PROPPED against a 911 Carrera S PDK at the foot of Franschhoek Pass, you survey the route that’s just been despatched by Porsche’s new 991 series coupé. The sinuous 25 km ribbon of blacktop in the Western Cape performs a series of sweeps and eye-widening switchbacks as it climbs through wooded mountains into a jagged hinterland of russet cliffs and sheer drops before descending to the placid shores of Theewaterskloof Dam. Still glazed with the remnants of a previous night’s downpour and satisfyingly bereft of its usual slow-moving quotient of lorries and dawdling tourists in rental cars it is, at 07h00 on a crisp autumn day, as close as you can get to motoring nirvana. It’s also an unforgiving stretch of road that has chewed up and spat out many an articulated lorry or carelessly driven car, so negotiating it in a high-performance machine within broadly moral speeds often leaves you breathless. But, there you are; the pulse has elevated but the nerves are unfrayed and you’re eyeing that snaking road with a tingle of excitement, itching to tackle it again.
This has been the perennial beauty of contemporary 911s. Their finely honed dynamics don’t serve to scare; they inculcate an equal measure of awe and respect by making you an integral part of the machine. The 911 has become the performance-car yardstick for the fine balance between everyday usability and outright performance – a critical model for both Porsche and the performance-car fraternity as a whole. Porsche knows it, and the Zuffenhausen-based firm must have endured many a sleepless night as it bid farewell to the crushingly capable 997, pondering just how such a formula could be bettered and the unthinkable consequences of getting it wrong.
Aesthetically, the 911 would never have been overtly altered – a decision celebrated by Porsche purists and galling to those seeking change. Likewise, the design ethos put forward by FA Porsche, the 911’s creator (see page 49), remains intact:
“A coherently designed product requires no adornment; it should be enhanced by its form alone.” Therefore, the subtle evolution of that signature shape brings with it a more convex windshield, a wider front-end with larger, more upright headlamps, enlarged air intakes and an elongated tail flanked by narrow LED taillamps.
The all-new platform, only the third in the 911’s history, sees the wheelbase grow by 100 mm, requiring the development of a new transaxle that moves the rear wheels 76 mm backward in relation to the position of the engine to improve mass distribution and keep the car dynamically balanced, while the use of high-strength steels, aluminium and composites in the new car’s construction sees the curb weight drop by 45 kg. There you have it; aesthetically appealing, arguably more so than its predecessor, but also bristling with functionality – the one feeds the other.
At the heart, or tail rather, of the Porsche 911 Carrera S PDK sits a direct-injection 3,8-litre flat-six engine that develops 294 kW at a heady 7 400 r/min and 440 N.m of torque at 5 600 r/min.
On paper, the engine’s outputs may not look overly impressive, but married as the powerplant is with the 911’s slick-shifting seven-speed PDK dual-clutch transmission and finely balanced chassis, the flat-six provides scintillating performance. Initiate launch control, lift your foot off the brake and, along with a grin-inducing staccato bark from the optional sports-exhaust system, the 911 surges forward, completing the 0-100 km/h sprint in 4,26 seconds. The naturally aspirated engine thrives on revs and, once on the boil, serves up blistering in-gear acceleration; 100 to 120 km/h took just 1,37 seconds and 120-140 km/h a mere 1,66 seconds.
Just as impressive is the colossal stopping power served up by the optional ceramic-brake setup. Progressive in feel and near-immune to fade, this system’s average 100-0 km/h stopping time under testing hovered around the 2,6-second mark at an average distance of just 34,87 metres.
The numbers are impressive, but they don’t convey what’s really special about the latest 911: the fact that it has retained that rare ability to connect driver and machine almost seamlessly. Its poise in spirited driving engages your senses; your vision as the scenery blurs by, your inner ear as you marvel at the astonishing front-end grip that allows you to carry more speed than you’d expected through that corner and your touch as you grab the next ratio via the paddle shifters. Our test unit was fitted with the optional Sport Chrono and suspension-management systems, which add a more aggressive sport+ setting to the standard sport setup and confers distinctive characteristics to the 911’s throttle, damping and gearshift behaviour.
