We can’t look at any icon without understanding why it became an icon in the first place. Famously difficult to drive but incomparably rewarding to master, a Porsche 911 is the furthest thing from your loyal Labrador retriever: this bitch bites back. The 911 is always in charge, teaching its driver how to behave and not the other way around. The monster in the back of every 911 is loosely caged, ripping at its engine mounts, doing everything it can to pass the front wheels.
The 911 is nearly fifty years old, but we know of no class-action lawsuits or Nader crusades to kill it. Why? Because everyone knows exactly what they’re getting with a Porsche 911.
Porsche’s engineers tried to snuff out the 911 in 1978 by replacing it with the 928, a front-engine, V-8-powered poodle that proved to be too patrician for Porsche fans. The 911 got a stay of execution, but the proverbial pitchforks came back out when the fifth-generation car debuted for 1999. Unlike the 928, it had a proper flat six dangling out back, but it was water-cooled. Worse, the wetted-down monster had been drugged: soft chassis tuning induced understeer to keep it in check.
By the time the sixth-generation 911 arrived for 2005, Porsche had returned to form. Here was a 911 that felt like a 911 should feel but with a full safety net of stability aids. Turn off the electronics, though, and the 911 would still bite you; the outgoing car is a true 911 in every way — a little scary, a lot capable, and a complete match for the thrill of the old air-cooled 911s.
Porsche’s sports cars have distinguished themselves from every other car in the world by communicating to your fingertips every little thing the front end does. A dip, a hole, a camber change, the curled edges of a red Japanese maple leaf — you are blissfully aware of precisely everything that a 911’s front wheels roll over. More important, every steering input you make is met, a fraction of a second later, with an equal and opposite tug at the wheel caused by the monster fighting your every move. The outgoing 911, inparticular, is a glorious departure from modern cars’ ridiculous obsession with beating their predecessors and competitors around the Nuerburgring. Sure, the 2011 911 is fast as hell around that and every other racetrack, but that’s not what makes it so good. We love the 911 mostly because it’s the only car in the world that delivers supercar performance with sports car levels of driver involvement.
For 2012, there’s an all-new 911, which Porsche refers to internally as the 991. Driving it is not appreciably different from driving a Boxster or an Audi R8 or a Ferrari 458 — or other cars whose rear wheels bear the majority of their weight. The 911’s even greater rearward weight distribution means that, like its predecessors, it has the traction to rocket out of corners like no other two-wheel-drive machine on the planet. Thanks in part to a computer-controlled adaptive suspension, computer-controlled variable-rate antiroll bars, computer-controlled magnetorheological engine mounts, computer-controlled electric power steering, and a computer-controlled limited-slip differential, the new tech-filled car is easily the fastest 911 ever on a back road and certainly around the Nuerburgring. It’s forgiving in ways that no other rear-engine car has ever been and few mid-engine cars have managed. Its ride is quiet and supple like a luxury car’s, it has a handsome interior with a full complement of gadgets and gizmos, and it’s beautiful unlike any previous 911. But it sure doesn’t feel like a 911 from behind the wheel.
As we described in detail a few months back [Driven, November 2011], Porsche’s new flagship is 90 percent new. It’s an inch longer, but it rides on a wheelbase that’s been stretched by 3.9 inches. That means shorter overhangs (especially in front, which reduces scraping on driveways) and a smoother ride. A substantial increase in front-wheel track helps stability and allows a broader-feeling cabin. The body includes a significant amount of aluminum, and it’s not only stiffer than the outgoing car, it’s also lighter. Obsession with light weight permeated the 911’s entire development — the engineers boast of weight savings everywhere from the body panels to things you’d never think of, like the motors of the engine-cooling fans.
An overall weight reduction is especially impressive given the new 911’s more opulent interior. In the Panamera-style center console, ergonomics take a back seat to design, as some buttons are hard to see or reach. Speaking of the back seat, the longer wheelbase hasn’t made it big enough to actually fit adult humans — a quarter inch of extra legroom means that the 911’s back seat went from being almost totally useless to being pretty much totally useless.
The front buckets feel wider and more comfortable than the previous 911’s seats, however, and both the parking brake and the tilting-and-telescoping steering column are now electrically actuated. The overlapping round gauges, first seen two generations ago, return in the new car with a Panamera-style TFT screen in the second-from-right spot that can display audio, trip, or navigation functions. There are familiar buttons near the shifter that adjust throttle response, stability control, exhaust and intake sound level, and suspension firmness.
We sampled both optional stereos, a 445-watt Bose and an 821-watt Burmester, and each is capable of turning the 911’s cabin into a rolling discotheque. Exceptionally quiet road- and wind-noise levels don’t hurt, but neither system is powerful enough to drown out the titillating engine noise coming from the back. An optional “Sound Symposer” uses the parcel shelf behind the rear seats like a big speaker to amplify the flat-six engine’s hallowed intake honk. Add in the optional sport exhaust, and the engine screams with the most guttural wail this side of a GT3.
