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.