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Review and photos by Laurance Yap
Expectation can be a dangerous thing.
Ever since driving god Walter Rohrl blasted the first Carrera GT concept car along rain-soaked streets the night before the 2000 Paris auto show, I’ve wanted to drive one. For a good year and a half, I had one as a desktop background on my PowerBook; there’s been a photo of one on my wall, I’ve got German videos of it on my shelf, and at last year’s Detroit show, I even managed to weasel my way into the driver’s seat of the show car just to get closer to it. Needless to say, in that time I’d also been chewing Porsche’s ear off about getting a drive in it.
I mean, how could a car of its specs NOT be absolutely mind-blowing? The Carrera GT is a true race car for the road, its body and engine based on the car that Porsche was going to contest the Le Mans 24-hour race in before they went and changed the regulations, thus making it illegal. Its engine, a 5.7-litre V10 producing a staggering 604 horsepower in North American spec, revs to a stratospheric 8000 rpm. That would be impressive in any car, but what’s more important about the GT is how it’s installed in car that’s lighter than an already stupendously-fast 911 turbo.
As you would expect for its $445,000 U.S. price (there is no Canadian list price), the GT has a pure race-car structure – cut and layered and baked and folded out of super-light carbon-fibre. What you might not expect is that its engine sits in a similarly-constructed cradle, the first of its kind installed in a road car. The cradle and the engine sit incredibly close to the ground thanks to a ceramic-composite clutch that’s orders of magnitude smaller than any normal clutch, thanks to its unique construction. The silicon-carbide brakes are light enough to heft in one hand. Even the cabin’s centre console is constructed of magnesium to save weight. All the ingredients are here for a car that, for even some pretty serious and well-heeled enthusiasts, is set to rewrite every notion of what you thought “fast” means.
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Which it does, even more comprehensively than you could imagine. With the traction control struggling to control the wheelspin – that clutch takes a bit of getting used to, working better when you let it out with no throttle to get rolling – the GT blasts to 100 km/h in less than four seconds. But what’s most impressive is how the speed just keeps on coming. On the back straight at Mosport, even really powerful cars reach a point where the rush starts to tail off just a bit, where you can sense the engine just beginning to lose its battle with wind resistance and friction. Not in the GT. It seems to accelerate as quickly between 100 km/h and 200 km/h as it does from 0 to 100, and if my courage and the road hadn’t run out, I’m sure it would go from 200 to 300 equally quickly (top speed is an astonishing 320 km/h). All this fury is accompanied by a sound like no other car I’ve ever driven, a piercing, throbbing buzz-saw dentist’s-drill wail that sounds like the entire grid of a Formula 1 race is coming up behind you.
As if the speed – or when you’re on the road, trying to keep the speed in check – isn’t enough, the rest of the GT verges on sensory overload as well. It’s as if the whole car is buzzing with some weird life-force – as if it’s alive. (Or, maybe, it’s just you, quaking in your Bruno Maglis at the thought of how much that speeding ticket is going to cost.) The steering rack, which is lifted straight from the 911 – no complaints there, as it’s the best steering in the world – constantly feeds your fingers messages about what’s going on at ground level. The birch-wood-topped shifter – no fancy paddles in this car – quivers with anticipation when your hand makes the tiny reach over from the wheel to grab the next gear. The brakes have immediate bite with even the lightest brush of the pedal, but they’re so incredibly sensitive that you can flex your little toe to modulate them precisely. Even the seats – one-piece leather buckets with huge bolsters and carbon-fibre frames – play an integral communicative role, telling your backside exactly what the rear tires are up to.
With all this, do you really need a high-end stereo with Bose speakers? No wonder its controls are so tiny, and so far away at the top of the dash.
Thanks to its wind-sculpted body, active aerodynamics (the rear wing is “retractable” at 130 km/h, not “deployable”, which says something about the speeds this car is intended to be driven at), and massive specially-developed 19-inch Michelin Pilot Sport tires, the Carrera GT is a remarkably easy car to drive remarkably fast. The faster you go, actually, the better it seems to get, as the underbody venturi ducts suck it to the ground, improving the already-impressive cornering grip. For a relative novice like me, you brake, you turn, you speed up all over again; in my limited time behind the wheel, I may have approached my own limits numerous times, but never felt like I was even coming close to what the car was capable of.
On the other hand, if I was a really, really fast driver, someone who could push those limits, I think the GT might be an altogether different beast. Unlike a Mercedes SLR McLaren or a Ferrari Enzo, there is no stability-control system, and the engine’s savage power delivery and the immediacy with which it responds to even the smallest inputs would make it a serious challenge. But conversely, the rewards of driving it properly would be that much greater.
But what truly sets the Porsche apart from the rest of the supercar crowd – and these days, it is a crowd – is that it’s been subjected to the same abusive testing as the company’s other, more “pedestrian” sports cars. Thus, its service schedule is no more onerous than a Boxster’s, its brakes are, Porsche claims, good for the life of the car, and the clutch will last for 300,000 km – more than most GTs will probably see in their lifetime. Crucially, all of this also means that the GT is actually a car you could drive on a daily basis. Other than the on-off clutch and the super-low ride height – which would make traversing every speed bump a cringe-fest of epic proportions – the GT is as easy to drive as any Porsche. You sit comfortably upright, facing a row of legible gauges; the mirrors are huge and driver-friendly; even visibility out the back over the mesh engine cover is pretty good, and spectacular for a supercar, especially when you take out the roof panels (did I mention that it’s a convertible? It’s a 320-km/h convertible!)
Interestingly, as expensive as it is, the Carrera GT is a car that’s still built to a price. In the 1990s, McLaren made the mistake of building a cost-no-object supercar with an engine bay lined in gold, a shifter made of nearly-extinct African wood, and even bespoke knobs and buttons for its special Kenwood music system. The result? Fewer than 100 sales, a lot less than expected. Porsche, on the other hand, only decided to build the GT after it found a business case for it, and so some minor pieces like the radio faceplate and the steering wheel and the control stalks are lifted from the 996-generation 911; no big deal, but something you do notice. A Ferrari Enzo, for instance, feels a lot more special inside, its steering wheel containing a row of shift lights set into carbon-fibre, its edges decorated with controls for the car’s various electronic systems. It, of course, is a car built to a price as well – though at over a million bucks, it’s built to a higher price.
Nevertheless, it seems almost churlish to complain about such minor things when the Carrera GT ranks as easily the fastest, most beautiful, and most exhilarating car I’ve ever driven. At the end of the day, the Porsche people – no doubt regretting the day they sent me the invitation – had to forcibly pull me away from it, so enamoured was I with it. The GT goes way beyond being just the best car I’ve ever been in; thanks to its astonishing construction, performance, and usability, it makes a good argument for being the best super-sports car ever made as well.
As for that business about expectation: I’ve never yet been disappointed by one of Porsche’s sports cars, and, though there was a part of me that was prepared for the worst given how much time I’d spent dreaming about this drive, I always knew that the GT was going to live up to the hype. What I wasn’t prepared for was how it would prove even better than I thought it was going to be.