YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Today's Porsche 911: High tech still delivers old-school thrill

The Porsche 911, now in its 50th year, has become a more-stable sports car thanks to high-tech wizardry, but it retains a visceral, old-school feel.

September 06, 2013|By Brian Thevenot
  • 2013 Porsche Carrera 4S Cabriolet.
2013 Porsche Carrera 4S Cabriolet. (Porsche )

The sharp left appeared out of nowhere.

Blasting down a mountain road, surging with adrenaline, I flashed back to the first rule of driving a Porsche 911: Never let off the gas in a turn.

Unless, that is, you want to travel backward into the nearest ditch. Such are the physics of a rear-engine layout, the defining characteristic of the 911 since forever. With all that weight behind the rear axle, standing on the accelerator drops the tail into an aggressive crouch. Lifting off at the wrong moment has the opposite effect — separating the rear tires from terra firma.

For much of its storied history, the 911 earned a reputation as a bit of a handful.

"There was a time when you could drive down a mountain road and see 911s in the weeds," said Scott Oldham, editorial vice president at auto information company

But this modern 911 — now in its 50th year — has evolved into something less terrifying, if no less ferocious. Over the years, Porsche engineers have masked the car's eccentricities with unrelenting technical advances.

Truck-length stick shifts, heavy clutches and twitchy handling have given way to an array of electronic nannies, calibrated to intervene in moments of driver duress. Simply put, this may be the easiest car on Earth to drive fast.

Entering that treacherously tight mountain curve, somewhere east of San Diego, I kept my right foot planted and yanked the wheel left. My co-pilot, an old college buddy, snickered a bit as his right shoulder slammed into the leather-stitched door panel. But we otherwise surged into the straightaway with zero drama.

Even with 400 horsepower on tap, and that bestial roar from the rear-mounted flat-six, it's difficult to frighten yourself in this car.

The sticker price did manage to shock: $153,560 for the 2013 Carrera 4S Cabriolet we tested. And that's not even the most expensive 911 these days. The turbo model starts at $181,100, well into Aston Martin territory and gaining on Ferrari.

The 911 started life as an elegant but brutally simple sports car, introduced at the Frankfurt Auto Show in Germany on Sept. 12, 1963. Among its many wonders were the four seats somehow fitted into a sensual frame that seemed built for two. At $5,995, the 911 fetched only slightly more than the Corvette of the day.

But that market position has more recently been ceded to the 911's baby brother, the Cayman, and its convertible cousin, the Boxster. Starting at a mere $53,550, the Cayman still allows young car enthusiasts to fathom saving up for a Porsche, if only a used one, once they attain that magical age of affordable insurance.

The entry-level Porsches offer a telling engineering contrast. The automaker dumped the rear-engine layout for the two-seater Cayman/Boxster models. They are instead mid-engined, with the power plant directly behind the driver but well ahead of the rear axle. This results in a neutral weight distribution universally considered ideal for handling.

It might have made sense for Porsche engineers to move the engine on the 911 some time ago — were it not for the riot that would ignite among loyalists. The engine placement is integral to the 911's tear-drop silhouette. That shape defines Porsche. Such sacrilege will not be tolerated.

The engine has been cheated forward a bit, however, as the wheelbase has grown. Putting more space between the axles has quietly made the 911 less rear-engined than it used to be. That little adjustment — along with the wide tires lurking under those muscle-bound wheel wells — no doubt contributes to stability in mountain hairpins.

The 911's mercurial nature has further been checked by a pair of rocket-science systems, Porsche Dynamic Chassis Control and Porsche Torque Vectoring.

The vectoring automatically applies moderate braking to the inside rear wheel during a hard turn, thus directing more torque to the outside wheel. The dynamic control, meanwhile, features hydraulic actuators, operating independently at all four wheels, that nearly eliminate body roll.

In our Carrera 4S tester, the "4" signifies all-wheel drive. The system directs most engine torque to the rear wheels in almost all driving situations. But it transfers a measure of power to the front wheels when the back tires slip, whipping the tail back into line.

All this digital wizardry helps keep the driver on the "intended path," as Porsche delicately puts it.

But nothing on Carrera will do more for your ham-fisted driving than the seven-speed PDK transmission, a pioneering dual-clutch automated manual that threatens to drive the stick shift to extinction. The PDK rips through shifts like sniper shots, with similar accuracy. (PDK stands for Porsche Doppelkupplungsgetriebe, in case you wondered.)

Los Angeles Times Articles