Sport+ sees the transmission tenaciously hang on to the revs and gears, banging through ratios and turning the throttle into a hair trigger while firming up the dampers to render body roll near absent, even in extremis. This full-attack attitude, although fun for a while, does feel a bit strained unless you’re driving as though pursued by a cannibal on a superbike. Sport is the sweet spot; gearshifts, both up and down, are accurate and fast, the sports exhaust is still in full voice, the throttle crisp but steadily modulated and you feel as though you can switch your driving style between sedate and aggressive without the car bearing a grudge. Factor in Porsche Torque Vectoring Plus – a system that utilises a combination of variable levels of rear-differential lock and selective rear-wheel braking to tighten the Carrera S’s line when tackling twisties – and the 911 will flatter its driver and engender respect in equal measure. Few cars have a comparable ability to make ham-fisted drivers seem heroic while satisfying more experienced pilots who seek to explore the Porsche’s dynamic prowess.
Perhaps the biggest talking point of the new 911 centres on the decision to drop the hydraulic steering setup in favour of an electro-mechanically assisted rack. Some motoring scribes have bemoaned this move and, to some degree, they have a point. There is a stage at which the steering feel gives way to a hint of artificial lightness that was never present in the 997’s highly communicative and finely weighted tiller. But it has to be said that this point exists at the sort of speeds and dynamic attitudes at which most drivers would be silently making an entreaty for divine delivery.
The road-test team lauded the confidence-inspiring directness of the steering system, which makes a driver feel ensconcedd in the driving experience, yet completely at ease with the 911 in highway and in-town operating conditions. It is, in short, the best electrically assisted system we’ve encoun-tered … Think of which piece of tarmac you want the car to occupy and there you’ll be, on the line you envisaged, as if it had been preordained and then enacted via telepathy.
The steering setup is evidence of the 911’s evolution. As entertaining as it is, there’s the almost impalpable feeling that some of the old car’s edginess has been smoothed away. While some may claim it’s down to the steering, which never wriggles in your palms, it’s more likely a product of the new car’s greater degree of everyday usability. While the 997’s various incarnations may have laid claim to the everyday-supercar mantle, they simply weren’t as easy to live with as the 991. Whereas the old car often felt slightly ill at ease when not being piloted in anger, the new car can run you to the shops or whisk you along a motorway with just as much ease as it allows you to attack your favourite back road. With the drivetrain settings in normal mode, the transmission slinks through the ratios to get to the highest possible gear and save fuel, the throttle response is relaxed and the ride, although by no means soft, is well damped and supple. It’d be a stretch to say that the new 911 is GT-like in its on-road manners, but it’s certainly more demure than before.
This duality of nature is neatly reflected in the new car’s cabin, which gingerly treads the line between passenger vehicle and racing car. There’s a nod to the Carrera GT in the lengthy, button-studded centre console, and the surfaces are finely crafted and awash with leather and brushed chrome in a tastefully executed layout. The contoured front seats are well bolstered and, although on-road refinement is respectable, there are always aural reminders in vague transmission noise, tyre roar and the engine’s guttural tone that blistering performance is but an ankle-flex away. The new car’s stretched dimensions even make the rear seats, previously little more than an upholstered parcel shelf, quite useable for those of a slighter frame on short trips.
The burning question whether the new 911 has exceeded the lofty standard set by its predecessor isn’t easy to answer. Yes, Porsche has slightly diluted some on-the-limit sharpness to make room for greater everyday usability, but in doing so it has created a car with a breadth of talents covering the entire gamut from viable runabout to thoroughbred performance machine.
Purists may yearn for a more visceral experience, but they must remember that the Carrera S will be followed by a slew of models that will no doubt cater to those looking for a more focused performance machine. Given that their foundations will be hewn from what we see here, they should prove mighty impressive. As it stands, the new Carrera S is perhaps the quintessential 911. And it’s only the beginning.