Like the last 911... but 15 per cent better

This is 911 heaven. The 997, responding perfectly to every input, doing exactly what you want, when you want, is in its element. The scenic road, following the winding eastern shores of False Bay, about an hour from Cape Town, might have been created for Porsche’s new 350bhp Carrera S.

No more perfect test could be conceived. With each run up and down the road, I’m gaining in confidence and speed, discovering the outer limits of adhesion are appreciably higher than ever. Confidence turns to trust. Yes, yet again, Porsche has built a significantly faster 911. But that’s not really the 997’s achievement. This is also a better handling, more predictable – yes, more rewarding – 911, with a chassis poise that essentially refutes its tail-heavy weight bias. In these circumstances, tottering on the limit, the 996 gently bobbed the nose vertically. The 997 stays flatter, biting first at the nose, then sticking resolutely at both ends, the brakes smashing into the speed and seemingly unconcerned at their continual near-abuse.

For those familiar with the 996, and all its ancestors, nothing less than a 911 recalibration is required. It’s as if everything (well, almost everything) the S does is 10 to 15 per cent better, faster.Apart from thoroughly revised styling (only the roof panel is carried over from the 996) that obviously draws its inspiration from the 993, highlights include a now 3.8-litre flat-six for the S version we’re testing, a new interior and Porsche’s first attempt at adaptive damping in a 911.

Styling first. In profile, the glass-house hovers over the bulging hipster wheelarches, so it appears slimmer, even longer, though it’s actually a tad (3mm) shorter, and more rounded, front and rear. An enormous amount of work has gone into the aerodynamics, not just in lowering the drag co-efficient - from 0.30 to 0.28 for the Carrera, 0.29 on the S - and reducing lift, but also in improving the airflow under the car, from the front radiators and around the wheelarches.

Visually, this might be the successor to the 993, rather than the conservative, knee-jerk reaction to criticism of the 996’s avant-garde ‘broken egg-yolk’ headlights that it is. It remains a 911 and, importantly, won’t be confused with either predecessor, but it also suggests the need for a bolder design direction for Porsche’s iconic coupé. The 997 is set down for at least a six-year life-cycle, more than enough time for new design boss Michael Mauer (ex-Saab, Smart and Mercedes) to work his persuasive inspiration.

For the new Porsche Active Suspension Management (PASM) Zuffenhausen makes the usual, seemingly contradictory claims for adaptive dampers: improved ride comfort with sharper handling. Standard on the £65,000 S, and developed with Bilstein, the continuously variable dampers offer a choice of normal or sport settings based on vertical suspension movements and longitudinal and lateral acceleration.

The new dampers are part of a package of chassis changes that includes variable-ratio steering, revisions to the rear suspension geometry and bigger Michelins – Pilot Sport N1 235/35 ZR19 front and 295/30ZR19 rear on the S (the Carrera gets 18s), developed specially for this car. Bridgestone, Pirelli and Continental rubber comes later.

It’s been just three days since I drove the previous 911, and I’m immediately aware that the S is operating on a higher level across virtually the entire dynamic spectrum. The truth, unpalatable though it may be to those obsessed by the air-cooled variety, is that each successive water-cooled 911 has moved the game forward.

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Already I’m conscious the new S is quieter and more comfortable of ride, most notably in normal mode, the suspension absorbing bumps that would have jarred the rear end of the old model. The notably stiffer sport setting feels as firm as any regular 996’s, yet still with less initial impact harshness. The gear change is faster and lighter, sweeter, full of character and a joy to operate. Yet a flatter and beefier torque curve reduces the need, if not the inclination, for cog-swapping. Pushing the flat six to 295lb ft at 4600rpm, up 350rpm on the 273lb ft 3.6, meant exceeding the torque capacity of the old gearbox and thus required development of an all-new ’box, one that reduces shift travel by 15 per cent, in combination with a self-adjusting clutch.

The big-bore engine is more gutsy and responsive around 3000rpm, where it begins to tap into the flat six’s intoxicating induction snort, and it’s equally happily to rev, despite those 350 horses being developed at 6600rpm, 200rpm below the 3.6-litre’s power peak. There is real power from 2500rpm, thanks to the variable intake-valve timing and a total redesign of the induction system. The effect is a constantly volatile induction howl that takes on a harder character at 5600rpm, in synch with a power kick, and builds in volume to a deep scream by 7300rpm that seems to spring from the very heart of the engine.

