SPORTS CARS ARE RARE THESE DAYS. By the traditional definition—light and nimble, with feel and performance paramount—most carmakers don't even offer one. And then there's Porsche. Long a favorite of this magazine, the company has moved away from its origins. Zuffenhausen now builds sedans and SUVs as well as sports cars, but the latter remain as good as any in the world. Maybe larger and more complex than they once were, but still the gold standard.
Part of Porsche's success has been its ability to slice its product into an astonishing array of variants. In America, the 911 is available in a whopping 16 permutations of hardtop, convertible, or Targa; two- or four-wheel drive; Turbo or R or GT3 RS. As of 2016, for the first time ever, the entry model—the Carrera—is turbocharged.
Turbos are a sea change for a car that has long prided itself on responsive, linear engines. We decided it was time for a brief survey of the 911, to remind us why the model soldiers on. What makes it special. And why, after all this time, we still use it as a benchmark.
So we went to the roads of Sonoma and Napa and up to California's Thunderhill Raceway Park, armed with five different versions of the same car. We recalled some old lessons and woke to a few new ones. This is the state of the sports-car world where the key lives on the left.
CALLING THE 2017 911 CARRERA the "base" model is, frankly, ridiculous. Some plastic bits in the cabin notwithstanding, there's nothing basic about this car. And yet our group of testers also kept referring to it, ludicrously, as the "stripper" 911. Any car that starts at $90,450—and ends up at $97,010 with options—is hard-pressed to justify that appellation.
But the lovely Guards red 911 Carrera revealed a salient point when driven alongside its higher-powered brethren: Simplicity triumphs. The rear-wheel-drive, manual-equipped 911 was the most direct route to Fun Town. It is an uncomplicated, run-it-through-the-gears-and-let-out-a-whoop ride. You buy a sports car for the joy, not the specs.
And so every time we swapped cars, the sharp elbows came out. Each one of us jockeyed for more time in the Carrera. Over a late, carb-heavy dinner at an iffy diner in Willows, California, energy lagging and eyes sagging, we unanimously professed our love for it.
That could be because it was the sole 911 equipped with a manual, or as a show of reverse snobbery. But the argument is simple: With a third pedal, no automatic rev-matching, and rear-wheel drive without rear-wheel steering, the base 911 is a car that does what you tell it to. The human is in charge.
The Carrera is also the best justification of Porsche's new twin-turbo engine. The 911 isn't as wonderful without that naturally breathing flat-six buzz behind you, no matter what Porsche would have you believe. But the base car has traditionally lacked right-now power. The previous, naturally aspirated 3.4-liter engine needed to be coaxed to speed. Not so with the 3.0-liter turbo. It goes bang from the get-go and doesn't feel wanting when compared with the Carrera S.
Build a 911 online, Porsche's options list staring you in the face, and you can't help but bump up to an S model, then add Sport Chrono and more leather. Our tester had none of that, instead getting a few choice selections like $2950 sport exhaust and $800 sport seats, and some unnecessary ones, like seat ventilation and heating ($1530) and seat belts in red ($540).
Over three days that included twisty roads and hours of track time, one particular driving segment in this 911 stands out. Not one of the great bits, but rather an internecine slog where a good road went bad and every man—and car—was out for himself. The two-lane state highway was clogged with traffic, and the Turbo S blasted its way to the front of our Porsche conga line, snaking through congestion and leaning on all that power to pass a half dozen cars at a time.
The Turbo S murders the Carrera when it comes to the spec sheet. But in the real world, where you protect insurance premiums, the Turbo S's extra power can be used only momentarily. Every time a ducking-and-weaving opportunity arose, we grabbed the stick, dropped a couple gears, and tucked into the Turbo S's wake, dogging those quad tailpipes.
