First Drive: 2012 Porsche 911 Carrera S Coupe

Don't worry about that for the time being.

Smartly, Porsche didn't extend the 991's body as much as it did the wheelbase (length is up by only an inch), meaning shorter overhangs. That means the 996/997's propensity to scrape the front end everywhere is greatly diminished. For the record, it also means that the 911's famously unusable rear seats remain famously unusable. At least for human-sized beings.

It's clear that reducing weight was a key mission in the development of the 991, and that extends from the use of aluminum in the body to tiny things like the front cooling fans, which are now 2 lb lighter. Overall, the 911 lost something like 90 lb. That, of course, combined with more power, a wider track, and a lower roof is a recipe for better performance.

And we haven't gotten to the spicy stuff yet: twenty-inch wheels, active engine mounts, active roll stabilization and adaptive suspension are all options-and they were all on the 911 we drove. To call the new car a quantum leap in vehicle dynamics is an understatement. The ride is smoother than many luxury cars, but there are no wasted body motions. Body roll has been all but completely eliminated, and brake dive and squat are fractions of what they were before. The 991 will understeer if you ask it to; it'll oversteer if you ask it to, but if left to its own devices, it remains neutral. This is something no 911 has ever done.

Grade changes, camber changes, throttle changes-nothing upsets the 991. It turns in with the immediacy of a mid-engine car, puts power down with the traction of a four-wheel-drive car, and reacts with the gentleness of a front-engine, rear-wheel drive car. Quick directional changes induce no drama, and never, ever, does the steering feel nervous.

And this is exactly why the purists are going to be upset.

The 911 doesn't drive like other 911s. You never, ever feel the engine's weight move the back end around. The front end doesn't bob, heave, or wander. And when you're cruising down a road, the steering wheel doesn't dance in your hand.

Oh, the steering is perfectly accurate, and its weighting is just like old 911's. Driven in anger, it starts to transmit information about the road surface -- but whereas the last 911's steering screamed at you, this one barely whispers.

What's to blame? Electric power steering. Porsche says that the EPS system weighs about as much as the old hydraulic system, and that it contributes to a one-third-MPG fuel savings. Clearly that's not sufficient reason to abandon the old hydraulic pump and lines, especially since the 911 was already the lightest and most fuel efficient vehicle in its class.

Poke the engineers long enough, and they'll admit that they received complaints about the 997's steering being too nervous. It transmitted too much, they say. Specifically, too much vibration and too many "disruptions." Those disruptions -- to the vehicle's path, presumably -- are bad engineering. They are old-fashioned and needed to be removed. Or at least that's what the engineers believed.

Uh oh, now we're having a Lost In Translation moment. What the engineers are calling "bad engineering" we refer to as "on-center steering feel." Not only do we think of it as a good thing, it was indeed the best thing about the last 911, at least when it was driven on the road. No other steering on earth felt so alive, so connected. Frankly, the steering was the reason we loved the 997 so much-and it set the 911 apart from all of its competition, especially the Audi R8.

It turns out that German customers complained about the steering. And we do understand that: the 997 was a nervous scamp at autobahn speeds. You can drive an R8 at 180 mph and not break a sweat-the 997's tail wagged back and forth constantly, and you felt every millimeter of movement in the steering wheel.

We don't have autobahns in the U.S. and after Porsche got through a huge presentation explaining that the U.S. market is "easily the most important market for the 911," we were pretty surprised that they engineered out our very favorite part of the 911.

There are plenty of other cars on the road that can cruise at 70 mph effortlessly -- the world didn't need another one of those. At our pathetically slow highway speeds, we need everything we can get to make driving fun -- crazy steering feel, an engaging manual transmission, and a car that's perhaps a little bit flawed.

If you've ever driven a Porsche 911, you'll immediately know that the 991 is different. In quantifiable terms, it's leaps and bounds better than any previous 911. It sounds even better, it rides even better, it feels even better, it's even more comfortable, better equipped, and it's far better looking. But if you adored the drive in that 911 because it was a car unlike any other -- because it constantly reminded you that it wanted to kill you, even if it never was going to -- you'll know why the 911 is a better car, but it's not a better 911.

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