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Expert Reviews 1 of 3
By Kelsey Mays
October 28, 2008
Porsche says its flagship 911 has been thoroughly updated for 2009, but it looks nearly identical to the current model — the 997 generation in car-geek lingo — that's been around for about four years now. Come to think of it, that car resembled the previous version, which arrived in 1998 and looked a lot like the mid-90s edition before it. You get the point.
No matter, because under the skin are enough drivetrain changes to make those same car geeks salivate. The 911 remains a performance benchmark, and thanks to some overdue changes inside, it's more of an everyday driver than ever before. Don't take that to mean it's well-suited for the daily grind, though; this car was meant for the racetrack, so if you're cross-shopping a similarly priced BMW 6 Series or Mercedes SL, you might find that, well, Porsche serves its coffee black.
As before, the 911 comes in a number of variants, which you can compare to the '08 model here. There are the rear-wheel-drive Carrera and Carrera S, the all-wheel-drive Carrera 4 and Carrera 4S, and convertible versions of each. Then there are the all-wheel-drive, glass-roofed Targa 4 and Targa 4S coupes. The 911 Turbo continues unchanged for 2009; for right now, at least, Porsche says the GT2 and GT3 come only as '08s.
I drove a number of Carrera and Carrera S variants in coupe and convertible body styles at Salt Lake City's Miller Motorsports Park and the surrounding mountain roads. Really, this job is harder than it sounds. Exterior & Styling The 911 has maintained its same essential look for several generations, something the automaker says its customers appreciate. Clearly, those customers are an unassuming bunch: I turned more heads during a recent drive in the sveltely styled Cayman S than I did in the much pricier 911s I drove all day. Visual changes for 2009 require a close eye to notice; check the comparison photos on the right to see them.
If you've never seen a 911 up close, the first thing you'll notice is how small it is. Other $80,000 coupes employ long doors and sweeping rooflines, but the 911 looks tight from the get-go. At 175.8 inches bumper to bumper, it's about the same length as a two-door Honda Civic. The SL and Nissan GT-R measure a few inches longer, while the 6 Series and Jaguar XK are more than a foot longer.
Bi-xenon headlights are now standard, with adaptive swiveling headlights optional. Wheel choices include standard 18-inch alloys on the Carrera and Carrera 4 coupe and convertible, as well as the Targa 4 coupe. Nineteen-inchers are optional for these models, but they're standard on all other 911 models. So are quad exhaust pipes, which replace the dual pipes on the base models. The Turbo, GT2 and GT3 have unique bodywork. Going & Stopping Slung behind the rear axle in every 911 is a horizontally opposed six-cylinder engine displacing 3.6 or 3.8 liters. Even the base 3.6-liter engine in the Carrera feels seriously quick, reaching the tach's 7,500-rpm redline with fiercer immediacy than V-8 cars in the same price range — all the while belting out a mid-pitched whoosh that Porsche might as well trademark. Models with an "S" designation — the Carrera S and Carrera 4S coupes and convertibles, as well as the Targa 4S coupe — get the 3.8-liter version, whose extra midrange torque comes in handy to push you through a turn on winding roads or track corners. Unless you're driving hard, however, the differences between the two aren't easily apparent.
Porsche says both engines are completely new this year. Their displacements round to the same figures as last year's 3.6- and 3.8-liter sixes, but bore and stroke measurements are slightly different. There's also direct fuel injection — a first for Porsche — which enables a cooler air/fuel mixture and higher compression ratios to improve power and gas mileage. Porsche's VarioCam Plus system governs valve timing, and airflow has been improved thanks to streamlined exhaust runners and a new intake manifold. Add it all up, and the gains are significant:
2008 Carrera S
2009 Carrera S
Horsepower (@ rpm)
325 @ 6,800
345 @ 6,500
355 @ 6,600
385 @ 6,500
Torque (lbs.-ft. @ rpm)
273 @ 4,250
288 @ 4,400
295 @ 4,600
310 @ 4,400
0-60 mph, sec.
4.8 - 5.2
4.3 - 4.7
4.6 - 5.0
4.1 - 4.5
EPA combined gas mileage (mpg)
20 - 21
21 - 22
21 - 22
Variances in acceleration and mileage are due to transmission choice and other options. Source: Manufacturer and EPA data for RWD Carrera and Carrera S coupes.
The Turbo, GT2 and GT3 employ performance-tuned or turbocharged 3.6-liter engines with outputs ranging from 415 to 530 horsepower, enough to launch the cars to 60 mph in as little as 3.4 seconds. None were available to test.
