0.0 km We pick up the new Porsche 911 at the factory in Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen. Once we get onto public roads, not many people notice the new 911, Project 997, because it looks so similar to the outgoing 996 model. But in Zuffenhausen, the epicenter of the Porsche empire, the car drew a crowd almost immediately. Our attempt to leave the premises in the first undisguised specimen put the uniformed security brigade on the alert. They insisted on getting chairman Wendelin Wiedeking's personal OK before reluctantly opening the gate.
35.8 km Although Porsche is marketing the car as "The New 911," this description is stretching reality, because the 997 is more of an evolution of the 996, which was launched eight years ago. "The only exterior body section that was taken over from the outgoing model is the roof," stresses chief project engineer August Achleitner. But as far as the body structure, the chassis, and the drivetrain are concerned, the latest iteration of the 911 theme incorporates a mix of old and new elements. The wheelbase remains unchanged, for instance, as do the cornerstones of the suspension and the rear-mounted boxer engine. All 997 versions boast better aerodynamics than the 996. The drag coefficient is down from 0.30 to 0.28 (Carrera) and 0.29 (Carrera S), front and rear lift have been reduced, and there is now a flush-fitting underbody. Despite more standard equipment, improved crash protection, and a wider body, the curb weight has gone up only marginally, from 3021 pounds to 3076 pounds. Not surprisingly, the essential question that pops up is whether the latest 911 is really new enough to sail through a full six-year cycle without sagging. We'll have an answer about 500 miles from now.
99.1 km Three lanes, good weather, and not much traffic on the A5 Karlsruhe-Basel autobahn-time to go for it! The shift lever slides back into fourth, and the tach needle swings toward the 7200 rpm redline, then repeat the action into fifth gear, then clickety-click into sixth, the throttle once more buried firmly in the firewall. Accelerating to an indicated 150 mph is easy, but at about 165 mph, the momentum lessens, and the digital speedometer starts counting in smaller increments: 170, 175, 178-yep, the middle lane is still empty-180, 183-slight kink to the right, uh-huh, keep your foot planted!-186, 188, 188 mph. Rien ne va plus. Maxing a 911 on the autobahn is always the same: your palms are damp, your knuckles are white, and you have a familiar "I did it" smile when you glance in the rearview mirror.
201.0 km Germany ends where France begins, but all that's left from the formerly busy border crossing are a few deserted buildings. As we travel into France, the most obvious difference between the two countries is the abrupt transition from smooth, light gray concrete to corrugated blacktop. The Porsche picks up the gauntlet at once, fighting the road from the first pothole. Minutes later, we spot a gendarme on his blue BMW motorbike and he sees us, too, but, fortunately, the subsequent tte--tte does not end in tears. Instead, the subservient journalist explains to Monsieur le Cop that this is the new Porsche 911, and it comes in two flavors: the hot 321 horsepower Carrera 3.6 and the very hot 350 horsepower Carrera 3.8 S. (The 2004 Carrera makes 315 horsepower.) Our test car is a fully loaded Carrera S, complete with signature quad tailpipes and extra-fat nineteen-inch wheels. On the twisties that are typical of the Alsace region, the fat Michelins hang on with Velcro-strap determination, and the sport suspension relays faithfully some of the most challenging topography you can find on a public road.
The new 911 holds the road like a magnetic field in motion. The name of the miracle drug that allows for this is Porsche Active Suspension Management. Standard on the Carrera S, PASM combines a lower ride height and tauter springs with four electronically controlled dampers. By pushing a button in the center console, the driver can select between two different settings. Normal is essentially comfort-oriented until the point when an aggressive driving style automatically triggers a tauter mode. In Sport, the dampers instantly stiffen, effectively suppressing undesirable body movements. If this isn't radical enough for you, there's a performance pack that lowers the ride by 0.8 inch and throws in a differential lock for good measure.
299.7 km A narrow mountain road near Grardmer, still closed for the winter, is traffic-free and offers an excellent opportunity to put the optional Sport Chrono Pack Plus to the test. Priced at less than 1000 euros (about $1200), this clumsily named option actually speeds up the throttle response, permits higher revs, tightens the PASM reins, accelerates the shift action of the optional Tiptronic gearbox, and triggers stability control hairraisingly late in the game. Using a column-mounted stalk, the driver also can activate a stopwatch to time performance over a given stretch of road-such as part of the morning run from home to the office or this amazing set of serpentines in the middle of the Parc des Ballons. "Sport Chrono not only makes the car feel faster," claims Achleitner, "but it actually makes the car faster. This is an affordable and effective alternative to classic performance enhancement measures like engine tuning."
389.3 km At 8:55 in the morning, crossing the picturesque Vosges region, our journey suddenly grinds to a halt. Moments after picking up a small, sharp object, the front left tire runs out of air with a hiss and a bang. Within seconds, the pressure-control system switches on the brightest red warning light we've ever seen. We stop, pop the front hatch, and find our worst fears confirmed: instead of a spare wheel, the plasticky black cubicle houses only a tire-repair kit.
