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.
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.