Porsche 911 Carrera 4S review
With the new 991-generation car, Porsche has created the most usable, spacious - not to mention largest - 911 ever. The Carrera 4S model - recently added to the range and often abbreviated as "C4S" - not only offers the slightly pimped-up aesthetic of a wider body than "lesser" 911 models, but the security of four-wheel drive. When you've got 400 horsepower and the vagaries of the British weather to deal with, this should turn the 911 into a usable proposition for all 365 days of the year.
Primarily though, we're testing the Porsche 911 Carerra 4S because the 911 is 50 years old in 2013. After five decades, we wanted to ask the question - what is it about the 911 that has made it such an enduring part of the automotive scene?
The epitome of design evolution
For some, a 911 is their everyday car - though not many, we hasten to add. But despite its ubiquity the 911 is still a car to get excited about the prospect of driving.
As we watch the number plate inch out of the trailer it arrived in and the 911 rolls out and onto the road, the sense of excitement builds - like Christmas morning when you're greeted with a pile of presents under the tree.
The review model's "lime gold" paint work glints in the summer light, looking nothing like as bad as it appears later when we're flicking through the photos. It's set off on this car by a pair of giant, black-painted 20-inch sport alloys. The 911 - the sports car that for twenty years has resisted the move to a more aggressive look - now looks pretty mean to us. From some angles it's bug-eyed, from others it's got those inverse eyebrows of aggression.
Over the years the 911 has evolved and the C4S shows that - it's lower, longer, and wider - but yet it's still unmistakably a 911: Those round front lights; the low hood; that subtle, non-shouty front grill; the small glasshouse and dropping roofline - which becomes the tail. Each element could belong to no other car. See it in silhouette, and it could only be a 911. On this wide-body version, the car's got real hips too. And we'd probably pick the Carerra 4S out of the models available just to get that evocative, full-width red reflector that links the tail lights. At night, illuminated by LED light pipes, they look truly stunning.
But it's the inside that you'll spot where things have really moved on since the last generation of 911. Our car's agate and pebble grey two-tone leather colour combo might sound horrendous, but looks great. The quality has taken a real step up. The carpets feel deep, the leather expensive, the buttons and switches all clack with a cohesive weight to them that you might expect from a brand with the motorsport history and heritage of Porsche.
An everyday proposition
Yet perhaps one reason the 911 has endured so long is because of its everyday utility. You can get the seat super low, yet getting in and out is actually easier than something like an Audi TT because the sill isn't that wide or high.
Small details abound in the cabin. Your water bottle sits close to hand, rather than hogging space in the centre console, thanks to the dedicated fold-out dashboard drinks holders - a sign that, unlike other German manufacturers, Porsche hasn't started to cost-cut the fine little details just yet. Same goes for the flip-out door bins.
It always surprises us how overlooked practicality is with many sports cars - perhaps because there's an assumption that their owners have several cars and only use the high performance ones as toys. But if you own something as good as this, why wouldn't you want to use it everyday? Just take a look at David Duchovny's Hank Moody in American hit series Californication. 'Nuff said.
That's always been the 911's party trick. You can actually put kids in it because it's got back seats. On one shopping trip we managed to get the front-positioned boot to swallow a mid-sized suitcase, laptop satchel bag, some bottles of wine bought as presents, along with a suit carrier, coats and a hoody and still has space to spare. Try doing that in a new Jaguar F-Type, or an Audi R8. It turns out you can even get a full-length curtain pole in the cabin, with a bit of jigging about. Everyday super car? That'll be the 911.
A technological tour de force?
Much has been made of the 991 generation's changed character though. Perhaps it is here, in the way it moves and feels, that things will fall down. The 911's move to be more efficient, the electrically power-assisted steering - which apparently robs the rack of feel, the variable dampers and other suspension trickery - have they sent the 911 a bit digital where the nameplate's always had the analogue scratchy qualities of an 8-track? Maybe, maybe not - it's a thing of preference.
The first time you twist the Panamera-shaped key, hear the fast chunter of the starter behind you before the bellow of the flat-six motor fires into life, you'll believe none of it. It sounds anything but restrained and digital. The 'PSE' sports exhaust fitted to this car might not be quite as raucous as the one on a Jaguar F-Type, but for the first 30 seconds on start up from cold, it spits, pops and crackles - your neighbours are going to be in no doubt just what and who is leaving when you depart at 5am.
Our test car came equipped with the optional 7-speed 'PDK' automatic dual clutch gearbox (£2387), together with the lovely-looking sport design steering wheel and paddle shifters (a comparative bargain at £283 all-in). One irritation this creates though is the loss of steering wheel radio controls. It's not a great hardship to drop your hand to the volume knob by the C4S's centre screen, but given that just about every new car comes with wheel controls these days, it's a bit of a shock.
But while the lack of a manual will be bemoaned by some - you can still have one and save yourself the two-grand that the PDK costs - this gearbox is an utter delight. And aided by the adaptive suspension and the ability to toggle between comfort, sport and sport plus settings, the "digitised" 911 gives you the best of all worlds. Relaxed when you need it to be, razor sharp when you're on it and somewhere in between when you're trying not to wake people up while trundling through villages at 6am. And it's this last part we like best. Unlike some manufacturers, you can switch out the sportier exhaust tone and soften down the damper setting - and all while still leaving the transmission in its faster, sports mode.