Thirteen-inch cross-drilled brake discs with four-piston calipers are standard on all four wheels; last year's 3.6-liter car had smaller discs. Cars with the 3.8-liter engine have slightly thicker discs and red-painted calipers. In my experience, the pedal delivered excellent stopping force with either setup, and brake fade was apparent only on the cars that had been flogged on the track. Off the track, the brakes held up well, resisting fade in a Carrera S even after 100 miles of back roads.
Ceramic 13.8-inch discs with six-piston front and four-piston rear calipers are optional, but none of the cars at the event had them. Porsche claims they resist brake fade better and reduce unsprung weight a significant 34.4 pounds — something that should contribute to keeping the wheels grounded over uneven pavement. Regardless of which type you choose, antilock braking is standard. The Turbo and GT3 have 13.8-inch steel discs with six-piston front and four-piston rear calipers, with ceramic brakes optional. The GT2 upgrades to ceramic discs measuring a massive 15 inches up front and 13.8 inches in back. Manual Shifting A six-speed manual transmission is standard, with third gear a skosh longer this year to improve gas mileage. I drove the stick in the base Carrera for a couple laps on the track. Though its movements aren't as well-oiled as those of the stick-shift 6 Series, Porsche's whole setup seems more precise. It's easier to feel out the gates when you're shifting gears quickly, and the shifter flicks firmly from one slot to the next. BMW's, in contrast, can feel a bit rubbery.
The clutch pedal travels deep but operates with a light touch. Quick taps on the gas elicit lag-free revs, but it takes a moment for the engine to settle back down afterward. For optimal rev-matching, I prefer the revs to fall as quickly as they rise — it allows you to time the throttle blips more precisely — and in this regard, BMW has Porsche beat. Dual-Clutch Transmission More impressive is the 911's seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox, which replaces the five-speed Tiptronic as the automatic option in all but the 911 Turbo. Porsche calls the transmission PDK, which stands for Porsche-Doppelkupplungsgetriebe. You learn to pronounce that; my German ends at bratwurst and bier.
With separate drive shafts for the even and odd gears, the setup works like dual-clutch gearboxes from Volkswagen, Mitsubishi and others. The results are expectedly swift but impressively smooth: Left in Drive, the transmission mirrors a regular automatic. I noticed a few uneven shifts in the early gears at low speeds, but I've driven automatics that suffer similar hiccups. On the open road, PDK ticks through gears nearly imperceptibly, kicking down two or three at a time with minimal lag. You can shift manually with the gearshift or steering-wheel paddle shifters; the response is immediate and, on downshifts, it's accompanied by throttle blips for the sort of rev-matching a good stick-shift driver would do.
An optional Sport Chrono Package Plus augments PDK with two additional settings, Sport and Sport Plus, with progressively quicker gear changes, more aggressive kickdown and a touchier accelerator pedal. Both settings hold lower gears longer and resist upshifts in tricky handling situations. Sport mode is appropriate for curvy mountain switchbacks but doesn't seem quite up to the task of track driving. In several situations, it upshifted when I needed more power coming off a sweeping corner.
Porsche says that in regular and Sport mode the transmission adapts somewhat to your driving style, so it's possible the upshift tendency would improve over time. Sport Plus doesn't adapt — it sticks to the most aggressive programming and virtually eliminates any inopportune upshifts. Sport Plus shifts twice as fast as the Tiptronic could ever manage, according to Porsche. Indeed, its abrupt gear changes can be a bit jarring for the daily drive, but on the track it's the only way to go: Don't touch the paddle shifters, just concentrate on driving. I logged 18 miles of track time with it on, and it never failed to give me the right gear at the right time.
Given its performance, track enthusiasts considering PDK with the base 3.6-liter engine ought to spring for the Sport Chrono Package Plus. The 3.8-liter Carrera S I drove with Sport Plus deactivated had enough low-end power to eke its way through a corner if the transmission upshifted too soon; with the smaller engine, mid-corner upshifts might leave you a bit flat-footed. Also included in the package is a launch-control feature that optimizes brake-torque starts with the PDK to lop 0.2 seconds off zero-to-60-mph times.
Stick-shift models can get the Sport Chrono Package Plus; it costs less, but it includes just the Sport button to quicken accelerator sensitivity. With either transmission, the package also adds a stopwatch in the center of the dash to clock lap times.
