The Porsche Carrera GT lifts its nose, squats down, and leaps forward like a world-class sprinter out of the blocks. With traction control activated, wheelspin isn't an issue in first or second gear, which clonks in at 48 mph. Porsche claims that the Carrera GT can storm from 0 to 62 mph in just 3.9 seconds-on this run, we record 4.2 seconds, and that feels pretty damned quick.
Second gear stretches to an indicated 82 mph, third is good for 113 mph, and fourth takes us to 143 mph-close to the chip-controlled top speed for all BMWs, Audis, and Mercedes-Benzes. In the Carrera GT, though, there are still two more ratios to come. Fifth runs out of revs at 170 mph, and sixth takes over at 7000 rpm. Because it's not that aerodynamically efficient (the Cd is 0.40), the Carrera GT tops out at 205 mph-plenty fast but some way short of a McLaren F1, for instance. Porsche tester Roland Kussmaul says that some of the prototypes have been clocked at up to 218 mph, but one would need a ton of room to achieve that. In the vast acreage of the Michelin proving ground at Gross-Dlln, near Berlin, we run out of road at 199 mph. This exercise looks positively stunning from the outside, but on a dry stretch of arrow-straight tarmac, driving this ber-Porsche at this speed is childishly simple.
The Carrera GT is Porsche's fastest and most expensive supercar, challenging the Ferrari Enzo Ferrari and the upcoming Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren for the title of ultimate supercar of the early twenty-first century. Like the others, the Carrera has a carbon fiber monocoque chassis, with a matching drivetrain cradle. Made in Italy, each monocoque consists of more than 1000 individual elements that are glued, laminated, and baked together. Attached to the carbon fiber structure are composite body panels, so you need to look long and hard to detect the few metal ingredients. Among them are the front chassis rails, tubular A-post inserts, fuel tank, and double control-arm and pushrod suspension. The combination of an ultra-stiff structure with suspension components mounted without rubber isolation yields exceptional steering precision and unfiltered, unamplified communication among car, driver, and the road on which they travel.
The Carrera GT is a pure, no-frills Porsche-the suspension isn't adjustable, there's no launch control, no turbocharger, not even all-wheel drive. Porsche has gone out of its way to design a new transversely mounted transmission, officially claiming that existing sequential manuals aren't quick enough but unofficially conceding that its own twin-clutch gearbox couldn't be completed in time. To lower the car's center of gravity, the clutch diameter was minimized, thanks to its ceramic construction.
The mid-mounted 5.7-liter V-10 engine is an entirely new unit that weighs just 472 pounds. Code-named M80, it has a bore and stroke of 98 millimeters by 76 millimeters to give a displacement of 5733 cc. It also has a 68-degree V angle, four overhead camshafts actuating four valves per cylinder, a forged steel crankshaft, and titanium connecting rods. The intake valves use VarioCam variable timing. With 603 horsepower available at 8000 rpm and 435 pound-feet of torque at 5750 rpm, the 3200-pound Carrera GT is one of the quickest sets of wheels (a lot of) money can buy. With the roof in place, the fastest-ever production Porsche will beam you from 0 to 124 mph in a stellar 9.9 seconds. Luckily, the Carrera GT has stopping power to match its thrust. The 15.0-inch-diameter ceramic-composite discs are straddled by bright yellow, six-piston, single-piece calipers.
According to Walter Rhrl, rally driver extraordinaire and a senior member of the product development team, "Gross-Dlln is the ideal supercar playground, and it's the perfect place to launch the Carrera GT. A former army base, this vast area features all kinds of roads and all kinds of surfaces. The longest straight measures 3.0 miles, so you don't need to risk your neck trying to hit 200 mph on a congested autobahn." The facility is owned by Michelin, and the connection is no coincidence. The latest-generation PS2 Pilot Sport tires are made by the French tire giant and were developed especially for the Carrera GT. Soon available in other sizes, this is the first-ever dual-compound road tire. The asymmetrical, unidirectional tread pattern consists of two elements: a central deep-groove, wet-weather section made of 100 percent soot-colored silicate and a soft, slick-type outer edge and shoulder, which feels like sponge rubber but lasts a lot longer. Kuss-maul explains: "In normal driving conditions, you get all the benefits of an excellent all-around tire, with strong wet grip and benign breakaway characteristics. On the track, however, the dual compound turns the PS2 into a hard-core racing tire that introduces a new level of traction and roadholding. Like all competition tires, it needs to be brought up to temperature to deliver."
No one's better suited for this job than Rhrl, who introduces himself by putting in some lurid demonstration laps. The lanky former world rally champion is still a wizard at the wheel, his skill evident through the 125-mph-plus fourth-gear kinks where lesser mortals would back off, not press on. Even with the ASC traction control active, the Carrera GT has a relatively lively rear end. Since there's no stability control-Porsche's PSM system is absent here-a degree of sudden sideways motion is liable to turn one's remaining hair a slightly lighter shade of gray. Rhrl says, "It's fun with a safety net, because the slide is always induced by g-force, not throttle-controlled wheelspin."
Egged on by the champ, I deactivate the traction control and start feeding more oomph to the rear wheels-which light up accordingly, even in second gear and even at relatively moderate revs. What's surprising is the car's controllability and tactility, rather than any drama or suddenness. I wouldn't dare to push the Carrera GT to its limit on a public road, but the generous runoff at Gross-Dlln tempts me to rediscover the beauty of throttle steer and opposite lock. Although it takes determination and an emphatic stab on the loud pedal to upset the balance, the massive power and torque help light up the tires and pull through the slide. Although there is a faint trace of body roll that warns you're reaching the limit of adhesion, the transition past that threshold is prompt rather than progressive.