Away from testing conditions or the racetrack, the Carrera is not easy to shake. We just wish that Porsche hadn't taken a page from Ferrari's playbook: maintaining desirability by pricing it just out of reach for most of us. —JASON H. HARPER
YOU'RE NOT A CABRIOLET GUY, WE GET IT. The Cab is cursed by its tardiness—it debuted some 20 years into the 911's run, after the coupe's mythology was firmly set. Worse, it was one of the models that transformed Porsche from a secret handshake for enthusiasts into the luxury lifestyle brand it is today. It is, speaking in stereotypes, the 911 for yuppie poseurs who pay too much for coffee and slip "my Poorsh" into casual conversation.
Here's the thing, though: The Cabriolet in its current guise may be the most engaging and least pretentious 911.
It starts with the top. All that stuff about sports cars being more involving when the roof comes off? True as ever, if not more so here, given Porsche's overweening efforts to micromanage the sensory experience in a modern 911. There's something perversely thrilling about lowering the thickly insulated magnesium and cloth top and letting the elements spoil all that careful engineering. Throttle floored on a two-lane straight, we can hear the whistle of turbochargers mingle with the more familiar flat-six wail, feel the blistering California air stir to a swirling gust as the speedometer needle passes 100 mph. Ahead, colleagues driving the four 911 coupes blissfully listen to their stereos and wonder where we're having dinner.
No, this loaded rear-wheel-drive convertible isn't as nimble and playful as the base coupe we tested. That's the penalty for 285 pounds of roof mechanics, structural enhancements, seat motors, footwell lighting, and computer-operated clutches. Neither can this Cab pound physics to a pulp like the Carrera 4S, let alone the Turbo S. (You can buy an all-wheel-drive 4S Cabriolet, but the coupes have stiffer dampers.)
This Carrera S Cabriolet nevertheless has brutal power, amazing front-end grip, preternatural balance up to and beyond the limit, and brakes that work predictably even after three days of hard street and track driving. And it still comes with a stick, although more than 90 percent of Cab buyers pay extra for the exceptional dual-clutch automatic that's on our test car.
In other words, the Cabriolet is nearly as gifted as any 911 and is in its own right one of the more capable cars in the world. The real sacrifice is that the Cab doesn't broadcast as loudly that you're driving a car engineered by and for Übermenschen. So, who are the poseurs?
The truth is most of us are Cabriolet guys, in the same way most of the folks who wear Under Armour to the YMCA are actually Hanes T-shirt guys. There's nothing wrong with playacting—that's part of the fun of sports cars. But when you're ready to be honest with yourself, the Cab is waiting with its top down. —DAVID ZENLEA
WE HAVENT SEEN IT, but we're convinced that somewhere in a conference room in Porsche's product-planning offices in Weissach, there's a whiteboard with a bunch of Venn diagrams engineers use to create new 911 variants. One Venn diagram consists of a 1967 911 Targa, a new 911 Carrera, and a black-and-white photo of Rube Goldberg. Presto, new Targa. Next to it are another three circles—containing a 911 Carrera, a 911 RSR race car, and a four-year-old's drawing of a dragon attacking a pirate ship—that explain the 911 GT3 RS. The one we're interested in has two circles. One has the basic Carrera, the other, a Turbo S. Where the two overlap is the Carrera 4S.
The 4S doesn't have the power to bend space-time like the 3.8-liter, 580-hp 911 Turbo S, because the twin-turbo 3.0-liter flat-six out back is the same one that's in the basic 911 Carrera. They even share the 9A2 product code. The major difference hides inside the BorgWarner turbochargers. Carrera S models have a larger impeller on the compression side that feeds the engine 16.0 psi of boost instead of 13.1. Output increases to 420 hp and 368 lb-ft of torque. Order the dual-clutch automatic and Sport Chrono and launch-control your way to 60 mph in 3.2 seconds. That might not disrupt space-time, but the shock of the 5000-rpm clutch drop might.
