It may not look very different, but Neil Vorano finds the next iteration of the iconic sports car is better than ever.
Road Test: Evolutionary revolution for Porsche's classic 911
Michael Mauer, Porsche's head of design, recently went through great pains in a press briefing to explain how much the new 911 is different from the last generation: how almost every single panel is new, how the roof is lower and longer, how the headlights are farther apart from each other, how the wheelbase is longer than the last version … and yet, you would never know it if you saw it on the street. All that work for nothing?
The only way you could really tell the new 911 (with the company model designation of 991) from the previous generation (dubbed the 997) is by having the two models side by side for comparison. There is no confusing this new one with anything other than a Porsche 911, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. It's slightly curvier with a few more sharper lines than the old one, but it still retains the beautiful, swoopy shape of a 911. I do have sympathy for Mauer; being in charge of both changing and preserving a motoring icon must be a very tough balancing act.
But the changes to this latest edition of the legendary sports car (in production since 1963) are much more dramatic underneath that skin. As much as the car looks like the old one, driving it demonstrates that 911 fans have very much to look forward to.
To start with, the chassis and body are now both made of aluminium and hardened steel for lighter weight - 40kg lighter than the previous version. The wheelbase has been stretched by 100mm, while the track has been widened by 52mm. There are a multitude of technical additions, too, including active engine mounts, a revised PDK seven-speed gearbox and a "Sound Symposer" engine-noise enhancer. But the two most notable features are the Porsche Dynamic Chassis Control (PDCC, optional on the Carrera S) and Porsche Torque Vectoring (PTV, standard on the S). The former is an active anti-roll system that helps keep the car flat in the corners. More effective, in my opinion, is the Porsche Torque Vectoring system (PTV), which lightly brakes the inside rear wheel in a turn for sharper cornering.
And all of these changes aren't just to enhance performance; Porsche went out of its way to make this 911 16 per cent more fuel efficient than the last one. For the first time ever, the 911 features a start/stop function, which takes a bit of time to get used to. It does make a difference to fuel economy but it also, unnervingly, feels like the engine has stalled at a traffic signal. There is also an electromechanical steering system, direct fuel injection and other smaller features that contribute to its more frugal use of the world's oil reserves.
I had but two days to get acquainted with this new 911, starting with a drive on the streets. Let's be honest, no matter its sporting heritage, this is first and foremost a road car. My biggest disappointment was that none of the cars come with the crazy, seven-speed manual gearbox. Yes, Porsche is unlikely to sell many here, so the double-clutch Porsche Doppelkupplung (PDK) gearbox will do. And it does very nicely indeed. In automatic mode, shifts are seamless and smooth, and putting it in sport mode gives short shifting and tighter suspension. But even then, the car is comfortable and solid without being bone-jarringly hard. The steering is light and accurate, the seats are comfortable and the revised interior, with its raised centre console, has more luxury than before. The 911 is a car that can be driven and enjoyed for a daily commute like any other luxury sporting car on the market.
But take it to the track and things get a little more thrilling. This is where Porsche has earned its sporting reputation, and for good reason. On a tight, slower slalom course, the PTV has the 911 cornering beyond what you'd expect is possible with the laws of physics, while the PDCC keeps the car calm. Though, at these speeds, I found it is a little more exciting to turn the PDCC off, as the rear end could slide around a bit for some added fun.
But at higher speeds, these systems work together - along with a revised suspension system and stiff chassis - for handling that is both world-class yet natural; you don't feel all those electronic systems working, but they do. The shifts are harsher and very, very quick, while the car stays relatively flat in quick, successive turns, such as the corkscrew at Yas Marina Circuit. And despite the electric steering, road feel is still there for a driver to know the limits. Only at those limits will you be reminded that this is still a rear-engine, rear-weight-bias car, and luckily the stability control system, which gives a bit of leeway in the sport plus mode, will reel the rear end in during those moments of puckering oversteer.
It's been about a year since I last drove the 997, so I can't compare the two exactly. But Porsche says the regular 991 Carrera S on street tyres will beat the time of the race-inspired 997 GT3 around the famed Nürburgring track, and I can say the 991's handling is among the best of any car I've driven. Its steering is sharp, the power pushes you back in the seat when you need it and it takes corners at wild speeds with little tyre squeal or furore. If I had to sum it up, it's easy to drive this car fast.
There is one thing, however, that needed change but was left untouched: those cursed gear selector push/pull switches on the steering wheel. George Wills, the head of Porsche Middle East, says customers want them and, in fact, around 50 per cent of Porsches are sold with the feature (the other half get the optional paddle shifters or manual gearbox). But I think these are people who never push their car farther than a spirited drive to the office; the switches are confusing to use at fury on a track and they can be hit accidentally with your hand if the steering wheel is turned sharply. A normal paddle-shift steering wheel can be optioned for no charge - that's an easy decision for me.
In fact, the overall package would be an easy decision for me, were I to suddenly get an unexpected and sizeable pay rise. I'm not sure there is another car that combines both practical, everyday motoring ability with the dynamic, track-ready performance of a 911, coupled with the car's racing heritage. It is still the industry benchmark for sports cars, and I'll take my Carrera S in the new lime-gold metallic colour, thanks.
Price, base / as tested Dh334,000 / Dh406,010
Engine 3.8L boxer six cylinder
Gearbox Seven-speed DSG
Power 400hp @ 7,400rpm
Torque 390Nm @ 4,400rpm
Fuel economy, combined 10.7L/100km