The evergreen Porsche 911 Carrera is a car that divides opinion like no other. With each new generation comes a raft of improvements where most people saw no problems in the first place and, at the same time, more and more fans of the model start moaning about how the 911’s special qualities – the ones that have made it stand out as being unique for decades – are slowly being eroded. And still, people continue to buy them in increasing numbers. Over 700,000 have been built since 1963 and 80 per cent of them are still in use today. That has to count for something, surely.
This is the seventh-generation Porsche 911, officially called the Porsche 991 Carrera (the previous four have been 964, 993, 996 and 997) and still I have no idea why the numbers hop around like that, and it’s only the fourth all-new model in its history. Detractors will immediately yawn, pointing out that it still looks the same as all the others but even they must admit that it’s one of the most famous of all motoring silhouettes and that Porsche will mess with those lines at its peril.
It’s easy enough to spot the differences between this new one and the outgoing 997 if you’re bothered enough to look. It’s lower and wider than before, and to further improve the notorious handling characteristics inherent with its rear-engined layout, the wheelbase has been extended by a not inconsiderable 100mm and 20-inch wheels are new in design and bigger than before. The nose design is new and rather fussy to my eyes, but the rear lamps are slithers of their former selves and, again in my eyes, look all the better for it. Opening the door, however, the changes become much more readily apparent.
The Porsche 911’s interior design has, quite rightly, come in for criticism from all corners over the years. In fact, between 1963 and 1996 it had barely changed at all and things got steadily better in recent times. But now the 911 is in danger of getting all modern on us. It’s about time, too. While the hideous Panamera unwisely borrows too many of the 911’s exterior design cues, where that monkfish of a car scores highly is inside the cabin, and the new 911 borrows the best bits from it.
Quality wise, things are pretty much as you’d expect: bombproof. Love or loathe them, 911s are nothing if not well built and there are no nasty surprises here. The centre console sweeps in an upwards arc, just like the Panamera, but it’s more dainty, more sporting in the 991 and it serves to make the interior feel like a proper cockpit. As ever, the rev counter takes centre stage in the instrument binnacle and the driver cannot help but get the impression that he/she is the focus of attention.
And it’s the driving experience that the 911 has always excelled at providing. The 911 is THE car to separate the merely competent driver from the talented driver and this has undoubtedly been one of its biggest draws. Because even a modern 911 can take many years to truly master and that’s what makes for a meaningful relationship, isn’t it? That frisson of danger, the unpredictability – master those and there isn’t another car in the world that will make you feel quite so heroic. If you don’t believe me, try out an old school 911 Turbo from the mid-1980s. With less power than even the most basic 911 these days, it’s a wild ride that takes no prisoners. But get the hang of it and master its ways and you wouldn’t want any other car. The detractors would argue that the recipe has been tarnished, that the car is just too easy to drive nowadays. Does the 991 add fuel to that critical fire?
Of course it does; there’s no use denying it. Hence the extended wheelbase – Porsche is constantly fighting the laws of physics with the 911. Because if you’re inexperienced and get a fast corner wrong in a 911 – even a modern one – you can end up dead. The GT2 has, in recent times, gained itself a reputation as “the widow maker”, and for good reason.
Over the past decade I have driven more miles in 911s than in any other car. Tens and tens of thousands of them, in fact, so I do know what I’m talking about. And while the 997 GT3 and GT3RS have been two of my absolute favourite cars of the past decade, there have been plenty of rivals homing into view in that time, hell-bent on stealing the 911’s crown as the ultimate all-round performance car. Rivals like the totally sublime Audi R8, for instance. They haven’t been as edgy as the Porsche 911, granted, but now that the 991 is proclaiming to be the most refined, most usable 911 ever, does that really matter? Time to stop waffling and find out.
The flat-six engine fires with a deep roar rather than the air-cooled orchestra of yesteryear, but it’s unmistakably a 911. “My” car is a Porsche Carrera S (for what it’s worth, my favourite ‘normal’ 997-generation car was always the standard 3.6-litre one, with the bare minimum of options. Unlike the S, it felt more alive, more like an old school 911, more deserving of the Carrera moniker) and its engine has remained a 3.8-litre while the standard car has been reduced to a 3.4, which will be more familiar to Porsche Boxster and Cayman owners. Not that there’s anything at all wrong with that.
Its ride is quite stiff but the new electric steering is light and direct (banishing one of the major worries among enthusiasts). The optional PDK twin-clutch transmission is excellent also, but for the life of me I can’t understand why Porsche bloody-mindedly insists on supplying the infuriating steering wheel rocker buttons to operate it. Best get the optional extra (naturally) paddles that will be familiar to owners of so many performance cars. PDK swaps cogs faster than you or I could, so it’s a no-brainer on many levels, but there’s a change in that, on the overrun, the new car automatically coasts with the engine in idle mode to reduce fuel consumption. Engine braking was one of the 911’s strong points and now it’s gone. So much for progress.
The seven-speed manual isn’t a total success, either, giving the driver a bewildering array of five vertical selections and an interlock to prevent the selection of seventh from anything other than fifth and sixth – just in case you get confused. And you will, trust me. Just spec the PDK with the (extra-cost) traditional paddles and everything will be fine. And speaking of cost, at least in Europe, once you spec up a new 911 it will comfortably become as expensive as its key rivals. Once you start adding essentials like a rear screen wiper the sticker price rises extremely sharply, negating for many one of the 911’s key attributes: value for money.
Get it on the road, though, and thoughts of rivals soon vanish. The torque curve isn’t exactly flat, but the engine does pull heroically from 3,000rpm and it sounds incredible at maximum revs. On paper the engine might not steal the plaudits thanks to its relatively low output but trust me, this thing absolutely flies, and it sounds totally intoxicating. And this is partly down to a special noise generator. Yes, it’s a bit fake, but it works and there’s really no need to opt for the special sports exhaust, which fills the cabin with a drone that would no doubt become tiresome on a long journey.
Handling? Well that’s as razor sharp as ever. The extended wheelbase makes the new 911 feel practically mid-engined, but fear not because ludicrous power slides are still there for the taking if you feel the need. You’ll have to avail yourself of a big piece of tarmac, though, because to break traction is far from easy. It’s just that, if and when you do, it’s relatively easy to steer on the throttle and bring everything back into line. Phew. 911-ness still in tact, then.
My relatively short time behind the wheel of one of my all-time favourite cars has proved a number of things:
One: that despite a displacement of merely 3.8-litres, the Porsche Carrera S still feels ballistically fast in face of competition that sniffs at anything below 4.5-litres.
Two: that the steering (one of the 911’s major strengths) has not unduly suffered by being made totally electronic.
Three: that when it comes to driving as fast as possible, the 911 still has no real peers. The new one feels more approachable and more malleable than ever before but, instead of it feeling like a total washout, it still feels like the driver is in charge.
Which means that Porsche has a problem on its hands: if the normal car feels so absolutely right – even in the hands of an amateur, and so devastatingly fast – just how will it get the upcoming GT3, GT3RS, Turbo and GT2 models to move their respective games on to a similar degree? Somehow, on the basis of the new 911, I just know that they will. For anyone that has lamented the passing of the ‘proper Porsche’ over the years with the introduction of the Porsche Cayenne and Porsche Panamera, this is the best possible of news and Audi now really does have its work cut out when it comes to the next R8. The king is dead. Long live the king.