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.