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First drive: Porsche’s best 911 ever

Driven: The completely redesigned, seventh-generation Porsche 911 will hit our shores in March next year.

All-new Porsche 911 steps further ahead of the pack in all key areas but one

Porsche logo21 Nov 2011

By MARTON PETTENDY in LOS ANGELES

PORSCHE has finally laid all of its new 911 cards on the table, six months after kicking off an official drip-feed reveal campaign, five years after it began development and 48 years after the first 911 appeared in 1963.

Launched to the press internationally last week in California – easily the most popular destination for the 911 in North America, the iconic German sportscar’s biggest single market – the seventh-generation 911 arrives in Australia in March after more than 700,000 sales of its six hallowed forebears globally, making it the world’s most successful supercar.

The result of five decades of continuous sportscar development is the 991-series model – so-called because the company’s initial 998 internal model code would have alerted potential suppliers to the fact it was developing a new 911 – which is actually only the third all-new 911 ever, following the original 901 and the 996 series of 1997.

Porsche claims 95 per cent of the latest 911 is new – only basic engine and PDK automatic transmission architectures are carried over from the outgoing 997 – even if it doesn’t look much different at first glance, thanks to the trademark ‘cannon barrel’ front wings and sloping rear roofline made famous by previous generations.

But the new 911 is in fact wrapped in an all-new body that is the same width and just a few millimetres lower-slung than before, but measures 56mm longer and wears a more convex windscreen which is ‘faster’ not at the sides but the middle, where its base was pushed 100mm further forward.

25 center imageThe biggest departure from 911 tradition, however, is the 991’s 100mm longer wheelbase, with the front wheels pushed 30mm further forward and the rear wheels shifted 70mm further back, reducing the front and rear overhangs by a respective 32 and 12mm but retaining the same overall cabin length.

Despite that, front and rear legroom increases by a nominal 25mm up front and 6mm at the rear, while headroom either remains the same or increases in models with an optional sunroof, which is 30 per cent bigger and now slides above rather than within the roof. Aerodynamic efficiency remains unchanged at 0.29Cd.

Beneath the 991’s familiar exterior proportions is a more formal, upmarket interior with straight edges replacing the 997’s organic, circular dashboard shapes, but five overlapping round gauges – dominated by a large central tacho – continue to form the 911’s hallmark instrument panel, although the lidded door pockets are no longer.

You sit so much lower in the new 911 that only the headlight turrets – not the bonnet – are now visible from behind the wheel, but, thanks to thin and carefully sculpted A-pillars, forward visibility in all directions is good. This is aided by the new door-mounted mirrors, which are also more slippery than before, reducing wind noise and stopping water and road grime collecting on the side windows as in the old 911.

Further accentuating the cockpit feel is a Panamera-style rising centre console with two rows of push buttons and a gearshift lever mounted high and close to the new steering wheel, which features a wider range of now fully electric reach and rake adjustment. Also for the first time in a 911 there is an electric parking brake and dual-zone climate-control, while bi-Xenon headlights are now standard on both Carrera coupe models.

No, there is no sign of the latest luxury car technologies like radar cruise control, night vision, head-up display, internet connectivity and keyless starting (proximity-key entry is an option), but the 911 is, after all, a compact sportscar, albeit one that now starts from about $230,000.

Apart from the extra standard features, however, the outstanding engineering advances Porsche has managed to achieve with the 991 make the newest 911 vastly better value than before.

Despite the larger body, 80kg of additional electronics and the fact the new 911 is 25 per cent more torsionally rigid than the already a super-stiff 997, the 991 bodyshell is actually 80kg lighter and unladen weights reduce by between 30kg (1395kg Carrera S) and 45kg (1400kg Carrera S PDK).

This is mostly due to the increased proportion of aluminium in the new body (now 45 per cent). Only the front and rear compartment lids of the 997 were aluminium, while the existing 911 Turbo, GT3 and GT2 wear alloy doors. To that the 991 adds an alloy roof and rear wing, magnesium content of up to two per cent and a range of new joining techniques including adhesive bonding.

Combined with a fuel-saving idle-stop engine function as standard across the range and a host of other efficiency gains, fuel consumption reduces by up to 16 per cent in the 3.4-litre entry-level Carrera with dual-clutch PDK auto, which now returns just 8.2L/100km and is the first Porsche to emit less than 200g/km of CO2. Yet top speed remains unchanged at 287km/h and 0-100km/h acceleration drops by a tenth to just 4.6 seconds.

Similarly, despite also being more powerful, the 3.8-litre Carrera S is quicker, faster, cleaner and more fuel efficient too – with either Porsche’s improved PDK auto or the world’s first seven-speed manual transmission in a passenger car.