August Achleitner, director of 911 development, insists the S is set up to reach its 182mph top speed exactly at the 7300rpm fuel cut-out, something the 177mph Carrera (they share gearing) can’t achieve. Porsche claims the S’s 4.8sec run from 0-62mph is a mere 0.2sec quicker than the Carrera’s, the difference widening to a over a second by 124mph, which the 3.8 hits in 16.5sec. That’s almost a Ferrari 360 time and we’ve yet to see the circa-475bhp 997 Turbo, due in 2006. The 997 feels stronger than the numbers suggest. So much more gutsy, I was frequently aware of running one gear higher than if I’d been in a 996.

Weissach has taken advantage of many of the potential systems off-shoots of modern electronics. A sports mode alters the accelerator pedal movement and introduces an even higher threshold of intrusion by the stability management system (now standard, even on the Carrera) and switches the PASM to a firmer damper set-up. Maybe the faster throttle – and faster-closing butterfly on a trailing right foot – works in improving responses on a race track. On the road, especially in traffic, the action is too abrupt and hinders smooth progress.

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A day’s outing in Germany left me asking, again, how Porsche can move the next 911 forward from the 997. I find it hard to imagine any sane driver running out of adhesion in the new Carrera, at least on the road. It sticks at both ends, PSM rarely intruding and then so subtly it never spoils the action. Magazine editors love oversteer, but, despite my best efforts on a variety of corners, I couldn’t get the tail to move sideways for more than a few fleeting seconds. Attack second-gear hairpins and the Porsche’s traction advantage means hurtling out of the bend, right foot buried through the firewall.

Lift off and it merely tightens the line by tucking the nose neatly, without worrying the driver. The engineers’ claim that on the brilliant new Michelins, the 997 has 10 per cent more cornering speed than the 996. Utterly believable.

My only puzzlement concerns the steering. Because the variable-ratio steering is lighter and slightly less direct around the straight-ahead, the immediacy and linearity of responses in that crucial first movement off-centre, taken for granted by longtime 911 drivers, are reduced. This is the biggest change to the steering since the adoption of power assistance on the 964 in 1988 and, at first experience, just as controversial. I spent day one in South Africa confused by the rack’s messages, even admitting to missing the constant joggling of the wheel, a 911 peculiarity for more than 40 years that has finally been eliminated. Initial turn-in seemed slower, less urgent, and I was sawing at the wheel through third-gear sweepers, convincing myself I could feel the rack’s ratio changing. 

By the end of the second day, after belting the S over the challenging Franschhoek Pass and tapping into the car’s greater agility at the limit, taking advantage of its superior grip and more adjustable handling, I’d come to terms with the new set-up. Everywhere beyond the first 30 degrees of wheel movement the steering is quicker and more precise. Body control is brilliant. The 911 stays flat, linking corners in a series of incisive, flowing movements, the suspension soaking up bumps and surface changes that would upset the previous 911’s poise. Be warned, 996 owners need to accept that the 997 feels different. It took me until the third morning to accept that the changes to the steering truly worked.

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Porsche’s 350mm ceramic brake discs are now optional across the 911 range. To justify the high expense you need to be a determined track-day attendee, for the S gets the current Turbo’s terrific 330mm cross-drilled discs. Still, the ceramic brakes deliver even more immediate responses, a progressive-feeling pedal, reduce unsprung weight by 14kg, and function without the squealing that was once unavoidable from such systems.

Add wider, more supportive bucket seats, greater adjustability of the driving position, courtesy of the now height- and reach-adjustable wheel, and pedals that are 10mm forward, and a new interior design that’s notably superior in material quality and fit, and the cockpit news is virtually all positive. If the dashboard styling is conservative – again, borrowing its theme from earlier 911s – the ergonomics, largely shared with the Cayenne, are easier to fathom. A couple of small, welcome touches: the digital speedo’s returned to the lower section of the central rev counter, where it’s easier to read, and you can now (finally) hear the turn indicator click.

In 997 S form, the 911 Carrera is faster, more stable, more precise, and forgiving, an altogether superior – make that more efficient – sports car than the 996. Still, I suspect this anaesthetising of traditional Porsche traits – flaws if you must – will be missed by some obsessive 911 drivers. It is almost too good, a genuine supercar at an un-supercar price, that retains all the practicality that has made the 911 unique for over 40 years, and is capable of true greatness.

Peter Robinson

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