First Drive: 2010 Porsche 911 Turbo

October 27, 2009
As we're pulling into the pits following a very sideways lap of Portugal's rain-soaked Estoril race track, I ask my tour guide Walter Röhrl which is his favorite 911. It turns out we're in it - the racing legend lives in an area that gets a good bit of snow, so a rear-drive 911 is out of the question. He drives a four-wheel drive 911 Turbo. And given what I've just experienced from the passenger seat, there's certainly no drawback to having all four of the 911's wheels driven or its engine force-fed by two turbos.
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Let's divide this review into two sections - a short Cliffs Notes section, and then a whole lot of rambling about the new Porsche 911 Turbo.
THE CLIFFS NOTES SECTION
All-new 3.8-liter engine with direct injection, 500 hp (20 more than before), direct injection. Higher compression and lower boost pressure reduces on/off effect of turbo lag. Sport Chrono pack gives overboost, bumping peak torque from 479 lb-ft to 516 lb-ft. Recalibrated all-wheel drive system and PASM adaptive suspension for better handling; 10 seconds faster around the Nürburgring than the 2009 Turbo (lap time is now 7m39s) and gets considerably better fuel economy. 6-speed manual is standard, ancient 5-speed automatic replaced by fabulous 7-speed twin-clutch PDK (which has launch control on Sport Chrono cars, and optional steering-wheel mounted shift paddles in place of the backwards buttons that are standard.) Optional center-lock wheels are so gorgeous you'll want to lick them.
THE FULL STORY
Let's cut to the chase: there's little question that the 2010 Porsche 911 Turbo is the best Turbo yet. Is it the best 911? In my book, that position is still occupied by the GT3, the loud, rough, manic, please-put-me-on-a-track 911. The Turbo is far less raw - it's the Grand Tourer of the 911 lineup. It loses a lot of the flat-six soundtrack - the one that raises hairs on the back of your neck - in favor of ludicrous forward thrust and the sound of air rushing through the turbos. But what makes the Turbo so special is that it reduces the GT3's sensory overload to levels more appropriate for daily driving, and the fact that it does so without being any less capable as a sports car.
First of all, with 500 horsepower, it's fast as the dickens. Depending on transmission and trim choices, 60 mph can be yours in as little as 3.2 seconds, according to Porsche. That kind of thrust actually hurts a little. Seriously. In a good way, if you're into that kind of thing - and you probably are if you're reading this part of the review. But to put it in perspective: ever been sitting in the passenger seat of a modern car traveling at 60 mph and the driver suddenly slams on the brakes and comes to a complete stop under full ABS? The force that threw you against your seatbelt and sent your cell phone flying under the dash is about the same as what it feels like to floor the gas pedal in a 911. Just in the opposite direction. Kind of hurts, kind of feels good.
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The thrust comes courtesy of a flat-six that Porsche describes as the first all-new engine in the 911 Turbo's 35-year history. For the first time, it uses direct fuel injection, and it's 0.2 liters bigger than the last Turbo mill, displacing 3.8 liters. The switch to direct fuel injection and the larger size have resulted in a gain of only 20 hp, but - and here's the important part - the changes have dramatically reduced turbo lag. The additional displacement means more air flows to the turbochargers, spooling them up more quickly. The compression ratio has been increased from 9.0:1 to 9.8:1, combining with the additional displacement to help produce more power off-boost. And a lower peak boost pressure (11.6 psi, down from 14.5) means less of an on-off switch feeling when the boost does hit.
If ordered with the Sport Chrono package, the computer will allow up to 14.5 psi of boost - resulting in a peak of 516 lb-ft of torque instead of 479 - for ten seconds, albeit over a smaller plateau. The additional midrange alone will knock a tenth of a second off the 0-60 sprint.
Another major driveline change is the long-awaited retirement of the 5-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission. The last 2-pedal 911 Turbo was, frankly, an exercise in frustration: between the engine's prodigious lag and the transmission's widely spaced gear ratios, not to mention its occasional unwillingness to cooperate, the delay between throttle tip-in and the enormous thrust you're waiting for could be measured in months.*
*Slight exaggeration for illustrative purposes only.
That problem has now been completely solved, as Porsche has adapted its 7-speed twin-clutch PDK for use with the Turbo. It has some upgraded hardware and slightly longer third through sixth-gear ratios than in the normally aspirated Carrera models, but in function, it's identical. PDK (short for Porsche Doppelkupplungsgetriebe, which is short for 'Porsche double clutch transmission' and is pronounced Poor-sha duh-pull-coop-loongs-guh-treeb-uh), has six closely spaced gear ratios for fantastic acceleration, and then a long seventh gear for quiet, relaxed, and fuel-efficient high-speed cruising. Porsche is, to date, the only company with this gearing strategy, and they get mad props for it.
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It's only a personal preference, but I like the extra involvement you get with a 911 - even the turbocharged ones - with the standard six-speed manual. And I like that the Turbo exhibits no lag after a full-throttle shift. Short of having a physical handicap, I couldn't excuse anyone's purchase of a Tiptronic 911, but those days are over. You can't fault someone for choosing a PDK for three reasons: one, it works really, really well as both an automatic and an automated manual. Two, the ultralong seventh gear is fabulous on the highway. And three, Launch Control. Read on.
Launching a 911 is one of the most exhilarating experiences you can ever have in an automobile. It's a violent affair, unfortunately, so much so that if you have any degree of mechanical sympathy, you'll never do it. (And by launching, I mean loads of engine revs and a clutch dump into first gear with the gas pedal on the floor. And lots of wincing.)
If you specify the Sport Chrono package, PDK will do it for you - guilt free. There's apparently no risk of voiding the warranty or grenading the transmission like in a Nissan GT-R; Porsche engineers told me they got bored trying to blow it up after some ridiculous number of consecutive launches, and just gave up.
So without a shred of guilt, you engage Sport Plus mode, turn off PSM, and floor the accelerator pedal while holding the brake. A light in the 3:00-position steering wheel spoke comes on that says "LAUNCH CONTROL," and the magnetorheological engine mounts stiffen in anticipation of a big event. The engine surges to 5000 rpm; it's not a smooth, steady elevated idle, though - the engine computers are obviously playing some tricks to try to generate boost in advance. The turbos whistle, pop, and chatter a little. And when you let your foot off the brake, so does your stomach. You feel like you got punched in the torso as the computer dumps the clutch and the Turbo catapults forward.
With all four wheels spinning, you need to be pretty quick on the steering wheel - the 911 will move around laterally (uh, which means it'll dart around in search of a curb or an oncoming car.) Second gear comes almost instantaneously and with no interruption in power, then third, then fourth, then, oh, hello, Officer. Oh, and your passenger might pass out with fear. If not, he or she will likely be screaming at a pitch slightly higher than that of the police cruiser's siren.
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If you really want to scare the daylights out of someone while retaining your license, you'll need a curvy race track. While it's certainly possible to frighten yourself and everyone around you on a curvy public road, that kind of fear is there for a reason. It's a healthy, self-preservation reason.
And besides, 911s aren't the kind of cars to take past their limits on narrow public roads. Their brilliance is how high the limits are, not how easy you can recover once you've blown through them.
On a racetrack, though, you can play with the Turbo in a controlled environment with lots of run off, and that invokes good fear. The Oh-My-God-this-car-isn't-going-to-make-this-curve kind of fear. Because if you know how to handle it, the 911 Turbo will, in fact, make the curve.
Nothing like the widow-maker 911s of yore, modern 911s nevertheless retain the rear-engine tendency towards lift-off oversteer. That feature may be a liability on the street (with stability control switched off), but it makes 911s fabulously throttle-adjustable on the track, and this Turbo is no exception. The last-generation Turbo was very, very fast around a race track, and it would happily powerslide around corner after corner. When you tried to be neat, tidy, and quick, though, it required serious effort: it would understeer on the way into a corner, and then when the boost hit (some measurable time after you squeezed the throttle), it would transition quickly into oversteer. Fun? Yes. Fast? Well, yes, but only if you really, really knew what you were doing. Like, if your name was Walter Röhrl. And more importantly, if you decided to enter a turn sideways - i.e. by lifting off at turn-in to rotate the back end - you had your work cut out for you to gather it back up.
The new Turbo is a lot more forgiving. The transitions between understeer and oversteer are softer, slower, and easier to manage. Thanks to the miserably damp conditions at Estoril, we only managed two laps behind the wheel ourselves, but Porsche did allow us some shotgun rides with their factory drivers.
