2003 Porsche 911 Targa
Click image to enlarge

By Haney Louka
Photos by Laurance Yap

This old dog learns new tricks all the time. While the 911 label has been affixed to various Porsche cars since 1963, Porsche has been diligently updating its flagship sports car so that it stays firmly in its place as a performance icon.

The most significant change to the 911 model range in recent history is the introduction of the water-cooled versions in 1997, code-named 996. In addition to more powerful engines across the board, suspension refinements and a new body style found their home in the new 911.

2002 saw the introduction of two new 911 models. The Carrera 4S offers a naturally aspirated all wheel drive model dressed in Turbo clothing. The Targa, the subject of this review, is essentially a Carrera Coupe that’s been endowed with a retractable glass roof that was first introduced on the 1996 Targa.

My tester wore a base price of $109,000, and carried a healthy list of options: 18-inch alloys, Advanced Technic Package (more later), comfort package (power seats with memory), heated leather seats, Porsche Stability Management, and more for an as-tested price in the neighbourhood of $122,000, give or take.

Slick Targa mechanism

2003 Porsche 911 Targa
Click image to enlarge

Since 1966, all 911s endowed with the “Targa” moniker have represented an open-roofed version of the coupe-with the end result being somewhere between a coupe and a cabriolet. What started with a simple removable panel has since evolved into a unique power-operated retractable roof-essentially an oversized sunroof-that slides beneath the rear hatch window.

A dash-mounted switch operates two electric motors that slide the roof panel rearward. There’s also a one-touch power-operated sunshade that extends forward from the rear edge of the roof panel to keep the sun out during hot days. Once the roof panel is open, though, I had to make sure the shade was out of the way. Even without the shade, looking in the rear-view mirror through both panes of glass revealed a fuzzy-at-best rendition of what lurked behind.

The only thing that really concerned me about the Targa’s otherwise slick roof system is that when opened, the rear edge of the panel (that presumably houses the various motors and the retracted sunshade) cuts off the bottom third of the already-compromised view out back.

To avoid damage to the roof panel, the hatch release is not operational unless the roof panel is fully in its forward position.

Premium sound

The optional $4,500 Advanced Technic Package sound system in the Targa (it’s standard on the Turbo, by the way) is nothing short of phenomenal. Manufactured by Bose specifically for the 911 line, it incorporates no less than 11 speakers distributed throughout the interior: four in the dash, one in each door, two in each of the rear quarter panels, and a subwoofer nestled beside the passenger footwell that’s sure to keep occupants’ feet moving.

A two-state amplifier system incorporates a single 100-watt switching amplifier in addition to five-25 watt linear units. The system also makes use of Bose’s “AudioPilot” system, which uses a microphone to detect cockpit noise and adjusts audio output accordingly.

Going & stopping – and staying in control

Targas (as are all current 911s) are propelled from way back behind the rear axle of the car, where a water-cooled, flat-six engine resides. In the Targa, the non-turbocharged engine displaces 3,596 cc and produces 320 horsepower at 6,800 rpm and 273 lb-ft of torque at 3,250 rpm. That’s up 20 ponies and 15 lb-ft from last year, partially thanks to a 4.8-mm increase in cylinder stroke.

But, as we all know, size isn’t everything. And Porsche’s designers have imbued their boxer motor with the latest technology to make the specific output of this naturally aspirated motor a healthy 89 horsepower per litre.

Engine construction is of the aluminum block and head design, with high-silicon cylinder liners for reduced friction. This allows oil change intervals to stretch to 24,000 km – and the filter only has to be changed every second oil change.

The broad torque curve-over which I will gush later-is a result of Porsche’s version of variable valve timing, called “VarioCam Plus.” This system, first seen on the Turbo, continuously adjusts valve timing by varying the position of the camshaft. It also includes two separate cam profiles that vary valve lift and duration. That, and the dual-stage air intake system, allows the Targa’s motor to develop a minimum of 236 lb-ft of torque between 2,500 and 7,000 rpm.

The Targa gives up a traditional throttle cable in favour of an electronic drive-by-wire system that transmits right-foot intentions to the engine control unit.

Power is transferred a short distance to the rear wheels through a six-speed manual gearbox, although a five-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission is optional.

But what goes like snot must be able to stop just as well. In the Targa’s case, the four-wheel vented discs are up to this intimidating challenge. The rotors measure 12.5 inches in front and 11.8 inches out back and are vented and cross-drilled to resist fading from repeated high-speed stops.

My tester was equipped with Porsche Stability Management (PSM) to make sure all of that performance potential is kept in check. Like other stability management systems, PSM will detect any discrepancy between the driver’s inputs and the car’s direction of movement or rotation. Once this difference is detected, PSM applies brake pressure at individual wheels to help restore control. It can also reduce engine power if the driver is in more serious doo-doo.

PSM can be defeated via a dash-mounted button, but it automatically re-engages under braking for safety’s sake. And in my short week in the Targa, I thought it best just to leave that safety net engaged for the duration.

2003 Porsche 911 Targa
Click image to enlarge

Outside & in

The new shape is more slippery than the old one, although it’s instantly recognizable as a 911. The main styling criticism that accompanied the introduction of the 996 is that it looked way too much like the less expensive Boxster when viewed head on. The Turbo model was the only one to have a slightly different headlight shape to differentiate it, but for 2002 the Turbo look has been adopted across the 996 lineup.

The Targa’s body, while flared at the fenders to accommodate its beefy 285/30 ZR-18 rear tires, isn’t as radically shaped as that of the Carrera 4S and isn’t quite as intimidating as a result. Still, it’s a beautiful shape that has truly stood the test of time.

