A vague suspicion becomes a firm conviction when one is peering through mountain monsoons and dancing along back roads slick with summer slush leaking from snow-capped Cascades: Next to a Ferrari Maranello at almost four times the price, the 1999 Porsche 911 Carrera is the finest-handling sports car in the world.

No argument. Period. Hurley Hayward--celebrity spokesman for Porsche, multiple winner at Le Mans, Sebring, Daytona, and inarguably the world's best endurance race driver--agrees. And we don't want to hear about your pet Corvette.

This first total rebuild in 34 years of the durable, divining Porsche 911 design has handsome looks and a family resemblance that may be around for another 34 years. Power, acceleration and terminal velocity have been increased to make life an exhilarating blur.

And here's a vehicle that certainly reembraces the brag about a Porsche being less of a machine, more of a collection of ideas. With the primary idea, of course, being the important matter of keeping the car flat, predictable and magnetically close to the ground under high-performance conditions.

But just how flat and predictable? fretted planners at last month's 911 introduction here, with El Whatsitsface converting a chronically weepy Washington into a rain forest without parrots. As it turned out, each day that degenerated from damp to downpour actually became bonus hours for measuring how well the Carrera performs without the less-testing advantages of dry roads and sunny skies.

On foggy corners treacherous with wet pebbles--a surface on which even the experienced might light their right foot--the new Porsche's party trick is remaining stable when power is increased. Without a whisper of tail wag, without the front end threatening to lighten, without the passenger grinning bravely.

To change directions quickly, even at disgustingly illegal speeds on stinky surfaces, twitch the wheel left, snap back to right and be surprised by the car's total lack of tilt. And should you decide to take this two-seater to its 174-mph limit--politically unconcerned Porsche refuses to neuter its top speeds with electronic governors--the only worry will be your choice of tires and wheel size to handle such shenanigans.

Given enough ice, given enough mishandling, given high enough cornering speeds, of course the 911 will do naughty things and in surprising directions. But those limits are so far removed from our everyday skills as to be practically unattainable.

Much of this blessing comes from a series of traction controls--another startling first for purist Porsche--mated to, and managed by, the anti-lock braking and engine-management systems. A multi-link rear suspension with automatic toe-in and toe-out correction adds to the magic. So do perfect gearing that bounds throughout the range, optimum balance, a chassis now stiffened by boron steel elements and throttle resp onses quicker than most thought processes.

The only downside to all this electronic taming of weight transfers, body loading and traction is an inability to burn rubber from rest. A negative, however, only for those with hairy knuckles and chromium-plated naked ladies on their mud flaps.


And to think that Porsche loyalists, in a classic of premature evaluation, took one look at the new Carrera on magazine covers and show stands and decided it might be too soft, too pretty and, well, too effeminate for a buyer body that is 90% male.

Sorry, guys. You can hammer this car harder than a 10-penny nail. The lack of rain gutters and fender bulges may reduce the look of passion and raw purpose, but they allow widening of the fuselage and reduced drag to make the car quicker and quieter. Quarter windows are gone; doors, windows and door handles are flush; the engine is now liquid-cooled with radiators behind the front wheel wells; and windshield rake hasb en increased.

But see such changes as wiping away old cobwebs and driving a sensible evolution of a classic into the new millennium. With the proud heart and sturdy soul of Porsche not just intact, but noticeably improved.

For those begging traditional chords, the ignition switch has been kept left of the steering wheel as a hangover from the marque's racing days and Le Mans starts. The engine remains bolted behind the rear axle; it's still a horizontally opposed six, and with an exhaust note acoustically tuned to retain a whining-clattering-rasping-rattling-snoring note that for three decades nobody has successfully re-created with adjectives.

Yet the car--still pricey after all these years, either as a $65,000 coupe or a $74,880 cabriolet--remains eerily familiar. Porsche calls it "simultaneous engineering methodology." You may call it pinching large parts--the interior design, headlight assembly, doors, hood, brake systems, front fenders, even a buxom curve to the rear--from the Boxster and gluing them onto the Carrera.

Known as the Porsche 996 (the previous model was the 963) to those who travel in inner circles, the new sports car is almost 7 inches longer, 1 inch wider and 1 inch taller. Still, the increased height won't be noticed because the body is slung 1 inch lower. All of which translates to increased leg, shoulder and head room, and slightly larger trunk space under the front lid.

In the worst tradition of 2+2 travel, rear seats are sized about the width of a healthy buttock. That makes them impossible for adults, Big Mac-fed teenagers and any creature with a circulation system requiring unkinked veins. So best to forget these padded perches and go for the additional rear storage room with the little seat backs folded forward and flat.

The interior is slick, even Trekkie, with a stainless steel backing to the gearshift and an instrument cluster of five terraced, overlapping gauges. It is more inviting, less Spartan than the old; there's a passenger side air bag and knee bolster where the glove box used to be; and Porsche has finally folded to the comfort and convenience lobby by including a telescoping steering wheel.

Some drivers will carp about reduced width of the seat backs. Others will find the narrowness provides greater grip for shoulders and kidneys, and, certainly, added security when one is belted tight and heading out to play.


And what mischief the Carrera makes.

It delivers 296 horsepower managed smoothly and efficiently by the standard six-speed manual, or a five-speed Tiptronic that can be set for a no-brainer automatic, or used as a sequential shifter. Caveat emptor. Tiptronic costs $3,200 extra.

On 17-inch wheels (with 18-inchers an option) the Carrera slashes through 60 mph from rest in less than five seconds, or a whisker quicker than a 345 hp Corvette. But more important than numbers is the mood of t his car.

It's a panther, as always, with skills generally superior to ours. Steering is clean, quick, beautifully weighted, and Eddie Cheever would approve. Brakes will stop a house sliding down a cliff. Gear shifts--managed by a cable system instead of rods--are a snick, a click and far removed from oversmooth, unfeeling gearboxes, which really are too slippery for high-performance work.

So fear not, all ye faint of faith in Porsche and afeard for the reborn 911.

Shapes and trappings may change.

But established souls are generally unconquerable.

This is the last day that Paul Dean's Behind the Wheel column will appear in Life & Style. It is moving to a new autos section, Highway 1, which will debut June 25.

1999 Porsche 911 Carrera

The Good: Larger, lighter, rebirth of best-handling 911 yet. Avant-garde interior that may shock disciples but soothe the thinking Porschephile. Nanosecond responses from flexible, more owerful engine. Transmission options for all seasons and moods.

The Bad: Still pricey for mere mortals. Lack of glove box may irk some.

The Ugly: Not being able to afford one.

Cost Base, $65,030 (includes front and side air bags; automatic climate control; six-speed manual transmission; 17-inch alloy wheels; cruise control; anti-lock brakes; leather upholstery; telescopic steering; traction controls; power windows, seats and mirrors; sun roof; power steering; and rear defroster).

Engine 3.8-liter, 24-valve, flat-six producing 296 horsepower.

Type Rear-engine, rear-drive, two-passenger, high-performance sports car.

Performance 0-60 mph, as tested, with six-speed manual, 4.9 seconds. Top track speed, 174 mph. Fuel consumption, EPA, city and highway, 17 and 25 mpg, with six-speed manual.

Curb Weight 2,910 pounds.