HOW do you improve a car that’s already at the top of its game? Given Porsche’s philosophy of ongoing development, there was no question that a successor to the 996 version of the classic 911 would appear. But replacing the best-ever 911 thus far must have required some soul-searching. What do you retain, and what do you change about a car that Porsche fans the world over have come to regard as perfect?

As with every new 911, the 997 has attracted its share of brickbats from the nit-pickers. “Too derivative” has been the refrain from one lobby, obviously in need of education on what this iconic sportscar is about. And, from the traditionalists, there’s been some criticism of the new model’s variable ratio steering...

Yet, despite its familiar looks, something like 80 per cent of the new 997 is, in fact, new. That’s confidence for you. But, when you have an engineering tradition as strong as Porsche has, self belief is a given… If you know your 911s, you’ll immediately see that the new model is much more than a facelift. Millimetres shorter than its predecessor, with a slimmer waistline, but running on wider front and rear tracks, it looks more squat, more purposeful, than before. And the aerodynamics have been further refined, resulting in improved drag coefficients – 0,28 for the “ordinary” Carrera, and 0,29 for the Carrera S featured in this first test.

Passive safety has been improved by adding special reinforcements to the body structure, resulting in better performance in offset collisions. There are six airbags, including two new twostage full-size frontal bags, and an enhanced POSIP (Porsche side impact protection) system, which includes thorax bags on the outer sides of the front seat armrests, and two more in each of the doors. One of the most dramatic upgrades is to the interior, which has been completely revised. The quality of the plastics has been improved, and there’s a new leather-covered facia that incorporates elements of past 911 instrument panels. The wheel is now adjustable for height as well as reach, the seats are lower, with a greater degree of height adjustment, and the pedals have been moved further forward to better accommodate taller drivers. Porsche communication management (PCM) and a new, uprated BOSE sound system are standard.

Although the 911 Carrera retains the 3,6-litre flat six, with small increases in power and torque, the Carrera S, a modernday successor to the 911S of the ‘70s, gets an all-new powerplant that displaces 3 824 cm3 and has outputs of 261 kW at 6 600 r/min and 400 N.m at 4 600. It differs in appearance from the 3,6 in having silver finishes for the air collector and inlet manifold, and a pair of double tailpipes. There’s VarioCam Plus variable valve-timing, and the lift pattern of the intake camshafts has been modified to provide greater thrust at low speeds. A change in injection angle means more fuel is directed to the centre of the combustion chamber during the inlet stroke. And that refined, yet typical, 911 sound is no coincidence: the inlet system features a Helmholtz resonator, which keeps the frequency below 260 Hertz when accelerating between 5 000 and 6 000 r/min.

Greater torque output from the S engine made the previous-generation manual gearbox marginal by Porsche’s engineering standards, so an all-new six-speed unit has been developed for use in both the S and its straight Carrera sibling. It has larger diameter shafts and thicker gears, but Porsche says intelligent lightweight construction has kept overall mass similar to that of the old 996 ’box.

Suspension is a development of the set-up used in the 996 – MacPherson struts in front, with a five-link arrangement at the rear – but the layout is 30 mm wider than before. And, for the first time in a 911, there’s a variable ratio steering system, replacing the previous linear rack.

PASM (Porsche active suspension management) is standard on the Carrera S, which features active dampers developed in co-operation with Bilstein, and allows the driver to choose between Normal and Sport settings, selected by means of a button on the lower hangdown section of the facia. There is also a new-generation version of PSM (Porsche stability management), the company’s sporty-biased stability control system. And an optional Sports Chrono Plupackage allows the driver to optimise the sporty characteristics of the car by adjusting the accelerator control map and intervention thresholds of PSM, and provides the facility to record lap times on a stopwatch mounted on the facia.

Wheels on the S are 19-inchers – new 8J alloys with 235/35 Michelin Pilot Sport tyres in front, and 11J rears fitted with 295/30s. The ABS-modulated braking system has been carried over from the last model, but boost has been increased to provide quicker response. The test car featured optional PCCB ceramic composite brakes, instantly identifiable by their yellow-painted calipers. And by their superlative performance in our standard braking test…

Some have criticised the interior, especially the new facia design and three-spoke wheel, for being too fussy. We don’t agree. What strikes one is the impression of improved quality, with new materials that add elegance, as well as an air of durability. The overlapping analog dials could only be in a Porsche, and the seat-to-wheel ratio is immediately familiar. The spring for the steering column adjuster is a little fierce, but all the other controls have a classy, damped action.

Also immediately familiar is the way the flat six churns into life as you turn the key, reacting with that evocative 911 whirr as you blip the accelerator pedal. Engage first with the positive, yet slickshifting, lever, release the meaty but progressive clutch, and you’re off. Immediately apparent is the user-friendliness of it all. You need no special technique to avoid stalling it: simply drive off as you would in a modern family saloon.

Floor the throttle on the first open stretch, and the engine’s sound morphs into the wail so beloved of Porsche fans. But, while the ears have it, the hands don’t: lovers of older versions may be slightly disconcerted that the wheel remains steady in the palms, lacking the jiggling feedback that has been a characteristic of all 911s since the original launch in 1963. But, while the new variable ratio system keeps the wheel a little too calm and collected for some around the centre-point, all is forgiven as you get to the first complex of bends, when the outer reaches of the rack provide the familiar precise turn-in and quick adjustment of the the car’s position on the road.

The ride is uncannily absorbent for a sportscar. At the expense of some of that comfort, engaging the Sport suspension setting provides really sporty body control, with minimal lean through the tight curves. Traditionally, 911s developed quite strong initial understeer in tight bends, a characteristic resulting from the suspension designers’ efforts to limit the natural waywardness of the heavy tail. But the 997 is impressively neutral, the front tyres biting strongly on turn-in, then the fronts and rears gripping in unison as you accelerate through the corner.

With PSM switched on, a smidgen of tail movement is allowed, just enough to provide a sense of satisfaction as the car rockets out of the bends. Disengage the driver aid, and it’s still difficult to get it to move much more, the rear Michelins hanging on securely. You really would have to do something foolhardy to get into trouble with this car.

Thanks to VarioCam Plus, the car is equally happy being driven in more relaxed style. The engine pulls smoothly from low revs, becoming really strong around the 3 000 r/min mark. Stomp on the accelerator, and there’s an extra shove in the back around five-and-a-half. Then, in no more time than it takes to realise what’s happening, it races past the 6 600 r/min power peak and into the 7 300 r/min limiter.

Kitted out with our Racelogic equipment, the Carrera S confirmed its supercar performance status out on the test strip. The zero to 100 km/h time of 4,82 seconds – exactly what the manufacturer claims – can be repeated over and over with ease once you’ve got the technique right. The secret is to switch out the PSM system, but modulate the throttle to allow minimal wheelspin on take-off. The kilometre is completed in well under 24 seconds, and top speed is into the 290s, again, just as the manufacturer claims. No sweat, no fuss. Just Porsche…

Test summary

Although the previous two 911 generations came close, the 997 has achieved what many would have regarded as impossible. It offers the finest balance between user-friendliness and on-the-edge driving entertainment achievable in a sportscar. In its latest form, Porsche’s wonder car is just as rewarding to pedal through the traffic as it is to drive on a race track. And, for probably the first time in a 911, it is a match for the very best grand tourers on long journeys. Without doubt, this is the most complete sportscar ever made…