New Car Reviews

First Drive: 2019 Porsche 911 GT3 RS

Meet the ultimate analog choice for hardcore drivers

NÜRBURG, Germany — A flimsy air fence is the only thing separating my borrowed Porsche 911 GT3 RS from the baddest-ass racetrack on earth. The proximity is so tempting, you could hardly blame me for my smoldering fantasy to ditch the Nürburgring’s sterile Grand Prix circuit and hit the hallowed Nordschleife, unfettering all 512 horses on the forest-lined über track.

I’m officially here to test Porsche’s newest RS model, but given the new Porsche’s large-scale aspirations, the Grand Theft Auto-style “What if?” becomes an irresistible reverie. The 690-hp 911 GT2 RS that plays big brother to the GT3 RS is the reigning king of the ’Ring, with a blazing lap time of 6 minutes, 47.25 seconds, but the non-turbo GT3 RS, the most powerful normally aspirated 911 ever, is only nine seconds behind the twin-turbo range-topper. With a lap time of 6:56.4, it’s a shocking 22 seconds quicker than its predecessor and holds the third-quickest production car ’Ring lap in history, ranking on top of the late, great, 887-hp 918 Spyder. Only the GT2 RS and Lamborghini Huracan Performante (6:52.01) have gone quicker here. Strange days, indeed.

Comprehending the essence of the new GT3 RS requires a bit of mechanical context. Though this squat, big-winged, NACA-ducted and vented track rat bears more than a passing resemblance to the GT2 RS, its philosophical intent diverges significantly. Both cars fall under the lightweight RS (rennsport) category, claiming Porsche’s most aggressive, motorsports-derived engineering which gives it more in common with a purpose-built Cup car than a roadgoing passenger car. In fact, the GT3 RS produces 20 more horsepower than its race counterpart. Unlike the track car, the street model also packs niceties like air conditioning and a front axle lift system. But while both are configured with a purist-satisfying rear-drive layout, the GT2 RS saunters with a bit more exclamatory swagger.

“We have [customers] that are into GT cars because they like the intimacy, the immediacy of the cars,” explains GT line director Andreas Preuninger. “But there is a certain clientele for turbo and non-turbo engines. Some GT customers love the turbo punch—this animal, this King Kong car—and that’s the definitely the GT2 RS. The GT3 RS is used more as a track tool, a sport instrument. It’s more purposeful.”

The mechanical differences beyond forced induction are incremental. The GT2 RS carries some 66 more pounds at the tail not just because of its massive variable-geometry turbines, but because the exhaust headers must act as a load-bearing element for the turbos and thus are constructed of cast iron for strength and improved heat dissipation. Damping rates are modified, and the four-wheel steering calibration is custom tuned for weight distribution. An overall philosophy of weight reduction is shared across both platforms, and track-focused hardware includes a rear-seat delete, carbon-fiber body panels, fully adjustable suspension with ball joints, and an adjustable rear wing and removable front diffuser that can create up to 1,100 pounds of downforce at 186 mph. A Weissach package adds further featherweight carbon bodywork, carbon anti-roll bars and coupling rods, and magnesium wheels.

To Preuninger’s point, the GT3 RS does indeed feel purposeful as it rumbles out of pit lane and onto the GP circuit. Grip the Alcantara wheel and bury the pedal, and the engine winds its way upward on a long-winded, 9,000-rpm trajectory. Unlike the GT2 RS, which emits unapologetically turbocharged wheezes, whirs, and burbles, the naturally aspirated engine explores its powerband with a linear, predictable escalation. Squeeze the six-piston carbon ceramic brakes, and there’s a deep well of stopping power available; do so gently though, because here on the slightly damp track, progressive inputs are key to going fast, as evidenced by hot laps with none other than rally and race legend Walter Röhrl and Formula 1/LMP1 veteran Mark Webber. But while the smoothness of the pros inspires awe and confidence from the passenger seat, the effect is eerily mirrored from behind the wheel as well. Unlike my GT2 RS experience at Portimão, which also involved a dash of inclement weather (and admittedly a heavier downpour), the organic relationship between the non-boosted engine and wet tarmac is relatable enough to encourage relatively aggressive driving.

