New Car Reviews

First Drive: 2020 Porsche 911 Prototype (992 Series)

Seven generations on, the latest 911 remains a study in pragmatic evolution

SAN FRANCISCO, California — No one in Stuttgart decided to burn the playbook when it came time to develop the latest Porsche 911. There’s still a charismatic flat six hanging out aft of the rear axle. It retains the same basic silhouette. The key slot is still on the left side of the dash. For some 55 years now, Porsche has relentlessly sharpened, reshaped, digitized, and otherwise improved upon what has become arguably the world’s most recognizable sports car. And while much has changed as the 911 enters its seventh act as the standard bearer of the marque, in many ways the song remains the same.

We got our first taste of the 2020 Porsche 911 by way of some wheel time in pre-production prototypes of the 992 Series generation model in and around the San Francisco Bay area, about a year or so before the car hits U.S. showrooms. The early returns? Thanks in part to a fresh suite of computer-controlled assets, the new 911 is faster, more efficient, and, most importantly, more fun to drive than ever.

Though it’s shaping up to be a significant improvement over the outgoing model, the 992 is not a new car down to the pores. There was no need for reinvention—after all, the present-gen, 991 Series 911 is still is a remarkably inspiring and involving piece of kit. This time around, improving ergonomics, adding new driver assistance systems, and further reducing emissions were the primary objectives. So hop in, pull the belt tight and feel with us the difference the seventh life makes.

In keeping with Porsche’s cautious, evolutionary approach to its core product, the 2020 Porsche 911 isn’t a head-turner from an exterior standpoint. All the traditional 911 cues are there, with the only real eye-catchers being small details like the contrasting black bumper inserts front and rear, the extra dose of Botox in all wheelhouses, the wider rims, and the fancier, three-part pop-up rear spoiler. More cooling air is now being channeled to the brakes and radiators via a slim horizontal intake with selectively blocked louvers. As is sadly en vogue these days, the taillights have gone full-width seemingly for no real reason other than aesthetics. Its revised aero package has been optimized in a further effort to neutralize lift, and it’s roughly 0.8-in longer and up to 1.6-in broader than before. It would have been nice to keep the curb weight where it was, but all those modern conveniences and the beefier footwear added around 40 pounds or so to the tally. There are dashes of innovation, such as its trick lights and visibly different brake systems.

Open the driver’s door, and the 2020 911 welcomes you with a different blend of fashion and function. It’s a sophisticated, new-era design that will look familiar to anyone who has been inside any late-model Porsche. Having said that, the central rev counter still swings an analog needle, and you must again insert and turn a key to switch on the ignition. But four of the five round dials are now digitized, colorful, and freely programmable. High up in the center console resides a large rectangular display similar in scope to the units found in new Cayenne and Panamera which invites you to zoom, scroll, and swipe until your finger goes numb. Nimble digits are also handy when operating the multi-task steering wheel, shift paddles, and the three fat column stalks. Positioned above the center air vents are five direct-access buttons. Depending on specification, one or two will execute dedicated tasks like navigating to home. Still there in full black force is the rotary drive mode thumbwheel with boost option.

In keeping with Porsche’s modern-era rollout strategy, the 992 will initially only be available in Carrera 2 and Carrera 2S flavors. The Porsche marketing squad thought long and hard about how to position the first two models, eventually rating the lesser 3.0-liter engine at roughly 385 hp. The S we drove is good for around 450 hp. The twin-turbo unit redlines at 7,500 rpm, maximum torque is a healthy 405 lb-ft, and the fuel consumption is claimed not to have gone up. Performance? With launch control activated, Porsche says the PDK version of the Carrera S can accelerate from 0-60 mph in a brisk 3.6 sec or so. The top speed is 192 mph, which should be plenty for most occasions. From what we know so far, the new Carrera S should be every bit the match of the present-generation 911 GTS from a performance standpoint.

So let’s go for it. Sliding into the driver’s seat feels like putting on one’s favorite cashmere-lined body harness. The pivotal controls are still in the same position, the clutch action still varies from velvety to violent, the throttle response still is as keen as you will tolerate. The most obvious initial dynamic difference is the boost in power and torque—highlighted by an unexpectedly muffled exhaust note—and what at least subjectively seems to be somewhat smoother running characteristics.

