Its looks haven't changed much over forty years, but it's the subtle improvements that make each new 911 so great. And if you still haven't driven one after all this time, you're probably one of those misguided souls who think the horizontally opposed, shoved-up-the-wazoo engine makes the 911 nothing more than an overhyped, overpriced VW Beetle derivative.
But you're wrong. Drive a 911, and you'll want to buy it. If you can't afford a new one, get a used one. It'll fit the bill just fine until this 2009 model comes down in price. Because this is the 911 you really want.
We were a little worried that Porsche would finally mess up its biggest success story. After all, pretty much everyone agrees that there wasn't anything wrong with the current 911. But just like they've done repeatedly over the last five decades, the Weissach wizards have made the 911 even better.
The updated 911 is still referred to internally as the 997, and outwardly, it's simply a midcycle face-lift. No modifications have been made to the steel body panels, just minor changes to the front and rear fascias. Updated bixenon headlights now can be ordered with the ability to swivel. A revised front bumper houses en vogue LED daytime running lights and provides significantly better cooling, eliminating the need for a center radiator. The taillights are now pointier at their edges and dip slightly into the bumper fascia, giving the car a somewhat drowsy look from behind. But that's only until they're illuminated, because the sixty LEDs in each taillight are retina-searingly bright.
Inside, the 5.8-inch LCD screen on the center console has been replaced by a new touch screen measuring 6.5 inches. This third generation of PCM (Porsche Communication Management) combines all audio and navigation functions and features full iPod integration, as well as a USB jack and auxiliary input. The system is far easier to use than the old dial-driven setup and has a simple and logical menu structure. Our test car also had an optional Bose stereo that sounds great, although its subwoofer occupies an unfortunate amount of space in the passenger footwell. To ensure that the 911 remains an everyday sports car even in extreme climates, seat coolers (in addition to steering wheel and seat heaters) are now offered. The coolers work quickly and effectively, although the fans do make more noise than those in other high-end vehicles.
The bigger noise generator, however, is hidden beneath the little engine cover in back. The 2009 911 receives an all-new engine, not just a revision of the existing flat-six, whose basic architecture dates back ten years to the first water-cooled 911s. With a crankcase now made from two pieces instead of four, the new top-spec engine is not only dimensionally smaller (by 24 cubic centimeters), it's also stiffer, weighs a few pounds less, and has a lower center of gravity.
As before, two engines are available. Base Carrera models receive a 3.6-liter unit that produces 345 hp and 287 lb-ft of torque; increases of 20 hp and 14 lb-ft over last year's 3.6-liter. The Carrera S's 3.8-liter unit now crosses the magic 100-hp-per-liter mark, churning out 385 hp and 310 lb-ft, 30 hp and 15 lb-ft more than before.
The power bump comes courtesy of a higher compression ratio (12.5:1 for both engines), a reduction in friction (which also allows a higher, 7500-rpm redline), and direct fuel injection. A revised integral dry-sump system uses four scavenge pumps - one in each corner of the engine - and a new variable-volume oil pump. These changes also make the new 911 engines more fuel-efficient than their predecessors, despite the power increases. After all, what's the point of having all that muscle if you can't afford to use it?
Porsche revised the 911's dampers, springs, and antiroll bars to deal with the extra power. All steel-rotor 911s now have 330-mm (13.0-inch) brake rotors straddled by four-piston calipers all around. The carbon-ceramic brake option bumps the rotor size to 350 mm (13.8 inches) and increases the front piston count to six per wheel.
The driving experience is, as you'd expect, similar to last year's cars: the 911 communicates constantly with its driver. Its thin-rimmed steering wheel performs an interpretive dance in your hands, sharing with you its fascination with changing road surfaces, cambers, and grip levels. Hard braking is drama-free even at speeds beyond 180 mph, accompanied by reassuring, rock-hard pedal feel and zero fade. The 911's PASM active suspension (optional on the base Carrera) delivers a ride that is all-day comfortable without ever allowing body motions to get out of hand. The shifter is light, and the clutch engages over what feels like the entire travel of the pedal. Combined with the visceral flat-six, which now responds to throttle inputs even more immediately than before, shifting is so easy that you wonder why anyone would ever want an automatic.
And then you try the optional PDK, Porsche's brand-new dual-clutch transmission. PDK may be named unimaginatively (it stands for Porsche Doppelkupplungsgetriebe, or "Porsche double-clutch gearbox" in English), but it's practically psychic in its operation, choosing both the gear and the shift speed that you'd pick yourself. Off-the-line clutch engagement is smooth and linear, and under most circumstances, you can't feel shifts even if you try. PDK is the best dual-clutch transmission yet; and that achievement is no surprise when you consider that Porsche developed it jointly with ZF, maker of the world's best automatic transmissions.
The seven-speed PDK, which replaces the ancient five-speed Tiptronic automatic, is geared similarly to the manual in first through sixth gears, reserving seventh as an ultralong, ultraefficient cruising gear. The drop between sixth and seventh is drastic - whereas the manual 911's engine turns almost 3200 rpm at 80 mph in top gear, the PDK's is loafing along at just 2200 rpm. The 911 has always been one of the most fuel-efficient sports cars, but the new 911's less thirsty engines and PDK's long top gear reduce fuel consumption by about fifteen percent.
