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BEHIND THE WHEEL

Dial 911 for an Emergency Shot of Adrenalin

June 05, 1998|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

STEVENSON, Wash. — A vague suspicion becomes a firm conviction when one is peering through mountain monsoons and dancing along back roads slick with summer slush leaking from snow-capped Cascades: Next to a Ferrari Maranello at almost four times the price, the 1999 Porsche 911 Carrera is the finest-handling sports car in the world.

No argument. Period. Hurley Hayward--celebrity spokesman for Porsche, multiple winner at Le Mans, Sebring, Daytona, and inarguably the world's best endurance race driver--agrees. And we don't want to hear about your pet Corvette.

This first total rebuild in 34 years of the durable, divining Porsche 911 design has handsome looks and a family resemblance that may be around for another 34 years. Power, acceleration and terminal velocity have been increased to make life an exhilarating blur.

And here's a vehicle that certainly reembraces the brag about a Porsche being less of a machine, more of a collection of ideas. With the primary idea, of course, being the important matter of keeping the car flat, predictable and magnetically close to the ground under high-performance conditions.

But just how flat and predictable? fretted planners at last month's 911 introduction here, with El Whatsitsface converting a chronically weepy Washington into a rain forest without parrots. As it turned out, each day that degenerated from damp to downpour actually became bonus hours for measuring how well the Carrera performs without the less-testing advantages of dry roads and sunny skies.

On foggy corners treacherous with wet pebbles--a surface on which even the experienced might light their right foot--the new Porsche's party trick is remaining stable when power is increased. Without a whisper of tail wag, without the front end threatening to lighten, without the passenger grinning bravely.

To change directions quickly, even at disgustingly illegal speeds on stinky surfaces, twitch the wheel left, snap back to right and be surprised by the car's total lack of tilt. And should you decide to take this two-seater to its 174-mph limit--politically unconcerned Porsche refuses to neuter its top speeds with electronic governors--the only worry will be your choice of tires and wheel size to handle such shenanigans.

Given enough ice, given enough mishandling, given high enough cornering speeds, of course the 911 will do naughty things and in surprising directions. But those limits are so far removed from our everyday skills as to be practically unattainable.

Much of this blessing comes from a series of traction controls--another startling first for purist Porsche--mated to, and managed by, the anti-lock braking and engine-management systems. A multi-link rear suspension with automatic toe-in and toe-out correction adds to the magic. So do perfect gearing that bounds throughout the range, optimum balance, a chassis now stiffened by boron steel elements and throttle responses quicker than most thought processes.

The only downside to all this electronic taming of weight transfers, body loading and traction is an inability to burn rubber from rest. A negative, however, only for those with hairy knuckles and chromium-plated naked ladies on their mud flaps.

*

And to think that Porsche loyalists, in a classic of premature evaluation, took one look at the new Carrera on magazine covers and show stands and decided it might be too soft, too pretty and, well, too effeminate for a buyer body that is 90% male.

Sorry, guys. You can hammer this car harder than a 10-penny nail. The lack of rain gutters and fender bulges may reduce the look of passion and raw purpose, but they allow widening of the fuselage and reduced drag to make the car quicker and quieter. Quarter windows are gone; doors, windows and door handles are flush; the engine is now liquid-cooled with radiators behind the front wheel wells; and windshield rake has been increased.

But see such changes as wiping away old cobwebs and driving a sensible evolution of a classic into the new millennium. With the proud heart and sturdy soul of Porsche not just intact, but noticeably improved.

For those begging traditional chords, the ignition switch has been kept left of the steering wheel as a hangover from the marque's racing days and Le Mans starts. The engine remains bolted behind the rear axle; it's still a horizontally opposed six, and with an exhaust note acoustically tuned to retain a whining-clattering-rasping-rattling-snoring note that for three decades nobody has successfully re-created with adjectives.

Yet the car--still pricey after all these years, either as a $65,000 coupe or a $74,880 cabriolet--remains eerily familiar. Porsche calls it "simultaneous engineering methodology." You may call it pinching large parts--the interior design, headlight assembly, doors, hood, brake systems, front fenders, even a buxom curve to the rear--from the Boxster and gluing them onto the Carrera.

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