I know what you’re thinking.
I’m thinking it too.
Why me? How, with a host of competent hot-shoes, seriously-journalistic scribes and industry insiders here at TTAC, do the keys to a presser Porsche 911 get handed to the guy who publicly admitted to being not a very good driver and who has an unfortunate tendency to use four long words where one short one would do nicely? Would not the readership be better served by someone who could give you an in-depth, accurate 10/10ths dynamic assessment, or a brief, sober buyer’s summary?
Oh, probably. But there are two very good reasons I’ve got this thing.
First, I asked Porsche nicely. And repeatedly. Being that I’m in Canada, politeness works here like a Jedi mind-trick.
Secondly, this 911 is no adrenal-gland-prodding trackday GT3, nor supercar-blitzing Turbo S. Neither is it the new 991 nor the 997 that every other publication has already told you “is the one you want” – the GTS. Scope the specs on this particular slice of Stuttgart spizzarkle: four-wheel-drive, automatic transmission, “base” 3.6L engine – it might as well have training wheels attached.
Quite simply, what we have here is a 911 for Mr. Average, and if you ignore the fact that I’m a ginger, that’s me. I shall put on a hat and go drive it.
A stylistic critique of the 997, 2012 model or not, would be futile. Porsche has been honing the 911’s silhouette since 1963, and this particular variant has been kicking around since the ’05 model year.
Assuming that you don’t live on the moon, you’ve doubtless seen some trim level of the current 911 sitting curbside and drawn your own conclusions about the slippery reversed teardrop with the cello haunches. Corporate grilles be damned, every nuance of a 911’s shape is burned into the collective’s zeitgeist. This is the Porsche, the stallion-crest flag-bearer, and I suppose the only cosmetic things I can point to here are the slightly nicer optional Turbo wheels my tester is fitted with, and the fact that the last few years of 997s have been fitted with larger air intakes and the ubiquitous LED running lights.
But here’s the thing, the thrill I feel as I slide into the near-perfect seats and spend a few clumsy seconds trying to start the car with the key in my right hand (oh right, ignition’s on the left) is short-lived. Despite the flawless autumnal splendour of a rare sunny day in the Pacific Northwest, it takes all of ten city blocks for an invisible hand to twist the dimmer on the neon sign that’s blinking, “OH EMM GEE – I’m driving a 911!” in my head.
In quick succession I am passed by a V10 Audi R8, a white 458 Italia and a bright orange Lamborghini LP-550-2 Valentino Balboni. Hmmm.
Here in the City of Glass with its many narcissism-inducing reflective surfaces – the place that invented the butt-sculpting yoga pant (not that I had anything to do with it, but You’re Welcome) – a 911 Carrera is insufficient for posing; I might as well be driving a 2012 GTi for all the attention I’m garnering. The 911 might be the Porsche, but here it’s also just a Porsche.
The muted grey of this car’s Platinum Silver Metallic paintwork may have something do do with it, but the cheery fact is that the 911 has, over the years, gradually shed the Gordon Gekko ostentation of a crimson, whale-tailed 964 convertible. In an age where hot Bimmers are slathered in M badging and skittle-shaded entry-level coupes like the Hyundai Veloster boast big, blingy, colour-matched rims, mid-line variants of the 911 seem restrained, discreet, reserved. To my mind, that’s a good thing.
A Carrera4 is not – supposedly – meant to be coddled, so through the week a 911 becomes my commuter car. This is not as much fun as it sounds: I have a short drive to work, but at this time of year it’s a tangled mess, clotted with lumps of slow-moving SUVs, snarled by construction and confounded by sheer volume. Each day, I walk out to be greeted by the permeating dampness of a West Coast winter and learn a little more about the idea of a 911 as a daily driver.
Most of it is good. The PDK is somewhat clunky from cold, but soon warms up and begins shuffling through the gears imperceptibly and rapidly; sixth and sometimes seventh gear is achieved at not much more than side-street speeds of 30mph. Smooth yes, sporty no.
The sport seats, as previously mentioned, are fantastic: grippy yet cosseting. The steering-wheel is blissfully free of buttons and gently nudges your hands towards the correct 3-and-9 position. The rest of the interior is fairly spartan, and little different from that of a base-equipped Boxster. Satellite navigation is straightforward to use, the iPod interface is fiddly.
Visibility is excellent. Ride is firm, but acceptable. Tire roar stops just short of Nissan 370Z levels. Parallel parking at first brings beads of sweat to the brow in fear of curbing those low-offset rims, but becomes a doddle with a few days practice.
Whatever visceral tug that iconic shape gave me on Monday morning has been eroded by Saturday evening. The Carrera4 has been competent, welcoming, even reasonable on fuel, but in the day-to-day of city driving it has yet to shine. At this point, it might be tempting to scan the option list and begin grumping about the outrageous cost of extras that should be standard on a $100K car – $400 for auto-dimming mirrors? Really?
Instead, it’s time to head East.
As the sun slips down behind us and the scenery changes from skyscraper-and-supercar to pickup trucks n’ Holsteins, I can feel a little knot of anticipation growing in the pit of my stomach. I’m heading home.