Equipment levels are reasonably high too - you get the navigation system, leather and fancy dampers all as standard. But even on this car, which tops £100,000 as we've tested it (yup, ouch), cruise control and DAB radio aren't standard - which seems a little bit mean really.
A trip into London from Cambridge provided us with a good test of the touchscreen satnav system. Operated by a low-mounted centre touchscreen, this would normally be a source of a black-mark from us, as it forces you to move your eyeline too low from the road to really see what's going on.
But in the C4S it actually works. Firstly, the rising centre console and position of the gear knob makes for a very neat hand rest from which to point and control the screen. Secondly, the typical Porsche five-dial gauge pack has a digital screen where dial four is - and a secondary column stalk allows you to toggle through display screens from satnav, to music, your mobile phone, trip stats and car set up.
It takes a degree of getting used to at first, but works beautifully. You simply flick up and down to go between the menus, and push it away from you in order to dive deeper into something (such as dialling a phone number, or zooming into the navigation map). To an extent, it makes the centre touchscreen redundant once you've first set things up, and means your eyes are never off the road for long.
The satnav works a treat too. It accepts full post code entries. You need only to worry about losing your license in a 911, not actually getting lost.
You'll still know you're driving a 911
Despite all the digitalisms, there's still raw power here that delivers that undeniable 911 experience.
With the Carerra 4S version of the 911 there's over 400 horsepower, and reaching 60 miles-per-hour in just 4.1 seconds - equipped as our car is - with the optional Sport Chrono Plus pack (£1376), it's nippy. Indeed there's the potential for it prove frustrating in everyday traffic.
That's why we wake up the Porsche (and our neighbours) to go and find some deserted roads in the North Yorkshire Dales early in the morning. Again and again, it's like an addiction.
In the first generations of 911, you'd never take liberties with how you drove the car - the rear-mounted engine and the weight distribution meant that the 911's rear could act like a pendulum, swinging out and biting you if you messed with it into the corners.
But starting to feel cocky - and thinking that over the past 50 years, Porsche has smoothed out this foible of the 911 - we enter one roundabout with a fair amount of speed. The road is wetter than we thought though, so we panic, back off the throttle and in a split second the rear of the car is doing its pendulum thing. It's probably only for a heartbeat, as the combination of stability control and the four-wheel drive system drags us straight before we've even thought about it. But it's a useful reminder - take liberties with the 911 and it will still remind you of just where that engine is located.
Up on the moors, it is utterly beguiling though. It's the engine that really sticks in your mind. The latest 3.8-litre version of the so-called 'DFi' (Direct Fuel Injection) engine revs all the way out to nearly 8000rpm. In the course of getting there, not only does it sling-shot you down the road with the zeal you can well imagine, but goes through an incredible array of noises from a rough chunter at low speeds to an intoxicating howl as it closes in on the red line. Over the last 2000rpm it goes incredibly hard and makes a noise which is just indescribable but which you'll never tire of hearing.
Aided and abetted by the brilliant gearbox, its relatively small size, incredibly strong brakes and the feedback that comes through that seat-of-your-pants kind of ride - if not so much the steering - the Porsche asserts just what a fantastic thing it is to drive. If we owned one, we'd get up at 5am every day to go burn some miles. Some people go jogging, we know what our preference would be.
Yet a more relaxed drive from Leeds to Cambridge also highlighted another 991 character trait - its Jeckyl and Hyde quality. It's quiet, comfortable and refined on the motorway. And the 150-mile trip fuel consumption average shows up at 35 miles per gallon. None too bad.
After 50 years in production, the Carerra 4S epitomises the qualities that helped the Porsche 911 become such an enduring part of the motoring scene.
We left it in a railway station car park on the edge of London overnight, without worrying about just what might become of it. We returned to the same car park at 10.30pm with a 200-mile drive still ahead of us and the Porsche devoured the journey, keeping us not only awake, but smiling. It does the day-to-day brilliantly. Even if you've got a family, the 911's rear seat and front boot mean you don't automatically have to resort to the family wagon for days out.
But above all, that rear engine positioning means there is something different about the way the 911 drives. This is no longer the truly organic experience it was in earlier versions. Modern safety equipment and technology sees to that. Yet the 911 still needs learning to get the most from it - revealing the depth of its character in layers. Ultimately it feels special and the way it behaves, sounds, moves, and does, well, pretty much anything, is truly a joy – and still as close to organic as you get in a modern car.
It may not offer the novelty that an F-Type Jag currently does, or the apparently exotic qualities of an Audi R8. But it is ubiquitous for a reason. You can park it on the street without worrying too much and it will happily sit in traffic all day - yet when the road clears, there is little else we can think of that we'd rather be driving. After 50 years of ongoing development, the Porsche 911 remains the best sports car in the world... even when it's painted in "lime gold".