2004 Porsche 911 Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
There is no substitute.
The Porsche 911 is the quintessential high-performance sports car and has been for as long as we can remember. A lot of driving enthusiasts grew up wanting one. This iconic machine celebrates it 40th anniversary in 2004, and it remains the standard by which other sports cars are judged.
The legend of the Porsche 911 is no myth. The current version delivers the latest engine and chassis technology and better performance than all but a few exotic cars available in North America. What's really impressive, though, is how easy it is to drive a 911. It's more user-friendly than a Ferrari, a Chevrolet Corvette or a Dodge Viper, and it's easier to live with as a daily driver. The 911 makes a better daily driver than the Porsche Boxster, as well. Porsche rightfully prides itself on the 911's wash-and-wear quality. As true high-performance sports cars go, the 911 has a reputation for being nearly bullet-proof, and there's very little about it that's finicky.
The wide array of 911s available might create some confusion among buyers beginning to explore the world of Porsche. Yet each of the 11 models is really a variation on, or a grade of, one primary theme, and any of them is an outstanding performer.
Handling and braking are extraordinary. Steering is quick and direct, yet the 911 isn't darty, and it feels as secure as Fort Knox at twice the legal limit. It rides smoothly and more softly than you might expect; it's comfortable in daily use and relatively easy to climb into and out of. The six-speed manual gearbox is wonderfully satisfying to use. With the optional Tiptronic automatic, just about anyone can drive one of these cars. And that sound! Porsche has revived the classic 911 exhaust note, and car enthusiasts will mistake it for nothing else.
Today's 911 bears little resemblance to the air-cooled, tail-heavy original, which had much in common with the Volkswagen Beetle. The handling quirks in 911s built, say, 10 years ago, have been virtually eliminated. But the 911 hasn't change overnight. Its history is one of periodic overhauls, spaced between steady, constant improvement, sometimes in the middle of a model year.
When Porsche says racing improves the breed, it's more than advertising fodder. The 911 is built on race-proven architecture. Two years ago, its body structure was stiffened and its front end was restyled to make all 911s look more like the highline 911 Turbo, and less like the less-expensive Boxster. The 911's rear-mounted, 3.6-liter horizontally opposed six-cylinder engine was enlarged and upgraded in both turbo and non-turbo versions. The base normally aspirated engine, which comes on all Carrera and Targa models, delivers an impressive 315 horsepower.
For most of us, these normally aspirated models are more than quick enough, and they cost significantly less than turbocharged 911s. The Carrera Coupe, the least expensive 911, can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in less than 5 seconds, according to Porsche, very quick indeed. If you want more, the 415-horsepower 911 Turbo can accelerate to 60 in about 4 seconds, with a top speed of 189 mph, but at significant cost. The lighter, race-inspired GT2 delivers even quicker performance and a top speed of 195. The GT3, a stripped-down 911 introduced in 2003 for easy racing homologation, is the most powerful non-turbocharged Porsche has ever offered for street use in North America. It accelerates from 0 to 60 in just 4.3 seconds, with a track speed of 190. The GT models aren't ideal for street use, though.
For 2004, there are minor changes across the 911 lineup, as well as two new models. At the lower end, there are new performance options, including a locking rear differential, new colors and new wheel designs. Moving up the scale, the GT2 turbo engine has been tweaked to a whopping 477 horsepower, with suspension and brake improvements to match. And for the first time in 15 years, Porsche offers a 911 Tu.
With no less than 11 iterations of the Porsche 911 available in 2004, the choices might seem a little intimidating. Allow us to simplify things a bit. Assuming you can't justify the $40,000-$50,000 price premium for the Turbo, and you're not ready for the rougher, highly focused GT2 or GT3 models, it really comes down to whether you want a hardtop, a convertible, or the Targa with its unique sliding glass roof and rear hatch. Then you have to choose between rear-wheel drive and all-wheel drive. Finally, you have to choose the excellent six-speed manual transmission or the superb five-speed Tiptronic automatic.