The PDK is simple to use, too - a console-mounted shifter works just like that of an automatic transmission. It features the requisite manual control via either the shifter or push/pull paddles mounted on the steering wheel. The PDK's one fault is that Porsche, for reasons of tradition, kept the Tiptronic shifter's push-forward-for-upshifts pattern. This is the opposite of what you find in sequentially shifted racing cars, and it's a shame that Porsche didn't use this opportunity to change it. Thankfully, the transmission won't upshift at the rev limiter or automatically downshift while in manual mode unless you press the kickdown switch at the bottom of the gas pedal's travel. That switch is a great feature both for safety and performance: say you're cruising in seventh gear in manual mode at 50 mph and need speed quickly. Plant your foot in the carpet, and the transmission will instantly drop into second gear and upshift at redline as long as your foot remains on the floor.
Our test car was equipped with the Sport Chrono package, which gives the PDK two additional modes - Sport and Sport Plus. In Sport mode, the transmission shifts more quickly, with more positive clutch engagement. Sport Plus adds much quicker shifts at full throttle, and both modes use a more aggressive shift map in automatic mode. The Sport Chrono pack also includes a launch-control feature for the PDK, which dumps the clutch at 6500 rpm and then modulates throttle if necessary for optimal grip. It also knocks an additional 0.2 second off the rush to 60 mph (now accomplished in only 4.1 seconds for Carrera S models, 4.3 seconds for the base model).
The best part about PDK is how simple it is to use. Unlike BMW's M DCT Drivelogic, which offers a dizzying number of modes to choose from, the PDK has a total of three intuitive, well-thought-out settings. Unfortunately, PDK cars without the Sport Chrono option pack don't offer the extra sport-shift modes. In regular mode, upshifts occur early in the interest of fuel economy and seem slightly at odds with the 911's sporting nature. Of course, you can still shift manually if you're hustling, but we highly recommend the package.
Porsche has raised the 911's base price by between $2000 and $3000 for 2009, due to additional content as well as the weak dollar. Following the company's long-standing tradition of expensive options, the PDK adds a not-insubstantial $4080 premium. We think the price increase is reasonable, though, since this is the best 911 yet. Ferdinand Porsche's decree that the 911 should be an everyday sports car is true now more than ever - this Porsche can be fully enjoyed by those who can't (or won't) drive a manual transmission. And with a significant increase in fuel efficiency, it doesn't even have to look different to remain the perfect sports car for the times.
History: Porsche Double-Clutch Genealogy
by Marc Noordeloos
America had its first taste of a dual-clutch transmission in the 2004 Audi TT 3.2, but the innovative technology traces its roots back much further. French engineer Adolphe Kegresse developed the concept in the late 1930s but was unsuccessful in getting it to production. Porsche experimented with a dual-clutch gearbox in the 1960s, shelved it due to persistent problems with rough shifting, and then resurrected it in the 1970s for a German government project. Real progress had to wait until Porsche took it to the racetrack in the 1980s, although the company always hoped that the technology would trickle down to production cars.
The company's racing engineers figured that no-lift shifts could help reduce turbo lag, and so they tested the gearbox, called PDK, in a retired Group C 956 in 1983. The setup was similar to a modern dual-clutch transmission, but there was a manual clutch pedal for pulling away from a stop. Early problems included oil leaks and clutch issues. A PDK was first used in public during practice at a Group C race at Kyalami in South Africa, but it was decided that the gearbox wasn't ready for prime time, and it wasn't used for the race.
Testing continued in 1984. The goal was to improve reliability and shift speed and to reduce the weight of the gearbox, which at the time added some ninety pounds to the back of the car. The system was used for the first time in a race that year at Imola, but it lasted only two laps before suffering hydraulic issues.
By 1985, Porsche regularly campaigned a car with PDK as its third entry in Group C races. Wins were elusive, but durability improved.
Porsche frequently raced cars with PDK in 1986, except during the 24 Hours of Le Mans due to dependability concerns. At that point, the transmission carried about a one percent advantage in lap times despite its weight penalty. The automaker finally got what it wanted - a PDK win - at Monza, helped by the fact that the race was only 365 kilometers (227 miles) instead of the usual 1000 kilometers (621 miles). Development of the gearbox continued, and the weight disadvantage eventually was reduced to less than fifty pounds. Reliability still affected results, however.
PDK was no longer a priority for Porsche after it withdrew from Group C in 1987. The far less sophisticated Tiptronic automatic debuted in the 1990 911 Carrera 2. Now, twenty-five years after Porsche got serious about dual-clutch technology, customers finally can enjoy what the company always hoped for - a PDK transmission in a road car.
Q&A: Derek Bell Former Porsche factory driver
Talk about your experiences with PDK in Group C racing.
Porsche was always developing something new, so you had to be prepared for that. I believe I first ran it at a test at Paul Ricard. The principle was brilliant; we picked up time, without a doubt. But it didn't often happen the way it was supposed to. It added a lot of extra weight. I have to say, it felt like you had a trailer on the back. A failure nearly cost me the world championship in 1986. But Porsche would stick to something, because that's what they had to do.
Are you surprised to see PDK on a road car today?
Nothing is a surprise with Porsche. They have such a good group of engineers who do things for good reasons. I'm sure it also doesn't add a ton of weight. Sure, it's twenty-some years down the road, but they haven't been sitting on their thumbs.