The new-generation 911 is here – and as Andrew Frankel discovers in a pre-launch early taster, Porsche’s icon traditions are all in order. But has the best just got better?
This is always quite a moment, and it doesn’t happen very often. Okay, once every seven years might not exactly be Halley’s Comet, but a new 911 is a new 911, and for lovers of the world’s most significant and – I think we can use the word – iconic sports car, the anticipation is akin to waiting for a new Bond to make his debut. You know the basic formula will remain the same – a 911 is no more going to lose the flat six in its boot than 007 will be relieved of his licence to kill, but everything else is up for grabs.
What direction will it take? I once described its 991 predecessor as a 911 for someone who didn’t want to drive a 911, and I stand by that. Its consummate skill was to look like a 911 but drive like a civilised sporting coupé right up to the point where those interested only in the image it projected would tread no further. Beyond that point and for those who love to drive, it became a 911 again. Neat trick, that.
But I thought it had gone far enough, especially when quite excellent but nevertheless still turbocharged engines introduced at facelift time attenuated its character still further. Those engines are still there in the Carrera S and 4S models I drove that are the only variants available at launch, albeit with bigger turbos, new management and myriad other external changes, and their outputs tickled up 30bhp to a previous GTS-matching 444bhp. But the rest of the car, or at least 85% according to its chief engineer August Achleitner, is new.
Like a new James Bond, you know the formula will remain the same
That said, there are three good reasons to suspect Porsche is not going to send this new 992 model off in a dramatically different direction. First, while sales might be a tiny fraction of what Porsche can shift in SUVs, the 911 simply is Porsche and it cannot be risked. It provides the company with a credibility and authenticity whose importance stretches far beyond the showroom. Porsche without the 911 is a Bond movie without a Bond: you might make a great film, it might have a wonderful cast, but it ain’t Bond.
Second is Achleitner himself. He is the man who turned the frankly pretty patchy 996 into the rather wonderful 997 and has been responsible for every mainstream 911 to be launched in the past 18 years. But retirement beckons and the 992 is his last car, and it’s hard to see him varying such a successful formula so late in the day.
Finally, there is the fact that 911 eras come in pairs, and have done for the past 30 years. Porsche launches a whole new car, which then gives birth to a child; an entirely distinct entity for sure, but clearly still a close blood relative. So as the 964 begat the 993, so too was the absolutely all new 996 the parent of the 997. So no surprises then that the 992 sprang from the loins of the 991, whose wheelbase it retains. It will be 2025 before a new 911 is launched from scratch, by which time the world of premium sports cars will be a dramatically different and possibly predominately electrically powered place in which the 911 will have to shape a home.
For now, though, join me at a cold and greasy Hockenheim circuit where a Racing Yellow Carrera 2S with an all-new eight-speed PDK gearbox awaits. A seven-speed manual is coming later in the year. It’s a great-looking car, better to my eyes than the already pretty gorgeous second generation of the 991. Those flush door handles look like a gimmick, but I like the widened (by 44mm) front track and the little recess in the bonnet as a cap doff to its air-cooled ancestors.
I’m less sure about the interior, where an analogue central tachometer and chunky retro-themed switchgear sit uncomfortably amid the increasingly obligatory expanses of TFT screening. It’s as if Porsche realised the cabin was in danger of looking too modern and generic and felt the need to pull it back a bit, with the result that it looks a trifle contrived inside.
But it seems to have done an outstanding job with the engineering. Physically the car is both longer and wider, the old standard body width having now been abandoned. It has 20kg of particulate filters the 991 did not need, eight gears rather than seven, and enough space to slot a hybrid drive between the engine and gearbox when electrical assistance arrives in 2022. Add to that the usual weight gain from increased feature content and you’d not be surprised to learn its mass had spiralled. Which is why this is the first production 911 whose outer body panels are now all made from aluminium, and why steel content in the structure beneath has been cut from 63% to just 30%. The result? A model-for-model weight gain of just 20kg.
The 992 Carrera S is better in every way: easier, faster, funnier
I’ll say now that getting access to the 992 sufficiently early to have this story ready to publish before anyone invited on the official launch has driven it an inch means I was not able to drive it on roads other than those that skirt the perimeter of Hockenheim, so there’s a sizeable component of this car’s character that remains unknown, and will do so until Matt Prior’s road-based report here. But there’s plenty still to learn here.
