September 26, 2006
It’s kind of deceptive, looking at this Porsche Carrera. In general terms, if not in the details, it looks pretty much like every other 911; they’ve been making them for over forty years. It has the same teardrop shape (albeit bigger than the original), circular headlights, longish overhangs, and wide shoulders. It has an upright windshield behind which sits an upright driver’s seat, and a small pair of back seats that are almost useless for adults but quite handy as a parcel shelf or a place for small children to ride.
Fire it up and it even sounds like an old 911 – more so even than the previous-generation model did. Though a new 911 (I tested a 2006 Carrera S) is a water-cooled car, they’ve somehow managed to bring that air-cooled sound back. It grumbles on start-up, settles into a chattery mechanical idle, and sounds like a buzz saw when you rev it up. Order the sports exhaust, and the air-cooled sound becomes even more obvious when you press the "sport" button on the dashboard. It opens up a flap in the muffler that cranks up the noise quotient significantly. Push the button again and the noise recedes but never quite goes away.
See, that’s the thing about this car. It may look kind of old – and its looks may tug at the same heartstrings that the earlier models did back when you were growing up – but the 911 is a thoroughly modern car. In terms of technological innovation, gadget factor, and electronic content, it’s right up there with every other car in its price range. It just doesn’t look that way.
Take, for instance, the engine. While it may sound like a 1960s air-cooled six, it features variable valve timing and the latest engine electronics and produces impressive power (355 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque) while maintaining Low Emissions Vehicle status, and also managing family-car fuel economy. It’s also amazingly flexible: you can choose pretty much any one of the six gears in any driving condition and be assured that the car will accelerate cleanly and rapidly – whether that’s 40 km/h in sixth or 90 km/h in second. That’s not something you could have done even ten years ago, but something which modern electronics makes simple.
Electronics are also behind the drivetrain’s dual personality. Order the optional Sport Chrono package, and you get a switch on the dash that allows you to adjust the car’s throttle response (this is the same switch that opens the flap in the exhaust). If you’re in commuting mode, the slightly slower response makes the 911 easier to drive smoothly in town, something it was always good at anyway; engage the more aggressive setting for winding roads or the racetrack, and you get instantaneous responses and more performance. Porsche claims that a 911 in Sport mode is actually a couple of seconds faster around the Nurburgring racetrack.
In the Carrera S, a dual-personality suspension also comes standard, with switchable shock absorbers letting you adjust the car’s ride/handling compromise up to a point. In standard mode, the S rides smoother than a regular Carrera on steel springs, while it’s significantly stiffer – almost as stiff as the old GT3, the company claims – when the more aggressive setting is engaged. The wrinkle here is that the car’s suspension is constantly reading what you’re doing, and what the car is up to: when it senses you’re attacking corners at high speeds, it automatically switches to the stiffer mode, even if you don’t push the button. So really, leaving it in the regular setting gives you the best of both worlds.
The march of technology has made the 911 an easy, friendly car to drive despite its high performance. The brakes are among the best in the business and abetted by four-channel ABS. For even better stopping power, the company offers a carbon-ceramic brake system (priced at a mind-blowing $11,800). Its real advantage is not the superior life of the pads and discs, but much less unsprung weight at each corner of the car. Porsche’s stability control system, PSM, now comes standard, and helps to correct slides that would otherwise have the car careening out of control; its intervention is now more subtle than ever thanks to improved programming. You can turn PSM off to have some fun, but it remains at the ready; should you stab the brake pedal in the middle of a corner, it springs back to life to save you from a spin.
High-tech has made the 911’s interior a much more hospitable place than it once was. Big-bucks buyers are no longer forced to compromise on feature content or gadget factor when they buy a Porsche: every conceivable toy, from satellite navigation to cell-phone integration to Bose audio and even seats whose side bolsters pump up in tight corners, is now available, albeit at often-inflated prices. The 911 is now pretty luxurious: fitted with the optional terra cotta interior package, my tester had leather almost everywhere you looked, including on the dash top; attractive aluminized trim graced the doors, dashboard, and even the spring-out cupholders.
One could argue, of course – and with no small amount of justification – that all this innovation is lost on a car with such rear-biased weight distribution. Arguably, all the other flaws have been fixed, but the car’s major one remains. Certainly, there’s some truth to that point of view; Porsche’s own Cayman shows just how much better a mid-engined layout can be. In pure driving terms, it’s a better car than the 911, with sharper turn-in, better balance, and higher cornering speeds. Plus, it rides a lot better on rough roads; the rear doesn’t need to be nearly as stiff to hold up the weight behind the rear axle. It also has more trunk space – but no rear seats.
Porsche purists would argue that the 911’s rear-engined format – and the attendant adaptation that drivers need to make for it – is what the car is all about. To drive it hard and fast at the limit of adhesion is still a challenge, and for those who mange to get it right, is a bigger reward because of the difficulty. It’s a twisted way of looking at things, but after a few days behind the wheel, it’s pretty easy to convince yourself that there’s something to what they are saying.
It was interesting to me, walking the halls at the Detroit auto show in January, how many cars were being re-released. Dodge introduced a retro-nouveau Challenger; Ford brought back the Shelby name with the GT500. Chevy introduced the Camaro. All cars with evocative shapes, sounds, and emotional connections like the 911, but also cars that had, at some point, either disappeared or lost their way. Perhaps the key to the Porsche’s success is that they have always somehow managed to make it better, keeping up with the times without throwing away what it knows its customers cherish the most. It’s a brand-new car that you feel like you’ve known forever.
No matter how much technology they pack into it, no matter how advanced it eventually becomes, a 911 will only ever be a 911 if the engine’s out in the rear and the headlights are round and the body is shaped like, oh, the teardrop you shed when you have to hand back the keys.
Pricing: 2006 Porsche 911 Carrera S
Base price: $119,000
Options: $ 17,400
(Metallic paint, $1,150; special leather terra cotta interior, $5,290; floor mats, $160; power seat package, $2,170; self dimming mirrors, $540; heated front seats, $680;Ê19" sport design wheels, $550;Êwheel caps with coloured crests,$260; sport chrono package plus, $1,290; bose high end sound package, $1,950; sport exhaust system, $3,360)
Freight $ 1,085
A/C tax $ 100
Price as tested $137,585
Manufacturer’s web site