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First drive: Porsche’s bristling new GT3

Unadulterated: rear-wheel drive and natural aspiration make GT3 the purest Porsche of all.

The most powerful non-turbo Porsche ever has arrived but is it worth the price hike?

Porsche logo19 Dec 2003

JUST when you thought Porsche had gone soft by producing a five-door mud-plugger complete with a V6 from Volkswagen, the Zuffenhausen zealots have redeemed themselves by producing an even more potently distilled version of the purest Porsche of all.

That’s right, the rear-drive, naturally aspirated 911 GT3 – the most powerful non-turbo Porsche ever – has been refreshed for model year 2004, and an even more highly-strung 3.6-litre engine and more finely honed chassis make it a fitting finale for the 996-series 911 before its replacement appears globally next year.

As one of the final instalments of a facelifted 996-series 911 model range that began appearing in August 2001, first deliveries of the improved GT3 began in September and Porsche Cars Australia already has buyers for the 70-odd examples destined for Australia.

Such is the popularity of Porsche in Australia generally and the GT3 in particular, that the model enjoys the highest sales penetration of anywhere in the world.

Priced at $265,000 – a mere $40,400 more than its predecessor – the updated GT3 boasts an even higher-revving iteration of Porsche’s majestic 3.6-litre horizontally-opposed flat six.

It now produces a sufficient 280kW of power (up 15kW on the previous GT3, 45kW more than the standard 911 and just 29kW short of the flagship 911 Turbo’s output) at 7400rpm, with a stratospheric 8200rpm cut-out thanks to lightened reciprocating parts. Peak torque is up too, from 370Nm to 385Nm.

On the road, the beefier boxer is said to propel the tweaked GT3 to 100km/h in just 4.5 seconds - 0.3 seconds quicker than its predecessor and just three tenths slower than the $300,000 all-wheel drive 911 Turbo.

Hard to believe, but there’s an even quicker naturally aspirated 911 to come in the current 996 series, with the GT3 RS (reviving the popular 911 Renn Sport name from the 1973 original) set to arrive here in March 2004 to celebrate 40 years of the legendary 911 nameplate.

Essentially a road-going Carrera Cup car with styling inspired by the $400,000 rear-drive turbocharged 340kW GT2 (technically the 911 flagship with 0-100km/h pace of 4.1 seconds - 10 of which were sold here between August 2001 and August 2003), the RS will bring the number of 911 variants to a staggering 11.

Revealed at the 2003 Frankfurt motor show, the GT3 RS is 45kg lighter thanks to its lack of air-conditioning, a glovebox and centre console, and its use of carbon-fibre for its door mirrors, bonnet, engine cover and rear wing. There’s even an acrylic rear windscreen in the name of weight saving.

Its fettled 3.6 boxer produces the same power and torque peaks at fewer revs and helps shave a tenth off the standard GT3’s 0-100km/h pace. Just 300 will be built, with 15 coming to Australia - all of them spoken for.

But for now the most exclusive 911 is the standard GT3 which, along with an astonishingly muscular new engine specification, features beefier brakes and wheels and the facelifted 911’s new styling treatment.

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

On the surface of it, its new face aside, there appear to be few changes to this facelifted GT3. Certainly none that would seem to justify its whopping $40,000 price hike.

But one drive is evidence enough the changes run more deeply than a new corporate face and revised fixed rear wing. And that Porsche hasn’t forgotten how to produce cutting edge performance cars.

Perhaps the MY2004’s greatest asset is its brakes. Behind the deeply dished 18-inch alloys (in staggered sizes and wearing 235/40 and 265/30-section front/rear Michelin tyres) lie some of the biggest brakes on the planet.

Employing six pistons on the front wheels, the massive callipers work with 350mm cross-drilled discs to give GT3 the most astonishing braking ability we’ve ever sampled.

Even from high speed, this Porsche stops with physics-defying efficiency, all the time offering fade-free pedal feel and feedback and the ability to modulate braking force more finely than the best luxury cars. They simply must be tried to be believed.

Then there’s the potent new powerplant. Even more flexible than before, the new GT3 is as happy to dribble around town at low engine speeds as it is to bounce off its 8000-plus rev-limiter on a twisty section of blacktop.

Despite its refined, perfectly balanced nature (accompanied by a refreshing new exhaust growl), the revised GT3 engine is even more accelerative than before, producing effortless performance that is so deceptively effective that rarely is the top half of its broad powerband required.

Indeed, the V8-style thrust now available without even touching the throttle from standstill is seductive enough, and one must pick the time and place to sample the new GT3’s top-end rush carefully, such is the breadth of its intoxicating performance envelope.

There are a handful of performance cars that feel gruntier off the line and a smaller number that can match the GT3’s ballistic 300km/h-plus top speed, but none can match the GT3’s flexibility across the whole speed spectrum.

The 911 Turbo is still offers the widest range of usable performance – with the ability to pull strongly anywhere from 60km/h to 320km/h in top gear – but the 2004 GT3 now gives it a fiercer run for its money.

Matched to what remains the world’s slickest, most intuitive six-speed manual transmission, the GT3 must rate as one of the easiest cars to drive quickly.

Of course, there are compromises. Like the factory-fitted rollcage that makes the two (token) rear seats redundant, restricts stretching room, obscures the light switch and locks the sun visors down, reducing forward vision.

The body-hugging one-piece racing seats, with a five-point harness in addition to the regular seatbelts, are fairly upright and difficult to alight from. And a big, race-regulation fire extinguisher gobbles up much of the passenger’s footwell.

Oh, ride quality is obviously not up to other 911s’ standards, the semi-floating brake rotors are noisy when coming to a halt, clutch take-up is more sudden and the gearshift is slightly notchier than in garden-variety 911s.

But for what’s virtually a race car for the road, the GT3 remains amazingly civilised. Anything this quick, fast and bulletproof on a racetrack has no right to be this refined. As with its donor car, there’s even room for luggage under the bonnet.

And the eminently practical and effective 911 package continues elsewhere. Like its brakes, the GT3’s steering is still the best in the business, telegraphing every change in camber and grip level without delivering unnecessary information and all the while remaining precise and super-responsive. It also makes testing the GT3’s enormous grip levels a surprisingly predictable exercise.

Yes, racetrack compromises aside (and, let’s face it, most GT3s will be used primarily on closed circuits), picking holes in the GT3 is no easy task. Unfettered by turbocharging and all-wheel drive, the GT3 makes a solid argument as one of the world’s finest old-fashioned road cars.

Purists rejoice: Zuffenhausen’s zealots remain as zealous as ever. But it seems some of you already know that.

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