The retractable rear wing of the Targa, programmed to extend at a speed of 125 km/h, is a functional masterpiece, although I can’t help but prefer the look of the fixed wings found on the Turbo and GT2 models.

Inside, Porschephiles will be happy to see that the Targa is all business. In similar fashion as the less expensive Boxster, many of my passengers found the interior to be less than they expected. In a day when other European brands are taking painstaking measures to bring style and luxury to their passenger compartments, Porsche designers are concentrating on making their interiors as intuitive and driver-oriented as possible. As a result, flashiness takes a back seat to functionality, which is consistent with the purebred purpose of the 911.

To that end, everything is where it should be. The 8,000-rpm tachometer is mounted front-and-centre in the instrument panel and all controls fall easily to hand. The comprehensive gauge cluster includes the usual speed/tach/fuel/temp group plus battery voltage and oil pressure. There’s even an oil level display if the ignition is left on without starting the engine.

The cup holders might as well not be there in this car, as they’re placed above the stereo. As long as hot coffee flows down hill, I don’t use cupholders that are placed above expensive electronics. And while I’m carping, I can’t help but make mention of the dedicated cassette storage below the stereo. What is this, 1985? I’m guessing the Europeans aren’t as hooked on CDs as we North Americans are. But since everything else north of $20K comes with a standard CD player, the cassette head unit and storage slots are sorely out of place.

The cubbyhole just forward of the centre console proved to be truly useful indeed, though. It’s at enough of an angle and lined with a grippy enough surface to keep small objects from being flung around the Targa’s interior. And in a car with this much performance, that’s very important.

I was disappointed not to see a rear wiper on my test vehicle, but I did manage to find one on the options list.

2003 Porsche 911 Targa

2003 Porsche 911 Targa
Click image to enlarge

The driving experience

The 911 is more of a pure sports car than its XKR and SL competition, and more in line with the NSX and Viper in terms of its ride/handling balance being heavily biased toward the latter. It’s also a relative lightweight, at 1,415 kg, an enviable trait that heavier competition can not compensate for, no matter how much technology is packed into them.

The first thing I noticed once I dropped my keister into the 911’s left seat is how high the Targa’s cowl is. It’s almost a bathtub-type feeling, where the driver looks up and out to see what’s going on outside.

Now I’m not going to start writing about how well the Targa handles at its limits and whether the tail end is easy to bring back in once it breaks loose because, well, I drove this car on public roads. And on public roads, the 911 is nowhere near its handling limits, even if the posted limit is exceeded ever so slightly.

But I can explain how tractable and comfortable this 320-hp supercar is during the daily commute. It’s a car that can be driven day in and day out without complaint from either the car or its driver. The ride is firm, to be sure, but it’s still far from punishing. And saying that about a performance car after driving it over Winnipeg’s, um, immaculately maintained roads is high praise indeed.

With its tall gearing, the Targa is capable of about 70 km/h in first gear and 120 in second. I won’t go on about the other gears, but use your imagination. Gearing this tall only works well when the engine that sends it power is as flexible as the Targa’s. Accelerate out of a tight corner or U-turn in second gear, and it pulls smoothly and strongly from below 1,000 rpm.

Shifting laziness such as this is highly unlikely, though, because the Targa’s six-speed shifter is a joy to exercise. Throws between gears are short and direct, and there’s no rubberiness or notchiness to get in the way of snicking from gear to gear, just pure, unadulterated shifting joy.

Other primary controls in the Targa are appropriately firm and require relatively high effort. The steering rewards this effort with plenty of feedback that magically translates road conditions into understandable terms. The brake pedal is firm but easily modulated and incredibly confidence inspiring. And the clutch, while also firm, is quite smooth in its take-up and doesn’t cause the car to lurch or bog if the left foot is less than coordinated.

As I expected, body motions are extremely well controlled. Roll during cornering, squat during acceleration, and dive during braking are all in the “negligible” category. There are absolutely no quirks or faults in the Targa to dilute the driving experience.

Response to throttle inputs from the drive-by-wire system is second to none. Intuitive blips of the throttle for downshifts are a piece of cake, and pedal placement makes heel-and-toe shifting quite manageable.

To sum it up

Whether a $120,000 car is a good value or not is irrelevant. Value is one of the most subjective concepts to evaluate in an automobile, and varies significantly with each individual that judges it. But in the realm of the high performance machines listed below, the 911 offers legendary heritage, world-class performance, and iconic styling that truly makes it a value for those affluent enough to consider it. And with the possible exception of the BMW, it may just have the best combination of comfort and performance on the market today.

Shopping around

  • Acura NSX
  • BMW M3
  • Chevrolet Corvette
  • Dodge Viper SRT-10
  • Jaguar XKR
  • Mercedes-Benz SL500
  • Maserati 3200 GT

Technical data: 2003 Porsche 911 Targa

Base price $109,000
Price as tested $122,000 (estimated)
Type 2+2 passenger, 2-door sport coupe
Layout rear engine, rear wheel drive
Engine 3.6 litre horizontally-opposed six, DOHC, 24 valves
Horsepower 320 @ 6800 rpm
Torque 273 lb-ft. @ 4250 rpm
Fuel premium
Transmission 6-speed manual
Curb weight 1415 kg (3114 lb.)
Wheelbase 2350 mm (92.6 in.)
Length 4430 mm (174.5 in.)
Height 1305 mm (51.4 in.)
Fuel consumption City: 13.3 L/100 km (18 mpg)
  Hwy: 8.3 L/100 km (26 mpg)
Warranty 4 yrs/80,000 km

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