The iconic Porsche 911 has evolved again with a sixth generation but, as David Booth finds, it's hard to pick out the changes. Just don't blame him.
The new Porsche 911: same same, but different
An obviously disgruntled fellow autojournalist recently posited that Porsche seems no longer concerned whether motoring scribes are impressed with its cars. His hypothesis is that Porsche assumes it would get positive reviews simply because, well… for no better reason that it's Porsche and its cars always get positive reviews.
As cynical as that supposition may be, it gained a whole bunch of credence at the recent launch of the all-new 911 in Santa Barbara, California. It's the first new 911 since 2004 and one that, according to all the pre-launch hype, was substantially larger (and, therefore, perhaps less sporty) than the outgoing 997 version.
You might have thought Porsche concerned enough to prove that the new 911 still deserved its "ultimate sports car" moniker with some exhaustive track testing and handling exercises. What was supplied instead was the very simplest of airport runway autocross (the poor man's racetrack) circuits, with so little time behind the wheel that it was impossible to evaluate any of the new 911's handling characteristics. No comparison vehicles - either previous iterations of the 911 or competitive product - were provided. Time on the "track" was limited to 30 second "bursts" with barely enough time to figure out where the cones went, let alone whether this, the sixth generation of the 911, is superior to the fifth. As a distraction from the lack of meaningful seat time, there was a host of historic 911s available for test drives to which the assembled press thronged to like moths to a flame.
It would be easy to dismiss this all as the petty whinings of a spoiled motoring hack. Except for one thing. I (nor any other of the legion motor scribes attending said worldwide launch) cannot give you a definitive answer as to how well the new 991-codenamed 911 handles, corners or even if its usually wonderful brakes remain as fade-free as ever. I strongly suspect that all is well; an assertion based on the fact that the new 911 has lost an average of 40kg of unwanted avoirdupois and gained an adjustable suspension with active roll reduction. But having not tested the new car at anything like its limit, I cannot confirm that suspicion. Nor, despite what you might read elsewhere, can anyone else who attended the same California launch. And, that, in the end, is what 911 intenders want to know.
Petty complaining aside, what I can tell you is that Porsche seemed much more concerned with the environmental "footprint" of its 911 than its performance. Most of the changes and, indeed, much of the company's supporting information was directed specifically at the reduction of emissions and fuel consumption.
So while the base model is indeed up five horsepower from its predecessor (350hp compared with 345), much more time was devoted to noting that that modest power increase was accompanied by a drop in displacement of the base car from 3.6L to 3.4L. Indeed, the big news from the company for the 2012 911 was that fuel consumption for the base model dropped 16 per cent - from 9.8L/100km in the European NEDC cycle to 8.2L/100km. Porsche also explained in minute detail the manifold ministrations it went through to achieve this: stop & go engine shut off, electromechanical steering, better thermal management of transmission cooling and even, shades of Toyota's Prius, specifying the new 911's tires with lower rolling resistance.
It's also worth noting the Carrera S's fuel economy also improved by 15 per cent, despite a gain of 15hp to 400 (the engine remains a 3.8L). Porsche is to be congratulated for being able to squeeze out that much efficiency without compromising performance, though I'm not sure Porsche is going to get 997 owners excited enough to trade in their trusty steeds based on a 15 per cent increase in fuel economy.
The one piece of kit that the sport car purist could hang their hat on - and one I could evaluate - is the world's first seven-speed manual gearbox. With dual-clutchers and automatics now incorporating seven and even eight speeds (Hyundai is rumoured to be working on a ten-speed automatic), it was only a matter of time before manuals went the same route or faced extinction through inconsequence. Indeed, one gets the impression that Porsche's engineers only reluctantly re-engineered the manual, so convinced are they of their PDK's superiority. Whatever the reality, the transmission's extra cog serves the same purpose as the extra gears in a slushbox, namely as a motorway overdrive that improves fuel economy on the open road. The manual's seventh gear has the engine spinning a diesel-like 2,000rpm at 110kph.
The seven-speed is nonetheless a marvel of smooth shifting and, unlike so many other sports cars I've tested, I much preferred the manual to the paddle-shifting double-clutcher. Clutch effort is on the level of a Honda Civic, the throws between gears short and every gear, including the new seventh, snicks in with minimal effort. In these days of diminishing driver involvement, it was comforting to once again play a larger part in the driving.
The new gearbox also has one no doubt unintended attribute as well. Top gear is waaaaay over the right and up high so that it's almost impossible to shift into seventh gear without brushing the knee of the passenger, a consequence that could prove either a boon or a fault depending on your relationship with said passenger. Were one a cynic, you might suspect that much of the 911's clientele will find that a greater perk than the one per cent improvement in fuel economy that Porsche boasts for the extra gear ratio.
Lascivious benefits or no, it is an absolute pure joy to row up and down those seven gears, the rear-mounted Boxer engine singing its opposed-six music. One of the side benefits of the engine retuning for 2012 is that both the base 3.4L and the Carrera S's 3.8L spin higher than the outgoing engines (horsepower gains through higher rpm affect fuel economy, at least the official ratings, minimally since official government testing takes place at far lower rpm). Where the previous two naturally-aspirated versions of the Boxer produced peak power at 6,500 rpm, both the 3.4L and the 3.8 now spin a heady 7,400 rpm before petering out.
That sees the base 911 being 0.1 seconds quicker to 100kph than the 3.6 it replaces, again despite seeing the engine reduced to 3.4L. The Carrera S's 400hp makes it 0.2 seconds quicker than last year. If these gains don't seem like the dramatic increases one might expect from a new Porsche, it's worth remembering that the base 2012 911 scoots to 100kph in just 4.6 seconds, semi-supercar stats from a car with about the same displacement as a Toyota Camry and not a turbocharger to be seen.
The Carrera S does the same trick in 4.3 seconds and tops out at 302kph, impressive for anything without a turbocharger. And both engines, regardless of displacement, also sound even more exciting than before. Spinning them all the way to 7,400rpm and beyond makes for a scintillating soundtrack, made all the engaging when you're rowing up and down that seven-speed manual gearbox. I may have no idea how the new 911 handles but its engines sure are sweet.
The other aspect of the new 911 that Porsche strove to emphasize was the added practicality of its 100mm longer wheelbase. Along with the 46mm wider front track (52mm in the Carrera S), the new 911's accommodations are much more spacious. Thirty of those millimetres, for instance, are ahead of the doors and combined with the wider front body, it means that the 911's front legroom now borders on generous. Ditto for the 70mm in the rear which now see the vestigial rear seats now having room for occupants with actual thighs (though actually finding room for calves and feet may still be problematic). Things like battery housings and air conditioning hardware mounted in the front had to shrink to accommodate pushing the front wheels forwards, but according to Michael Schatzle, the 911's product manager, the PDK transmission was already designed for the lengthened wheelbase so the extension required little re-engineering in the rear. Indeed, Schatzle noted that there's plenty of room under the rear bonnet to add powertrain components. I think we can take that to mean there might be a hybrid in the 911's future.
Of course, rear seat legoom is not the reason people shop 911s, just as fuel consumption and emissions reduction and are merely the legislated legalities that must be conformed to and not the raison d'etre for a Porsche 911. What one wants - nay expects -for your Dh370,000 or so is one heck of a dynamic sports car.
In the end, there will be those disappointed that Porsche engineers seemed to have devoted more effort to improving the 911's social responsibility than its performance. That Porsche seems more concerned about fuel economy than lap times can be seen either as a sign of the times or (probably more accurately) as an indication that its cars already perform far beyond anyone's needs or desires. I just wished I could tell you how well it goes around corners.