Story and photos by Laurance Yap
South Boston, Virginia – In the years that I’ve been driving, there have been two car brands that I’ve had a real affinity for: Honda, because I spent many of my formative driving hours behind the wheel of various VTEC’d front-drivers, and Porsche, because my first spin in a rear-engined 911 showed me just how broad the range of driving experiences really is.
Part of my affection for both these companies was fostered long before I started driving, however. Rather than misspending my youth the way most kids did, out on baseball fields or in arcades, I misspent it by being a couch-potato, watching McLaren-Hondas tear up the Formula One circuit and whale-tailed Porsches triumph again and again at Le Mans.
Both these companies have infused all of their road cars with motorsport heritage, and both have produced cars for the road that were thinly-veiled track cars designed for true driving extremists. A few years ago, my first go in an Acura Integra Type-R literally changed the way I thought about front-wheel-drive hatchbacks, and now this new Porsche 911 GT3, the first extremist naturally-aspirated model offered in North America, has forever redefined the way I will look at performance cars.
Regular readers will know that I’m already a bit of a 911 fanatic, but the GT3 is a 911 taken to a whole new level – despite its faintly familiar looks (the insane adjustable rear wing notwithstanding), it is more of a race car than a road car, with an intensity, a richness of experience, and a hard edge that no other 911, including the king-of-the-hill Turbo X50, can match. For those of you, like me, raised on front-drivers and insane Senna fanatics, think of it as a 911 Type-R and you won’t be far off.
Take its engine, for instance, a 3.6-litre flat-six that’s based not on the 320 horsepower motor installed in regular 911s, but rather the Le Mans-winning 911 GT1 racer. Fitted with lightened internals and dry-sump lubrication, Porsche’s trademark Variocam and Varioram valve-timing systems, and a sports exhaust that produces the raunchiest exhaust note this side of an unmuffled race car, it produces 380 horsepower and revs to an astonishing 8200 rpm. (A 100 horsepower plus/litre specific output and a redline that high were previously only attainable in high-strung Honda fours.) Power is channeled through a solid six-speed manual gearbox and a limited-slip differential without an electronic safety net; your right foot, and those monster 295/30ZR18 rear Michelin Pilot Sport N2 tires, are all the traction control you get.
Those massive rear tires, as large as the 911 Turbo’s, are packed into a standard-width 911 body for better maneuverability and agility on winding roads; the GT3’s suspension has been lowered by an inch and imbues the car with an aggressive, race-ready, weapons-grade stance. All four corners are adjustable to accommodate the variety of track and road uses this car will undoubtedly be used for, and the towering rear wing – which aids directional stability as well as downforce – has four different settings as well.
Inside, the GT3’s cabin is also suffused with track-type vibes. The standard seats have huge side and shoulder bolsters, the under-dash storage bin has been binned, and there are no rear seats. Dash and door trim is the shiny-ish plastic of standard 911s rather than the Turbo’s gorgeous stitched leather, and most of the car’s sound deadening has been removed, as well – even the glass is thinner in the pursuit of less mass (though the bigger engine, tires, and other equipment means the GT3 actually weighs fractionally more than a Carrera 2).
Strangely, while I find it pretty easy to criticize the interiors of regular 911s, with their swirly dash design and trim bits that would look cheap in cars half the price, the GT3’s stripped-out cabin has a much more purposeful air about it, and the no-nonsense arrangement of the controls, gauges, and other bits seems exactly in line with its purpose – and the removal of the console storage bin gives you more room to waggle your knees. If you’re looking for luxury for your $139,900, however, you’d better look elsewhere, like a $125,000 Carrera 4S, which shares the $170,000 Turbo’s full-leather interior.
See, the interior is so secondary to what the GT3 is all about. You get the sense that if Porsche could have just strapped your seat and four wheels to an engine, that’s what they would have done. The power delivery is just extraordinary, with a strong, torquey step-off that builds into a kidney-walloping midrange and a screaming top end that beckons you to the redline in every gear. Take the time to drop the windows in tunnels, as the noise is like nothing else: complex, metallic, and angry as only a race-bred motor can be. Then punch the rifle-bolt shifter into the next gear and repeat all over again. For those of you lucky enough to have actually driven a Type-R Integra hard, take that experience and double it, and you have a close approximation of the kind of punch the GT3 delivers.
That masterful motor so dominates the driving experience that it’s easy to forget that 911s have been as much about cornering, and especially braking, as straight-line speed. Fitted with the optional (and expensive at $11,000) Porsche Ceramic Composite Brake package, the car I drove had seemingly endless reserves of stopping power, superb pedal feel, and instant bite at the merest brush of the pedal. Despite the price, and a tendency to grind and squeal when not being used enthusiastically, the brake package is worth it for serious drivers, offering not only better performance, fade resistance and longevity – the stoppers will last the life of the car – but also reduces unsprung weight at each corner for better ride and handling.
Well, one out of two isn’t bad. With those huge tires and a suspension system that’s been honed and refined to perfection, the latest 911, once you get into the rhythm of setting it up properly by staying hard on the brakes well into corners, and then getting on the gas early and gradually on the way out, can circle a race circuit at sickening velocities – it is one of just three cars I’ve driven where I’ve managed to make myself nauseous while I was behind the wheel. The GT3 is challenging, involving, and always alive under your fingertips.
On Virginia International Raceway, the car’s launch venue, or any other track, there is no downside, the car tracking true to your steering inputs, the seats and wheel and pedals feeding back minute details of the road surface, the millimetrically-accurate controls making it easy to maintain impossibly high speeds. On public roads, however, whose surfaces are more variegated than the billiard-smooth pavement of racetracks, the GT3’s ultra-stiff suspension has a tendency to crash over bumps and ruts, and expansion joints taken at more mundane road speeds can induce some scary banging sounds. To its credit, the Porsche never feels anything other than rock-solid, able to take any kind of abuse – and its reactions to pavement irregularities get better the faster you go. Just be careful turning into and out of steep driveways.
There will be drivers out there who will probably consider the GT3 to simply be too extreme, a car that’s only suited for weekend cobweb-clearing blasts through the countryside and at the occasional track day. To them I say phooey. Stiff ride and road noise at speed aside (you quickly learn to live with them), it’s a perfectly useable road car, with plenty of storage (largely thanks to the removal of the rear seats), comfortable accommodations, and controls whose very race-honed precision make them a doodle to dawdle with. Despite the engine’s racing pedigree, it’s a pussycat in town, able to surf its 285 lb-ft of torque in the high gears and flexible enough to pull from 1500 rpm.
Besides, if you really want extreme, the European magazines have recently been running official pictures of an even crazier 911 variant called the GT3 RS. With a bit more power, a lot less weight (thanks to the removal of the air conditioning, stereo, and other equipment), it is the car that will be the real track-nutter 911, the one that rich owners will buy exclusively for track days, racing, and other high-speed pursuits. Like the original Integra Type-R, it will only come in white, and the only options will be whether you want classic blue or red stripes down the side. Unfortunately, it won’t be coming to North America.
Still, I’m not complaining. Right here, right now, the new GT3 is my new favourite car, a teardrop-shaped, two-seated bullet capable of delivering the most concentrated hit of driving pleasure I’ve ever experienced, including in faster, more expensive 911 models. In my admittedly-limited automotive pantheon, one defined by less than a decade of driving, it is, without dispute, this year’s blockbuster, and the best motion picture. It is the terminator and the lord of the wings.
And deliveries will be starting this fall, just in time for my birthday.