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First Ride: 2012 Porsche 911 Carrera S

Georg KacherwriterPaul Barshonphotographer

It looks familiar. It sounds familiar. It is definitely a 911. But unlike the 997, which was a cleverly cost-conscious metamorphosis of the 996, the 2012 Porsche 911, code name 991, is an all-new car. Its body, which now uses aluminum for the doors, fenders, and engine- and luggage-compartment covers, features a much more modern, cab-forward design. The new interior is inspired by six generations of 911s but also takes cues from the Cayenne and the Panamera. In addition, the engineers have prepared a new evolution of boxer engines, the world's first seven-speed manual transmission, and a chassis with a bigger footprint that creates a more confident stance for Porsche's icon.

"The 991 takes a step ahead in all key areas," states chief engineer August Achleitner, a twenty-eight-year Porsche veteran who has been involved with every 911 since the 1990-94 964-series.

"The new model is even better balanced, even more compliant, even more untouchable," claims Walter Roehrl, multiple rally champion now involved with Porsche development. Both men will be demonstrating the new 911, while we ride along to get our first taste of the latest Porsche.

Still fit as a fiddle at age sixty-four, Roehrl is an eerily fast yet incredibly smooth driver. Despite the light drizzle, the lanky Bavarian establishes what felt like a new speed record on the sleepy Nockalm pass, which is dotted with 90-degree hairpins, blind crests, and pupil-widening sweepers. It was on this very road that Ferry Porsche and senior designer Karl Rabe put their type 356 roadster through its paces back in the late 1940s.

Seemingly immune to g-force, oncoming traffic and wayward cattle, Walter keeps talking while tap-dancing on the pedals and twirling the wheel. "There! Follow the nose of the car. See? It turns in like a swoosh. And it sticks, sticks, sticks. No more understeer. Incredible. All that tugging and pulling is gone. This 911 no longer fights its driver. Instead, it follows the line like a ruler, stays flat as a Dover sole, and is so well balanced you would never believe the engine sits aft of the rear axle."

Driver change. Roehrl steps out, Achleitner hops in. The steering wheel whirs into position at the push of a button. He adjusts the new eighteen-way adaptive sport seat, which has adjustable side bolsters, heating and ventilation, extendable cushions, and multidirectional lumbar supports. My hope that Achleitner will select a more leisurely pace is squashed the instant he takes off, revving to 7500 rpm in first and second gears and using every inch of suspiciously slippery blacktop through the fast sweepers that lead to the summit. "The wider front track makes all the difference," claims the chief engineer. "It rivets the front end to the tarmac, eliminates any trace of nervousness, and enhances stability and confidence. The longer wheelbase helps, too. The 991 simply feels more grown-up, more competent, more sure-footed. Those who regularly push the car to the limit may appreciate special equipment packages that further enhance braking, cornering and roadholding."

Extras on our lime-gold metallic Carrera S include carbon-ceramic brakes, Porsche Torque Vectoring Plus with dynamic torque distribution via a side-to-side differential lock, active dampers with a lower sport suspension, twenty-inch wheels, magnetorheological engine mounts, and PDCC active roll compensation. This system employs hydraulic extension elements that split the antiroll bars to reduce unwanted body movements, flatten the ride, and enhance roll stiffness. Which of these options are must-haves? Roehrl and Achleitner look at each other, mutually search for words, and eventually agree that even the no-frills base 911 should satisfy most needs.

A lot of controversy accompanied the gestation of the new electric power steering that debuts here. It is lighter and more efficient than the previous hydraulic system, but does it provide the same quality of feedback and response? "Early on in the development process, we had problems on low-friction surfaces," recalls Roehrl, who drove the car near the Arctic Circle and on the Nuerburgring. "The phenomenon was called snap-over, and it only showed at the limit when ultrafast corrections were required. But engineering quickly fixed it, and the fix was later backed up by various software updates. Although the new steering may face an acceptance problem among some Porsche purists, in my view it is superior to a conventional rack. In critical situations it can support the driver, for example, by enhancing the self-centering motion or the directional stability on split-friction surfaces." Extra money buys Power Steering Plus, which can adjust power assistance at speeds below 30 mph and in particular during parking maneuvers.

Our roller-coaster drive through the most picturesque parts of Styria, Carinthia, Salzburg, and Tyrol put the new 911 through a continually changing set of paces. On the narrow and winding toll road that leads to the top of the Malta valley, the Porsche impressed with newfound maneuverability. Up and down the challenging Katschberg, we relished the extra torque in combination with the higher rev limit, as well as the more powerful brakes that benefit from bigger cooling ducts, lighter discs, and six-piston front calipers.

