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Redesigned and redefined

Porsche's 911, the Rolex of sports cars, is timelier than ever with both modern and retro touches.

September 29, 2004|DAN NEIL

Ezra POUND was many things: poet, aesthete, anti-Semite, battier than Carlsbad Caverns. Among the founding fathers of Modernism in the 20th century, Pound was also the one most full of self-regarding fertilizer. If overwriting is a crime, Pound is literature's Al Capone.

But Pound had it right when he observed that works of art often center on a single defining metaphor, a still point of meaning around which the larger work spins like a gyre -- thus Pound's critical term "vorticism."

Man, it's great that degree in literature is finally paying off.

It's fair to say I hadn't thought of Pound since the moment I put down my pencil in graduate school -- until I climbed into the cockpit of the redesigned Porsche 911 Carrera S. There, atop the richly upholstered dash, was a handsome stopwatch-style chronometer. Want to test yourself on a favorite piece of road? Tap a wand on the steering column and the instrument's sweep-second hand and digital readout begin to march forward with unappeasable accuracy. Now you can time exactly how long it takes to lose your license.

The chronometer is a little bit of genius, design as metaphor. If you had to choose an image to capture the soul of the Porsche 911 -- a car with thousands of road-racing victories to its credit, a car that virtually owns the production-based classes at Le Mans, Daytona and Sebring -- that image wouldn't be a wheel, or an engine or even the raring black stallion on the Porsche escutcheon. It would be a stopwatch.

After all, speed is distance over time. Though it might seem, for instance, that Le Mans-style endurance racing is about wheel-to-wheel combat, this is an illusion. Over 24 hours, it is purely the arithmetic accretion of lap times and pit stops that brings one driver to the finish line before another. The cars' daring proximity is pure coincidence.

The chronometer underscores the authenticity of both car and driver. It sits there, front and center, demanding answers. As any racer who has ever turned the wheel in anger knows, there is no hiding from a stopwatch. It is the ultimate arbiter of who has game and who just has a big mouth.

The latest overhaul of the 911 is known as the 997 generation -- the previous model was the 996, and before that the 993 (spanning the model years 1993-98), the last of the air-cooled Porsches. The new 2+2 sports car retains the sleek overall profile and wet-seal surfacing of the car it replaces but reaches back to the 993 generation for some classic touches, most notably the oval headlamps ahead of the browed front fenders. Gone are the amoeba-shaped compound headlamp assemblies, never much loved by Porscheophiles. Also, the new car is slightly wider and its rear fenders -- enclosing bigger wheels and tires -- have more dramatic swales, like those of the 993's turbo edition. Even so, thanks to many hours in the wind tunnel, the new car has lower aerodynamic drag values and more road-gripping downforce at speed.

There are two versions of the 911, the Carrera and the Carrera S, the latter getting a stronger engine (a 3.8-liter, 355-horsepower flat six, compared with the Carrera's 3.6-liter, 325-horsepower unit), bigger wheels and tires (19-inchers versus, compared with 18s), larger cross-drilled brake rotors, bi-Xenon headlamps and variable-damping suspension. The 2005 Turbo Carrera S is a carry-over from 2004 and a turbocharged version of the new car can be expected next year.

The S version of the Carrera is easy to spot by its twin double-barreled exhaust. Either car looks like something you could split rails with.

The dash-mounted timekeeper is part of the new Sport Chrono Plus system. Activating the "Sport" button raises the rev limiter threshold and makes the electronic throttle response more aggressive. The variable damping system goes all flinty. Also affected are the thresholds for stability control and anti-lock brake intervention, allowing the driver to toss the car around a bit more before the computer nannies step in.

With a top speed of more than 180 mph, the Carrera S is a potent car but doesn't feel overwhelmingly quick -- the six-speeder I drove didn't have the crossbow acceleration of other sports cars in its class. The 3,131-pound car sprints to 60 mph in 4.6 seconds; the new Corvette, for instance, reaches 60 mph half a second sooner. Despite the Porsche engine's variable valve timing and lift and two-stage induction system -- all intended to spread torque into the lower revs -- the flat-six really only wakes up above 4,000 rpm. If you are tooting along at 70 mph in sixth gear and you need to wiggle through a gap in traffic, you have to downshift all the way to third to rouse the engine.

Your reward is a sound as if you've poked Grendel with a stick. The induction system's butterfly valve opens, changing the engine note from a guttural purr to a full-throated metallic howl.

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