Here, high in the hills above the fertile Fraser Valley, I awake early on Sunday morning to find the 911 coated with crystalline ice, its badge encrusted in hoarfrost. Day is breaking, diamond-bright and brittle-blue, brilliant with all the promise of a cloudless wintry sky. I fire up the big flat-six and a low-pitched thrum backs the percussive tappeting of valves as clouds of vapour issue from twin exhausts to hang in the cold, clear air.
While the frost clears from the windshield, I retreat to the warmth of the kitchen to chat over coffee with my father. About what I can’t remember: it’s not important.
“You want to go for a ride, Dad?”
The Porsche’s summer tires – I am the last to drive this car so shod – are frozen hard as hockey pucks and scrabble at the cracked and heaved pavement at the foot of the driveway. I have the car in Sport Mode with Porsche’s Active Stability Management engaged. This car is fitted with Sport Chrono – a must-have for PDK-equipped cars – and while engaging Sport+ on a public road is the province of sociopaths, kicking the 911 into sport transforms it.
We go haring up the first of several hills, the pleasant whuffling of the Carrera’s exhaust crescendoing into a sonorous turbine-tenor, hard first-to-second, second-to-third shifts hammering us back in the seats with a thump. Finally, Porsche has seen fit to add proper paddle-shifters, though they’re steering-wheel mounted, rather than on the steering column. We climb.
These are the roads I grew up on, intestinal loops of off-camber, often slippery asphalt, patchworked with hasty repairs, rumpled, rutted, rippled, dimpled and undulating. I have ridden the school bus on them, have sat shotgun in my Dad’s ’85 535i as we flew along through tree-dappled sunlight, have nursed a recalcitrant Land Rover along at imprudent speeds during my rash teenage years, have driven them home in the first car I paid for with my own money.
Dad taught me to drive here in that stick-shift E28, and here I am taking him for a ride in one of the finest pieces of machinery ever engineered. We blast along winding, sunny country roads with snow-capped mountains and frost-coated fields as the backdrop, whipping up red-and-yellow vortices of fallen leaves to swirl in our wake. If this is all beginning to sound a bit like a Porsche commercial, that’s pretty much how it felt.
With a dual-clutch gearbox, all-wheel-drive and a hefty price tag, this 911 invites direct comparison to the Nissan GT-R. In fact, picking Godzilla over this car (as optioned) would leave about $10K remaining in your jeans. As a kid, I would have said it was a no-brainer: the car that boasts the better numbers is the better car.
However, I’ve had a reasonable amount of seat-time in Nissan’s scalp-taker, and it’s a very angry, impatient, heavy thing. Where the GT-R stomps, crushing curving tarmac like a steamroller with R-compounds, the 911 fairly dances along the roads.
The Porsche has a taut, sinewy feel as you feed it into a corner and then squeeze the throttle out, feeling a slight hip-pivot caused by the mild pendulum effect of that rear-mounted engine. We’re not hurrying, simply flowing through well-known and well-worn twists and turns, watching for slippery patches and keeping an eye out for neighbours out on horseback. The roads remain abandoned.
I slow as we come to a corner where I remember a past winter’s ice, and sure enough, some badly dug ditchwork has allowed twin rivulets to flow across the steeply pitched road and freeze into thin and splintered sheets. Just for a lark, I lightly goose the throttle from low speed as the 911 picks its way across the ice-patch gingerly, shifting the power around like a cat lifting and shaking its paws as it walks across a wet floor. The result is undramatic: this car is equipped with the new electrically-controlled all-wheel-drive system out of the 997 Turbo, capable of putting 100% of the power to either axle. As the front wheels grip dry tarmac, I’m temporarily piloting a front-wheel-drive 911. Blasphemy.
It’s also capable of an incredible standing start with launch control activated. After stopping to take a quick picture I test it out: Sport+ button engaged. Stand on the brake pedal, bury the throttle in the carpet. 6500rpm. Release the brake.
The result? 0-60 in 4.6 seconds and some seriously impressed Herefords. Or they could be bored. Or hungry. Cattle are a pretty inscrutable lot.
I could drive this car here forever, endlessly looping these empty roads, but this is a fleeting moment and it’s time to return to reality and hand the keys back. But not before handing out one more free ride.
On our way back to the city, we stop in to see a very good friend who is completely useless about cars. His son is just turning five, and is somehow developing into a full-fledged gearhead despite his dad’s neglected Honda Civic and practical minivan. The house is littered with Hot Wheels and Pixar characters. Does he want to go for a ride?
Seconds later, we’re all strapped in, windows down with the heat on full. Bang-bang-bang through the gears and then hard on the brakes as we all dissolve into helpless, joyous laughter. “Uncle Brendan, this car is more fun than I thought it was going to be,” I’m informed with all the irony-free seriousness that the only the very young can manage. Amen to that.
You can buy a 911 in eighteen different flavours, and while this car skews slightly from the way I’d pick mine (skip the PDK, spec an “S”, hold off on the all-wheel-drive and sat-nav and spend the money on driving lessons instead), it’s still a very special car. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.
The new 991 is already here, and I can’t wait to drive it and compare it to the low-mile 993 I drove a few weeks ago, and to this, last hurrah of the 997. The truth of this car? If you save up and manage to swing the lease payments, or pick a used one up with 30K on the clock for the same price as a new STi, then you will discover the same thing I have. Just occasionally, there is meat behind the legend. Just occasionally, the reputation is earned.
Porsche provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.