Okay, there's one more choice in 2004. You'll also have to decide whether you want to pay $20,0000 extra for about $10,000 more content in the limited-run 40th Anniversary 911, with the hope that it might be collectable at some point in the future.
The Carrera and Targa models all come with the same normally aspirated (non-turbo) engine rated at 315 horsepower at 6800 rpm and 273 pounds-feet of torque at 4250. Porsche's six-speed manual gearbox is standard; the five-speed Tiptronic S automatic ($3,420) is optional.
The Carrera Coupe ($68,600) is rear-wheel drive, and it's the least expensive 911. It's lighter and therefore slightly quicker than most other Carreras. The 911 Carrera Coupe is sometimes called the C2, or Carrera 2, for Carrera 2WD.
The Targa ($76,000) features a giant sliding power glass roof that opens nearly twice the size of the standard sunroof of the Carrera Coupe. It's also the first 911 with a rear hatch, which eases access to the storage space behind the front seats and expands cargo capacity slightly.
Carrera Cabriolet ($78,400) features a fully automatic convertible top, which folds into its stowage space in 20 seconds with one button. All 911 Cabriolets come standard with a removable hardtop and a wind deflector that reduces turbulence in the cockpit when the top is lowered.
The Carrera Coupe, Cabriolet and Targa come standard with a digital stereo and in-dash CD player, automatic climate control, heated power mirrors, leather-faced seats with power recliners, power windows with one-touch auto up/down, a telescoping steering wheel, anti-theft system and trip computer. LEDs gently illuminate the door handles, ignition switch, and light switch.
In 2004, Porsche will build a maximum 1963 Carrera 40th Anniversary 911 models ($89,800). These are essentially Carrera Coupes with engines tweaked to 345 horsepower and a standard locking differential to improve traction and optimize acceleration. They also include Porsche Stability Management (PSM) antiskid electronics. All 40th Anniversary cars will be painted metallic silver, with bi-xenon headlights and special 18-inch wheels, sill trim and badging.
The Carrera 4 Cabriolet ($84,000) adds all-wheel drive to the convertible. Its styling is shared with the Carrera 2 models. Porsche's slick AWD adds less than 200 pounds to the car's weight, and it directs anywhere from 5 percent to 40 percent of the power to the front wheels, depending on available traction and how hard the driver is pushing down on the throttle. The all-wheel-drive system is not intended to merely serve as an all-weather traction assistant. Instead, it is designed to help the driver handle unexpected curves and bends. Porsche Stability Management is standard on the Carrera 4 Cabriolet.
The Carrera 4S ($83,400) combines the 315-hp normally aspirated 911 Carrera engine with the 911 Turbo's body design and feature content. It shares the Turbo's suspension, all-wheel-drive layout, huge brakes, and larger wheels and tires. Only well-trained eyes can distinguish the Carrera 4S from the Turbo. The C4S Cabriolet ($93,200) is a Carrera 4S with a convertible top.
The all-wheel-drive 911 Turbo ($118,400) gets Porsche's race-derived 415-hp twin-turbocharged engine and all-wheel drive. It develops an awesome 415 pound-f.
Its classic lines have landed the Porsche 911 in art museums and design school lecture halls. This is, by just about any standard, a great-looking car. Porsche has refined the 911 body several times during its 40-year history, but the roofline and windshield weren't changed until 1999, when the 911 had the first clean-sheet redesign since its introduction. Even with that, the familiar 911 profile and styling cues remain.
Carrera models were restyled in 2002 to look more like the 911 Turbo. This latest update reshaped the headlights and front end and widened rear quarter panels. One goal was differentiating the 911 from the less-expensive Porsche Boxster, but the changes were more than cosmetic (Porsche takes aerodynamics seriously, and when you design your cars to be stable at 180 mph or beyond, you probably have to). New front air intakes increased airflow to the radiators by 15 percent. Reshaping the front wheel arches and adding small flexible spoilers ahead of the front wheels reduced aerodynamic lift by 25 percent at the front and 40 percent at the rear. New air intake ducts enhanced front brake cooling, while a new under-floor duct enhanced transmission cooling by 20 percent. The rear spoiler deploys automatically at higher speeds, when more downforce is advised.
