2011 Porsche 911 Driving Impressions

Driving a Porsche 911 is a thrill. That goes for every model, Carrera to Turbo to GT3. Balance and overall performance is extraordinary. All variants accelerate with the verve of a motorbike and turn or stop on a dime. Yet all can behave in smooth, civilized fashion for the more mundane demands of daily motoring. The 911 is easy to drive. The Turbo is docile on the street, though heavy acceleration turns it into a beast.

The Carrera and Carrera 4 are powered by Porsche's 3.6-liter, horizontally opposed six-cylinder, otherwise known as the boxer engine for the way its pistons punch outward. In 2009, Porsche simplified the engine design with 40-percent fewer moving parts, which translates to better reliability. This engine employs the latest materials technology, a race-car style dry sump lubrication system, direct injection, and a refined version of Porsche's VarioCam variable valve timing. Horsepower peaks at 345 hp at 6500 rpm, while peak torque is 288 pound-feet at 4400 rpm. Porsche claims 0-60 mph acceleration performance of 4.5 seconds with the PDK transmission, and 4.7 seconds with the manual gearbox. Needless to say, your average, everyday Carrera is a very quick car.

Which transmission? The optional 7-speed PDK automated manual transmission is the choice for those who want ultimate performance and improved fuel economy. The PDK uses two clutches, one to hold the current gear and one to ready the next gear. Shifts are immediate with no loss of tractive power. The PDK can be used like an automatic, or shifts can be performed manually through a pair of steering wheel buttons (pull up to downshift and push down to shift up), or the paddle shifters (left to downshift, right to upshift). EPA fuel economy numbers are 18/25 mpg City/Highway with the manual transmission, and 19/27 mpg with the PDK.

The PDK's automatic setting makes the car easier to manage in stop-and-go traffic. Hit the back roads, put it in Sport mode and it holds gears longer for aggressive driving. Hit the Sport Plus button and the PDK becomes a full-on race transmission, holding the lowest gear possible. It performs abruptly in this mode, slamming into each gear like Patrick Long at Sebring. We drove a few 911s with PDKs on three different racetracks and found it was never in the wrong gear. The main caveat with PDK is price. It costs more than $4,000.

Purists might still prefer the interaction and feel of shifting a manual, and the Porsche 6-speed is a good one. It's easy to shift, with fairly short throws. Blipping the throttle and downshifting in a 911 is an absolute joy. However, price and feel are really the only reasons to choose the manual, because the PDK outperforms it in just about every way. All that said, we'd choose the manual because it's more enjoyable.

Carrera S models feature a bored-out version of the flat six that makes 385 hp at 6500 rpm and 310 pound-feet of torque at 4400 rpm. Fuel economy numbers are 18/25 mpg with the manual and 19/26 mpg with the PDK. Carrera S models have a bit more power across the rev range, but they're not decisively quicker. The bottom line is the Carrera S offers slightly quicker acceleration performance. For example, a Carrera achieves 0-60 mph in 4.7 seconds with the manual and 4.5 seconds with the PDK, while the Carrera S times are 4.5 seconds with the manual and 4.3 seconds with the PDK. Speed costs money. How fast do you want to go?

While acceleration performance is intoxicating, the real draw to the 911 engines lies in their tractability. Slam the 911's gas pedal down at any road or engine speed, and the response is immediate and enormous. Power is on tap in just about any situation. We wanted to floor it every time we tracked through a turn and let the engine wind to redline just to feel the acceleration and listen to the unmistakable rasp of the boxer engine. It is addictive.

The Turbo uses a 3.8-liter engine with direct injection, and 11.6 psi of boost. While perfectly at home in everyday traffic, the Turbo can change character immediately. The Turbo delivers good, usable power at low rpm. Power comes on strongest over 3000 rpm, but it's manageable. Still, if you floor it, the Turbo accelerates like a banshee and the power keeps coming as you keep your foot in it up to and past triple-digit speeds. With the Launch Control feature in the Sport Chrono Package Plus, 0 to 60 mph takes only 3.2 seconds, which is supercar territory to say the least. That time is aided by the overboost feature, which increases torque to 516 pound-feet for up to 10 seconds. The sound is similar. Though muted during normal driving, it roars to life when provoked, emitting a wild yelp that tells anyone in the area to look out. Enthusiasts will know it's a Porsche before turning to look.

Porsche Active Suspension Management (PASM) controls the flow of hydraulic fluid into the shock absorbers. More fluid, and the shocks stiffen up, keeping the wheels pressed more aggressively to the pavement and limiting the amount of body roll, or lean, in hard turns. Less fluid, and the wheels rebound more easily toward the car, improving ride quality. PASM takes information from various electronic sensors and automatically adjusts the suspension to meet a driver's demands. Motoring casually along a boulevard, the active suspension will keep things relatively soft. If a driver gets more aggressive and starts changing directions quickly, on a slalom course, for example, the system senses the change and instantly firms the suspension. The driver can also manually select one of two modes: Normal, for maximum ride comfort, and Sport, for the best handling response. We could immediately feel the suspension stiffen whenever the Sport button was pressed. There is noticeably less body roll in the Sport mode when going around corners.

Enthusiasts may want to opt for a coupe because it is the stiffest and therefore the best handling body style. We did notice some body shake in the Cabriolet, especially over bumps. The Cabriolet was also less stable on a race track, showing a tendency to shimmy under heavy braking. However, we found the Carrera 4S Cabriolet felt at least as good, if not better, than an Audi R8 and a BMW M3 sedan on a racetrack on the same day. The confident braking alone makes the 911 a wonderful track car.