On paper, the 400-hp new 911 Carrera S is only a blink of an eye faster than last year's 385-hp 997. At 4.3 seconds, the PDK-equipped version accelerates to 62 mph 0.2 second quicker than the model it replaces. In terms of top speed -- 188 mph versus 186 mph -- it's basically a dead heat. In real life, however, there is much more between these two siblings than the numbers suggest. In direct comparison to our best-of-the-old 911 GTS chase car, for instance, the new 991 was lighter on its feet, more agile, more stable, and more homogenous overall. But what exactly are the elements that make the difference? Chief engineer Achleitner: "Depending on specification, we took out between 30 and 45 kilos [66 to 99 pounds] in weight, and it shows. In addition, we extended the wheelbase, widened the track, lowered the suspension in two steps by up to 20 millimeters [0.8 inch], and modified the proportions. These measures permit higher cornering speeds, help to speed up turn-in, and allow only a relatively small measure of understeer and oversteer." It seems as if the days of tricky-handling 911s are over.

Since Austria has embraced the mobile radar trap, Roehrl was careful before he put his foot down and let the car fly. In the 911, part throttle is by no means a joyless anticlimax. Thanks to a variety of new fuel-saving techniques (including automatic stop/start), it is actually fun to squeeze extra miles out of the 16.9-gallon tank. Perhaps the most intriguing is the free-wheeling mechanism, which decouples engine and transmission. To summon it, you can either lift off -- but not quickly -- or select the highest available ratio via the upshift paddle. In response, the engine speed drops to idle and the gear indicator displays the ratio in which the journey is going to continue.

At the end of day one, the onboard computer readout indicated an average of 31.7 mpg. These numbers were influenced by slow-moving traffic from Stuttgart to Gmuend. The thirst increased quite a bit on day two, but despite Roehrl's habit of pushing the engine to its 7800-rpm fuel cutoff, there was no need for a second pit stop. Surprisingly, the elevated rev level does not seem to affect consumption. The 3.8-liter flat six needs 7400 rpm to dish up 400 hp, which compares to 385 hp at 6500 rpm for the old engine. Perhaps even more significant is the shape of the torque curve; it now peaks at 5600 rpm, where 325 lb-ft of torque is on tap. In the previous car, 4400 rpm was enough to produce 310 lb-ft. The same high rpm ceilings apply to the base Carrera engine, which has been downsized from 3.6 to 3.4 liters but nevertheless has gained 5 hp and a claimed sixteen percent in efficiency.

Roehrl and Achleitner whipped the new 911 through the historic hunting grounds with so much verve and ambition that Ferry Porsche would have been proud. Although the passenger seat was definitely the second-best place for this experience, I was able to learn a lot about the new car's many virtues and few vices. Perhaps the most significant dynamic asset is the almost total absence of understeer. The 997-series 911 would grab every opportunity to shy away from the apex. Only the very brave -- or stupid -- pushed the 997 into oversteer. Mastering the monster made you feel like a hero, but the 997 was never quite as quick as this incredibly balanced 991-series 911.

When we asked Roehrl to put in a couple of sideways stints, his face lit up and he instantly shifted down a gear or two. But we soon found out that this 911 is now a talented carver, no longer a casual slider. "This can't be true," he said. "Maybe I need first gear. No, we're running out of revs much too soon. Second then, perhaps, let's try again. Go, go, go! Still does not want to do it. Just does not want to do it. Maybe it's my driving style. I always need to have the car absolutely straight again at the exit of the bend. That's better now, much better. But I was expecting more attitude, much more attitude." It was not to be. According to Achleitner, tail-out mode is not only counterproductive, "it also is no longer part of the car's character the way it was in older 911s. The 991 is more communicative than its predecessors, but it is never tail-happy. It won't lose its temper, preferring to deliver rather than to show off. Don't forget, however, that this is only the first chapter of an even more complex story. Although there will be sharper and faster variations of the theme, accessibility remains a prime objective."

Of course, this Porsche is not devoid of flaws, but at this point it's difficult to decipher them. The front suspension of our example felt a bit stiffer than it should; Sport Plus again makes sense only on the racetrack, where its extreme calibration pays off; the stability control system still lacks a user-friendly in-between mode; there is no indicator to alert you that you are in coasting mode; and the long options list lacks any camera-based driver-assistance systems. In a nutshell, there is not much to complain about but plenty of reason to wax lyrical. After all, this 911 epitomizes the fine art of evolution. It is both trendsetting and tradition-conscious, and it is a promising sequel to one of the planet's greatest sports cars.

The Specs
On Sale:
February 2012
Price: $83,050/$97,350 (Carrera/Carrera S)
Engines: 3.4L H-6, 350 hp, 288 lb-ft; 3.6L H-6, 400 hp, 325 lb-ft
Drive: Rear- or 4-wheel
EPA mileage: 21/29 mpg (est.)