on the specs, the more outrageous the better, and overlooking the meal that a car actually serves up?

The standard for any self-respecting sports car today is 350 hp, but 400-plus is better. Call yourself a supercar and you'd better reach for 600 or 700. If you're the McLaren P1, only 903 will do. Mercedes-AMG doesn't have a model with less than 355 hp (the tiny CLA45); at BMW M, nothing has less than 414. Even regular-guy cars achieve big numbers: a Chevy Silverado with 420 hp, the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT with 470, and a Shelby Mustang with 850 or, you know, 1100.

Not to look a gift horse -- many, many gift horses -- in the mouth, but we wonder, is there a limit? Should there be a limit? Who are these driving demigods among us that can handle all this power, or is it all a marketing sham? If dozens of cars can run the quarter mile in less than twelve seconds, using launch control and dual-clutch automatics, does it mean that, like Little Leaguers, we all get a medal just for showing up?

It seems like this is a good time to ask what we expect out of a car with 640 hp and 600 lb-ft of torque. Something beyond the normal, a car that causes you to hold your breath. An automobile like the SRT Viper should give you pause, dissuading you from pulling it out of the garage if you've been out late the night before, head fuzzy and hands tremoring like hummingbirds. Some other Sunday, but not today. A high-potency car should be a bit dangerous. (Note: The SRT Viper still qualifies.)

The original snake was beautiful precisely because it demanded responsibility. The Dodge wasn't going to manage the driver -- the driver was responsible for those 400 irritable horses and 450 lb-ft of squirrelly torque. Wrestling it around town without plowing the nose into a pole was a badge of honor.

I once drove a 996-chassis Porsche 911 GT2 with 456 hp and 457 lb-ft and no traction control of any kind. So much as gaze at the gas pedal while the steering wheel was turned and you'd find yourself magically transported six feet laterally to the left or right. Best damn driving day of my life, mostly because I survived. Conversely, I recently stormed a German racetrack in a 560-hp Porsche 911 Turbo S that casually smashed the straights and effortlessly bombed through wicked off-camber turns, and I feared nothing. I wasn't even wearing a helmet. I'd love to think I was just that good, but no -- Porsche's engineers are. They've reined in the 911's tendency to spin like a dreidel with no fewer than six magnificently complex electronic systems. Those horses are well corralled. Twenty years ago, a 911 this potent would have decimated Porsche's customers by the droves. We'd still be restocking our ranks of lawyers, podiatrists, and heart surgeons.

Stability and traction control systems save lives, and we aren't suggesting that we'd rather go without. But NORAD-worthy computers now manage every aspect of the experience. You can have 621 hp and 738 lb-ft of torque (!) in your Mercedes-Benz CL65 AMG and not only not kill yourself, but run around town doing errands in your slippers, a decaf latte in hand and a Jawbone in ear. That's because a German engineer with an American attorney perched over his shoulder has preordained how and when you'll get that power delivered. Launch control with the steering wheel pointed straight? Green light. Applying big throttle in the middle of a curve? Not so much.

To be fair, there's almost always the stability control button with the swerving-car icon, tantalizing and terrifying, to switch off the electronic big brother. But it's hard to imagine that very many GL63 owners will be getting jiggy with their seven-seater on cliff-side roads. Similarly, find a single buyer of the Turbo S who can wring nine-tenths out of even a base 350-hp 911 Carrera on a racetrack, and I will buy that guy or gal a 72-ounce steak dinner, since we know there's no such thing as a steak that's too big.

Runaway horsepower figures seem to be a particular fixture at AMG, and in some cases, we're huge fans -- the SLS Black Series is magnificent. But comfy cruisers like the GL63 verge on Spinal Tap, turn-it-to-eleven overkill. We spoke with Tobias Moers, AMG's new CEO, to get his take. Asked if the specs are simply something to brag about, he said, "It's important for our customers that the numbers are competitive. [Those] who can afford an AMG are very successful in their jobs, very focused on success. They expect the same thing from us."

However, Moers stipulates that customers enjoy driving the torque, not the horsepower -- the sensation of instant response on demand. "The S63 has 900 new-ton meters [664 lb-ft] of torque, and it is available very soon, and this is what you feel in the car. For AMG, driving performance is not all about power but driving dynamics in combination with the engine power."