Optioned like our $142,255 car, the 4S feels almost as luxurious as a Turbo S. Our tester's Saddle brown leather interior appears to have been dipped in a chocolate fountain. The cockpit has cooled and heated zillion-way seats, an Alcantara headliner, a 555-watt Bose stereo with 12 speakers, and brushed aluminum interior accents. The 4S, like every all-wheel-drive 911, has a Turbo-like body that's 1.7 inches wider in the rear than the standard Carrera. Draped in Night blue metallic paint, it is easily the most elegant and mature 911 in this group.
The electrohydraulic all-wheel-drive system is also straight out of the Turbo. A full one-third of 911s are sold with all-wheel drive, and why not? The front differential might invade trunk space, but it moves more weight onto the nose while increasing traction under acceleration.
Everything that Porsche has done since 1965, from lengthening the 911's wheelbase to building the 928, has been an attempt to right the inherent wrong of hanging an engine behind the rear wheels. The latest chassis innovations have the same goal. Four-wheel steering, active anti-roll bars, active shocks, an electronically controlled rear diff, and a sport suspension that lowers the body nearly an inch effectively mitigate the rear-weight bias and, in doing so, lessen the driver's workload.
Basically, the 4S is a Turbo S without the responsibility of managing a nuclear power plant. It's unerringly stable, its 1.04 g of grip is manageable, and it holds the driver less accountable for bad habits or mistakes. The 4S is the easiest of these five 911s to drive on and away from the track—maybe the most approachable 911 ever. Does that make it a better car? Certainly. Does it make it a better 911? If the answer is yes, then why can't we stop dreaming about dragons and pirate ships?—RICHARD PINTO
THEY WANT YOU TO THINK IT'S A GT3 CUP CAR with a license plate. You know what a Cup car is? A 460-hp, 3.8-liter, naturally aspirated race car made from the 475-hp GT3 street car. Cup cars are built for the Carrera Cup/GT3 Cup, a one-make series where rich guys demolish each other's door mirrors at famous tracks around the world. The last time I drove a Cup car, a 997, I was told that it cost around $10,000 per hour to run at competitive strength. You could whale on one for 20 hours, or you could buy a new GT3 RS.
You probably want the RS.
This isn't a Cup car. It's a ferociously accurate, violent simulacrum of a Cup car. Only a Cup car doesn't have 500 hp, electronic rear steering, such a hellacious noise, air-conditioning, carpet, satellite radio, and a passable excuse for street tires.
That's the cliché everyone knows. What you can't know without driving the RS are the intangibles: the deafening, unholy, almost painful engine whoop; the long, howly climb to redline; the barowwww as the car bangs from third to fourth. The off-time clatter as rocks kick up against the virtually uninsulated floor. The subtle shaft rattle of the seven-speed PDK automatic—the only available gearbox—because the transmission's internal bits have been lightened, and because race cars aim noise at your face whether you like it or not. The way the thing just knifes around at speed, even without trailed brake, even when the nose is unweighted, because a computer is toeing the rear wheels.
RS stands for Rennsport, or motorsport. The base GT3 is named after an FIA racing class, which makes this more of the same idea. Details separate the two cars: 45 millimeters wider in the front, 28 millimeters in the rear. A claimed 22-pound weight reduction. A carbon hood, a magnesium roof (saves 2.4 pounds, and is even lighter than a carbon-fiber roof of equivalent size), a carbon wing, near-zero sound deadening. More spring rate; recalibrated dampers and steering software and rear-steering software; and even a lighter wiring harness. In the rest of the world, you can order the car with the Clubsport package, which brings plastic rear windows and a roll bar. Like the 911 Turbo, the RS sucks air through gaping holes in its rear fenders, which means the intake honk is that much closer to your head. You can't hear it over the exhaust unless you stick your head out the window, but it's there.
The experience errs toward purity. When it comes to modern production cars, the RS's brakes are matched only by that of the Turbo S: a rock-solid pedal you can brush into ABS with a toe. You also get the most talkative, lively steering of the lot and a surprisingly compliant ride. And of the cars in this test, the RS seems the most like an old-school 911—you have to manage the nose and keep it from jacking, pay attention to the mass in the rear, learn to use the car's natural traction.