All 911s have the classic staggered tires, with larger ones in back to manage the horsepower and balance overall grip. The standard aluminum alloy wheels measure 17x7 inches in front with 205/50ZR17 tires and 17x9-inch rear with 255/40ZR17 tires. Optional packages mount 18x8-inch wheels with 225/40ZR18 tires in front, and 18x10-inch wheels with 285/30ZR18s in back.
The 911 Turbo is distinguished from the Carrera models by three large intakes that dominate the lower front fascia and provide cooling air to the car's three radiators. The Turbo also has a wider stance, particularly at the rear, where its fenders spread 2.6 inches wider to accommodate even larger rear wheels and tires (295/30ZR18s on 18x11-inch rims). Air scoops integrated into the leading edges of the rear fenders channel cool air to the turbo intercoolers, while louvers in the sides of the rear cover let the hot air out. The engine compartment lid carries a two-piece rear wing, the upper part of which automatically rises at speeds above 75 mph and lowers at 50 mph.
The Carrera 4S looks almost exactly like the Turbo. It shares the Turbo's wide rear stance, but lacks the side intake ducts, and retains the automatic-deploying rear spoiler from the 911 Carrera. From the rear, the C4S is distinguished by its own glass-reinforced plastic decklid with a reflector strip connecting the taillights.
Though thoroughly modernized in this fourth-generation 911, the interior is unmistakably Porsche. The driving position is perfect for most enthusiast drivers' tastes, with lots of lateral bolstering for spirited driving. The 911, surprisingly perhaps, is a truly comfortable car for traveling long distances, much more so than the Boxster. Visibility is superb all around and instruments are an attractive, quick read. The ignition key is on the left, a tradition carried from an era when Le Mans starts required drivers to run across the pit lane to their car, jump in and take off, fastening their harnesses as they headed onto the front straight.
The 911's cockpit is cleanly designed, well executed and nicely finished with exacting tolerances. Yet it's geared to the business of driving, preferably at a good clip. While it features most of the conveniences, we're reluctant to call it luxurious. Porsche upgraded the appearance and feel of interior materials for 2000, applying a special soft-touch grain to the console, door trim, instrument panel and other areas. Aluminum-colored trim for the shifter, door handles and handbrake release button lends a touch of classic sports car elegance. The standard automatic climate control comes with an activated charcoal odor filter. The Carrera 4S and Turbo have full leather interior, with richer trim on the dash and center surround.
Stereos have never been one of Porsche's strengths, in our view. To the company's credit, it has improved its audio systems considerably in recent years, to the point where the upgrade Bose system is finally competitive with some of the better stereos in other cars.
As comfortable as it is, the Porsche 911 is a sports car. That means dry cleaning gets laid on the back seat. That back seat is not really fit for people, it's better used as a shelf for big grocery runs. Luggage capacity is not the 911's forte. Carreras can carry 4.6 cubic feet of cargo in the front trunk and 7.1 cubic feet in the rear with the seats folded. By comparison, a Corvette can carry 13.3 cubic feet, all in one spot, and that's enough for a couple of big duffle bags. When it came time to pick someone up at the airport, we left a Carrera 4 at home and took a Range Rover. Porsche does offer a roof transport system ($400) that allows the 911 coupes to carry lumber and other bulky items.
The Cabriolet's insulated soft top folds compactly into a compartment behind the rear seats. It features a glass rear window with integrated defroster (some other expensive convertibles still use clear vinyl), and it can be operated at speeds up to 25 mph. A spring-loaded supplemental safety bar structure sits hidden behind the seats, ready to deploy automatically in the unlikely event of a rollover. All 911 Cabriolets come with a removable wind deflector that reduces buffeting when the top is lowered, and a removable aluminum hardtop with a heated rear window. The hardtop can be deleted for credit.
