It’s not easy to be a purist when confronted by the Porsche 918 Spyder. Oh, I’m all about the manual gearbox and lightweight materials. Give me a loop of fabric over a heavy brushed-metal door handle any day. And yet the 918 Spyder—hybrid, four-wheel drive, PDK, the lot—makes me go weak at the knees. Especially this one. Finished in Liquid Silver and without the fixed wing of the Weissach package, this Porsche has a purity that literally stops you in your tracks. It’s also mesmerising to watch it whir around on electric power alone. The sculptural beauty, the sci-fi soundtrack … everything about the 918 Spyder seems not of this world.
Dammit, I shouldn’t think this phony zero emission stuff is cool, but the 918 Spyder makes it so. Just as I attempt to tear my eyes away from this extraordinary car as it maneuvers around a gravel parking lot, the driver flicks a little dial on the steering wheel and its 4.6-liter V-8 rips into life instantly. Everyone in the nearby vicinity just stares, mouth agape and clearly pondering exactly the same question: “How many internal organs do I need to sell to own a 918 Spyder?” The driver knows this effect well. He’s demonstrated the 918 Spyder to hundreds of people around the world and has seen the look a million times. He chuckles, blips the throttle a couple of times, shuts off the car, jumps out, and simply says, “It’s not just a car, right? It’s a masterpiece.” The assembled crowd nods as one. Hypnotized.
There’s a relatively narrow 911 parked alongside the 918 Spyder. White, green stripes, no wing. It looks tiny and—although this sounds ludicrous—quite ordinary. Of course it isn’t ordinary at all: it’s the new Porsche 911 R. This is the car that shuns PDK, turbos, air conditioning, and anything else that adds weight and impedes driver involvement; the car that takes a GT3 RS 4.0-liter flat-six engine and crams it into the narrower GT3 shell and chassis; the car that has been portrayed as the ultimate Porsche for real drivers.
Both represent the pinnacle of Porsche, then. One signals the future, the other is inspired by the past. Today we drive them back-to-back to discover which delivers the biggest thrill. Simple.
The 10-year old inside me wants to run screaming and with arms joyously flailing around toward the 918. It has 887 horsepower, after all. Instead I summon what little composure I can find and swing open the door to the 911 R. I’d be lying if I said the low-slung supercar immediately evaporates from my thoughts, but boy does the R’s interior seduce. The one-piece carbon-fiber buckets are tightly swaddled in chocolate brown leather; the seat and back cushions are fabric, intricately finished in an old-school houndstooth pattern – just like a 356 or early 911. The steering wheel is small, with slim hollow-spokes, and there’s not a single button or dial to distract from its purpose. However, the real signature piece rises up from the central tunnel: A simple carbon fiber-topped gearlever etched with a H-pattern for its six forward gears plus reverse. It’s an unequivocal statement that this is a 911 that requires driving.
In case you’ve somehow missed the 911 R hype, here’s a simple rundown of what makes it so enticing: In terms of hardware it’s exactly as described before, a GT3 chassis and structure fitted with the 4.0-liter engine from the GT3 RS. It produces 493-hp at 8,250 rpm, 339 lb-ft at 6,250 rpm, is capable of 200 mph, and drives from 0-60 mph in 3.7 seconds. What’s really different, though, is the manual gearbox. It uses the casing from the PDK, but is fitted with just six ratios. Gears one through four are the same as a GT3, but fifth and sixth are longer. Why just six gears? To save weight, of course.
The R is the lightest 911 on sale at just 3,020 pounds. It features unique carbon-fiber front fenders, the magnesium roof from the GT3 RS, a carbon-fiber hood, plastic quarter- and rear-window glazing, carbon-ceramic brakes as standard, titanium exhaust, and lacks a further 10 pounds of sound deadening versus the already skimpy measures employed in the GT3. Air conditioning and navigation are deleted by default, but can be reinstated without a fee. It’s also a strict two-seater.
