Editor's note: This review was written in July 2012 about the 2012 Porsche 911 Carrera. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2013, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
What makes the redesigned 2012 911 Carrera exceptional is how it combines unprecedented performance and reasonable day-to-day livability with some of the visceral experience many sporty cars have sacrificed.
Porsche redesigned its revered 911 Carrera and Carrera S, in coupe and convertible Cabriolet versions, but unfortunately the company manufactured both the sixth and the new seventh generations as 2012 models, so be sure you know which model you're looking at if you shop for one. Telltale sign: The new generation replaces the parking brake lever with a switch on the dashboard.
For 2012, the car's other versions — which include the Targa, GTS, Turbo and Turbo S — continue in the sixth generation in limited numbers. For the 2013 model year, the seventh generation will overtake some — but not necessarily all — of these versions. See the new and previous generation's specs compared here, and the full lineup here.
We tested the Carrera S with rear-wheel drive (all-wheel drive will return for 2013, adding a 4 to the model name).
More than new technologies, the seventh generation brings refinement in existing technologies and how they interact with each other.
New Hardware, More Refinement
The 911's standard transmission is a new seven-speed manual — simply a furtherance of the strategy that has been adding gears to manuals — and more recently automatics — over the years: Another gear at the top can tighten up the ratios and/or improve highway cruising efficiency. The latter result most closely describes the 911's new manual. I would have loved to test it simply because it's so novel, and because I prefer manuals, but our Carrera S had the dual-clutch automated manual, called PDK, for Porsche Doppelkupplungs (dual clutch).
The PDK's execution in this car is outstanding. I'll never say that I "didn't even miss the manual," which is a familiar refrain among the car-reviewing community. Ridiculous. Manual vs. automatic is like Coke vs. Pepsi. You can go either way in a pinch, but would you ever take your second choice when you didn't have to? (Incidentally, manuals regrettably make up a sliver of the car market, so in this comparison they'd probably be better represented by Fanta.)
All our editors raved about the PDK, also a seven-speed, because even when it's in one of the automatic modes it always seems to be in the correct gear for the circumstances. In this regard it recalls the dual-clutch in the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, but adds to it a smoother experience both from a standing start and when coming to a stop. Those transitions are when the Mitsubishi system and many other dual-clutch transmissions stumble.
Even the standard engine stop/start feature, which is intended to save fuel at stoplights, is unobtrusive and not too objectionable: Release the brake, the engine starts, the transmission engages and off you go in short order. If it bugs you, it can be turned off easily and will stay off as a default.
Characteristic of its design, this transmission upshifts almost instantaneously in Drive mode, yet seems to do so even faster and harder in Sport and Sport Plus modes.
Jab the accelerator in an automatic mode — or use the shift lever or steering-wheel buttons — and the transmission kicks down a gear or more with a rapid throttle-blip rev match and a delicious bark from the exhaust system. Typically, six cylinders aren't a recipe for a pleasing aural experience, but the 911 S exhaust sounds great.
At higher engine speeds and loads, the optional Sport Exhaust feature bypasses chambers in the mufflers for a deeper, louder sound. The car's most popular feature among our editors was a button on the center console that performs this function manually. I estimate that I played with this button, on average, every 4.5 seconds.
The normally aspirated 3.8-liter horizontally opposed six-cylinder makes 400 horsepower at 7,400 rpm and 325 pounds-feet of torque at 5,600 rpm. Even though the redline is at 7,800 rpm, the engine provides respectable torque throughout the range, with a noticeable jump above 4,000 rpm. By comparison, the regular 911 Carrera has a 3.4-liter H-6 rated at 350 hp and 287 pounds-feet of torque (with the peaks arriving at the same rpm as in the 911 S).
Porsche estimates the cars' zero-to-60 times with manual transmissions at 4.3 seconds for the Carrera S and 4.5 seconds for the regular Carrera. The optional PDK cuts 0.2 second from each car's time because PDK shifts faster than you can. By my calculation, each tenth of a second costs you more than $2,000, though, because the PDK option is $4,080. The optional Sport Chrono Package is good for another 0.2-second decrease when combined with PDK. Why? Because it includes a launch-control feature that, once again, gets you off the line faster than you could move without it. Sport Chrono costs $1,850, so its extra tenths of a second are a relative bargain, especially when you consider its other features, which I'll detail in a moment.
Despite its modest power increases, the new coupe is estimated to get one more mile per gallon combined in most versions. The 911 with PDK gets an estimated 23 mpg combined, while all the others are rated 22 mpg. The Cabriolets also match, even though their additional weight costs them roughly 0.2 seconds in the zero-to-60.
A major mechanical change for the seventh generation, the power steering is now electric rather than hydraulic, and it's very nicely executed. Under high-speed loads on the racetrack, steering feedback is very good, but I thought a lot of it was lost at lower speeds. This could be because of our test car's optional Power Steering Plus, a $270 stand-alone option meant to lighten steering effort at lower speeds.
British racing legend Stirling Moss reportedly claimed that "The steering wheel is merely the means of introducing the car to the corner." If you share this view, you'll want to drive a 911. The 2012 feels more stable than previous models, but this rear-engine car still likes to go sideways.
The rear axle remains in front of the engine, but Porsche says the new generation's longer wheelbase moves it closer to the engine's center of mass, shifting the car's weight distribution forward. Even so, the front/rear distribution is roughly 39/61 percent with the manual transmission. Rear-wheel drive and PDK shift it to 38/62 percent.
