Car reviews - Porsche - 911 - Carrera cabriolet
Smooth and instant accelerator response, glorious engine sound, precise steering, solidity, quality
Room for improvement
Price, smallish fuel tank, limited luggage space
31 Aug 2005
PORSCHE has chosen a careful path with its 911 model since going water-cooled with the 996 series in 1998.
Mindful of its slightly dodgy past judgements that – in the eyes of Porschists – diluted the basic essence almost beyond recognition, the company became more cognisant of its roots, and what people were prepared to accept from Stuttgart, when it launched its new-generation 911 seven years ago.
The 996 911 may have been all new, but the Porsche DNA was strongly evident.
Even the Boxster that shared much with it structurally from the windscreen forward - and the powerplant - followed precedents set by the company as far back as the 1950s, in the shape of the mid-engined Spyder model that will always be tragically associated with movie star James Dean.
The return to basics has worked well, making the 996 the most popular 911 ever.
But something about the car must have still been niggling at Porsche because the latest version - dubbed 997 – could be said to have taken a stylistic step backwards that brings it closer to the old air-cooled 911.
This comes in the shape of a new front-end with a much simpler, oval headlight arrangement, and an interior that appears to be cut closer to the bone.
The 997 is also a tad shorter than the 996, although it’s a whole lot wider, adding 38mm in overall width via a massive flaring of the guards that brings it within 20mm of the 911 Turbo.
Porsche in fact says that very little about the 911’s exterior clothing has been left unchanged, apart from the roof. The front guards have been bumped up to more closely approximate the 993, and the bulging wheel arches give it a more wasp-waisted look.
There are practical aspects to all this, including a lowering of the coupe’s aerodynamic drag figure to an impressive 0.28, and front and rear track dimensions that combine with larger wheels to add even more stiction to the 911’s chassis.
The 997 also gets a new variable-ratio power steering system that further improves response but, because of the bigger wheels, adds a bit to the turning circle.
And now, there’s the long-awaited cabriolet version, which defies normal expectations by being virtually as aerodynamic as the coupe with a Cd figure of 0.29, while adding a reasonably small 85kg to the overall weight.
Porsche emphasises the fact that a soft-top cabriolet is always going to be lighter than a metal-roof drop-top too - and, that as well as saving weight, it also helps in lowering the all-important centre of gravity.
Porsche says torsional stiffness of the cabriolet body-in-white is up by five per cent, while static flexural stiffness is nine per cent better than before.
Like the coupe, the cabriolet comes in either Carrera or Carrera S form, using the same 3.6 and 3.8-litre engines and offering the choice of the new Aisin six-speed manual transmission or the five-speed Tiptronic auto.
The 997 Cabriolet also joins the coupe by including Porsche’s PSM stability control system as standard, and offers a range of options that run to things like ceramic brakes, semi-active PASM suspension and the "Sports Chrono Package Plus" that adjusts things like the mapping of the engine management and stability control to provide sharper reactions, and even builds a stopwatch and lap counter into the instrument panel.
As you’d imagine, the price has jumped, by more than $10,000, although Porsche says the actual value-added totals something like $16,000.
Most important is how the new 911 Cabriolet drives, and here the 997 shows how much has been gained in a five-year development program that included 1,500,000km of testing, 887 hours of computer-aided design, 357 design sketch rejections and 698 staff. The 997 is more than a mere facelift.
Our test car was a manual-transmission Carrera cabriolet with a few add-ons that bumped its price to almost $240,000.
Some of the gear, such as the active suspension that is tagged at $4490, seemed reasonable enough but we’d tend to baulk, in a car priced close to $220,000, at paying $1690 for auto-dimming rearview mirrors, nearly $3000 for bi-Xenon headlights, or more than two grand for a multi-function steering wheel.
The cabriolet’s equipment is otherwise what you’d expect for the money. Power seats with driver memory, climate-control air-conditioning, a Bose nine-speaker sound system and trip computer are all standard.
The roof goes about its business in about 20 seconds, and will continue to do this at speeds up to 50km/h which is pretty amazing – though not tested during our time with the car.
It’s fully lined and cosy, with no need to manipulate a central latch before it can be opened. Just make sure the ignition’s on, and the whole operation happens swiftly and smoothly with the flick of a switch on the centre console.
Like the coupe, the 911 cab gets not just side airbags, but also curtain airbags built into the doors at the bottom of windows – a first in a convertible (although Volvo will be following up with its new C70, which has its curtain airbags built into the upper frame of the side windows).
The new 911 seats with their tombstone backrests retain the minimalist, sporty look that befits a car like the Porsche, but they are slightly bigger, with improved shaping and added side support.
