On its 50th anniversary, Kevin Hackett gets the 411 on the latest Porsche 911, the Turbo, and finds it to be more than just a worthy successor.
Porsche turn it up to 911 with their new Turbo
Could this be the best car in the world right now? It's a question that I pose to my passenger as I mash the throttle in a brand new Porsche 911 Turbo S; it gathers pace with shocking, relentless, yet simple-to-exploit acceleration. Simply steer and hold on while this four-wheeled contradiction takes the road and turns it into mincemeat, doing so in the most efficient, perfect way possible.
"The best driver's car?" quizzes my passenger, who remains unfazed while I urge the Turbo on to even more ridiculous speeds. We're on an unrestricted stretch of Germany's finest roads, the sun is hanging high in a perfectly blue sky, and it's a Sunday, which means traffic is sparse.
"Obviously not," I reply. "But actually the best there is for doing what it does." He doesn't disagree.
Whatever a car's design, whatever its purpose, there's always a compromise to be made. If you want sheer, heart-stopping thrills on a racetrack or twisting country road, a 911 GT3 would whip the Turbo's fat behind with its flawless mix of communication, lightness and its intoxicating flat-six howl. The Turbo, in comparison, is a surgical scalpel, designed to go as quickly and safely as is possible. Its aloofness will no doubt deter many, but Porsche needn't worry too much about that. Because whatever your poison, there'll be a 911 model to suit.
It's the 911's 50th anniversary this year, and Porsche is wasting no time in rolling out the new models, with the new GT3, Turbo and Turbo S being launched within weeks of each other. The new generation of cars bears scant resemblance to the dainty original, but the fundamentals, the basic things that set the 911 apart at the beginning, are still there. That (trademarked) side profile remains, as does its flat-six engine, which is still located right at the very rear of the car. It's still extremely well engineered, still exceedingly practical, and still makes grown men go weak at the knees. There's something primal about its shape, something intrinsically right, yet it very nearly wasn't so.
When Ferry Porsche decided it was time to replace the 356, he enlisted the help of a design consultant named Albrecht Graf von Goertz, who took under his wing Ferry's son, also named Ferdinand but nicknamed "Butzi". Together, they built a four-seat prototype dubbed the T7. The front end was immediately recognisable as a 911, but the rear was a rather awkward saloon style with a normal boot. Ferry senior didn't approve, and Butzi went back to the drawing board, this time on his own.
Ferry issued an edict that the new car should be larger (customers had asked for more space), was to have two-plus-two configuration, a new engine, larger and better headlamps, better visibility and better bumpers. Most importantly, it was to remain a sports car.
By October 9, 1959, Butzi had crafted a 1-to-7.5 scale clay model, which received so much positive feedback that a full-sized version was commissioned. But it still wasn't right, and it was April 16, 1962, when the 901 was unveiled as a metal, wood and glass model, and a fully working prototype was completed by November that year. The honed and refined 901 debuted at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1963, and orders began to flood in, although series production did not commence until the following year, by which time the model number had been changed to 911. Peugeot had expressed its desire to be the only manufacturer of cars with a zero in the middle of their nomenclature, and Porsche politely capitulated. Enzo Ferrari probably didn't give the French a second thought when his 308 was unveiled a decade later.
For 10 years, the 911 became more and more powerful, and was extensively campaigned in racing from the word go. But it was in 1973 that the Turbo was created (although it wasn't unveiled until the Paris Motor Show a year later), itself a product of competition, and to many it became the ultimate iteration of a car that had already assumed classic status.
Its wheel arches were wider, especially at the rear, to accommodate the necessarily wider wheels and tyres, and it had an enormous spoiler attached to its rear (which came to be known as the "whale tail"), as well as a pronounced front rubber lip spoiler. It had visual attitude aplenty, and the previously pretty 911 road car had become, at a stroke, a beast.
That its road manners were also beastly just added to the appeal. The heavy engine's physical location made for tricky handling at the best of times, but, with the incredible urge now offered by turbocharging, the 911 had become a car to wrestle with. If you were feeling incredibly brave.
