Like seemingly everyone else in America, I went to see "The Avengers" on its opening weekend. Unlike most everyone else, I drove to the theater in a new Porsche 911 Carrera S. I don't think I could have gotten more attention had I walked into this Ypsilanti, Michigan, theater with the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) on my arm. "Hey man, just so you know, I could totally beat you in my 2006 BMW M3," called a young man who had apparently elected to leave the Bimmer at home in favor of his mid-90s Chevrolet Lumina. Another gentleman jogged into the theater after me to ask if the red Porsche was, in fact, my car. This is all a bit unusual for a 911, which has always been something of a superhero in disguise. I've driven several last-generation 911s, including a pricey GTS model, and received not a lick of attention. This new model has a certain magnetism that I think goes beyond a few new details. It doesn't show in pictures, but the new car has dramatically modified, more muscular proportions. This comes at something of a cost in terms of authenticity. Whereas the previous car felt like an old car that's been modernized -- much like a Jeep Wrangler -- this car feels like a modern design that's been given lots of retro cues -- think the Chevrolet Camaro or Dodge Challenger.
The 911 is a lot more traditional and authentic -- and no less charismatic -- when you're in it. My friends had no problem taking turns in the vestigial back seat for the privilege of smelling, feeling, and, most of all, hearing a rear-engined sports car putter about town. "This may be de rigueur for you, but I'll be telling everyone at work about this," said one passenger. In fact, it's not de rigueur at all. Even in a job where I have the privilege of driving lots of new and fast cars, a 911 is still special.
The bark of the 3.8-liter flat-six fills my eardrums like no other engine, especially when the baffles on the optional sport exhausts are open. It actually feels more powerful than its 400-hp rating would suggest simply because it's so full of character and so responsive. Indeed, I hadn't realized how accustomed I've become to forced-induction engines and their inherit hesitance until the 911 reminded me how wonderful it is to experience a push in your back that's directly proportional to how far you've pushed down the gas pedal. If I didn't know better I'd say there was still a cable connecting the pedal and the throttle body rather than an array of electronic sensors and computers. The same holds for the steering. I've not spent nearly enough time in 911s to comment on how this electric power steering compares to the older hydraulic setup. All I know is that when I placed my hands on the rim and turned into the first few corners, I thought to myself, "Oh, this is how steering is supposed to feel," just as I have every other time I've driven a 911.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
There's a real best of time/worst of times thing happening for car enthusiasts all over the world right now. Cars get faster, more fuel efficient, and more comfortable with each generation and there are incredible advances with technology that do really cool things with in-car connectivity. But at the same time, all of these advances are removing the connection between a car and its driver.
Electric power steering nets much better fuel economy by reducing parasitic loss and weight, but so far nobody has figured out how to make it transmit the steering feedback that enthusiasts want. I don't care that the 911 has good steering feel for electric power steering, I care that the 911 doesn't have good steering feel for a 911. It's entirely possible that Porsche will figure out a way to make this steering system offer better feel than it does right now. I really hope that happens soon.
The other way cars are getting less involving is the advent of downsized, force-fed engines. As David Zenlea pointed out, the normally aspirated H-6 offers an intoxicating exhaust note and perfectly linear power delivery. A high-revving normally aspirated engine has so much more character than an equally powerful and potentially more fuel-efficient turbocharged or supercharged engine. Porsche decided the engine character of a 911 is more important than the steering characteristics. I think the two are equally important to the 911.
The 991 911 is certainly faster, more comfortable, and more fuel efficient than its predecessor. I just wish it were as involving. Keeping in mind performance cars did come back nicely from the emissions-choked engine era, I'm not ready to completely write off driver involvement in new cars. Let's hope it doesn't take very long to be one of their most prominent features again.
Phil Floraday, Senior Web Editor
It wasn't so long ago that I drove a 996-chassis Porsche 911 Turbo with a base price of about $115,000, so our 991-chassis Porsche 911 Carrera S tester, admittedly larded with options, was a lot to swallow at $122K. That said, the $3000 sport exhaust is worth every penny, because it sounds sensational.
