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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.

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.