HEIMERDINGEN, Germany — Even in some parts of Porsche 911 land, the normally aspirated engine is dying. It’s being overtaken by a vast array of turbocharged powerplants, which are more potent, torquier, and economical. So why does Porsche refuse to switch its most emotional products to forced induction?
“Because there are clients who want to experience driving pleasure in its purest form,” answers Porsche GT division head Andreas Preuninger. “In more ways than one, the authentic, honest, and transparent 911 R fulfills the customer desire for absolute functionality. For me personally it is kind of a motorbike substitute for public roads, less so for track days.”
Our car for the day is a virtually undisguised pre-production model of the all-new, 2016 Porsche 911 R. Painted in GT silver, this understated example does without the loud PORSCHE lettering along the flanks as well as the louder, full-length rally stripes, which come in red or green — war paint inspired by the brand’s go-faster styling of the ’60s. The incognito livery pictured here matches the wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing character of this otherwise stealthy, super 911 coupe.
While its body and chassis were borrowed from the GT3, the 911 R shares several lightweight panels (roof and hood on U.S. models) and its 4.0-liter engine with the GT3 RS. Following the underdog theme of the original 1967 version of which Porsche built only 19 units, the new Porsche 911 R (991 will be built, and all are spoken for or almost all spoken for, depending who you ask, since 918 Spyder buyers got first dibs) features a mildly modified pop-up spoiler a la the Carrera S instead of the fixed double-decker wings unique to the GT models. Together with the active wing, a diffuser integrated in the rear apron helps maximize downforce, even at top speed. In front, an aero kit similar to the GT3 reduces lift.
Ready for action? With a broad grin and a nod, Preuninger reaches for the ignition key, and we’re in business. The engine springs to life with a growl, takes a deep breath to 1,500 rpm, then emits a long, pearly snarl before settling in at a restless idle. The erratic firing order is reminiscent of a faulty pacemaker, the exhaust duet raps in sync with the pulsating heart rate of the 500-horsepower flat-six engine.
Even though the gear lever is still in stand-by position, the transmission tunnel rattles like a bunch of carnival ratchets. “These noises are too precious to be eliminated,” says Preuninger. “Generated by the optional single-mass flywheel, they evoke emotions. In addition, the low-inertia device takes out [11 pounds] in weight, and it further speeds up the ultra-quick throttle response. You don’t like it? Then simply disengage the clutch.”
In this car, Porsche’s legendary boxer plays a louder and more mechanical tune. The acoustic highlight is the stereophonic gear changing process, which has such an in-cab presence we wouldn’t be surprised if Porsche had installed a microphone in the engine bay and a separate speaker on the firewall – but it didn’t. Contributing musicians are the humming ceramic brakes, the whistling wind noise, and the differential’s groan-or-grind monologue. The distinctive aural presence is amplified by the lighter passenger cell aka resonance chamber, which has shed roughly 55 pounds, along with the rear seats. At approximately 3,021 pounds, the 911 R weighs about 110 pounds less than the GT3 RS. The dry weight — the only weight measurement certain competitor companies disclose for their sports cars — is allegedly an equally impressive 2,756 pounds.
Within a 30-mile radius of Weissach, Preuninger is familiar with every corner, crest, and radar trap. The car’s cornering prowess and stability through high-speed bends is absolutely phenomenal. While cerebrum and cerebellum are slapping one high five after the other, the animal keeps building up speed and grip, displaying minimal lean and no hint of a commencing slide. The dampers are still set in normal mode, the stability control warning light has yet to file an objection, and we’re still in fifth gear, pressing on down a long, long straight. Even though every gear change breaks the flow by inducing a momentary weight transfer, the 911 R won’t alter its confidence-inspiring attitude as long as there is enough momentum to support progress.
ZF produces the new six-speed manual transmission for the 911 R and for the next GT3 and possibly GT3 RS, so there will soon for the first time be a choice between DIY and the double-clutch gearbox on the most focused 911. Predictably, even the slickest and quickest shift artists cannot match the 0-60 acceleration times of the PDK-equipped GT3 (3.3 seconds) and the GT3 RS (3.1 seconds). When revs, clutch action, tire temperature, and grip level work in unison, the R can sprint to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds. Bad for bragging rights but a real eye-opener when experienced unplugged and in Cinemascope. The reinforced clutch does a good job taming the restless flywheel, and the shifter works with the fine mechanical precision of a high-end camera shutter.