In terms of suspension, the R employs GT3 springs but with retuned Porsche Active Suspension Management dampers. The 911 R retains the rear-wheel steering system that serves GT3, RS, and Turbo models so well, but here it’s retuned for even faster response. There’s also a new rear diffuser to balance the car aerodynamically, while the automatically deploying rear wing runs at a steeper angle than that of a Carrera S to aid stability. Just 991 will be built and they’re already all gone. Want one? Be prepared to pay many multiples of the $184,900 sticker price.
Should you join the people lusting after this “purist’s” 911? Twist the key and when the dry, harsh tone of the flat-six fills the interior overlaid with the rattling of the (optional) lightweight flywheel, it’s hard not to think so. It’s not a pretty noise, but it’s loaded with intent. On the move, the engine is more tuneful; at low revs, there’s a lovely growl that resonates through the carbon-fiber seat. It feels special then, even before you’ve thought about pinning the gas pedal to its stop.
The R’s natural athleticism builds the anticipation still further. It really does feel like a car carrying little mass. Steering requires minimal effort and the car feels super-responsive; every tiny input produces an instant, precise reaction and you feel you need to calm your driving style so as to not overexcite the car. Compared to the weighty and locked-down feel of a GT3 RS, the 911 R feels narrow, short, and hyper alert.
What of the much feted new manual gearbox? It’s deliciously mechanical and accurate. Of course, with such a high-compression engine, it requires finesse to produce smooth shifts, but the reward is worth a million flicks of a paddle. It also helps to uncover the true character of this remarkable engine. In the GT3 RS, the PDK seems to demand you seek out the last few hundred rpm and live in that manic zone. With the manual, you tend to let the road unravel with fewer gearshifts and get to feel the engine’s clean, insistent mid-range and then marvel in a mix of awe and fear as it climbs and climbs toward peak power and the crazy 8,800-rpm limiter. The 911 R feels even more potent than a GT3 RS.
The lightweight, alert impression given at low speeds remains as you start to extend the engine and work the simply fabulous carbon-ceramic brakes. Where the GT3 RS seems to get lower and wider the faster you go—the invisible hand of downforce doing its thing—the 911 R flows over the surface. The steering is perhaps too light, but it fits with the way the car breathes on the road and communicates every move. You feel the front start to ease into understeer and then bite again if you lift the throttle to restore balance; you sense the peculiar weight distribution through the small of your back and by way the R slips into mild oversteer on the brakes but then squats hard as soon as you accelerate, smearing its 305-section Michelin Cup 2 tires into the road.
These are classic 911 traits played out more progressively, but at much higher speeds. In fact, if you seek the 911 R’s ultimate limits, you’ll find it’s an incredibly capable car. There’s unflappable composure and despite the deliberate decision to step away from RS-style downforce as the mechanical grip generated is huge. Go really hard and you’ll discover it’s more prone to understeer than the wider-tracked RS and more progressive if you snap the throttle shut. Do that and though the R will then transition into oversteer, it’s not as quick to flick sideways, and the angle will be less lurid than in an unsympathetically-driven RS.
The black and white of understeer and oversteer don’t seem hugely important on the road in the R, though. What matters is that the chassis telegraphs its every move, and that it feels light, agile, and absolutely under the control of the driver. This is the color and texture that enriches the driving experience. I’d say an RS is more impressive still at maximum attack as it changes direction so accurately and has a real biting edge that ups the stakes, but at slightly lower speeds, the R just feels more alive. Looking to the past for inspiration was, it turns out, a pretty inspired decision.
Can the 918 Spyder conjure up such pure driving enjoyment? A real sense of excitement even at lower speeds? Erm. Well. Yes. The 918 Spyder can do pretty much anything. It’s completely outrageous, wildly fast, and almost bewilderingly effective — but it’s also full of feedback and sensation. Yes, you could drive it for a lifetime on the road and never once exceed its sky-high limits, but you’d feel immersed in what it’s doing even at crawling pace. And the first time you wring the drivetrain out to 9,150 rpm is a moment that lives with you forever.
