Monday, 9 May 2011

Porsche 911 Carrera 4S cabriolet - All around supercar

If there’s such a thing as an all-around supercar, the Porsche 911 has held that title for several decades running now. In production and constantly evolving since 1963, the 911 has become a rolling technological tour de force wrapped in a skin that most casual observers can recognize, even if the layperson doesn’t always appreciate what it means.

Hardly a year goes by without a round of updated and upgraded improvements to the 911, and 2009 is no exception. The current iteration was introduced in 2005, featuring Porsche’s usual round of comprehensive updates. The Porschephiles call this vehicle by its internal codename, “997,” but for the public at large it’s the latest and greatest 911. For 2009, Porsche has boosted the engine’s horsepower and added an all-new seven-speed double-clutch transmission.

The 911 is perhaps one of the most recognizable high-performance cars on the road, thanks to a design whose basic theme hasn’t changed in two generations. Each passing update makes it sleeker and more aerodynamic, but the 911’s silhouette is still vaguely froglike, with rounded headlamps sweeping back into a dramatically curved greenhouse. The tail is sloped as well, and the Carrera 4 S is slightly wider than the two-wheel drive model. With the roof removed, the 911 is a surprisingly elegant design, with a flush-fitting top stack that’s surprisingly light--at just 77 pounds, it doesn’t have a significant negative effect on performance. Even the ordinary parts are extraordinary on a 911--the headlights are fitted with standard Xenon units, and driving lights, brakelights and taillights are LEDs. Nineteen-inch wheels are standard on the 911 Carrera 4 S.

The cabin is snug, but much more comfortable than one might expect from a dedicated sports car. The 911 has always been the “supercar you could live with,” and the latest iteration is no exception. Ventilated seats are available for the first time, and combined with the available seat heaters mean that 911 passengers are more comfortable in all weather conditions. The available navigation system, Bluetooth connectivity and iPod connections are handled through the 6.5-inch screen of the Porsche Communication Module. There’s even a chronometer on the dash. Why? For recording lap times, of course. The only thing you won’t haul much of in the 911 is luggage; the front trunk is less than five cubic feet, and the space behind the front seats (which is laughably occupied by seats) is only half a cubic foot larger.

If you’re lucky enough to find yourself behind the wheel of a 911, it’s a special experience. You don’t have to be an enthusiast to appreciate the flat-six engine under the rear deck. It does take a moment to get beyond the giddy, star-struck feeling of “Holy crap! I’m driving a 911!” Take a few deep breaths and get that out of your system, though, because there’s a lot to see and experience here, and you don’t want to miss any of it. The standard 911 gets a 345 horsepower 3.6 liter engine, while the Carrera 4 S cabriolet has a 3.8 liter powerplant making 385 horsepower. Fuel economy is also improved, to 18 in the city and 27 on the freeway. Porsche claims a 4.7-second 0-60 run with a manual transmission, and 4.5 seconds with the optional double-clutch automatic. To rein in that accelerative ability, Porsche’s Launch Control is included.

Forget anything you may have heard about this car being hard to drive. The 911 has endless grip and stability, especially in all-wheel drive format. It’s not as twitchy as a Corvette; power delivery is nice and progressive (though not slow by any means!) On the transmission front, the Porsche Doppelkupplungsgetriebe (just call it “PDK”) replaces the Tiptronic selectable automatic in the Carrera 4 and Carrera 4S Cabriolet. The PDK is a seven-speed double-clutch automatic transmission that offers lightning-fast shifts. It’s also lighter than the Tiptronic, for that all-important weight savings. With the PDK transmission in Sport mode, it’s right at home on the track. The PDK transmission is a double-clutch system that actually engages two gears simultaneously. This makes shifts quicker, with no lag while the revs are matched to the next gear. All-wheel drive is handled by the electronic Porsche Traction Management system, borrowed from the 911 Turbo. It replaces a hydraulically-operated system used previously, and helps to increase reaction time and sure-footedness.

The handling is in its own league. The 911 cabriolet is strongly reinforced to give it the same body rigidity as the track-bred hardtop, and the cars are equally adept when the going gets twisty. The suspension is fully independent, and not easily summed up. Up front, a spring strut axle is used, with each wheel individually coil-sprung and mounted on a track arm. The rear uses independent control-track arms for each wheel. The mechanics are complicated, but the results are obvious: the 911 grips the road with unmatched tenacity. It’s not immediately obvious from the styling, but the 911 is blessed with an extremely wide track, which helps to keep it planted as firmly as if it were riding on rails. Porsches have always been known for good braking, but that didn’t stop the engineers from improving the 911’s brakes for 2009. Discs at all four corners measure 12.99 inches, and the four-piston calipers are shared with the 911 Turbo.

The Porsche 911 is a constantly evolving yet approachable supercar. As a measure of how far this car has come, consider the Gemballa Avalanche of the 1980s. This radically-modified 911 was one of the legends of its day, reportedly so powerful it was almost undriveable. The new 911 Carrera 4S has about fifty horsepower more than the Gemballa Avalanche did, yet it’s docile enough to be easily driven on city streets. The Porsche mystique is backed up by real performance, and that makes the $102,900 base price of the Carrera 4 S cabriolet a bit easier to swallow. The PDK transmission adds another $4050 to the bottom line; fully optioned, my tester stickered for $120,100. It’s rare that I say this about any six-figure automobile, but: this one’s worth it.

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