Sunday
Jul292012

Test Drive: 2012 Porsche 911 Carrera S

It can’t be easy being a member of the 911 engineering and design teams at Porsche, as with each successive generation they have to balance the demands of hardcore enthusiast buyers that rank performance as their number one priority with the other group of buyers that want more comfort and fuel economy, all while retaining the classic 911 look and feel. No, I don’t envy the job, but it sure is fun driving the cars to see how they’re doing. With the new 991 generation of the 911, Porsche made some big changes to the iconic model, by making it longer and more comfortable inside, as well as switching to a new electronic steering rack. To see how it stacks up, we spent a week in a 911 Carrera S, including laps at Monticello Motor Club where we had a pro get behind the wheel.

Even though its 2.2-inches longer overall and 2-inches wider, the new car is instantly recognizable as a911. You could still park the 1963 original next to the new car and know without a shadow of doubt that they’re the same model from the same manufacturer. It still has the same teardrop shape, still has a rear-mounted flat-six, still has the key on the left side of the steering column and still sounds like a Porsche when you fire it up. The 911 Carrera S is powered by a 3.8-liter flat six, which features all the latest Porsche technology including VarioCam variable valve timing and makes 400hp and 287 lb-ft of torque. 911’s have never had much to look at under the engine cover, but you really can’t see anything of the new engine, besides a pair of fans and a couple of caps for fluids. If the $100K Carrera S is out of your price range, Porsche also offers the base 911 Carrera starting at $82,100, which has a smaller 3.4-liter flat six and makes 350hp.

Most of the noticeable cosmetic changes from the last generation 997 model are on the inside. With the wheelbase stretched by 3.9-inches and the added width, the 911 has more room inside than ever before and has a dash design that is reminiscent of its big brother, the Panamera. At 6’5”, I approve of the added cockpit space. In past 911’s, my hands would bump into my knees when turning the steering wheel, but that’s no longer an issue with the new car, and there’s more headroom for a helmet as well. Our car had Porsche’s PDK dual-clutch transmission, but Porsche still insists on using awkward tabs that are pushed for upshifts and pulled for downshifts. We would much prefer having one paddle to pull for downshifts and one for upshifts, which is much more intuitive. Porsche actually has an optional SportDesign steering wheel with this paddle arrangement, but we think it should be standard on any car with PDK. Our test car also had Porsche’s optional Sport Chrono package ($1,850), which features a Sport Plus button for improved throttle response and looser traction control parameters, dynamic engine mounts that help to reduce vibration from the engine and drivetrain, and an analog and digital stopwatch that’s mounted on top of the dash.

Most 911’s will spend all of their time on public roads, and the new 911 Carrera S makes a fantastic road car. It’s comfortable enough to take on a long trip (for two anyway, and don’t bring much luggage!), butcan go into attack mode when you get it on twisty back roads. The engine pulls strong and hard, the exhaust sound is fantastic, and the suspension does a nice job of soaking up road irregularities while delivering great balance. There’s still that classic 911 feel that lends itself to a “slow in, fast out” driving style, but with the changes Porsche has made to the new car (most notably the wider track), the 911 is now livelier with more front end grip on turn-in and feels a little more like the mid-engined Cayman. The suspension works perfectly fine in the standard mode for most driving and that’s how we left it most of the time, though we did occasionally turn it up a notch to the Sport setting on smooth twisty roads. The Sport+ mode is there too, but we found that a little too edgy for road driving and weren’t that crazy about it at the track either, but more on that in a minute.

The PDK gearbox works really well on the road, but we found it best to leave the car in manual mode for everything but interstate or stop and go driving. In full automatic mode, PDK moves up to the highest gear settings as soon as it possibly can in order to get better fuel economy. There’s nothing wrong with this, but you’ll find yourself ambling along in sixth or seventh gear at 50mph, which is not exactly sporting. For most of the time we had it, we were driving it in manual mode all the time, and using the gear lever a lot more than the push-pull tabs on the wheel for shifting. Thankfully, the gear lever has a nice short movement as well as a bit of a weighty feel to it and was much more satisfying and intuitive to use than the tabs – you just have to take a hand off the wheel to use it.

After spending a few days experiencing this new 911 on the road, we headed to Monticello Motor Club in Monticello, New York for an afternoon at the track. Meeting us there was Nick Longhi, who along with Matt Plumb has won four races in the Rum Bum Racing Porsche 911 in the Continental Challenge series this year. Nick is one of the best there is when it comes to car setup and race car engineering, so we were anxious to get his views on the new Carrera S. After his first session, he found the car to his liking. “The engine is great – it feels like a classic flat-six Porsche, which is the way it should be, and it also sounds great,” he said. “It has a pretty significant amount of power. I was catching up to a race-prepared Cayman down the straights. You can still make the car rotate, but on the throttle the car has some benign understeer, which is what you want in a road car.”

One thing that was a bit of a surprise with the Carrera S is that it felt better on the track in standard mode than in Sport or Sport+, and the transmission was also surprisingly good in full automatic mode. “There’s a lot of different settings you can choose for driving, but for me the way I liked it the best was in standard mode with the gearbox in automatic mode,” continue Longhi. “The standard suspension setting felt really good out on the track, and it’s pretty clear that Porsche has done a lot of work with integrating the chassis, the gearbox and the engine management to work together in standard mode. I didn’t go any faster with the car in all the highest settings on than I did with them off, and I thought that was interesting. It’s a pretty safe car too, as the traction control kept in in the range it needed to be in to control the car.”

I was naturally doing my laps in Sport and Sport+ mode with manual shifting, and was a little surprised when Nick told me to try it out in full automatic mode with the softer suspension setting, but he was right. The car felt more balanced and predictable in standard suspension mode, and the PDK was shifting exactly where it should in full automatic mode, which was a big change from the way it worked on the road. It’s as if the car’s brain knows exactly what kind of driving you’re trying to do once you get to the track and adjusts itself accordingly and as Longhi said, Porsche has done a very good job with integrating the systems in the car. We were also impressed with the electronically assisted steering rack in the new 911. While it doesn’t deliver the feel of a good hydraulic rack, it comes closer to that ideal than any other performance car with electric steering that I’ve driven so far. One option we would check off if we were buying this car and knew track days were in the plan is the Sport Plus seats ($800), which give a little more lateral support than the stock seats.

Overall, the new 911 Carrera S is one of the best all-around sports car we’ve driven. It’s civilized,comfortable and gets decent fuel economy as an everyday road car, but also has the performance on call when you need it and is competent enough to handle the occasional track day in stock form. “To me, the 911 has always had what I call divine proportions,” concludes Nick Longhi. “It’s exactly the size a sportscar should be and you get a really good sense of where you’re sitting in relation to the wheelbase. A lot of cars aren’t like that and I’m glad Porsche didn’t go a long way off that with the new car. Porsche has just taken that formula and made it more civilized.”

More info: www.porsche.com

 


MSRP

$100,480 with PDK transmission

$96,400 with manual transmission

Engine

3.8-liter horizontally opposed six-cylinder with VarioCam Plus variable intake valve timing and lift

Power

400hp @ 7,400rpm

Torque

325 lb-ft

0-60mph

4.1 seconds (3.9 seconds Sport Plus)

Transmission

7-speed PDK dual-clutch (7-speed manual also available)

Suspension

McPherson strut front, multi-link rear

Brakes

Front: 13.39-inch vented/cross-drilled discs with six-piston calipers

Rear: 12.99-inch vented/cross-drilled discs/four-piston calipers

Fuel economy

19 city / 26 highway

Curb weight

3,120 lbs.

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