Wednesday
Jan272010

Test Drive: Porsche 911 Carrera S with PDK

The Porsche 911 has to be the single most recognizable car model in the world. Ferrari may have more widespread brand awareness even in obscure countries, but there are probably more people that recognize the “911” model designation than those that identify “F430” or a “599 GTB” as Ferrari’s. Porsche has used the 911 moniker since the car was introduced over four decades ago and has stayed incredibly consistent with its overall design and layout. It’s clear when comparing a modern 911 to a 30-40 year old 911 that they’re the same model from the same car company.

Porsche has also made the 911 famous through racing, as it’s the single most popular model that has been raced over the last few decades and they’re on tracks everywhere, from Porsche Club of America racing through ALMS and everywhere in between. In 2009, Porsche’s won championships in ALMS, World Challenge and Grand Am here in the U.S., often against higher-horsepower cars or more “purpose-built” racing machinery that has little connection to their street car counterparts, which the 911 certainly does.

The 911 comes in several different iterations, but one of our favorites is the 911 Carrera S. In comparison to the standard model’s 345hp and 288 lb-ft of torque, the S model generates 385hp and 310 lb-ft of torque thanks primarily to a bump in displacement from 3.6 to 3.8 liters for the flat six. Our test car had the new PDK dual-clutch gearbox, a $4,080 option that we were anxious to try out. Other highlights from the lengthy list of options fitted on our test car included full leather ($3,655), power comfort seats with driver memory ($1,550), and Navigation ($2,110), driving the sticker price to $106,730. Some luxury options are nice to have, but we prefer sticking to options that enhance performance.
 
Inside, the 911 is instantly recognizable as a Porsche, though the ergonomics have gotten much better than they were on 911’s of years past. The tach is front and center in the driver’s view through the steering wheel and is flanked by the speedo, along with gauges for water temp and fuel, oil temp and oil pressure. The cluster with the fuel and water temp gauges also has a display for the PDK transmission that shows the gear selected, and if it’s in automatic (D) or manual (M) mode. The gear lever on the center console has the usual P-R-N-D options, with manual mode accessed by sliding the lever to the left when in D. Manual shifts can then be made by pushing the lever forward to upshift or pulling back to downshift.
 
Manual shifts can also be activated through the use of the toggle switches on the steering wheel, which you push forward to upshift or backward to downshift. We found shifting with the wheel-mounted controls to be easiest by having your hands in the proper 3 and 9’clock positions while applying pressure forward or backward with the inside of the thumb to shift. This worked better than we thought it would, but we vastly prefer arrangements that have one paddle exclusively for upshifting and one for downshifting. We’re surprised that Porsche went with the setup they did when similar systems have been disdained by the motoring press. We’ve already seen some aftermarket paddles for PDK-equipped models on the market, and we would be quick to buy a set, particularly if track days were on the agenda.

One of the ergonomic advantages of the PDK transmission is that it makes driving easier for tall drivers. The 911 is OK when it comes to headroom, but there isn’t much space between the right side of the steering wheel and the center console for heel-toe downshifting if you have long legs. This isn’t an issue with PDK, as the computer will blip the throttle for you – no lift and twist of the leg required. Continuing with some thoughts on the interior, it’s nice to have cupholders that fold away to hide within the dash, but they’re flimsy when in use and must be manually closed to their narrowest opening before folding away. Also, the window switches require an awkward twist of the wrist to operate, but we’re not sure where else Porsche would put them. On the plus side, the seats are very supportive, we liked the Alcantara headliner, and luggage space in the front trunk area is good enough for stowing a few soft bags. We also appreciated the extra storage space that’s hidden under the door armrests.

A dual-clutch transmission may not be as involving as a manual transmission, but there’s something to be said for being able to concentrate on braking and steering inputs and not having to worry about working the clutch. Aside from the benefit of being quicker on the track, the advantage of having a dual-clutch transmission is very apparent when you spend a week driving the car daily on all kinds of roads in all kinds of traffic conditions. PDK works great in both manual and automatic modes and we appreciated the ability to just put it in “D” when in traffic. We found after putting some miles on the car that we preferred using the gear lever for manual shifting instead of the steering wheel toggles, as it was more intuitive.

The 911 “S” models come with Porsche’s PASM (Porsche Active Suspension Management) system as standard equipment. The car sits 10mm lower with PASM and allows two suspension modes with “Normal” and “Sport,” both of which tune the firmness of the dampers to respond to the road surface, though the Sport mode always has a setup that’s more firm than the Normal setting. In Normal mode, the car still has what most people would call a firm ride. It does a good job of complying with most road imperfections, though even in Normal mode the rear end does tend to hop around too much if you hit bumps when accelerating through corners. Our test car also had Sport Chrono Package Plus, which not only includes the timer fitted to the top of the dash but also allows control over engine management to allow faster throttle response and quicker gear changes, by pushing the “Sport” button on the console (which will also put the PASM suspension in Sport mode). Sport Chrono Package Plus also has a “Sport+” mode, which Porsche refers to in the owners guide as a “motorsport-derived gearshift strategy.”

It took some time behind the wheel to get used to the various setups you could choose between PASM and the Sport Chrono Plus Package and trying to remember how the two systems affected each other. After many miles in the car, we found that the Sport setting gave the best overall performance in throttle response, gear changes and steering response, whether driving in automatic mode or in manual shift mode. Porsche was right to call the Sport+ mode “motorsport-derived,” as its very aggressive – too much so for normal road driving. In fact, the throttle response is so aggressive in Sport+ mode that we’re guessing most drivers wouldn’t even like it on the race track. We also found that the transmission works much better in automatic mode while in the Sport setting, as it shifts more precisely than when in the Normal setting, which is more leisurely.
 
We know that many enthusiast drivers don’t like the idea of a transmission that does the shifting for you, but PDK works so well that we encourage prospective buyers to try it before ruling it out, particularly if you plan to do a lot of normal driving in the car and live in an urban area with traffic jams and gridlock. Overall, the 911 S ranks as one of the world’s great sports cars – a ranking that we would also give any of the other 911 models. It has great power, great steering feel, excellent braking ability and a high  level of grip when pushing hard on twisty roads, though it’s still best to take the “slow in, fast out” approach when tackling corners in this car. Once the car takes a set, you can ease on the throttle and revel in the thrust coming out of the corner, with the weight over the rear tires helping to put all that power down to the road. The power, feel and sound of the car are uniquely Porsche, which is what makes it such a great car, as its forebears have been for decades.

More info: www.porsche.com

MSRP (with PDK) $92,880
Engine 3.8-liter flat six
Power 385hp @
Torque 310 lb-ft @4,400rpm
Top track speed 186mph
0-60 4.3 seconds
Brakes 4-piston monobloc fixed alloy calipers with vented discs
Curb weight (with PDK) 3,219 lbs.
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