Driven: The 2019 Porsche 911 Speedster Is the Wildest in History
Basically a roofless GT3, the Speedster thrills and delights in myriad ways.
SARDINIA, Italy—If you're a storied carmaker, nothing quite rests the weight of history on your shoulders like juxtaposing your latest, greatest creation against its legendary ancestors. Case in point: the press introduction of the 2019 Porsche 911 Speedster, where museum examples of the ragtop's forebears—356, G-Body, 964, and 997 Speedsters—are on display in their charismatically old school, blue-chip, investment-grade glory.
Though predated by four generations of Speedsters with barely a hint of performance upgrades, the new example is the first Porsche in history that's a bona fide GT3 production car with its roof lopped off. Beneath the slightly humped, carbon-fiber rear decklid, the race-ready, dry-sump powertrain is there, a naturally aspirated 502-hp flat-six, the "good" GT3 Touring-derived six-speed gearbox with the stout synchros, a Porsche Torque Vectoring mechanical rear differential, and GT3 suspension that is softened slightly.
This stuff is fearfully and wonderfully made in a way that its antecedents—which were essentially chopped and trimmed-down versions of coupes—could only dream of. Yet the old-timers still have an admittedly evocative call, especially when their bodywork's complex curves glint in the Sardinian sunlight. But there's also the new model's dizzying $275,750 price tag, which is similar to many of the old collectibles' values after decades of rampant appreciation.
Faster than you can say, "andiamo!", it's time to stop pondering future MSRPs, climb into a borrowed Racing Yellow Speedster, and literally leave the past behind as the new model points to the hills for a day of high-speed hide and seek with apexes. This test car has the standard fixed carbon-fiber seats, and an eerily empty shelf where a navigation screen would go. (American-market cars are required to have a screen due to legally required backup cameras.) Apart from the shortened gear lever and some Speedster-specific branding, my office for the day resembles a stripped-down Carrera cabriolet on the inside, albeit with no rear seats, a no-cost air conditioning delete, perforated leather seats, and a button-free steering wheel with a center marker at 12 o'clock.
Though powered by the a similar 4.0-liter flat-six found in the GT3, the droptop's sonic situation is counterintuitively different. Due to the structural elements for the roof mechanism, some of the flat-six's mechanical sounds are physically damped. Adding to this auditory insult is the incorporation of two gasoline particulate filters on the Euro-spec model's exhaust, a requirement needed to satisfy upcoming Euro 6d TEMP-EVAP-ISC standards. The exhaust sound isn't eliminated entirely, although it's no longer tinged with the same raspy, high-frequency notes that escape the engine bay of the closed-roof GT3 or GT3 Touring models. Will U.S.-bound models ditch the filter and uncork the sound? Not quite: According to GT-line boss Andreas Preuninger, American cars will receive a baffle in place of the filter to match the backpressure required for the engine's tuning.
The somewhat subdued sound can make it easy to get lulled into forgetting the innate wonderfulness of the engine sitting just aft of the rear axle, but one deep immersion into the 9,000 rpm power band quickly recalibrates any skepticism. With individual throttle bodies inherited from the GT3 R race car, there's an even more organic, intuitive throttle response than the regular GT3 across the rev range. The magic that happens at higher rpm is particularly entrancing as the tach climbs toward redline: The thrust, especially in second gear, is intoxicating as the needle approaches the upper hash marks. But if you've been fortunate to experience the raucous clatter of the GT3, you might find your ears missing the treble notes in this symphony. There are oodles of power—enough for zero to 60 mph in 3.8 seconds and a top speed of 192 mph—though it simply doesn't sound like it goes, a confounding paradox for those who recall earlier naturally aspirated ragtops like the late Boxster Spyder, whose pops and burbles signaled the soul of the powerplant behind the driver.
However, the plot twist hits like a velvet hammer when the winding road unfurls before you. GT-loving fanboys may be disappointed at the news the Speedster sits 5-mm (0.2-inch) taller, with its dampers recalibrated for more softness (the springs remain untouched); after all, this is supposed to be the most hard-core convertible in Porsche history. But the effect is transformative. Whereas the GT3 Touring, even in its softest setting, can feel busy on somewhat smooth roads and jumpy over rough surfaces, the Speedster negotiates real-world pavement with agile grip and supple articulation. Massaging a tightly wound suspension system demands a delicate balance between sharpness and compliance, especially when it comes to the GT3's competition-capable setup. And that's where the Speedster's strengths emerge: When the drivetrain delivers intense longitudinal thrills complete with negative g-force satisfaction thanks to a button that can select rev-matched downshifts, and carbon-ceramic brakes with slightly softer compounds that modulate stopping more easily.
Press the ESC OFF button on the center console, and the Speedster becomes more playful, making it easier to exploit more of the engine's 502 horsepower and 346 lb-ft of torque when tapping into the throttle. When engaged, the stability systems work so well you're hard-pressed to know they're on. But with stability control deactivated, throttle inputs create a more tangible sensation of weight transfer on corner exit, along with some controllable tail sliding if summoned more strongly. Get into the flow during a top-up tussle with a knotted road, and it's easy to forget you're in a roadster thanks to the stiff chassis and sharp steering. Fold the top down—which involves stopping the car, manually flipping open the tonneau cover, and performing a buttress-folding technique before the top recesses into the body—and atmosphere circulates freely through the cabin, the only obstruction coming in the form of a bar behind the driver that blocks some of the rearward view. Don't bother trying to crank your seat up for better visibility; these fixed carbon buckets only slide fore and aft, a small concession to the car's focused positioning, especially considering some earlier Speedster iterations didn't have fully weatherproofed tops.
Porsche has built what is inarguably the wildest, most capable Speedster in the company's history. But somehow that extraordinary performance doesn't get imparted in its full sensory glory the same way it does in the closed coupe GT3 Touring, a point Preuninger attributes to tightening sound regulations. "We're right at the limit of U.S. sound limits," he says, with a not-so-subtle hint of lamentation. And yet, these days still remain a glorious time to be alive—and to be one of the deep-pocketed 1,948 souls who will make this naturally aspirated, manual-transmission-equipped, limited-production roadster their own. It's also one hell of a time to be in the aftermarket muffler business.
2019 Porsche 911 Speedster Specifications
|ON SALE||Late 2019|
|ENGINE||4.0L DOHC 24-valve flat-6; 502 hp @ 8,400 rpm, 346 lb-ft @ 6,250 rpm|
|LAYOUT||2-door, 2-passenger, rear-engine, RWD roadster|
|EPA MILEAGE||14/21 (est)|
|L x W x H||179.6 x 77.9 x 49.3 in|
|0-60 MPH||3.8 sec|
|TOP SPEED||192 mph|