At nearly 50-years-old, the hallmark Porsche shows some softness, while dialing up its size, performance and efficiency.
Disclosure: Travel to California, accommodations, meals, drinks, test
vehicles and a pre-determined driving route were provided to the writer
by the automaker.
This is a review of a Porsche 911 Carrera, so rest easy that there will be superlatives about its world-beating exploits in high-speed handling, power, uncanny German engineering and price tags far beyond most of us mere mortals.
However, as of this new seventh generation, the most legendary and lust worthy of all Porsches has now officially abandoned its status as a pure sports car.
If I'm honest, it's a path the rear-engined Carrera's been creeping down over the last decade or so as features like heated seats, the PDK automatic transmission and cupholders (gasp!) have crept into the Stuttgart-built coupe.
What the, err, 'entry-level' $93,700 Carrera and its more powerful $110,000 'S' sibling have become for 2012 are highly capable - and highly computerized - Grand Touring (GT) cars. Think Aston Martin V8 Vantage or BMW 6 Series. Now more than ever, depending on what buttons you press while cocooned in the leather and alcantara-lined cockpit, the 911 will either comfortably loaf through traffic returning a compact car-like 8.2 L/100 km or manhandle a twisting piece of tarmac way over the posted limit.
Effectively, the Carreras have become two-door versions of Porsche's own Panamera sedan, rather than the simplistic driver's cars that made them legendary. The Germans say it's what modern technology can bring - and what customers want. We're not entirely sure how that sits with us...
Though at a glance it may not look dramatically different, Porsche says 95 percent of its "pillar" sports machine has been redesigned or re-engineered for 2012. In a world where ever-encroaching CO2 and fuel economy regs pressure every automaker, finding efficiencies here was key. The good news is, Porsche managed to twist most of these intensely boring, eco-minded changes into something that also makes the 911 drive that much better.
A little Teutonic Jenny Craig, for example, brought new lightweight aluminum body parts, including the roof, which cuts the Carrera's weight 45 kg (100 lbs.) and also lowers its centre of gravity for better handling. The wheelbase has been stretched 100 millimetres (4 inches) too and the front wheels are 50 mm (2 in.) farther afield, meaning more stability at nutty velocities and sharper turn-in.
The base flat-six engine with direct injection shrinks from 3.6 to 3.4 litres, though somehow manages to make five more horsepower (350) and the same torque (287 lb-ft) as last year. Mate it with kit like Porsche's seven-speed Doppelkupplungsgetriebe (PDK) dual-clutch automatic gearbox and that 8.2 L/100 km fuel economy average mentioned above materializes - along with a slightly faster 0-100 km/h sprint of 4.4 sec. Impressive.
Carrera S models hang onto the 3.8L flat-six from 2011, but it muscles up 15 hp and 15 lb-ft, to an even 400 and 325, respectively. Stuttgart says it'll hustle to 100 km/h in just 4.1 sec.
Behind the scenes, Porsche has rework how the 911 handles engine heat, found ways to recuperate volts from its electrics, added a start/stop system for the first time on its sports cars and put a "coasting function" on the PDK transmission that will disengaged the engine from the transmission to save fuel. It's all stuff we've seen from other automakers before, but adds up to a quoted (and damn impressive) 16 percent improvement in average fuel economy.
For the first time, electro-mechanical steering finds its way into a 911. 'Tis our greatest disappointment with this new car. Porsche's steering had been legendary for communicating the minutia of the road and wheels to the driver, but this new computer-aided system doesn't speak as eloquently to your palms as past hydraulic models. Porsche made the change for a, "reduction in fuel consumption by at least 0.1 L/100 km." Hardly seems worth it.
With that namby-pamby eco-fluffiness out of the way, let's talk performance. As Michael Schatzle, project manager for the 911 told us, "it's a matter of course, we have to be the best." and, to get there, Porsche has relied more heavily than ever on computers.
The Carrera offers the world's first seven-speed manual gearbox in a passenger car, mainly as a way to satiate purist in its largest market, North America, where more buyers than anywhere else prefer to row their own gears, old school-style.