As our convoy cuts through a magnificent swath of Northern Californian hinterland, we’re challenged by blind crests, spoiler-chewing dives, crumbling blacktop, and hard shoulders that suddenly go soft. This is tough terrain for a performance car, and yet it feels like home turf for the 992, which delivers the goods with verve and vivacity. While the base Carrera comes in an 18/19-inch front/rear tire/wheel configuration, the S is shod with Pirelli P Zeros sized 245/35 ZR20 up front and 305/30 ZR21 in the back where hell would break loose if it weren’t for the armada of disaster prevention electronics. (As it happened, a software glitch prevented us from deactivating ESP completely.) Hidden inside the front wheel wells are two microphones, which act as multi-stage rain and ice sensors. Clever .

For our second stint, the man in the passenger seat with us is Gustl Achleitner, R&D chief for the sports car division and a hardcore Porsche veteran.

“We are offering again a choice of transmissions, a seven-speed manual and a new eight-speed PDK which packages plug-in hybrid componentry should we ever decide to go that way,” Achleitner tells us. “Although one must prepare for all eventualities, weight and complexity remain tall hurdles.”

In the 991, the seven-speed manual was at times a counter-productive, fidgety-to-frustrating attempt to come to grips with ever-tightening emissions regulations. From what we can tell so far, the shift quality has markedly improved in the 992, and that ultimate move from sixth into seventh is no longer a haptic game of chance. But the modified box doesn’t feel quite as slick and precise as the six-speeder available for the GT3.

The optional rear-wheel steering system coming for the 2020 Porsche 911 just about doubles the number of steroids that roam the engine-transmission-rear-suspension orbit. Turn-in is even more reassuring now as lean and grip join forces while steering and throttle establish a super-smooth handling balance. Without the system, the new 911 feels rawer and edgier, but it also reveals a little more of its inherently tail-happy self. (We’d be inclined to check the rear-wheel steer option for the PDK equipped models). After about an hour of giving it the stick, there is no doubt about it: this 911 moves in a more compliant yet more aggressive manner, it can go at a faster pace, and it hangs on quite a bit longer. Its biggest individual dynamic asset is the much improved front-end bite which allows for higher cornering speeds and a broader sweet spot at the limit.

“The 992 builds up quantifiably more mechanical grip than the 991,” says Achleitner, a man who would know. He tells us about the adjustable Bilstein dampers, which cover a broader range of action, the new passive engine mounts that are designed to take the sting out of lift-off maneuvers, and a steering ratio that’s about five percent quicker. Little things perhaps, but in aggregate they make a difference. While the manual transmission cars come with a mechanical diff lock, the PDK models boast an electronically controlled side-to-side torque distribution.

Since high-tech headlights and brakes generate juicy revenues, the 992 offers extra-cost LED headlamps with cornering lights and a pair of adaptive multi-beam matrix eyes. Proliferation is even more evident in the brakes department. While standard-size steel rotors are part of the Carrera parcel, the S gets bigger discs and matching calipers. Those who worry about brake dust and dirty wheels are welcome to pay extra for the clean surface-contact technology (PSCB) first introduced in the Cayenne, with the PCCB carbon ceramics again being the costliest option.

A well kitted-out 992 can do much more than accelerate swiftly, steer accurately, and brake promptly. It can answer to the driver’s every dynamic whim by adjusting the damper action, the ESP mode, or the throttle response. Tap the big screen, and five more options will pop up in a flash, labeled wet, normal, sport, sport plus, and individual. Gone are the direct access buttons next to the gear lever, so every single menu and submenu needs to be opened via the main display. Surely, in this case less would have been more? Another issue that did not go away concerns the tuning of the PDK gearbox, which in normal mode behaves as though it’s taken a sleeping pill. In Sport and Sport plus, however, high-revving hooliganism is once more the name of the overly hectic game—except that when the car is sitting at traffic lights, revs are capped at 3,500 rpm sharp. Talk about idiosyncrasies.

From what we can make of it so far, the Porsche 911 7.0’s greater-than-ever enhanced high-tech content and convenience and comfort upgrades have not compromised the core qualities that have made this sports car a legend. While there are some new plays, you still know what’s coming.

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