2014 Porsche 911 GT3 First Drive

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With disbelief, we check out the white numerals on the black face of the tachometer and see that the red zone begins at 9000 rpm. Clearly, the 2014 Porsche 911 GT3 is not the kind of Porsche 911 that we have come to expect since the latest 991 iteration was first revealed at the 2011 Frankfurt auto show. This new GT3 engine not only puts out 475 hp, but it also screams like a racing engine while doing it.

The chrome-trimmed buttons on the center console invite us to explore this 911’s new vocabulary. At the top left, we find PDK Sport for the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, and below it lies the control for calibrating the action of the adaptive dampers. Stab the ESC OFF button, and the stability control relaxes enough to permit small gestures of tail-out motoring as you accelerate out of slow corners. Engage ESC+TC OFF and you’ll be permitted full-speed wide-screen slides. There’s a switch to let the engine sing louder through the exhaust for more street music and another one that raises the ride height of the front suspension so you can clear curbs, speed bumps, and the odd groundhog carcass.

We are ready for the Nürburgring Nordschleife, are we not? The Porsche engineers tell us that a lap of less than seven minutes and thirty seconds is possible. Instead, we decide to take this white whale to the mountainous highlands south of the Porsche facility in Stuttgart. Then it’s on to the Black Forest, where there is probably only one Swabian policeman to patrol the roads in the whole region.

When we open the lightweight door of the GT3 and squash into the undersize seat, we reflexively aim our left foot down at the empty hole where the clutch pedal would be and reach for the stubby shift lever that is no longer there. The seven-speed dual-clutch PDK -- for Porsche Doppelkupplung -- transmission has reached the hard-core 911 GT3. True, it was a manly achievement to master the previous six-speed manual gearbox, but the old three-pedal layout is a less efficient means of progress. The PDK is not only quicker than the manual, but it could also be argued that it is better.

The first thing you notice when you pull a cast-aluminum shift paddle toward the steering wheel is that it goes click, not clliiicck, because its travel is shorter than in other 911s. Switch to sport mode and brace yourself for an even more aggressive shift pattern that proves every bit as quick, hard, and spine-tingling as what you’d find in any Porsche 911 GT3 Cup racing car.

Sheer, quick-shifting power delivery alone might not be enough for some, so Porsche has engineered Paddle Neutral, a manually activated de-clutch mode triggered by pulling both shift paddles at the same time. The instant you release the paddles, power and torque are back at full strength. It’s very much a Formula 1–style technology.

Such a sudden release of power can lead to some frustration with stability control active. When you disable it entirely, though, the effect of the sudden clutch engagement is positively explosive. It’s a little bit like dipping the clutch to kick the rear of the car sideways, either during acceleration or while braking toward the apex of a corner. Paddle Neutral also allows for smokey burnouts when traction control is turned off.

We spend an hour playing with the new functions, but that’s not nearly enough to get the timing right for stunts with Paddle Neutral. The softest shift mode is just fine for everyday use, and this mode’s appeal is further enhanced by the fact that the GT3 leaves the factory with close-ratio gears and a numerically higher final-drive ratio than the regular Carrera’s. This means the car gets to 60 mph in 3.3 seconds and reaches its top speed of 195 mph in seventh gear, not sixth. Fact is, by the time our day with the GT3 is half over, we just let the adaptive automatic shift program do all the work, since it seems telepathic. It triggers shifts when you would do so, willingly changes down into first gear through slow esses, and stages a quick third-fourth-third sequence where conditions permit it. This transmission is pure magic.

The innovative rear-wheel steering that is standard on the new GT3 (and on the 2014 Turbo and Turbo S) makes one wonder how we could ever wax lyrical about stability and maneuverability until now. The days are over when you would have to fight the Porsche’s front end in slow corners and its rear end in fast corners as a flame of anxiety burned inside you. Thanks to four-wheel steering, the latest 911 GT3 is more confidence inspiring by a factor of 20/10 on our personal blood-pressure scale.

