For the last few years, I’ve been actively avoiding the opportunity to drive a Porsche 911. There’s a good reason for this, namely fear. Not of the car itself, but of that crushing feeling called disappointment.
Allow me to explain. I’m fortunate enough to park a used air-cooled 911 in my one-car garage, and that machine owns my heart. The last thing I’ve wanted to do is get emotionally seduced by a new-gen 911, which with its wider, longer stance, mod-cons and bank-vault build surely would make my beloved sports car feel like an old dog-mauled loafer. But it was time to suck it up and see what Porsche had wrought with a car that, with its recently notched 50th anniversary, has achieving nothing short of icon status.
The red 2013 911 Carrera S Coupe (priced at an eye-watering $98,900) that appeared at the door seemed to tiptoe in compared to my snorting 993. This would be a preview of civilized things to come, as the new 911 showed at every turn how the folks in Zuffenhausen have incorporated elements of other automotive success stories - the Cayenne’s practicality, Panamera’s panache and Cayman’s road manners - into their venerable flagship.
Change has come fast and furious to the 911 since Porsche broke with tradition after the last air-cooled 993 rolled off the assembly line in 1998. In the 15 years since, the car went through some growing pains (namely the 996’s slab-sided styling and uninspiring sound) until it found solid footing with the attractive, growling 997. But with the newest iteration, 2012’s 991, Porsche decided it was time to tweak a masterpiece. The car grew slightly longer, wider and shorter, the result of which is a noticeably more aggressive stance. Inside, the 991 borrowed heavily from Porsche’s four-door sedan, stealing its sloped center-stack and echoing its impressive finish. But I knew all these stats. It was time to experience them through the lens of the last great air-cooled 911.
Circling the car, the impact is immediate. Certainly the 991 hints at the lauded looks of the 993, but there is no mistaking the fact that the new design is taking this model in a new direction. Think GT, Grand Touring. It’s large and imposing, in the manner of an Aston Martin or Maserati. The spry little rear-engined dream that first appeared in 1963 seems like, well, a Volkswagen Beetle compared to the 991. There’s simply more car here, for better or for worse.
Hopping inside this new 911 is to enter a realm of luxury befitting a $100,000 vehicle. Leather is impeccably smooth, switchgear precise and shiny, and modern electronic gizmos plentiful. The seating position is noticeably different. Where for decades 911 owners sat tall in their seats, which really were almost like chairs, today’s 991 driver sits low. Not Ferrari-slouch, but there’s a deliberate effort being made here to make the motoring experience more sleek and menacing. For me, that led to an immediate ergonomic issue.
This Carrera S shockingly came with a seven-speed manual, which made the comparison to my 993 all the more direct. But the combination of the lowered seating position and the new, sloped center console meant that instead of dropping my right hand to find the shift knob in the palm of my hand, I found myself gripping the stalk of the shifter, with the knob just above my curled thumb. Not ideal. That yielded an added glitch: countless times the heel of my right hand would press down on the console and inadvertently hit the one button you really didn’t want to engage - the hazard lights. The only way to avoid this was to keep your shifting hand raised, which wasn’t natural.
Other quick observations: while I liked that the car’s elegant steering wheel was devoid of buttons - anything that focuses the driver on driving is OK in my book - the stalks that are employed to navigate through various functions can take some getting used to. And while Porsche so far has resisted the trend of having motorists select functions by use of a computer-like mouse, there are simply far too many small buttons on and around the center console to be practical. In this department, the 911’s myriad do-dads makes the minimalist Tesla Model S feel like the Starship Enterprise.
But enough about these superfluous critiques you say, how does it drive?
The 911 has always been about the journey, and in that regard the 991 simply extends the tradition. While the interior is noticeably quieter than past models, that is overcome by hitting the Sport button and making those 400 horses under foot charge to the fore. That aural assault focuses the mind on the task at hand, which is rendered both effortless and engaging thanks to 50 years of engineering practice.
Much has been said about Porsche’s move away from hydraulic steering to electric, and I’m here to report that it’s much ado about nothing. There could be a bit more feel at slower speeds, but otherwise there’s nothing lost in translation from road surface to hands. The massive brakes on the 991 are, again, standard 911 stuff, capable of generating immense confidence in milliseconds. If there is a complaint on that front, it’s simply that my test car’s brakes seemed overly grabby, a mere toe-tap of the brake pedal causing the car to buck abruptly, and making smooth braking a bit of a conscious chore. But perhaps there are break-in issues that will get that sorted.
As for shifting, it was appropriately notchy and positive, though I would have preferred shorter throws for a more slot-car-like experience. Perhaps that doesn’t matter much since the bulk of Porsche’s products get ordered with the company’s justifiably praised seven-speed PDK paddle-shift unit.
So the days flew by, with the 991 making short shrift of a number of celebrated winding roads in and around Marin County, Calif. The car is just so easy to drive well fast that it encourages those proverbial circuitous trips to the grocery store. And as much as the shape of the 911 has morphed over the past few decades, it remains undeniably a 911, something that gets nods and shrieks from adults and kids respectively. In a world of constant technology-driven change, it’s downright thrilling to engage with a long-standing product whose mantra has been evolution not revolution.
So what about my big fear, that I’d come back to my 993 and be disappointed?
Well yes, I do notice those age-driven creaks and squeaks more, and while I recently replaced and improved upon the car’s stock suspension, it is no match for the 991’s new gear and larger footprint. There’s a lot of rocking and rolling going on in my old car, and that’s with the stereo off.
But I’m still in love. With the upright seating position, the perfectly positioned shifter and a driving experience that seems just one degree removed from the track. An old air-cooled 911 isn’t for everyone. But that’s why I’m thrilled with the newfangled 991. It keeps the old dream alive for a new generation of drivers.