A new version of Porsche’s seven-speed PDK dual-clutch automatic is optional; the standard transmission is, well, a standard — and the world’s first seven-speed manual at that. A clever lockout mechanism prevents accidental fourth-to-seventh upshifts, and the extralong cruising gear makes for quieter and more economical highway driving. Porsche chose a slightly shorter top gear than the PDK’s, so downshifts aren’t required on slight grades. In fact, there’s plenty of reserve power to climb even substantial hills at highway speeds in seventh gear.
Shifting, however, is one of the best parts of driving this 911. The pedals are slightly offset to the passenger side and the heavy clutch has a long stroke, but the shifter’s gates are well defined and the ratios tightly spaced. The clutch has a positive engagement point that practically forces you to be smooth. Despite its big displacement, the 3.8-liter six wants the needle to be well past the tach’s halfway point to deliver full thrust: maximum torque isn’t available until 5600 rpm. There’s a big ramp-up in thrust as the revs rise, and whether you’re dawdling along or dusting Toyota Priuses, the powertrain is nothing short of magnificent.
The PDK works well, trading the manual’s pops and backfires during shifts for uninterrupted forward momentum, knocking 0.2 second off the manual’s 4.3-second 0-to-60-mph run, according to Porsche. Equipped with the Sport Chrono package, it’s 0.2 second quicker yet again, thanks to a clutch-dump launch-control function that, despite an absence of wheel hop, is so brutal we can’t imagine actual owners ever using it.
We drove only the 3.8-liter Carrera S with all of the electronic doodads. The base Carrera model is 0.3 second slower in each configuration, making do with a 3.4-liter engine in place of the old 3.6. It, too, revs to 7800 glorious rpm, and it, too, makes more power than the engine it replaces. Numerous changes, including standard start/stop, promise dramatically improved fuel economy numbers for all new 911 models — even though the outgoing car was already at the top of its class in efficiency.
Although that’s an admirable side note, no one buys a Porsche 911 because of its EPA numbers. And while we’d argue that you probably shouldn’t buy a 911 because of its Nuerburgring lap time, either, we should mention that Porsche’s quoted 7-minute, 40-second figure means that the Carrera S is just as fast as the last GT3 and Turbo.
Clearly, the new 911’s handling limits are considerably higher than before, and it demonstrates body control, balance, and stability that all rank among the best we’ve ever experienced from any car. While assaulting a technical back road at speeds that would have resulted in an extended stay at the local hospital in any previous 911, our only concern was staying out of the local jail. The car will not snap oversteer — instead, the rear tires break away smoothly and progressively and only if you beg them to do so. Even then, the new 911 settles into a four-wheel drift, something old 911s would do for only a split second before exploding violently into oversteer and attempting to mow down every car in a quarter-mile radius. (Man, we loved that.) The 911 doesn’t resist turn-in (its computers can brake a rear wheel to help initiate rotation), it doesn’t get squirrely at high speeds, and it won’t get angry if you make a mistake.
In fact, the 2012 Porsche 911 has no temper at all. The rear end never feels like it’s going to come unstuck. And the steering? Well, it never feels like much at all. As a result, the new 911 doesn’t really feel like a 911. For that, we can blame European-market customers and press, who railed that the last car was nervous at top speed. They weren’t wrong — it was — but that problem is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Even Porsche points out that less than ten percent of autobahns now have no speed limit. The company also admits that the United States is “easily the most important market” for the 911.
We don’t have autobahns here. At our slow interstate speeds, modern cars are so incredibly capable and refined and removed that we eat food, apply makeup, and talk on the phone — because we’re bored. That’s what makes the 911 great — you actually have to work to keep the car on the straight and narrow. Or at least you used to.
If the 991 is the only 911 you’ve ever driven, you’ll probably think it’s the best Porsche ever — and in many ways we agree. If, on the other hand, you reveled in the old 911’s endless feedback; if you relished the thrill of taming a car that didn’t really want to be tamed; if you loved the 911 precisely because it wasn’t perfect; and, certainly, if you thought that the Porsche 911 was an icon that couldn’t be improved and shouldn’t be changed, then the 2012 Porsche 911 might not feel like that much of an icon to you.
2012 Porsche 911 Carrera S
BASE PRICE $97,350
ENGINE 24-valve DOHC flat-6
DISPLACEMENT 3.8 liters (232 cu in)
POWER 400 hp @ 7400 rpm
TORQUE 325 lb-ft @ 5600 rpm
TRANSMISSIONS 7-speed manual, 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
STEERING Electrically assisted
SUSPENSION, FRONT Strut-type, coil springs
SUSPENSION, REAR Multilink, coil springs
BRAKES Vented discs, ABS
TIRES Pirelli PZero
TIRE SIZE F, R 245/35YR-20, 295/30YR-20
L x W x H 176.8 x 71.2 x 51.0 in
WHEELBASE 96.5 in
TRACK F/R 60.6/59.7 in
WEIGHT 3120/3075 lb (PDK/manual)
FUEL MILEAGE 20/29 mpg (est.)
0-60 MPH 3.9/4.3 sec (PDK Sport Chrono/manual)
TOP SPEED 187/188 mph (PDK/manual)