Like a coiled cobra, the 911 Turbo had a propensity to bite hard if you made an error in judgement, often with deadly consequences. Turbo technology was still extremely young, and BMW had basically given up on it as a dead end, but Porsche knew that the forced induction would turn the 911 into a bona fide supercar. But the lag - the time taken for the turbo to spool into life once the throttle was pushed open - was significant. Put your foot down in an early 911 Turbo, and nothing much happens. Then, when you least expect it, the car rockets forward like the Millennium Falcon when Han Solo puts it into hyperdrive. Everything becomes a blur as the Turbo propels itself with an almost extraterrestrial turn of speed.
The model received little in the way of updates over the years, growing to 3.3L from 3.0L in 1977, with the addition of a different rear spoiler that made room for the protruding intercooler above the engine. This item was, and still is, known as the "tea tray". Power was more than 300hp, and the 911 Turbo, for many years, ruled the roost as the fastest accelerating production car on earth. In 1989 it breathed its last, just after it had been treated to a five-speed manual gearbox.
Two years later, the 911 Turbo returned, in the form of the 964 (Porsche's internal designation for the 1989-1994 model), which was the last of the rear-wheel-drive models, as its replacement, 1995's 993 Turbo, brought with it four-wheel drive. Slowly but surely, the 911 Turbo's performance was becoming safer to exploit and, as the years went by, it became what we see here today: possibly the best GT car that money can buy.
In a way this is a boring car. It's so capable, after four decades of Porsche engineering it to overcome the simple laws of physics, that the frisson, the sense of danger that gave drivers such a rush, is conspicuous by its total absence. There is a 911 for that, naturally, and it's the GT2, but that car's brutality is too much for all but the most suicidal drivers, and the original Turbo's bounteous charms seem to have been banished to the history books.
In a way this had to be. As the cars have become powerful in a way that Ferry Porsche could not possibly have imagined back in the early 1960s, they've needed to become more benign. If the rear end breaks away from you while cornering in an early 911 on skinny tyres, there's a good chance that you'll be able to correct it and live to see another day. If it had more than 500hp being channelled through that same rear end, you'd be unlikely to survive for more than a split second.
So the 911 Turbo has become faster than ever, yet safer and more efficient. In certain parts of the world, if you drive one of these, it acts as an air purifier, sucking in polluted air and spitting it back out through the exhausts in a much cleaner state. It drinks less fuel than ever, and offers its occupants more protection thanks to a better construction and new, improved safety features that are too numerous to list here.
Does this car, then, do its ancestors a disservice by being just too good for its own good? Not when you consider that, even when the 928 was in production, Porsche viewed the 911 Turbo as its flagship. What this car does is offer truly gobsmacking, stomach-wrenching speed, to drivers of even average standards, which, if we're honest with ourselves, sums up most of us.
The new Turbo's ride is more compliant than ever, with a broader variance in the firmness of the two-stage dampers, and increased control from the springing. The brakes, too, are incredibly well engineered, thanks in part to massive six-pot front and four-pot rear Brembo calipers that operate on 410mm front and 390mm rear carbon-ceramic discs, which are standard fitment on the S.
We're treated to some quality time on one of the most challenging circuits that I have ever driven, the privately developed and owned Bilster Berg Drive Resort, which is definitely Germany's answer to Spain's incredible Ascari. The Turbo's limits of adhesion are incredible, and its pace unstoppable, but it's on the open roads where the 911 Turbo S is at its dazzling best.
True, its reworked, 3.8L engine doesn't rev with quite the same willingness as Ferrari's naturally aspirated 4.5L V8s, and it doesn't reach the same heights; the 7,200rpm cut-off being well short of a 458 Italia's 9,000rpm top end. But, when you're being propelled at lightning speed, those things seem not to matter.
It's better looking than the previous, 997 generation Turbo, faster over any given road, much more stable at speed, more engaging and more agile. It's also a more convincing mode of everyday transport than most of the supercars that we see trundling round our city streets, yet it's still missing that certain something. Visual drama, exclusivity, a sense of occasion - call it what you will, but the new 911 Turbo will barely turn a head when it arrives on our shores. And that, for its discerning owners, will no doubt be part of the appeal.
So, is the new 911 Turbo the best car in the world right now? Yes, I reckon so.
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