Only because you have 338 lb-ft of peak torque going through just two wheels, and because those wheels are shod with Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2s and not slicks, and because it is human nature to always want for something, the RS occasionally seems undertired. So the car slides and gets funky in a way its siblings don't, making you giggle. The whole package is so gloriously abusive that you climb out after a hard lap and feel like you've been somewhere. You got something done.
Good cars make you remember what work is. Great ones make you love it.
This is Porsche weaponizing its history. As a street device, next to a base Carrera or even the relatively calm GT3, the RS is a compromised pain. As a razor-sharp track car you can drive on the road, it makes the quieter, softer GT3—or the 918 Spyder or the Cayman GT4 or every other current road 911—look emotionally half-assed. It's a fully realized and wonderful invocation of what a pro race car actually feels like. You recalibrate yourself when you drive it. Not because the RS is fast, though that's inarguable. Because it's special. —SAM SMITH
THE 911 TURBO S LOOKS INNOCENT ENOUGH. If you didn't notice the retractable spoiler or trademark Turbo air inlets, it could just as easily be a Carrera S or 4S. The interior is similarly deceptive. An attractive blend of leather and carbon fiber project an air of sporting luxury, a relaxing place to spend some time.
Cruise at everyday speeds and the Turbo S behaves like any good luxury coupe should. It's quiet, comfortable, and serene. It corners and brakes with confidence. Just the sort of car you could happily drive to work or take on a long road trip.
Or under full acceleration, slow the rotation of the earth.
Drive the Turbo S like it was engineered to be driven and it all but bends the laws of physics to its will. Toggle from Normal to Sport Plus mode and experience levels of acceleration (0–60 mph in 2.5 seconds, the quarter-mile in 10.6 seconds at 130 mph) and grip (1.06 g lateral acceleration) that initially confuse your brain. How does this car not wheelie at launch or catapult itself into the next county? How can it be so calm one moment and so mind-bogglingly fast the next?
Therein lies its charm. Like perhaps no other car on earth, the Turbo S can easily operate at vastly different ends of the driving spectrum. With this latest 991.2-based 911 Turbo S, Porsche has pushed into the performance side even further with more power (580 hp) and torque (553 lb-ft), additional chassis refinement. The result is a faster, more capable car that is at the same time easier and more natural to drive blindingly quickly.
At the center of the Turbo S's uncanny versatility is its ability to make the most out of available grip. All-wheel drive has always played a key role in this, but Porsche Torque Vectoring and Porsche Dynamic Chassis Control elevate traction and response to new levels. With PTV and rear-axle steering, the Turbo S charges through corners, worry-free, regardless of speed. Anti-roll bars that automatically adjust on the fly increase traction even more.
On the winding roads north of San Francisco, the Turbo S provided vast sures of speed and control, but not at the cost of driver involvement. The car still expects you to play a part in the process of going fast, but also forgives the occasional indiscretion. At Thunderhill Raceway, the big 911 can finally stretch its legs, and nothing short of the track-tuned GT3 RS can even stay close. Here the Turbo S is pure supercar, using 100 percent of available power and grip 100 percent of the time.
Few vehicles live up to the often-overused label "everyday supercar," but the 911 Turbo S is exactly that. It quietly blends near-hypercar performance with everyday livability in a shape that only a 911 can possess. Deceptive, yes, but not so innocent. —KIM WOLFKILL
TEST NOTES: The PDK's launch-control function makes acceleration runs easy. In Carrera S and Turbo S models, the engine revs to roughly 5000 rpm before engaging the clutches (the GT3 RS revs to 6700 rpm before clutch engagement), and the computer does the rest of the work. It's repeatable, nearly foolproof, and results in stupefyingly quick runs. The manual-transmission Carrera is limited to 4200 rpm when stopped, so it cannot launch as aggressively and its acceleration times suffer. Four-wheel steering's eerie stability makes extracting a 1.00-g skidpad performance shockingly easy.