The ensuing three-hour wait offers a good opportunity to check out the completely redesigned interior. New attractions include a multifunctional steering wheel, revised instruments with integrated alphanumeric displays, fresh A/C controls, and a large Cayenne-style in-dash color monitor flanked by no fewer than fifty-one different knobs and buttons. All it takes to access this vast, computerized playground is a third eye, an unerring index finger, and enough RAM to remember which is what.
We also notice the lower driving position, a less intrusive pedal box, and a steering column that (hooray!) tilts as well as telescopes. Together, these measures create more head and leg room. Extra money buys heated memory seats with pneumatically adjustable cushions and backrests.
422.3 km At the Swiss border, a couple of poker-faced guards suggest we shell out 50 francs for a sticker that entitles us to use the radar-infested Confederate autobahn network for what's left of 2004. Thanks, guys, but no thanks. The other option is secondary roads, which tend to be busy and slow. But the more relaxed pace has a profound effect on the fuel consumption, which improves dramatically from 13 to 20 mpg between Bern and Saint Gall. Even in sixth gear at frustratingly low revs, the upgraded boxer engine is an addictive, multitalented musical instrument. The 3.8-liter flat six now churns out 295 pound-feet of torque at 4600 rpm, up from 273 pound-feet at 4250 rpm, thanks to a bigger, 99-millimeter (3.9-inch) bore and revised exhaust, intake manifold, and combustion chambers.
518.0 km The Swiss love powerful, expensive cars, but they refuse to notice the brand new Porsche as it inches past the mansions of the megarich on the Zrichsee. That's quite sad, because the 997 is a much more convincing effort than the 996, which looked very average after its face-lift. The Coke-bottle silhouette and the more upright round headlamps of the 2005 911 hark back to the much-loved 993, but there are also cool new styling elements such as the taillights and the turn signals, a front bumper that has the five horizontal air intakes, and the flared wheel arches.
639.5 km We avoid the toll road maze and enter Austria through the back door near Saint Margrethen, tiptoeing along the banks of beautiful Lake Constance, zigzagging through Bregenz, before returning to Germany at Lindau. During this forty-five minute intra-urban crawl, the advantages of the improved drivetrain come through loud and clear. The brand-new six-speed transmission is much quicker and slicker, the engine obeys throttle orders with minimum delay and maximum linearity, and the clutch, which used to be capricious and heavily spring-loaded, is now progressive and benign.
676.0 km With the Lindau city limits behind us, we let the Carrera rip. The S accelerates from 0 to 62 mph in 4.8 seconds, according to Porsche, eclipsing the base version by 0.2 second. While the 321-horsepower Carrera 2 will top 178 mph, the 350-horsepower variant can reach a maximum speed of 183 mph, which corresponds to the aforementioned speedometer's optimistic indicated 188 mph. With the Bregenz Casino just around the corner, we wonder how much we would need to win to buy the new 911. The Carrera costs $70,095 in the United States, just $700 more than the outgoing model. The S is listed at $79,895. The extra money buys not only 30 more horses but also PASM, Turbo brakes, bi-xenon lights, and nineteen-inch wheels. While Porsche expects an evenly split model mix, we wouldn't be surprised to see the top-of-the-line car outselling its lesser stablemate.
794.1 km It's dark and wet and late when we arrive at the Kacher residence at Herrsching near Munich. Sebastian and Max are still wide awake, though, because they know a special guest is spending the night in Dad's garage. The following morning, we go for an extended test drive, carefully selecting little used minor roads. The variable rate steering feels a little more indifferent around the straight ahead position now, but it turns in with added precision and is less readily irritated by undulations in the road. Borrowed from the 911 Turbo, the brakes-with four-piston monoblock calipers-are more powerful than ever, respond more promptly thanks to a bigger booster, and are easier to modulate, too. Ceramic composite discs are available as an option. The more aggressively calibrated stability control system extends the limits before saving you from disaster. Alternatively, if you're feeling brave, you can deactivate PSM, find a damp second gear corner, drop the hammer, and put on a slide show the boys will talk about for weeks to come.
863.1 km After three days, one new tire, four refueling stops, and two close encounters with the law, man and machine have become one homogenous unit. This is yet another 911 one gets used to very easily. In the back of my mind, there's a dangerous "I'm not going to give it back" attitude unfolding-despite drawbacks such as the 16.9-gallon fuel tank and the useless rear seats. But the Carrera S is definitely worth a home-equity withdrawal. The only other quibble with this car is its almost overpowering blend of perfection and high-tech overkill. Perhaps we don't really want to keep switching between suspension settings. Nor do we know whether the network of PASM, POSIP, ABS, PCCB, PSM, and PCM is an asset or Big Brother in disguise. But perhaps there's an ultimate 997 down the road: a decontented, minimalistic, lightweight Clubsport edition. That would be pretty amazing.
911.0 km We arrive back at Porsche's HQ with steaming brake discs, crackling exhausts, and scrubbed tires. It's hard to get out and switch off just like that, because the car is so compelling. The new 911 is immensely involving, more complete and more able than ever, faster still and yet better balanced, as unmistakable as before but at the same time more accessible. The engineers have done a sterling job, and, if our three-day experience is anything to go by, Porsche may need to expand the facilities at Zuffenhausen to store the extra revenue this model will generate.