On the track, the new 911 feels more neutral heading into a corner than does the previous generation, and Porsche says a wider front track is part of the reason. Less understeer to begin with yields less opportunity for an understeer-oversteer tug of war. I took the Carrera S around Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin's Road America, where torque vectoring between the rear wheels allowed me to hug the curves and follow a tighter line. The feature is standard on the S and optional on the regular 911 Carrera.
Much more technology is in play. The adaptive suspension automatically optimizes shock-absorber firmness for conditions, and a button allows the driver to choose between Normal or Sport modes. Again standard on the S and optional on the Carrera, this Porsche Active Suspension Management option also lowers the car by four-fifths of an inch.
Our car also had the Porsche Dynamic Chassis Control option, a means of controlling body roll that's related in principle to Mercedes' Active Body Control and BMW's active stabilizer bars. It employs variable-rate hydraulic actuators at each wheel between the spring perch and the same point on the lower control arms where the conventional stabilizer bars attach. By sensing lateral acceleration and steering angle, the system acts to counter body motions. The result is exceptionally flat cornering.
A Confidence Conspiracy
All these systems conspire to make you think you're a better driver than you probably are. There's nothing wrong with that … or is there? What ever happened to learning a performance vehicle's quirks and attributes and mastering them? I've long said that the 911, especially in all-wheel-drive form, is too unflappable to enjoy except on a racetrack. In this regard, the 911 was simply ahead of the curve — for better and for worse — because other models have likewise raised their capability while sacrificing the visceral, seat-of-your-pants feel we've always valued in sports cars.
Now it seems the 911 might be ahead of the curve again. Even as the visceral experience from such stalwarts as BMW continues to fade, our Carrera S still had it. In its reasonably comfortable Normal mode, the car's suspension has a hint of the high-strung feel that once defined sports cars. But there's more to it, and I suspect it stems from the dynamic engine mounts that come with the optional Sport Chrono Package.
The electronically controlled mounts, previously offered on the GT3 and Turbo models, aren't unlike the adaptive shock absorbers in the suspension in that their compliance varies with changing conditions. In general, they isolate the engine's vibrations from the body in normal modes, but when you activate Sport Plus, they firm up. The main objective is to prevent the engine from heaving its weight around in aggressive driving — especially valuable in a rear-heavy rear-engine car. In the process, the more rigid connection puts the driver more in touch with the machine.
Though the package is named for the stopwatch feature — an analog chronograph in the center of the dashboard — Sport Chrono adds several more-meaningful features, including the Sport Plus button, dynamic engine mounts and, in models with PDK, launch control.
The standard Sport Mode makes the accelerator more sensitive and, in cars with PDK, raises the shift points. Sport Plus loosens up the electronic stability system and — when equipped with the features — activates the sport exhaust and a still-more-aggressive PDK calibration.
With its six-piston front and four-piston rear brake calipers (the regular Carrera has four pistons in front), our Carrera S had exceptional braking with no noticeable brake fade. Unless you'll be doing sustained track driving, you can probably get away without the fade-fighting optional Ceramic Composite Brake Package ($8,520).
For all its joys, the 911 came with some annoyances. A major one was glare on the windshield from our test car's light-colored dashboard, part of the optional Luxor Beige leather interior. My polarized sunglasses helped, but it was an issue even at night when passing under streetlights. I'd keep the dashboard color dark.
The optional Burmester audio system's automatic speed-based volume control didn't match changes in speed well, and then I thought the volume jumped too much with each click even when I adjusted it manually.
The 911's backseat isn't an annoyance so long as you accept that it's not really a backseat. We put a videographer back there for a shoot, and I think he's still in there.
A big irritant for me is the fake-metal trim, which looks cheap. Even models like the midlevel BMW 3 Series and Nissan Murano have real aluminum. Hidden behind the offending trim piece above the glove box are two minimally functional "cupholders." Come on, Porsche — all the other German brands have assimilated. You replaced the handbrake lever with a switch and didn't use the space for a single decent cupholder?
Perhaps the biggest hurdle is the 911's price. As was true before the redesign, you're paying mainly for the car's capabilities, its rear-engine setup (something you won't otherwise find at this price) and the Porsche name, so you end up with things like the cheapo trim and partial leather seats unless you're willing to load up on options.
Base priced at a substantial $97,350 (including a $950 destination charge), with options our 911 Carrera S was inflated to $128,700. Even with its 18 extra-cost items, our car didn't even dent the staggering available-options list, which includes items as granular as a leather trim strip for the switch panel. To Porsche's great credit, most features are priced individually.
To get the purest experience without spending too much, I think I'd go with a regular Carrera with the manual transmission, standard suspension and the Sport Chrono Package. I'd add the $610 rear park assist because it would probably pay for itself in the long run. This configuration totals $85,510.
Due to their low volume, Porsches aren't crash-tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The 911 Carrera has six airbags — the front two along with two-piece side-impact airbags on either side. A torso airbag deploys from the seatback, and a head-protection airbag deploys upward from the door rather than downward from the ceiling. This gives the Cabriolet version head protection that some convertibles lack.
911 in the Market
Based on price alone, one could cross-shop other sports cars, but there's no denying the 911 is a singular entity. In the new generation, as in previous ones, its reputation is earned.
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