The brain takes time to acknowledge the highly physical g-force and the time-warp stopping power as controllable, not as angst on wheels. On nine out of 10 roads, this 911 holds the line with aplomb. Over the really rough stuff, however, the R eventually lays down its arms with a resigning posture that is half rubber mattress, half pop rivet. As soon as the earthquake surface begins to smooth out and you can go faster than 40 mph without curbing a wheel or bending a spring, the chassis reinstates that fundamental compliance that can only be neutralized by a premature stab at the damper button. Beyond 70 mph, the adjustable suspension handles such road building lapses as sharp potholes and tackles transverse ripples and frost-bite leftovers with skill and sheer instinct. Even over such difficult terrain, the front end refrains from hopping and trembling, the steering won’t sashay around the straight-ahead position, and the aerodynamic stability squashes undue body movements before they even start. This inherent tautness spreads from C-road roughness all the way to table-top smoothness.
Even though the virginal silver coupe has less than 100 miles on the clock, the chief project engineer clearly does not want to be a party pooper. So he hits the Sport button and once again checks the mirrors and seatbelt. We hope Preuninger knows the upcoming esses like the back of his hand, because the approach speed is eerily ambitious, the brake point is at least two car lengths too optimistic, and the turn-in is so radically fast that we are bound to run out of front-end grip. But no. The bite reflex of the 245/35R-20 Michelins is supernaturally reliable, and the cornering balance built into the dedicated suspension pays off once again. But overdo it, and that dreaded counterswing may kick the car off course for good, no matter how hard the diff tries to set things straight again. When the 339 lb-ft of maximum torque take the gloves off, even the extra-wide 305/30R-20 rear tires will duly smear sideways with smoldering grandezza.
The rear-wheel steering encourages quick changes of direction, and it helps plotting a stable line at high speed. At the adhesion limit, it’s the job of sticky rubber and the talented chassis to distribute all that oomph in the most effective manner. Assistance is provided by a mechanical differential lock, which feels edgier but more effective than most electronically controlled systems, as well as electronic stability aids. Your neighbors would definitely hate the switchable exhaust made of superlight titanium, which barks its message with an intensity that makes window panes tremble from a passing decibel overdose. Push the Sport button and the artificially generated on-demand throttle blipping that precedes downshifts in the best heel-and-toe fashion sounds comparatively hushed.
The 911 R is fast, emotional, involving, and extreme even without all those wild wing add-ons. But its prime virtue is the shotgun responsiveness, the almost telepathic reaction to throttle orders, brake activation, and steering inputs. When Preuninger floors the accelerator at 4,000 rpm in second gear without warning, my head slams into the seatback, I feel like my legs become almost weightless for a second or two, and feel my torso freeze in a mix of momentary immobility and total bafflement. The turbo-style kick produced by this remarkable naturally aspirated engine lets up ever so slightly at 7,000 rpm, 1,600 rpm before redline. Born in the motorsports department, the 4.0-liter six is addicted to high revs. The maximum power output equals 8,250 rpm, while the torque curve peaks at 6,250 rpm. Even in fifth and sixth, the dynamo-like urge continues to unfold.
“The 911 R combines the best of worlds,” proclaims Preuninger. “It’s a high-revving, low-inertia powerhouse, but at the same time it picks up revs in a tall gear with explosive exertion. Which is another way of saying that you may shift down a notch whenever you feel like it, but there is rarely a real need to do so. This car can be raucous or refined, just take your pick.”
The 24-valve uber-boxer draws the line between the two traits at about 4,500 rpm. Below that threshold, it feels almost like a laissez-faire V-8. Above it, brace yourself for an unreal push that combines the zest of an afterburner with the long legs of a gas turbine. The 4.0-liter normally aspirated kraftwerk bridges the extremes with a relentless energy that the modern turbocharged 3.0-liter unit can only dream of. It’s the perfect engine for this hooligan car in disguise, which is as minimalist inside as its reduced appearance suggests. On the autobahn, the R even eclipses the two sold-out Batmobiles: At 200 mph, its slipperier body gives it the top speed edge over GT3 and GT3 RS.
The 991 lucky buyers benefit from standard items including 918 Spyder-style buckets with traditional pepita cloth upholstery, bespoke green instrument faces, and a numbered plaque in the carbon-fiber dashboard trim. Air-conditioning and infotainment are no-cost options. Extra money buys a hydraulic front axle lift, more elaborate finishes for the lightweight wheels, full leather trim, and the single-mass flywheel.
A select few vehicles can be channeled through the Exclusive division, but since the R is the last of the pre-facelift 991-series 911 models, the production schedule is extremely tight. According to the Weissach grapevine, the next GT3 is due in 2017, followed by a new GT3 RS in 2018 — and perhaps a still-to-be-defined 911 R replacement the year after.
2016 Porsche 911 R Specifications
|Engine:||4.0L DOHC 24-valve flat-6/500 hp @ 8,250 rpm, 339 lb-ft @ 6,250 rpm|
|Layout:||2-door, 4-passenger, rear-engine, RWD coupe|
|EPA Mileage:||14/20 mpg (city/hwy) (est)|
|L x W x H:||178.4 x 72.9 x 50.2 in|
|0-60 MPH:||3.7 sec|
|Top Speed:||200 mph|