Unfortunately we were unable to sample the downsized Carrera 3.4 because first examples have not yet left the Zuffenhausen factory, but in 3.8 S form the new 911 appears noticeably longer in the wheelbase, lower-slung and more aggressive in the metal.

The 3.8 boxer now sounds louder inside – with or without acoustic exhaust mode being selected – perhaps because everything else is so much quieter, and belts out a hairier-chested pop and crackle on the overrun.

There is more power everywhere and yet the uprated flat six will happily chug along at less than 60km/h in top (seventh) gear from just 1200rpm, making it feel as flexible as the current 911 Turbo.

The Carrera S will deliver neck-clenching overtaking urge from just under 2000rpm at 100km/h in seventh (before which fifth or sixth must first be selected to prevent miss-shifts from third/fourth to the overdriven top gear), but third gear is still the most useful and satisfying ratio with which to exploit the bigger flat six’s staggering performance on a mountain road, such as those to the east of Santa Barbara north of LA.

However, it is the 991’s bigger, stiffer, lighter and more grown-up chassis that brings the biggest step change for the 911.

With an extra four inches between its axles, two inches more between its front wheels and wider 20-inch standard tyres increasing both its footprint and contact patch, the Carrera S delivers a new level of roadholding and sheer mechanical grip, and dramatically reduces the rear-engined 911’s trademark tendency to porpoise, or nod its front-end up and down during heavy braking and hard acceleration or just big bumps.

The larger, stiffer yet lighter body feels no bigger than before and, thanks to the redesigned MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear suspension systems, ride quality is better than ever. Yet this 911 remains almost devoid of bodyroll – no matter how much we tried to induce it – thanks in at least some part to the optional new Porsche Dynamic Chassis Control anti-roll function fitted to most cars at the global launch.

But the biggest change to the way the 911 drives is its steering. This is the first Porsche with an electric rather than conventional hydraulic system and the result is steering performance unlike any 911 before it.

Electro-mechanical steering systems are becoming more widespread in the industry’s search for greater efficiency, even if they typically cost more, weigh more and offer less feel and feedback as hydraulic systems. And the 911 is no exception.

We were criticised for chastising the new electric steering in Ford’s latest Focus – a model previously known for its stand-out steering ability in the small-car class – after driving it at the global launch on similar roads in California earlier this year, despite conceding its more stable, ‘comfortable’ steering feel would attract a much larger audience in the high-volume small car class.

Yes, this is easily the best electric steering system we’ve sampled in any car. Yes, the 991’s steering is as precise and responsive as the previous 911’s. And yes, combined with the rest of the new chassis’ wider performance envelope, there’s enough feel and feedback to make the latest 911 the most formidable ever in terms of outright dynamic capability.

But we think some 911 fans – like us – will lament the loss of one of the 911’s greatest assets: steering communication, the way previous generations danced in your hands, offering an unrivalled visceral link between man and machine via the most direct interface between a vehicle and its operator.

Sure, the 991 will have broader appeal for the same reason as the Focus and some may rightly or wrongly label the ‘twitchy’ steering feel of previous 911s as ‘scary’, but this is not a mainstream car. Unique steering feel was part of this iconic sportscar’s DNA, the way it felt alive in your hands one of the achievements on which it built its reputation.

No longer is it possible, while blind-folded, to tell this is a 911. No longer does the 911 follow every road camber and telegraph every pebble or divot with a push or a pull. And no longer is it brave to drive one fast with one hand, let alone drive no-handed even in a straight line. Do that in the 991 and its tiller remains firmly fixed at 12 o’clock, even on a crowned road.

Of course, all of this and the longer wheelbase makes the 911 more stable at high speed, more confidence-inspiring at all speeds and more effortless to drive at the same given pace, and there’s no doubt the 911’s outright handling ability sets new standards, but the filtering out of all that “unnecessary” feedback also makes the new 911 more clinical, less characterful.

This is a 911 to be sure, but not as we know it. Some 911 purists will undoubtedly find the new model less fun to drive, but a great deal more customers will find it less intimidating. That said, the outgoing model’s highly involving steering may well have felt out of place in this more sophisticated 911.

Providing there is not another GFC, we have no doubt that as the most capable example of the breed ever, this quicker, faster, bigger, more efficient, more refined and easier to drive 911 will find more new homes than any model before it – even the ‘radical’ liquid-cooled 996, which Porsche purists lambasted but became the most popular 911 ever.

Porsche 911 pricing(plus on-roads):
Carrera&nbsp $229,900
Carrera S $263,100

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