The Porsche 911 no longer looks like a Boxster when it looms in your rear-view mirror. Indeed, it could almost pass for a 911 Turbo now, thanks to a round of mid-cycle revisions such as new headlights and a restyled front fascia. A reshaped lower intake improves air flow by 15 percent, aiding brake cooling and increasing straight-line stability. Subtle enhancements to the bodywork also decrease front-end lift by 25 percent and rear-end lift by a remarkable 40 percent. And rather than just affecting stability at ludicrously high speeds, the revisions do an impressive job of tying the Carrera to the road between 50 and 80 mph, where the new 911 is notably more sure-footed than last year's car.
In addition to aerodynamic improvements, the 2002 Carrera and all-wheel-drive Carrera 4 models offer more power and a good deal more refinement. The horizontally opposed DOHC six-cylinder engine now features VarioCam Plus, which adjusts both the camshaft and valve lift. Displacement has gone up from 3.4 to 3.6 liters, power output has climbed from 300 to 315 horsepower, and the engine now musters 267 pound-feet of torque at a more relaxed 4250 rpm, up from 253 pound-feet at 4600 rpm. The beefier torque curve improves acceleration, reduces noise and mechanical stress, and helps improve fuel economy slightly; Carrera models go from 17 mpg city/25 mpg highway to 18 mpg city/26 mpg highway.
Not surprisingly, the 315-horsepower 911 is a bit quicker than its predecessor. Carrera and Carrera 4 coupes equipped with the standard six-speed manual gearbox will sprint from 0 to 62 mph in 5.0 seconds, eclipsing the 2001 version by 0.2 second; Cabriolet models take 5.2 seconds. Top speed has gone up from 175 to 177 mph. Going by raw numbers, the 3.6-liter engine doesn't appear to be a huge improvement over the 3.4, but the powertrain works far better on the road for a variety of reasons. Throttle response is sharper than before, the revised six-speed is lighter and more precise, and the optional Tiptronic S five-speed manu-matic transmission--borrowed from the 911 Turbo--reacts more promptly to driver inputs than the old Tiptronic.
In close cooperation with tiremaker Continental, Porsche has developed new eighteen-inch low-profile rubber, optional on new five-spoke light-alloy wheels. The extra-wide footwear adds to the 911's already formidable grip and roadholding, speeds up turn-in, and improves steering feedback. On the debit side, we noticed excessive tramlining on poor surfaces and a certain amount of front-end pitch. Although Porsche claims that the 911's recalibrated springs and dampers were inspired by the stiff-riding GT3 limited-production model, even a back-to-back comparison with last year's 911 Carrera failed to show a significant difference. The handling is still crisp and communicative, but the frame-filling tires, the wider front track, and an extra dose of early understeer make it even harder than before to dial in a truly aggressive cornering attitude. Without the ferocious power of the Turbo or the GT2, the 911 Carrera simply hangs on--provided, at least, that the road is dry and there is no abrupt transfer of weight. As a result, the revised Carrera is now even easier to drive fast and even more unlikely to put a wheel wrong. Over time, the 911 has indeed become a very smooth and talented car, but in the process it also has lost some of the rawness that made life with older Carreras so entertaining and challenging.
The biggest challenge with the 911 remains the sticker price. The Carrera coupe starts at $67,900, up $1400 from last year; the Carrera Cabriolet starts at $77,600, up $1600. In exchange for the extra dough, Porsche is giving us a better-performing car and a host of detail improvements, such as a new three-spoke steering wheel, a gauge cluster borrowed from the 911 Turbo, and a lockable, illuminated glove compartment. The Swabian Scrooges still make you pay for the Porsche Stability Management system on the regular Carrera, although it is standard on Carrera 4 models.
Perhaps money doesn't really enter this equation. After all, how can you justify the $26,000 price difference between the new Carrera convertible and the Boxster S, or the $45,000 margin that distances the Turbo from the 911 coupe? What is certain is that the face-lifted 911 has become an amazingly complete and surprisingly accessible sports car. Style- and status-conscious buyers will love it, but cast-iron Porschephiles may prefer to wait for the next-generation 911 GT3, which is due in early 2003.