Moers certainly isn't wrong: outrageous torque equals outrageously fun times. There's nothing like burning up a set of Pirelli PZeros, cackling madly as you're shoved into your seat as if by the hand of God, the far-off horizon leaping out and smacking you in the face. It's the oddest thing -- Corvette guys have started to seem like the sane ones. The new Stingray has "only" 455 hp and 460 lb-ft. But the high-displacement small-block dispenses power smartly, sacrificing some power at high revs for kick in the low and mid range. It's responsive on the freeway, on tight roads, and even at an autocross. And whereas most sports cars have two or three traction-control modes, the Vette offers many shades, especially with optional magnetic ride control. You've got five modes ranging from Weather to Track, the latter with submenus for finer tuning from Wet to Race.

Tadge Juechter, the Stingray's chief engineer, explains: "We try not to dumb down the car [to] where just anybody can drive it," he says. "But it is a gray area. How much fun are we going to leave in there and really let people hang it out? We put the safety net in there, but we want the hard-core drivers to be able to use [the car's] full capability."

It's a pain to access the Corvette's more hooligan-friendly settings; Juechter says this was deliberate. "You've got to do a bunch of stuff to get to Performance Traction Management. We don't expect people to use it on the street. I've had people get in the car and immediately set it in Competition mode, which is kind of dumb."

Juechter says his team wasn't looking for specific horsepower numbers. "You can tell which manufacturers are meeting a marketing spec -- you've gotta have this number or that number. But you can't just throw a big motor in a car -- you'll unbalance the whole thing. A lot of cars understeer, others are rear biased. We'd prefer not to use electronics as a Band-Aid to cover up fundamental chassis flaws."

So, are we reaching an end point to the horsepower wars? In talking with Moers and Juechter we find they agree -- to a point. Ask Juechter whether we'll see 1000 hp in a ZR1 someday, and he says, "From a theoretical standpoint, we haven't gotten to the end. From a practical standpoint, we have to deal with fuel regulations. There is some flattening of the curve. There will be a more tempered horsepower war."

Moers also thinks the power strides are slowing. About ten years ago, he says, "We saw a huge increase, coming from 300-something horsepower up to 500. Since then, we've increased power and torque but not in [big] steps like we did in the early 2000s." Asked if there is a power level that AMG would prefer not to surpass, Moers paused. "Mmmm. No, no."

Perhaps what we need is a power palette cleanser, an automotive sorbet to wash away the taste of all the excess -- something to remind us of the joys of being light and quick. That brings to mind two new outliers, the 200-hp Subaru BRZ and its Scion FR-S twin. These light coupes encourage you to maintain speed through corners, using technique and finesse. Even a slow road feels pretty quick when you're flat out all the time. Bravo!

Although, if I'm really being honest, I think the BRZ could do with a bit more horsepower.

Five Over Five
A few of the stranger examples from the 500-Horsepower Universe.

Shelby 1000: $205,000 (est.)
1000 horsepower and a Ford Mustang chassis based on ox-cart technology from the Middle Ages. What could possibly go wrong? An 1100-hp version costs just $5000 more.

Mercedes-Benz GL63 AMG: $119,085
This family hauler seats seven and makes a great machine for tailgating. But the 5.5-liter twin-turbo V-8's 550 hp and 560 lb-ft of torque seem a bit overmatched for the chassis.

BMW X6 M: $94,825
We've had BMW's odd X6 M crossover, with 555 hp and 500 lb-ft of torque, on a racetrack. And to this day, we're not sure why.

Audi A8L W12: $138,895
The S8, with a twin-turbo V-8 and 520 hp, is stupendous fun. The 6.3-liter W-12 gets 20 fewer hp, weighs more, and costs an extra $25,500. That's a lot for the (admittedly great) twelve-cylinder sound.

Bentley Flying Spur: $205,825
Really, really late for your board meeting? No need to worry -- this Bentley has a top speed of 200 mph, courtesy of the monstrous twin-turbo W-12 with 616 hp and 590 lb-ft.

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