The 911 Turbo keeps a five-speed Tiptronic as its automatic offering for 2009; thanks to its ability to overload the torque converter from a standing start, it's significantly quicker to 60 mph than the stick-shift Turbo. The GT2 and GT3 are stick-shift only. Ride Quality One of the more dramatic differences between the 911 and similarly priced two-doors is suspension tuning: Whether in a quick lane change or a sweeping curve, the Porsche hunkers down flat, but its ride quality will make you go out of your way to find rut-free pavement. Cars like the 6 Series, XK and Mercedes SL are more forgiving. I should note, however, that I spent my time on regular roads with a Carrera S, whose 19-inch wheels have high-performance 35-series front and 30-series rear tires. Lesser models' 18-inch alloys have nominally thicker tires, which should, in theory, trade some handling precision for ride comfort.
The 911's suspension — struts up front with a multilink rear — can be had with Porsche's PASM adaptive setup, which electrically varies shock absorber response to changing road conditions and renders a 0.4-inch lower ride height. It's optional with the 3.6-liter engine and standard with the 3.8-liter. Porsche says it's been tuned for better ride comfort this year. The system can be switched between regular and sport settings; the latter delivers a noticeable reduction in body roll, particularly over the rear axle, but ride quality in either setting remains brittle.
For the hardcore enthusiast, there's a PASM sports suspension option for 2009 that lowers ride height another 0.4 inches, for a total of 0.8 inches below a PASM-free model. It's packaged with a limited-slip differential. I didn't drive a 911 thus equipped, so I can't offer an evaluation — nor can I evaluate ride or handling in the Turbo, GT2 and GT3, which all have uniquely tuned suspensions. Handling Most cars, even the performance ones, have adopted electric power steering these days, but Porsche sticks with a hydraulic setup: "We have real steering," a spokesman enthused. I'll note that EPS — adopted largely as low-hanging fruit to increase gas mileage — doesn't always yield the numb response it exhibited early on, and in many cases it's quite good. But Porsche didn't go there, and the 911's steering remains heavy but precise. Wend your way down a mountain road, and the nose points exactly where you want it. Any bumps along the way go straight through the wheel to your fingertips. Most luxury cars and many sports cars have done away with communicative steering; it's nice to see the 911 retain it.
On the track, the rear-wheel-drive 911's 38/62 percent front/rear weight distribution becomes apparent, but not unruly. There's a smidge of oversteer coming off hard corners, but the tail untucks itself gradually enough that you can wind it back in with minor steering corrections. At its limits, the 911 lacks the tossable neutrality of Porsche's mid-engined Cayman S, but for most drivers in most situations, I suspect the differences are academic.
Get the Sport Chrono Package Plus with either transmission, and Sport mode dials back the thresholds on the 911's standard electronic stability system, allowing plenty of sideways action before reining you in. I never noticed the stability system doing its thing — even with the accelerator dialed to its highest sensitivity, I detected no unnerving lift-throttle oversteer on the track. The stability system can be deactivated entirely, though it will come back on if you brake hard enough to induce front-wheel ABS.
We didn't have a chance to drive any all-wheel-drive Carrera or Targa models, which have a slightly more centered 40/60 percent front/rear weight distribution. This year, the all-wheel-drive models receive the electronic center differential from the all-wheel-drive 911 Turbo; it replaces last year's rear-biased, less-responsive hydraulic coupling. The new system can send up to 100 percent of the engine's power to the rear wheels, though it can't vary power from side to side, as certain systems from Acura and BMW now do. A spokesman at the event said Porsche is exploring such technology, but won't go that route "just because they do." The Inside Leather seats are optional, with a partial-leather mix standard. Our test cars had leather, and its quality befits this price range. The side bolsters, though small, are stiff enough to hold you in during spirited daily driving. On the track they come up a bit short, allowing more lateral movement than I'd prefer while careening toward an apex. Optional sport seats have thicker — and optionally power-inflatable — bolsters. Alas, none of our test cars had them, so I can't offer an evaluation.
A further option is fixed racing bucket seats, also absent in the cars I drove. A Porsche spokesman told me they're fitted for drivers about my size — that is, 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds on a good day.
Regardless of the seating setup, the 911 feels cramped. There's precious little space to store anything up front, but the rear seatbacks fold to form a cargo shelf — a better use for them than stuffing hapless passengers back there. Other belongings will have to go under the hood, where there's a 4.4-cubic-foot storage compartment. On the upside, it's unhampered, obviously, by the folding top in convertible models. On the downside, it's still less than half the size of the conventional trunks in the front-engine XK, SL or 6 Series.