The seven-speed PDK transmission is pretty sweet, too, especially if, like me, you experienced years of compromised Porsche Tiptronic automatic transmissions. That said, I found the 911 to be a little pokey when I left the PDK in plain old normal drive mode. That situation improves dramatically if you simply press the Sport or Sport Plus button, both of which sharpen throttle response and make the 911 great fun to thread through urban or freeway traffic with ease. Still, I look forward to driving this car with its new seven-speed manual gearbox.
Zenlea's experience mirrored mine: the new 911 got a ton of attention, and my friends were clamoring for rides. I think it had a lot to do with its bright red paint, a hue I would not normally choose for a 911 but one that looked perfect, and the car's voluptuous new exterior styling, especially the wide and sexy rear end. When I pulled into my friend's driveway, his neighbor two doors down came bounding over: "My husband heard you pull in and said to me, 'that sounds like a Porsche engine,' before he even saw the car."
In terms of performance, what I really noticed was the roadholding. I caught myself thinking I was in an all-wheel-drive 911, but that version of this new 991-chassis hasn't been introduced yet. That's how good the grip is when you're coming out of a fast corner. The brakes, naturally, are killer. Nobody does brakes as consistently well as Porsche. As for the steering, yeah, it doesn't have the razor-sharp communication that it once did, but I would hardly call it bad.
The interior is lovely and is really a huge step up from the last car. Of course, you're paying dearly for it. Our tester had the optional steering wheel and full-leather dash, and it all looked great. I wish there was a place to put your cell phone that is exposed. I put it in center console box, but I'd like it in a tray that's visible. The stereo also is very good, should you get tired of listening to the sport exhaust.
Joe DeMatio, Deputy Editor
What stood out most to me about the new Porsche 911 are its brakes. Like Joe and David, I spent a good portion of my time with the 911 taking family and friends out for quick trips around the block. Because the engine's limits can only be tested to a small degree on public roads, I decided that it was safer -- and less likely to put me in jail -- to focus more on testing the capabilities of the big Brembos instead. After numerous drives on the two-lanes around my house, I can say that they are some of the finest brakes I've ever used. And my passengers agree.
For starters, pedal placement, travel, and feel are excellent. They are also easy to modulate and the speed at which you slow down perfectly corresponds to the pressure being applied by your right foot. But what really sets them apart is how smooth and powerful they are. They are so well balanced that no matter how far into them you are, the steering wheel never shudders, squirms, or pulls one way or another. And with six calipers up front and four in the rear, the scenery smears just as quickly on they way down to zero as it did on the way up. Who knew slowing down could be so much fun?
Jennifer Misaros, Managing Editor, Digital Platforms
Porsche performed a neat trick with the styling of the new 911. In photos, the 2012 911 doesn't look all that different from its predecessor. Yet in person the type 991 911 has a stronger presence with its more curvaceous exterior, and the "guards red" color of our particular test car added to the effect. The interior is the perfect mix of sportiness and luxury, with soft leather covering most surfaces (a $3330 option) and a lovely Alcantara headliner (which comes standard). The seats are very supportive and the steering wheel fits the driver's hands perfectly.
Turn the key (yes, the ignition switch is still key-operated and is located on the left, as is the Porsche norm), and the flat six's familiar sound fills your ears with an exhilarating roar. When I drove the 911, I was particularly interested to see how the steering of this 911 would feel, since in the last couple of years automotive journalists have complained often about the lack of feedback imparted by the electric steering systems that have become increasingly popular with manufacturers. After two days with the car, my feeling is that, during most of the driving that most drivers will do in their 911s, steering feel won't be an issue. In urban traffic and on the freeway, the steering performs just fine. It may lack the unparalleled precision of the previous steering rack, but Porsche clearly felt it was worth the compromise in saving both weight and cost.
In all respects, the 911 is truly a pleasure to drive. This is a vehicle that you could happily have as your only car and not feel like you are giving up anything in everyday drivability -- and that's something you can't say that about many other top-tier sports cars.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor