First Drive: 2012 Porsche 911 Carrera S Coupe

The big existential question that Porsche surely asked itself when developing the new generation of 911 is: what is it that makes a car a Porsche 911? This is a question without a right or wrong answer -- it's a matter of perspective.

One suspects the marketing folks would say that it's a car with a curved roof line and round headlights, with a flat-six engine mounted behind the rear wheels and the ignition key located to the left of the steering wheel. A 911 is exquisitely well crafted and offers supercar performance with everyday usability, uncommon reliability, and unmatched fuel economy. A broad product portfolio-there were twenty-three variants of the last 911, not including transmission choice-helps it find home after expensive home, and a half-century history of constant evolution and racing provides a historical backdrop unlike any other sports car.

There's another view, of course -- the one from the driver's seat. From that perspective, the 911 is a pure sports car; a one-of-a-kind combination of modern-car refinement with old-school involvement, as engaging at 15 mph as it is stressful at 150. That it can achieve what supercars can achieve is the triumph of brilliant engineering overcoming a seemingly insurmountable design flaw: it is outspokenly and unabashedly rear-engined. From the parking spot to the flat-out Autobahn run, it never stops reminding its driver of the caged animal behind the rear wheels. The steering wheel bounds about nervously in the driver's hands, constantly reacting to the rear-mounted animal's every motion. The front end bobs up and down quickly -- a reminder that there's no engine there to dampen the suspension's motions -- and the front wheels follow every dip and groove and camber change, doing everything they can to get another inch further from the scary engine in back. All the while, the rear of the 911 dances around, bouncing left and right, as the animal tries to free itself from its mounts.

In the past, both of these views did indeed define a Porsche 911. Beginning February 4, 2012, that's no longer the case. The day the 991-series 911 goes on sale, the marketing view becomes the only view. The 991 is, from that view, the best 911 Porsche has ever made.

As an everyday car capable of reality-bending performance, the two 2012 911 Carrera S models we drove (one with a manual transmission, one with a PDK dual-clutch automatic) easily trump the previous 911. Indeed, Porsche boasts that the S is capable of lapping the Nuerburgring Nordschleife in seven minutes, forty seconds, a full fourteen seconds faster than before. That's as fast as the old GT3. Using the PDK's launch control function, if you're devoid of mechanical sympathy, means you can ride along as the Carrera S catapults itself to 60 mph in as little as 3.9 seconds. (Or 4.3 seconds with the manual transmission.) And unlike previous 911s, this happens with no wheel hop at all.

Even the base model 911 Carrera puts down scorching numbers, according to its makers: the dash to 60 happens between 4.2 and 4.6 short seconds. And that despite a smaller engine than the outgoing 911: down 0.2 liters, the 3.4-liter flat-six makes five more hp (for a total of 350) and matches the old engine's 287 lb-ft of torque. The bump in specific output comes thanks to higher revs -- the rev limiter doesn't wake up until 7800 rpm. Torque peak moves up 1200 notches higher on the tachometer (to 5600 rpm) and the horsepower peak has been bumped by 900, to 7400 rpm.

The new Carrera S keeps its 3.8-liter displacement, but receives the same high-rpm breathing help and experiences the same rev bumps to make 15 more horsepower and 15 more lb-ft of torque than before, for totals of 400 and 325, respectively.

Either engine can be combined with a new seven-speed dual-clutch automatic or a seven-speed manual, the latter an industry first. Surprisingly, the seven-speed stick isn't at all confusing to use: a clever solenioid-based lockout prevents access to the seventh-gear gate unless you've already engaged fifth or sixth. And thanks to a strong spring that returns the shifter positively to the three-four gate, multiple-gear downshifts out of seventh gear are no problem. And those downshifts are surprisingly unnecessary: it's a long gear (70 mph is approximately 2000 rpm) but the 3.8's ample low-end torque means it'll climb significant grades at highway speeds.

As before, the PDK transmission provides seamless acceleration and follows driver's commands obediently via steering-wheel mounted shift paddles. The paddles are conventionally operated, meaning a tug at the right paddle requests an upshift; the left paddle is used for downshifts. Our pre-production PDK occasionally clunked into gear, but we suspect all the bugs will be sorted by the time the 911 hits dealers. No matter how good the PDK, our first choice for any 911 would be the stick shift, anyway: it's a pleasure to use, with light, accurate throws. And though the long-travel pedal is heavy and offset too far to the right, the clutch itself engages progressively and positively. Add in immediate throttle response, and, like the 997, the calibration of the manual transmission is one of the best parts of this Porsche.

The reason for a new set of transmissions is that the 911 has a revised powertrain layout. The rear wheels have been positioned approximately three inches closer to the engine, helping allow a nearly four-inch wheelbase stretch. The longer wheelbase was created for a number of reasons, including better ride quality, additional passenger compartment space, and for something Porsche's engineers referred to as "future powertrain needs." That could, of course, include a hybrid system. Remember, 911 platforms are used for a long time: the 997 was a small evolution of the 996's chassis, which was used for a total of thirteen model years. And with strict fuel economy regulations looming, Porsche might have no choice but to build a hybrid 911 in the future.

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