That said, this new 911 does not truly knockinz off mine lauderhaus until that high-tech $4,660 PDK dual-clutch gearbox is added. It's the magic swizzle stick that works wonders with all of the car's myriad other computer controlled system - like the PASM active suspension system, Porsche Torque Vectoring (PTV) for the rear wheels, the Sport Chrono Package and the all-new Porsche Dynamic Chassis Control (PDCC) system borrowed from the Cayenne SUV which uses sensors and hydraulics to keep the coupe flat in a bend (most of these are optional, by the way, as per Porsche tradition, along with $9,730 ceramic brakes…).
Here's where the new (highly-optioned) 911 earns that 'GT' badge. With all the buttons for these gadgets switched to 'normal,' the Carrera becomes an extremely neutral, composed machine - the Switzerland of sports cars. If she can fold her arthritic bones into the impossibly low sport seats, your granny could take it to bingo, the Porsche is now that compliant.
But, punch buttons like 'Sport Plus,' which comes with said Sport Chrono Package, and the ones and zeros buried in the 911s circuitry get all feisty. The wider spoiler rears up, the exhaust roars to life and the Carrera suddenly remembers it can get you down a road with a level of speed and agility pretty much illegal in our great nation.
If the way the new 911 drives is not enough to earn it a 'Grand Tourer' badge, the new cabin will. What once was a Spartan space in years of yore has evolved into an intimate and highly-cosseting place to perch. Fit, finish and materials here have reached the levels of any top-drawer pure luxury car - if you check the right boxes. A partial leather interior with handsome stitching and an alcantara roofliner are now standard, as is new seven-inch touchscreen with navigation and an electronic parking brake switch. Options again range from a heated mahogany steering wheel ($1,430) to leather-covered air vents ($1,810) and a symphonic Burmester Sound System ($6,040). Outfitting (and pricing) a 911 to the level of something as sumptuous as rivals like the $130,000 Mercedes-Benz SL would not be difficult in the slightest. We used the Porsche Canada online configurator and managed to 'build' a Carrera S that nearly doubled its $110,000 sticker.
All this talk of premium touches aside, the new 911's cabin rocks one of the best driving positions we've ever encountered. By adopting a tall centre console inspired by the company's own Carrera GT supercar, all the major controls and the shift lever are brought intimately close to the driver, as in a racing car. You could drive this Carrera with your elbows duct-taped to your love handles...
For 2012 the redesigned seats offer slightly more fore-aft adjustment, as does the steering wheel. The ignition, of course, remains at left, as a nod to motorsports, says Porsche, but we say it's a way to remind owners just how cool their ride is. The five-gauge setup returns as well, but a new LCD pod appears left of the central tachometre to show radio and sat-nav info and even a new G-force display as part of that Sport Chrono package.
Codenamed '991' internally by the German boffins, not a single line or radius has been left unchanged on the Carrera though it maintains the so-called "Porsche flyline" – that characteristic rear-sloping shape. Standard bi-xenon headlights and pencil-thin all-LED taillights have been added. Overall, the 911 grew 56 millimetres longer for 2012. The standard wheels become 19-inchers on the Carrera and 20s on the 'S.' Add one of the 'special" paint colours like Cognac Metallic or Lime Gold Metallic, and the price of your car instantly jumps $3,590. Wowzers.
The 911's rear seats remains for the smallest of kids only (hopefully a baby seat fits now, though...). They can be folded down for a surprisingly large amount of stowage space. There's also the car's front trunk, which can swallow a carry-on or a couple of soft-sided Louis Vuitton bags. All in all, there's more room here than in most sports GTs.
So is the new 911 just a familiar shape and recognizable name without the tactile, slightly dangerous soul that made it a legend? To a degree yes, but if it's any consolation, it's a path pretty much all pedigreed sports cars have taken in recent years. Legislation and the changing taste of consumers are partly to blame here. A multi-billion-Euro company like Porsche would not have made these changes on a whim.
That said, outfit your new 911, err, to the nines, and it is still just about the most pleasant or poised six-figure coupe on the planet - depending on what buttons you press, of course. Cranked to max, the new car is 14 seconds faster around Germany's Nurburgring than the old model, a lifetime in motorsport terms. If you still aren't sold, remember dozens of other variants are coming, like the Turbo and GT3, which should have you soundly soiling yourself.
The 2012 911 Carrera goes on sale in Canada in February.