x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Lifting the lid on 911

Gautam Sharma travels to Italy to put Porsche’s latest take on the celebrated Targa through its paces

The 2014 Porsche 911 Targa. Courtesy Porsche
The 2014 Porsche 911 Targa. Courtesy Porsche

Readers of similar vintage to the author, for whom the half-century looms uncomfortably close, associate the Porsche 911 Targa with an altogether different era. It was a creation of the free-spirited 1960s, where the definition of recreation had more to do with being in touch with the elements than hunching over a laptop while trawling through Facebook.

The original 911 Targa was first revealed in 1965 – coincidentally the same year that the author was launched in his current avatar – and it came about partly as a result of concerns that US safety regulations would outlaw convertibles without a rollover hoop to protect occupants in the event that the car ended up shiny-side down.

The Targa recipe was simple, yet compelling. With the roof in place, the vehicle offered the same feeling of security as its coupé counterpart. But when the occasion rose to bask in the sunshine, all one needed to do was undo a couple of latches, remove the roof section and stow it in the luggage compartment.

Porsche may not have been the first manufacturer to market with a car that had a removable roof panel and fixed rollover hoop – the 1961 Triumph TR4 “Surrey top” claimed that honour – but the German manufacturer still took the initiative of trademarking the Targa moniker, derived from the Targa Florio road race in Sicily, where Porsche had enjoyed great success. Despite Porsche’s ownership of the Targa name, many car aficionados still use it as a generic term to refer to semi-open-topped cars.

The first 911 Targa struck a chord with buyers following its 1967 launch (the plastic rear window of the original made way for a fixed, wraparound glass window in 1968), and the model accounted for about 40 per cent of total 911 sales during the early 1970s. Its share was diluted once the fully open-roofed Cabriolet debuted in 1982, but the Targa nevertheless soldiered on as an enduring member of the 911 line-up.

The 964 Series 911 Targa launched in 1989, and although it gained more streamlined front and rear bumpers, the classic wraparound window and fixed rollover bar carried through more or less unchanged – and so it remained until the end of that generation’s life cycle.

However, Porsche changed tack with the launch of the 993 Series in 1993. The Targa version of this generation debuted an all-new roof mechanism that incorporated a glass panel (essentially akin to a gigantic sunroof) that slid back under the rear window to create an open space above the cabin. The 993 Targa was much closer to its coupé sibling in appearance, with a conventionally shaped rear window and C-pillars replacing its predecessors’ wraparound screen and roll bar. Porsche continued with this sliding-glass-roof format with the 996 Series 911 that launched in 1998, and repeated the dose with the 997 Series that arrived six years later.

Given the roof layout of the 993, 996 and 997 Targa models, it was expected that Porsche would adapt a modernised version of the same sliding glass roof system for the 991 generation, of which the coupé variant launched in 2011. But perhaps a touch of retro fever got to Porsche when the 911 recently chalked up its 50th birthday, because it’s gone back to drawing board with the current 991 Series Targa.

The newcomer debuted at the Detroit motor show earlier this year, and it now stands as arguably the best-looking car in the current 911 line-up, with its beautifully resolved proportions resulting from a roofline that slopes down seamlessly from the front windscreen. The roof panel is a black canvas unit, tastefully contrasted by the lovely brushed-alloy roll hoop that demarcates the rear of the passenger compartment. Directly aft of this is a wraparound rear window that has some parallels with Chevrolet’s superseded C6 Corvette.

The new Targa looks stunning from virtually any angle, but the artistry doesn’t end there. The real pièce de résistance is the impeccably designed roof-folding mechanism. At the press of a button, the roof section lifts up on a pair of Z-shaped arms, while the entire rear section of the car, including the rear window, tilts up and back, exposing the recess designed to accommodate the roof. The roof then drops into this slot, while the rear screen pivots back into place to enclose the whole lot.

The whole process is a showstopper, taking 19 seconds from start to finish. It’s a wonderfully precise and elegant piece of engineering – and it alone almost justifies the Dh400,000-plus entry price for the latest Targa range, which further expands the burgeoning 911 line-up.

The newcomer is available in two levels of potency – ­Targa 4 (Dh403,770) and Targa 4S (Dh466,460) – and, as implied by the “4” in the moniker, both variants are equipped with Porsche’s all-wheel-drive system, which also brings a wider body and rear tracks than the rear-wheel-drive 911. Granted, the traction benefits of AWD are rarely called upon in our oven-like region, where rainy, greasy and gravel-covered roads are a rarity. That said, there’s no doubt the brawnier body that accompanies the all-paw hardware makes for a much more pleasing stance than the rear-driven 911s.

However, you may be disappointed if you were under the impression that the Targa offered a much stiffer platform than its Cabriolet sibling, simply because it comes equipped with a rollover hoop and fixed rear windscreen. The fact is, it’s only 10 per cent more rigid than the Cabrio, while the fixed-roof 911 is roughly twice as stiff as the pair of them.

Will you lament its lack of rigidity vis-à-vis the coupé in the real world? Highly unlikely, as we found while traversing lumpy, potholed roads at the media launch venue of Bari, adjacent to the Adriatic coast of Italy. The 911 Targa felt adequately taut and composed, although the sporting suspension settings made us wish that the Porsche PR folk had decided to launch the car in a region or country that offered smoother surfaces.

Nevertheless, the post-lunch drive proved much more enjoyable, with the ultra-tight bumpy roads that we had traversed earlier making way for fast, flowing tarmac where it was possible to let the flat-six engine stretch its legs.

Sampling both variants, we started off in the Targa 4, which serves up 344bhp and 390bhp for a 0-100kph split of 5.0 seconds and top whack of 280kph with the PDK seven-speed, dual-clutch, sequential gearbox. These aren’t bad numbers, but the entry-level model feels brisk, rather than electrifying, even when you pin the throttle to the floor.

The 394bhp/440Nm Targa 4S proved far more satisfying, delivering a beefier wallop to the spine when its full quota of horses was unleashed. It’s still not Lamborghini quick – as reflected by a 0-100kph dash of 4.6 seconds and max of 294kph – but the Targa 4S certainly has enough in reserve to make it an enjoyable driver’s car in most conditions, despite not being blessed with a particularly entertaining exhaust note. Both models also have more than ample reserves of grip and stopping power, and the now brilliantly sorted dynamics of the basic 911 package mean that they’re safe and rewarding cars to punt hard on challenging roads.

Where we might question the Targa’s credentials is in the area of refinement. As mentioned earlier, the ride is hardly cosseting over choppy surfaces – although this is not altogether surprising in a sports car – but the wind noise in top-down form is disappointing. Even with the windows up and the wind deflector doing its thing – or not – there’s a huge amount of buffeting in the cabin, and this is at speeds as low as 80kph. My co-driver and I put up with it for a while, but eventually we threw in the towel and put the top back up, where it remained for the rest of the drive.

The question that I silently posed after the drive is why anyone would buy the Targa when the rear-engined sportster range already includes a well-resolved Cabriolet variant that offers a full al fresco experience. The Cabrio also gives away nothing to the Targa as far as performance is concerned, so the former may indeed stack up as the better choice for many buyers.

However, those who opt for the Targa (Porsche execs estimate the model will account for about 15 per cent of total 911 sales) will end up owning arguably the most beautiful 911 of the modern generation. I’m not ashamed to admit that I stood there and gawked at the car at every stopover point during the launch drive programme. I’m willing to bet that you would have done the same.