Luckily, I know that the word "seitwärts" in German means sideways, because ask, and ye shall receive. At least five times over the course of two full-opposite-lock laps of the track, I thought we were headed off the track backwards. Judging by the occasional "oops" coming from the driver's seat, so did the he. But no, the Turbo refused it, gradually shuffling power forward and pulling the car through what seemed to be an unsaveable slide.
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Another new optional feature on the Turbo is Porsche Torque Vectoring, or PTV. This is a predominantly software-based system, unlike other torque-vectoring systems, which use active differentials to shuffle power from one rear wheel to the other. Porsche's system starts with an old-school, passive mechanical limited slip differential, and uses the car's brakes to help rotate the car. Yes, this sounds like stability control, but it's not. Stability control (including Porsche Stability Management, standard on all 911s for quite some time) is an aftertreatment: it helps keep the car on the driver's intended course once the limits of adhesion have been reached. PTV is, on the other hand, a performance-enhancing system that helps to avoid understeer in the first place. It looks at steering angle and lateral acceleration to predict that the car is about to understeer, and intervenes preventatively.
If speed is below 100 mph, lateral acceleration is above about 0.8g and the car is about to understeer, the system applies a very light, largely imperceptible braking force to the inside rear wheel. This creates a yaw moment on the car, helping it to rotate and nixing the understeer. The difference was quite obvious on-track: in slippery conditions, where there wasn't enough grip to activate the system, the Turbo understeered. When it was dry, understeer was only very slight.
PTV will also intervene on a quick-turn in: if it sees the driver heaving the wheel quickly, it'll activate the inside rear brake momentarily. It's like a friend in the passenger seat yanking the emergency brake lightly as you throw the car into a turn, but only on one wheel, and without the evil laugh or increased risk of death, dismemberment, and dissolved friendships.
PTV is a simpler, lighter solution than fully active torque-vectoring rear diffs because it's mostly a stability control software-based system, and requires only a conventional limited slip. While PSM can be fully disabled, PTV remains active, as Porsche sees it as a performance-enhancing system rather than a slow-you-down slap on the wrist. It is, however, disabled when your foot isn't on the gas. Torque-vectoring seems to be a buzzword lately (appearing now in BMWs, Audis, Saabs, Mitsubishi Evos, and of course the original Honda SH-AWD system) but using the term for this system is a little misleading. "Porsche Preventative Understeer Management" (PPUM) would be a more apt descriptor.
Oh, and an apt descriptor for the shift paddles on the optional three-spoke steering wheel would be "Thank God." The standard way to manually shift the PDK without taking your hands off the wheel are ill-placed buttons on the spoke that are wired counterintuitively. Porsche was very quick to point out that journalists have complained about the buttons more than owners, but the fact is, the buttons are backwards from every other manufacturer. (Convention at this point is to pull back using your index finger for an upshift, push using your thumb for a downshift. It's the same logic that's our preferred layout for center-console-mounted shift controls, which Porsche also does the "wrong" way.)
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Anyway, the paddles are mounted on the steering wheel rather than the column itself, probably just to annoy us. But they're at least arranged correctly (right paddle us upshift; left is downshift).
The rest of the Turbo, just like other 911s, is a known quantity. It receives a similar facelift to the one given to the rest of the 911 lineup last year, though with turbo-specific air vents and LED daytime running lights. As usual, the interior is stunningly well put together and the chassis - whether you're in the cabriolet or coupe version - is as solid as they come. It's also as expensive as it comes, with the hardtop Turbo starting at $133,750 and the convertible at $144,750. And as always with Porsche, options don't come cheap.
The 911 is a unique combination of driver involvement, luxury, speed, handling, and impeccable build quality. The Turbo adds "muscle car" to that list, combining the GT cars' outrageous straight line speed with daily-driver huge mid-range torque, and with only the slightest of sacrifices to driver involvement. And it's now socially acceptable with two pedals in the driver's footwell.

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2010 Porsche 911

Carrera RWD 2-Dr Coupe H6
starting at (MSRP)
$77,800
Engine
3.6L H6
Fuel Economy
18 City 25 Hwy
2010 Porsche 911