Although the state-of-the-art six-speed transmission is quick and the ratios are well spaced, the classic manual shifter is not as cool, convenient, or fail-safe as a pair of fingertip actuators. The clutch, too, is tricky, and it would be easy to stall the car from rest if you weren't paying attention. The V-10 engine, on the other hand, is pure magic. It can lip-read the throttle pedal, it works on cue as only a high-revving normally aspirated engine can, and it is equally good at playing hardball to the tune of master drifter Rhrl or cruising all day at 75 mph over eastern Germany's speed-limited autobahns. This engine manages to be linear and explosive, progressive and peaky, well mannered and wild. It has rocketlike power and turbinelike smoothness, and it can be hushed at idle and almost as loud as an F1 engine at full song.
Gross-Dlln may be power-slide paradise and the kingdom of grip, but it's not real-world driving. That's why we sneak away on a loop around Lake Werbellin, where the well-to-do comrades used to spend their summer vacations when East Germany was a Russian ally. The most obvious hangovers from the bad old days are the roads; resurfaced and straightened where necessary, most of them are still tree-lined and narrower than those in the capitalist west. The Porsche turns out to be surprisingly surface-sensitive. It loves the smooth sections, but it keeps bottoming out on the pock-marked preunification bylanes, while the steering plays kick-and-pull with the driving wheels. Wheel travel is not exactly abundant, and the wide, wide tires-265/35ZR-19 at the front on 9.5-inch-wide magnesium rims, 335/30ZR-20 out back on 12.5-inch-wide wheels-are big enough to pick up just about any longitudinal or lateral imperfection they can find, calling for constant corrections at the wheel.
The long, lazy sweepers that link the outskirts of Berlin with the Polish border don't pose a serious challenge for a car that was born to win Le Mans. "The Carrera GT sets new standards in terms of driving dynamics," states senior project engineer Michael Hlscher. "We managed to reduce the weight to an absolute minimum and pushed the center of gravity down to a record low, and we believe the structural stiffness is second to none. The result is a thoroughly practical and street-legal racing car, an accessible high-performance driving machine." Accessible is, of course, a relative term. There's the $440,000 asking price, for one thing. Plus, the small doors and tight cabin are fine for six-footers, but the taller members of the human race-like me-will find legroom restricted on the right by the self-supporting center console and headroom curtailed by two padded, detachable roof panels. Shoulder room, too, is limited by the lightweight bucket seats that mercifully come in two different sizes. Ergonomic flaws include the handbrake, which crouches next to the tall doorsill, and the steering wheel, which adjusts only for reach, not rake. The bottom-hinged lightweight pedals and the laminated-wood shifter knob (a nice touch harking back to the 917), however, are placed just so.
The cabin struggles to make up its mind whether it wants to be a style statement or a work station. To reflect the car's structure, the cockpit goes heavy on carbon fiber. Other materials of choice are leather and magnesium. Useful amenities include a navigation system and a car phone, as well as a CD/MP3/ MMC-compatible Bose sound system. The Carrera GT isn't utterly practical, however. With the roof off, trunk volume shrinks from a token 2.7 cubic feet to next to nothing.
The Carrera GT is slightly shorter than a Ferrari Enzo, and yet it sits on a longer wheelbase. Despite these more radical and, from some angles, more dramatic proportions, there is a cautiously evolutionary look to the Porsche, reminiscent of classics such as the 718 Spyder, the 917, or the more recent GT1, without giving a clear indication of the shape of things to come.
Supercars always take time to get used to, primarily because their abilities are so great. The Carrera GT needs space to develop a rhythm, stretch its legs, dial in fast forward when the road is clear, and switch to slo-mo when it is not. The first thing you notice when the conditions are right is the incredible directional stability. Unlike a 911, which waltzes through bends and rock-and-rolls down the straights, the new mid-engined roadster stays flat and calm, keeping the usually busy dialogue between input and feedback to a bare minimum. The other overriding impression is the relativity of speed. In this car, 150 mph on the autobahn feels comfortable and by no means extraordinary. Since this perception quickly becomes habit-forming, you're almost always going too fast. It takes obstacles such as a railroad crossing, a pothole, or a deeper-than-usual dip to put the extreme velocity into perspective. All the time, the Carrera GT relays an almost irresistible virtual-reality feel to building up speed and reducing it. It invites you to carve through traffic as if you were Batman on the way to work. All that's missing is a button that allows you to leapfrog congestion when it gets in your way.
We return to Gross-Dlln. Like the Ferrari Enzo, the Carrera GT is a wonderful track car, in its element in wide open spaces, free of other road users. "It actually beats the Ferrari against the stopwatch," remarks a grinning Rhrl, "but I'm not supposed to tell you that. The margin is actually quite narrow." On smooth pavement, the Porsche performs like a prima ballerina at her best: It is powerful, graceful, and masterful. With the engine shouting itself hoarse and the fat Michelins yelling for help, the Carrera GT etches itself into your memory as one of the truly special driving experiences. You forget the tricky clutch, the large exterior and small interior, its hatred of bumps, and the silly price. It's not as overtly aggressive or as intimately involving or as ruthlessly black and white as the Enzo, but it is a better all-arounder and more usable every day. Those who can spend and choose should not waste any time; out of the 1500 cars Porsche will build over the next few years, 1250 are already spoken for.