A standard 6.5-inch touch-screen manages the major center controls; last year's screen was 5.8 inches. A navigation system is optional, and so is full iPod integration with USB and 30-pin (which is the connection you'll find at the bottom of an iPod) connections. The layout is surprisingly intuitive: Satellite radio stations can be sorted by channel list or what's currently playing, the navigation system allows you to enter a city before typing in street addresses or intersections, and the graphics for the whole thing are decent. I can't pay the same compliments to the XK's attractive but slow nav system, much less the 6 Series' iDrive. The 911's nine-speaker CD stereo can be upgraded to Bose 5.1-channel surround sound and 13 speakers (12 in the convertible). I sampled it on the drive back from the track, and it cranks out good audio quality but has to compete with considerable road noise.
Overall cabin quality depends largely on how much you're willing to spend. Unadorned with options, the 911 has a Spartan layout that seems out of step with like-priced competition: The seats have manual fore/aft and height adjustments, the dash has hard contours and cheap-looking silver plastic trim. The center controls look and feel unremarkable, and the window pillars are clad in low-rent plastic rather than headliner material.
Consider decking yours out a bit. Heated and ventilated power seats are optional, as is a heated steering wheel. An optional full leather interior covers the dash and door panels with stitched cowhide; I checked out cars with and without it, and it's a much-needed, if expensive, upgrade. Shell out more cash, and Porsche will dress up other crevices with all sorts of premium materials. All told, you can attain Ferrari-like trimmings — a leather headliner, stainless steel door sills, an Alcantara handbrake — but they'll add $20,000 or more to the 911's price. Come to think of it, that is what the Italians might charge. Targa, Convertible Originally built to circumvent federal regulations on convertible tops, the all-wheel-drive Targa 4 and Targa 4S place a 16.6-square-foot glass roof over the entire cabin. The front section power-retracts in about seven seconds, and the rear opens like a hatch, exposing the rear-seat cargo area for easier loading. It's the only 911 to have that feature. A power-retractable sunshade covers both sections of the glass roof, and Porsche says that for 2009 the cover offers superior shade than before. There were no Targas to drive, though, so I can't verify this.
I did drive the 911 convertible — on the track, no less — and it proved remarkably free of the shimmies and shakes that plague some droptop models. Porsche says the power-retractable soft-top does its thing in about 20 seconds. As is to be expected, the convertible's weight penalty — 185 pounds, give or take, depending on trim — adds roughly 0.2 seconds to zero-to-60-mph acceleration times. Safety & Reliability Being a low-volume sports car, the 911 hasn't been crash-tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Standard features include six airbags, with side-impact airbags in the front seats and side curtain airbags extending from the doors, even in convertible models. Antilock brakes, traction control and an electronic stability system are also standard.
New for 2009 are optional adaptive headlights, which can swivel up to 15 degrees as you turn the wheel to illuminate oncoming corners. Like most droptops in this price range, the 911 convertible employs pop-up roll bars that deploy from behind the rear seats if sensors detect a rollover.
Though cautious buyers will want to wait to see if the changes for '09 have any effect, reliability for the current 997 generation has been a strong point. Consumer Reports rated the car above average for reliability in recent years; the publication had insufficient samples to rate the XK, but the 6 Series and SL both scored worse. J.D. Power and Associates named the current-generation 911 one of the most dependable models in the Premium Sport Car segment in this year's three-year Vehicle Dependability Study, and Porsche's four-year/50,000-mile powertrain and bumper-to-bumper warranties are competitive. Pricing & Features Carrera models start at $75,600, with the better-equipped Carrera S running $86,200. All-wheel-drive models fetch an extra $6,100, while the convertibles add $10,600. Among the standard features are partial leather seats and single-zone automatic climate control, but full power seats and steering-wheel audio controls remain optional. Coupes have a standard metal sunroof; if you want glass overhead, you'll have to step up to the all-wheel-drive Targa 4 or 4S, which costs $7,800 more than a Carrera 4 or 4S. There is no rear-wheel-drive Targa.
Other options include heated and ventilated seats and innumerable custom trimmings. All models come standard with a manual transmission; the twin-clutch PDK runs a steep $4,080, while the Sport Chrono Package Plus adds $1,320. If you have a stick-shift 911, the Chrono package costs $960.
The Turbo, GT2 and GT3 run well into the six-figure range. Load up a range-topping GT2, and you'll part with more than 200 large. 911 in the Market By its sales figures, the 911 is one of the more popular cars in its league. It's easy to see why: With 15 major variants, including the track-ready GT3 RS, any sports-car enthusiast should be able to find a suitable choice. Those who simply want stylish transportation to the office or the green, however, ought to check out the larger offerings in this price range. Today's 911 has made significant strides toward everyday livability, but even at its cushiest, it still puts absolute performance over comfort.