And perhaps most important of all is that despite its new platform, its quicker steering, revised suspension, different-sized wheels front to back and fresh interior, it still feels like a 911. Yes, there’s the inimitable noise, the low-slung driving position and the visual cue of that central rev counter, but to me it’s more about the brevity of the wheelbase and the way that as a result, even with optional four-wheel steering to muddy the issue, the new 911 addresses the road. Although the 911 has grown over the years and its wheelbase has grown with it, the distance between its front and rear wheels remains closer to that of a 50-year-old 911S than it does to a modern rival such as the Audi R8. A Ford Ka has a longer wheelbase.
Even on a track, which always blunts the sensation of speed, the 992 feels stunningly fast. This car has the optional Sport Chrono pack that provides it a 0-62mph time of just 3.5sec, which to an old goat like me seems preposterously rapid bearing in mind that this is likely to be the second-slowest 911 in the completed range. The ratios in the new PDK are shorter in the lower gears and taller in the higher gears and the shift speeds in Sport Plus mode are outstanding: if a GT3 RS can swap a cog materially quicker, I’d be surprised.
The engine seems quieter than before, but that might just be my perception out here, all alone on this vast concrete facility. Short of snow and ice, conditions are as bad as they can be – a brief outbreak of sun notwithstanding. In some parts the track is dry, in others where rivulets run across the road in braking areas, it might as well be flooded. The rest is conventionally wet or damp and all of it cold enough to ensure no heat will be injected into its fat Pirellis. But hooning through a 100mph left-hand kink, the 992 feels spectacularly assured, sufficiently so to make me laugh out loud at the thought that some people still think ‘911’ to be a byword for treachery. Accelerate up to 125mph, then onto the brakes and into a flood. Momentarily there is no steering, which is interesting, but grip is re-established so rapidly it feels barely a shrug of the shoulders to the car, whatever it might have done to my blood pressure.
There’s a specialist ‘wet’ mode making its debut on this 911 – essentially the car knows when the surface is damp, not just because you have the wipers on, but by reading and listening to the road, detecting the different sounds it makes when wet. It then adapts the chassis, powertrain and stability systems to suit. But in the laps we have and with the job that needs doing, there’s no time to play with such niceties. After one familiarisation lap, everything gets turned off and the 992 allowed full freedom of expression.
And it is outstanding. I ran this car’s exact predecessor – a gen 2 991 Carrera S with PDK – for nearly a year and a fine-handling car it was, but at least around Hockenheim in perilously tricky conditions, the 992 has moved the game again. I’ll remember two things in particular: the lack of understeer on turn in (thank the widened front track for that) and the way it then lets you choose how to come out of the corner. If you can keep it clean and use that monster rear-end traction, it can make you look all
professional, emerging with just enough oversteer to allow you to return the wheel to dead ahead long before the corner is finished, or you can jab it loose with the throttle, park the tail in a different postcode, power on and slide and slide and slide.
There are still secrets here waiting to be unveiled on the public road. But I can tell you this: as a thing to get in and drive as fast as you possibly can, the 992 Carrera S is better in every way than its predecessor: easier, faster, funnier – better. If it can fulfil that other role so crucial to the 911’s existence for the past 56 years and also prove to be a quieter, more comfortable and better daily driver, Herr Achleitner can retire proud and content that his parting shot was also his best. We’ll know next week. A
WHY TWO IS STILL MORE FUN THAN FOUR
I’ve struggled for 30 years to understand why people would choose a slower, thirstier, more expensive 911 just because it has a couple of extra driveshafts, and driving the C4S on the track brings me no closer to enlightenment.
It’s bloody good, its steering unpolluted by wheels that must drive as well as steer, and unless you were to step straight from a C4S into a CS, you might wonder how it could feel much better. But it can: although it must have a more optimal weight distribution, you can feel the extra 50kg it carries.
More significant is its behaviour in the corners. While the S is happy to be driven any damn way you want to drive, the 4S likes to be kept neat and you’d be well advised to do as you are bade. It is naturally far harder to wrench loose than the S but, once it started oversteering, I found it far harder to control. Yes, I know typical 4S drivers don’t hoon around wet tracks with all the systems disabled, so I concede this is just a small fragment of an altogether bigger picture. But nor did it do anything to alter my age-old belief that unless you live in a US snow state or down the end of a particularly steep and muddy path, you’re better off saving your money and getting an S instead.