Below 31 mph, the GT3’s rear wheels move in the opposite direction of the front wheels, effectively making this 911 respond like a microcar. Porsche calculates that it’s like cutting 5.9 inches off the wheelbase (in fact, this GT3’s wheelbase is 4.0 inches longer than the 997 model’s). Above 50 mph, the rear wheels move in sync with the front wheels; the car responds like it has a wheelbase that’s 20 inches longer and can change lanes at 190 mph. That’s rather useful on German roads. At all velocities, the 911’s handling is now less nervous, less twitchy, and less dependent on keeping up the torque flow to the rear wheels. Message to GT3 hard-liners: don’t worry -- all the entertainment values are still there, proud and tall.

But it is fair to say that the 3153-pound GT3 has mellowed a bit. Some 14,145 GT3s of various 911 models have been built since 1999, and the GT3 has changed during that time to become more of a street car. Ironically, the very technology that makes the 2014 GT3 faster also makes it easier and better to drive. The adaptive suspension gives you a track setting, yet it has a more compliant sport setting than ever before. Torque vectoring sedates the bumblebees in the car’s rear end by supplementing the electronically controlled, mechanical limited-slip differential with electronic brake actuation, providing smoother and more predictable power delivery whether you drive fast or slow. Dynamic engine mounts permit a powerful, free-revving engine without buzzing the fillings in your teeth.

Consider a GT3 track-day special with a ride height 1.2 inches lower than before, specially calibrated electrically assisted steering, 15.0-inch brake rotors front and rear (carbon-ceramics are optional), stronger hubs, and forged-aluminum twenty-inch wheels that wear 245/35YR-20 front and 305/30YR-20 rear Dunlop Sport Maxx Race tires. Yet this precise, sure-footed track car is compliant and benign when driven at a leisurely pace.

Now we come to the engine, which dominates this car just as it should in a 911 GT3. This isn’t the old Hans Mezger–designed Porsche Motorsports engine; instead it’s the new Porsche Motorsports engine, based on the standard 991-type flat-six but with a bushel of new parts, including a special crankshaft, titanium connecting rods, forged pistons, special valve rockers, special valves, and even different direct injection. This normally aspirated 3.8-liter unit is a vocal, ferociously resolute powerplant that makes 475 hp at 8250 rpm and 324 lb-ft of torque at 6250 rpm.

Low-end torque is not one of the GT3 engine’s strengths, and it doesn’t run as smoothly as the 911 Carrera’s 9A1 engine. But the superfast throttle response hits you right at that place in your stomach where you can sense courage, respect, and determination. The engine has a different character at each step up the rev ladder to its 9000-rpm redline, and it simply loves to hurtle up and down that steep staircase. In fact, you keep bumping into the fuel cutoff at the redline because of the engine’s willingness to show off its explosive low-friction, free-revving energy.

After a long day, we begin to get a feel for the 911 GT3’s behavior at its limits. The higher-effort steering calibration is reassuring, and although it now turns into bends ludicrously quickly, cornering is no longer followed by that feeling of fluttering coattails at the rear of the car. This newly discovered run-on-rails cornering attitude comes in part from the wider track and the longer wheelbase that all 991-platform Porsche 911s enjoy, as well as the trick four-wheel steering.

While the winged wonder from Weissach might have lost some of its rough edges, it has acquired important new qualities, such as a supreme sense of balance, a higher level of tactility, and creamier behavior at the limit of adhesion. It might be heresy to say this of a Porsche 911 GT3, but it is easier to drive -- and we welcome that.

2014 Porsche 911 GT3

Base Price: $131,350
Powertrain
Engine: 3.8-liter DOHC 24-valve flat-six
Horsepower: 475 @ 8,250 rpm
Torque: 324 lb-ft @ 6,250 rpm
Transmission: 7-speed automatic
Drive: Rear-wheel
Measurements
L x W x H: 178.9 x 72.9 x 50.0 in
Curb weight: 3,153 lb

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