What strikes immediately about the 918 Spyder is how much is familiar and how much is totally unlike anything else. The 599-hp V8 engine has the same astonishing freeness of a Carrera GT’s V-10, but while your ears tell you the car should need revs to really fly, the electrical assistance means you’ve got massive and instant torque. In seventh gear, it has 944 lb-ft and takes off from 20 mph like the 911 R might in second gear. The overall effect is like having a 10.0-liter V-8 that somehow manages to keep on revving to eternity.
The gearbox is a dual-clutch system but again it’s faster, more positive, and just plain more exciting than the PDK in anything else I’ve experienced. It feels like the request via the upshift paddle and the resulting ratio change are simultaneous. The whole car seems to react without inertia—be it under acceleration, between gearshifts, or when you ask it change direction. Perhaps that’s not quite true, as it doesn’t feel as light on its feet as the 911 R initially. Steering is heavier and the four-wheel steering system can’t completely disguise the 918’s sheer size or its 3,692 pounds, but there’s real agility here, and the balance is wonderfully neutral. If you can get the 918 Spyder to understeer on the road then you’re probably reading this from prison already.
For the most part, the 918 just grips and goes with a slight wiggle of its wide hips if you give it the full noise out of a turn. The ride is firmer than that of the 911 R; its stiff carbon-fiber structure with double wishbones at the front and a multilink rear seems to transmit noise and texture just like any other low, wide, carbon fiber-built supercar. This means that, on certain roads, the 911 R just might gain an edge here or there by handling a bumpy corner with more subtlety and hence greater speed. But the 918 wipes out any hard-won yards with one sustained burst of full throttle. To be honest, its lateral grip limits are so high it can drive away from the 911 R pretty easily if you’re determined to do so. More impressive still is that it feels so natural at speed. Remember, this is a car with an internal combustion engine mated to a 154-hp electric motor working the rear wheels, and another 127-hp electric motor with it’s own single-speed transmission acting on the front axle. What an achievement to make it perform so seamlessly.
Of course, if you want to slow down, just click the little rotary dial mounted on the steering wheel from Race down to E-Power mode (there are also Hybrid, Sport Hybrid and Hot Lap modes) and the 918 becomes the silent assassin. The range is 18 miles, but the batteries recharge quickly and even without the petrol engine screaming away at you, the 918 Spyder feels genuinely quick. It’ll do 0-62mph in 6.2-seconds using just the twin electric motors. Alternatively, just slip along with that odd sci-fi whine and the noise of lightweight aluminum suspension working over lumps and bumps and stones rattling against the carbon-fiber monocoque. Even in E-Power mode, the 918 Spyder really is a feast for the senses.
Sadly this day had to draw to a close. Our time with the 918 Spyder and 911 R is all too brief, but then anything less than a month of long summer days would seem too little. They’re just so addictive to experience and try to exploit. With the 911 R, you’re learning how to extract the maximum from it in the best 911 tradition. It requires the driver to think and unpick its quirks to truly reveal its capabilities. But it sticks to another 911 tradition, too: Even before you can ever dream of driving it to its full potential, the R entertains and pulls you into every facet of the driving experience.
I expected that the 918 Spyder wouldn’t match that at-any-speed involvement, that it would feel a bit inert and cumbersome below warp speed. Instead it totally defies those prejudices and manages to be enthralling whether in E-Power mode or the magnificently intense Race and Hot Lap modes. Just climbing down into its amazing interior and taking in the quality and finesse is unforgettable. It paints a picture of the future of the performance car as vivid and exciting as the 911 R despite being almost diametrically opposed in philosophy.
I suppose before all those miles had played out, before the 911 R and 918 Spyder had cast their spells on me, I’d hoped for a clear-cut answer. To discover beyond doubt whether 911 R or 918 Spyder has hit upon the blueprint for the future of real driving thrills. Instead, I end up elated but confused. How do you choose between sublime purity and artfully optimized technology when both can seemingly deliver raw feedback and intense involvement? I certainly can’t. Maybe the real answer is that the black art of creating the greatest drivers’ cars imaginable can be approached in many different ways, embrace new technology or celebrate simplicity, and yet evoke the same feelings and emotions. One thing I do know for sure is that the future of the sports and supercar is bright. And brilliantly diverse.