We found it takes some time to get used to just how quickly the car slows. On racing circuits we often slow the car down too soon before getting to the turn-in point, repeatedly underestimating the available braking performance. Slam on the brakes and the 911 stops in less distance than just about any car on the road with very little nose dive. Do this again and again and again, whether lapping a road course or barreling down a mountain road, and there is no perceptible fade or increase in stopping distance, even in situations that would have the brakes on lesser cars smoking. And if you jerk the wheel in one direction or the other in one of those stops, the 911 will just turn. No fuss, no fluster.

The ceramic brakes work extremely well for track duty due to their resistance to heat. They are expensive, however, likely aren't as good when they're cold, and are unnecessary for all but serious weekend warriors. The ceramic brakes reduce unsprung weight by 40 pounds; if you don't know what that means you don't need them.

With variable ratio steering, the more the driver turns the steering wheel, the faster the car turns. Variable ratio steering is intended to deliver the best of two worlds. On one hand, it's supposed to ease maneuvering in the confines of a tight parking lot or improve response on a winding road with frequent sharp turns. On the other, it should improve stability at ultra-high speeds. A driver who sneezes during a 150-mph blitz down the Autobahn doesn't want a little twitch of the hand to send the car into the adjacent lane. Enthusiast drivers often don't like high-tech steering gizmos like variable-ratio steering. Yet Porsche's variable system works just fine. It's seamless, linear and predictable, and very satisfying.

Indeed, one of the most remarkable things about this car is the way it accurately follows the path the driver sets. With reasonable attention, a driver can put the 911's front tires within a fraction of an inch of the intended target, whether that target is the apex of a curve on a racetrack or a stripe painted on a public road. The 911 will track more accurately in this fashion, more consistently, than just about any car you can buy, and required steering corrections are minimal, even when a bump or pothole lies in the Carrera's path. Moreover, even with the variable-ratio, the 911's steering communicates every nuance back to the operator. When driving these cars on a racetrack, we were able to tell how close the front tires were to losing their grip by feedback through the steering column. Even the luxurious Turbo provides the driver with lots of feedback. The driver becomes one with the car and can more easily drive the 911 to its limits and slide it around turns. Grip is in abundance and the 911 tenaciously sticks to the pavement.

Yet the great thing about the 911 is that it doesn't beat you up in mundane driving situations. We tested this on the cratered streets of Detroit and Chicago and on bumpy roads around Los Angeles. It's part of what we call the 911's wash-and-wear quality. As high-performance cars go, the 911's ride is remarkably comfortable, with little suspension crashing and few jolts through the body of the car. The active suspension only enhances this quality. Even during aggressive drives, there's enough compliance in the suspension to keep the Carrera on track when it hits a bump that would send other sports cars off line and require steering corrections. Often, in the 911, the driver can simply hold the line around a bumpy turn without making any steering corrections. In a Boxster and in many other sports cars, we'd be sawing at the wheel to keep the car pointed.

You may recall tales of tail-happy handling from Porsche 911s, a function of the weight of the engine hanging off the back of the car. That's ancient history. It now takes work to get the Carrera's rear end to slide out. It prefers to stay on the intended trajectory, even if the driver provokes it with ham-handed inputs to gas pedal or steering wheel.

Even more stable is the all-wheel-drive Carrera 4 models, which employ a viscous-coupling to send from 5 to 40 percent of the driving force to the front wheels as needed. This is an advantage especially in bad weather, where you need all the grip you can get. However, the all-wheel-drive also improves handling on dry pavement, expanding the performance envelope.

The Turbo's all-wheel-drive can adjust the driving force from 0-100 percent at each of the four wheels, though this would only occur in extreme circumstances. It has an electronically controlled clutch at each wheel to control the distribution of power. The system uses Porsche Torque Vectoring, which applies braking pressure to the inside rear wheel in turns. Between the active all-wheel drive sending more power to the outside rear wheel and the torque vectoring clamping down on the inside wheel, the Turbo is very willing to rotate through turns.

The Turbo and the GT3 use active engine mounts, which use a magnetorheological (metal-impregnated) fluid to stiffen during performance driving to make the structure more solid and loosen during relaxed cruising to reduce vibration.

We had the opportunity to drive the Porsche 911 Turbo on the twisty roads of Portugal and on the road course at Circuito Estoril. In both instances, the Turbo proved to be at home. The car felt hunkered down in fast turns and it's easier to steer the car with the throttle. Likewise, even Europe's cobblestone streets didn't seem to upset the ride, surely a function of the active engine mounts. Put simply, the Turbo is an amazingly flexible car, able to excel during comfortable street duty or full-on racetrack driving.

In short, all 911s inspire great confidence. Behind the wheel, you're quite sure that with a reasonable dose of common sense, it will get you through the turn. It can make the average driver feel like a pro, and it can make drivers who like to work on their driving skills feel like Hans Stuck.

With the caveat that storage space is limited, the 911 remains one of the easiest high-performance sports cars to get in and out of, and the easiest to live with every day. The maximum oil-change interval for the Carrera is an almost unbelievable 20,000 miles. In 1975, a conscientious 911 owner would have changed the oil six or seven times in that period.

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