Assisting legroom is the moving-forward of the floor pedals, which, along with the lower-set seats and two-way adjustable steering wheel, allows more breathing space for taller drivers.
As ever, the back seat is purely decorative, made useful by flip-down backrests that form carpeted trays for small in-cabin items.
There’s the usual lidded bins on the door armrests, plus a small cubby in the passenger-side doorsill for holding sunglasses, or mobile phones, as well as a lidded compartment in the centre console. And the glovebox.
But all this becomes irrelevant once you twist the starter key and the 3.6-litre boxer engine barks into life behind you.
The 911 is among the most tactile of cars, right from the feeling through the accelerator pedal that suggests the lateral movement of pistons, and a spinning crankshaft, to the deep, complex mix of sounds emitted by the magnesium-crankcase boxer six-cylinder.
The accelerator lacks the hair-trigger response of the original 911, but it’s still there to be tickled, rather than prodded.
The clutch, once again unlike the awkwardly-hinged and heavy original 911 pedal, is smooth and progressive and combines with the exquisite accelerator feel, and the new short-throw six-speed gearbox, to create an environment where the driver feels more like the conductor of a symphony orchestra than the mere operator of a car.
The 911 no longer really requires any great deal of acclimatization. From startup, this is an easily accessible Porsche.
Even when it’s being pushed along with relative enthusiasm, the 997 hides most of the unconventional handling characteristics other than the occasional awareness that there is much less weight than usual over the front wheels, and that the suspension is set up for mild initial understeer.
The semi-active PASM suspension fitted to our test car at $4500 gave the most compliant ride yet experienced in a 911, with none of the familiar but entirely acceptable rear-end abruptness – although a switch to the firmer setting brought it all flooding back.
With its wider front and rear tracks, and bigger wheels (our test car had the optional 19-inch alloys) the 911 cabriolet sticks in a way totally in keeping with its accelerative ability (5.2 seconds to 100km/h for the manual cabriolet – or 0.2 of s a second behind the coupe).
There’s none of the dancing-with-death feelings invoked by 911s past – particularly those pre-dating the 993, the last air-cooled 911, with its completely new, multi-link rear-end.
The sensitive driver will notice the weight balance is different to anything else on the road - and what else would you expect, when the whole engine is hanging out way behind the rear wheels. If you do overcook it, the 911’s stability control system is in there making you look good anyway.
The new variable-ratio steering goes from lock to lock in a swift 2.6 turns, maintaining the tactility that is such an integral part of the 911.
The brakes are pretty potent too, with ventilated, cross-drilled discs of decent size (318 x 28mm at the front and 299 x 24mm at the rear) on all wheels and sporting four-piston black monobloc Brembo callipers.
The 3.6-litre Carrera engine is basically as before, bumped by just 4kW to help compensate for the 997’s weight gains. Although the figures tell us maximum torque comes in at 4250rpm, the reality is there’s a great spread of useable power available well below that.
Even from 2000rpm a squeeze of the accelerator will produce smooth, instant results. With a power band extending through to almost 7000rpm, you can imagine how the 911 feels when it’s wound out through the gears – and you can probably imagine how it sounds, especially as the variable camshaft timing wails in towards the upper end of the rpm range.
The six-speed Aisin gearbox shifts smoothly, and quickly, although for driving around town the engine’s flexibility means it doesn’t need to be used much.
One of the great things about the 911 is that it remains tactile, symphonic and enjoyable whether you’re on the freeway, stuck in traffic, or on a sinuous country road.
At cruising speeds the cabriolet is surprisingly quiet, virtually as well sealed against wind noise as a coupe. Only an underlying whine from the engine and transmission lets you know what’s happening out the back.
Road noise is pretty low, especially when you consider the 19-inch wheels fitted to the test car - although there was an intermittent droning noise that came up from somewhere on coarse-surfaced roads. We’ve noticed the same thing in other top-end Euro cars.
The cabriolet’s downsides are few. The fuel tank is a little small at just 65 litres, even for a car claiming reasonable average consumption figures of just over 11 litres per 100km and there’s not a lot of storage space under the front luggage compartment lid, although it can be augmented by bringing the area behind the front seats into play.
There’s no spare tyre, just a compressor and a can of sealant for emergencies, and rear three-quarter vision is nothing special. Then again, nor is it in any other convertible – and at least rear windows these days are glass.
As always, time spent behind the wheel of a Porsche 911 is time understanding why it’s unique in the world of sports cars, and why just about every other manufacturer holds the brand in such reverence.
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