Cornering is an equally facile trick: turn-in with a progressive tug of the wheel, and the 3,153-pound car obeys submissively. There’s no four-wheel steer-induced exaggeration, no fat anywhere in the connection between the steering wheel and the Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 R tires—which has something to do with the rubber, but a lot more to do with the rear axle. Equipped with Porsche Torque Vectoring Plus (PTV), the electronic rear differential stabilizes the tail under hard braking and enhances front-end grip. The sensation of intense front-end bite is absent in manual transmission-equipped non-RS GT3s, which lack the PTV function; here, the turn-in is prescient, enabling enough entry speed to egg on the driver and hit corners harder. Though this test car is setup for less aero (producing only 317 pounds of downforce at 186 mph), there’s still a palpable sense of preternatural grip in higher-speed corners, aided by the sticky Michelins. The effect is noticeable enough that, finally after several confidence-inspiring laps, I can finally experience some tire scrub and slip in lower-speed corners. But it isn’t terrifying.

In fact, the GT3 RS approaches its limits with a level of obedience that makes the whole package just make sense. The PDK responds with near-instantaneity, and its own internal shift logic in automatic mode is eerily proper. And yet you’re still probably wondering, why not offer a manual gearbox on this otherwise analog-oriented sports car? “We could have done it,” Preuninger says, “but we want to be hygienic about what we make as an option, and it has to fit this car character-wise. This is a rennsport; it’s a track tool. People want to be fast, and with a manual against a PDK, the PDK would gain on it even on a short straight.” Okay, we get it. But to drive the point home, he adds, “Tell me one race car besides a NASCAR that shifts manually these days.”

Despite the supernaturally quick shifting, I see that while I’m clearly not on pace with Röhrl and Webber, the GT3 RS somehow manages to feel connected to my intentions in a deep and manageable way that the GT2 RS didn’t. Then again, full disclosure regarding my experience with the GT2 RS at Portimão: When asked, some four months later, about its tendency to rotate quickly mid-corner, Preuninger reveals that “Portimão was sub-optimal; the mechanics weren’t good about getting the tire pressures right. The cars went out with too much pressure at the rear, which made the cars harder to drive.” He goes on to say the rears should have been set at 2.4 bar, not 2.6 (the fronts were at 2.0). Fair enough; maybe the turbocharged car is, at its core, more drivable than I experienced. But the GT3 RS, despite its (nearly) equally stratospheric performance levels, feels far more approachable than you might expect.

Session two on the track reveals more … well, everything. With a better understanding of the short course’s 10 right and seven left turns, the GT3 RS exudes an easy athletic ability that enables it to be pushed harder, and respond with even more physical prowess. Up the pace, and everything just seems to amplify: the braking capacity, the turning ability, the acceleration. It’s almost video game-like, except for the fact that the engine, whose intuitive responsiveness encourages a finer line to be drawn at that crucial limit when you lay on the throttle coming out of a corner. Unlike the torrent of torque on-hand with the GT2 RS, the GT3 RS feels like a dragon that’s more tame-able, one that won’t spit fire in your face if you dip the pedal a few millimeters too far.

After a rocking, rollicking, and an all-too-brief double stint on the GP circuit, I wheel the GT3 RS back into pit lane, exhilarated and intrigued by the depths of its talents, of which I’ve barely scraped the surface. Does the Nordschleife hold the same allure as it did when I first strapped into this 512 horsepower two-seater? With a juicy 3.2-mile filet within arm’s reach, maybe I don’t covet the 12.9-mile side of beef quite so compulsively. But then again, it sure would be nice to try.

2019 Porsche 911 GT3 RS Specifications

ON SALE Now
PRICE $188,550 (base)
ENGINE 4.0L DOHC 24-valve flat-6/512 hp @ 8,250 rpm, 346 lb-ft @ 6,000 rpm
TRANSMISSION 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
LAYOUT 2-door, 2-passenger, rear-engine, RWD coupe
EPA MILEAGE N/A
L x W x H 179.4 x 77.87 x 51.06 in
WHEELBASE 96.57 in
WEIGHT 3,153 lb
0-60 MPH 3.0 sec
TOP SPEED 193 mph

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2019 Porsche 911

MSRP $187,500 GT3 RS Coupe