The Targa features a glass roof panel that really lets the sun in. A cloth sunblind helps reduce heat and glare when the roof is closed, but only partially. Be sure you want that much sun all the time. I don't. When the glass roof opens, it slides under the rear window. I found it impeded rearward vision. A wind deflector deploys to reduce turbulence in the cabin, and sliding the cloth screen in place helps keep in heat when it's cold. Unlike the other 911s, the Targa features a glass rear hatch that provides convenient access to the rear luggage compartment. Its design allows 8.1 cubic feet of cargo space, compared to 7.1 cubic feet in the Carrera Coupe.
The Porsche 911's overall performance is nothing short of extraordinary, and that assessment applies to all variants. All have excellent grip, phenomenal stopping ability and thrilling acceleration, yet they are remarkably smooth for daily motoring.
The sound of the engine is the first thing you notice after twisting the key. It's fantastic, and even better under hard acceleration. Sports car enthusiasts can easily recognize a Porsche by its sound, whether it's driving by on a country road or roaring past at Le Mans. All modern 911 engines are water cooled, but they retain the unique exhaust note we grew up with. The sound of a throttle blip during downshifts will make any driver feel like Hans Stuck.
That fantastic sound of a Porsche engine revving is accompanied by massive and immediate throttle response. The thrust provided by the standard Carrera engine is intoxicating. It made me want to push the throttle to the floor every time the car left the apex of a turn, just to feel it accelerate out of the corner like I was powering out of Tertre Rouge onto the Mulsanne Straight.
The steering can make the driver feel like the 911 is a soul mate, not an inanimate machine. It's very precise, so you can put the tires exactly where you want them, and it will always let you know how the front tires are gripping. This is one of many aspects that differentiates the 911 from Corvettes and Vipers. Yet the 911 is stable and steady at high speeds. The 911 is never darty, nor does it require constant corrections.
The 911 skims very nicely over rough pavement. Indeed, it's relatively supple ride may be what separates it most immediately from the typical high-performance sports cars. You know the bumps are there, certainly, but they're seldom jarring or intrusive. Some hardcore Porsche old-timers say this refinement comes at a price, and that this latest-generation 911, with its fully independent rear suspension, has lost some of its feel. But we think the 911, regardless of model, offers plenty of feedback. You can sense the rear weight bias and you can actually feel the changing amounts of grip the front tires have as the car goes through an undulating corner. And of course, the smooth ride is relative. The 911 GT2 and GT3, with their race-inspired suspension tuning, are much stiffer, louder and bouncier on public roads.
The two-wheel-drive models do have more trailing throttle oversteer than the all-wheel-drive models. That means that if you suddenly lift off the throttle in the middle of a turn, the weight shifts forward and the rear end lightens. Abruptly lifting off of the throttle while cornering hard in the middle of an on-ramp caused the rear of a Targa to come out a bit. It was easily controllable, but an all-wheel-drive Carrera 4S did not do the same thing during a similar maneuver. Having said that, the Carrera 2 is very forgiving, not like the wicked 911s of old.
The Carrera 4S may offer better accident avoidance capabilities than any other car on the road. First of all, it has excellent brakes. Huge brake rotors and one-piece, four-piston calipers derived from Porsche's race cars, along with excellent weight distribution and massive tire contact patches, allow it to generate incredible braking forces. As a result, it scrubs off speed in no time. Its anti-lock brake system is excellent, allowing the driver to steer around the problem while braking at the threshold. Moreover, the brakes continue to work in top form after repeated high-speed stops that will ignite the brake-pad bonding agent on lesser cars. Porsche requires brakes to provide 25 consecutive full-force stops without fade. Yet they are easy to modulate in normal, lazy driving.
While the Carrera 4 offers superior traction on slippery surfaces, Porsche designed its all-wheel drive system as much for improved performance on dry pavement. The AWD adds some weight and a substantial amount of money to the price, but it also i.
There are other sports cars with high levels of performance. And there are other cars with panache and mystique similar to that of the Porsche 911. You might argue that a Ferrari has more sex appeal, or that the more brutish nature of a Dodge Viper is what high-performance cars are really about. And you might be right.
But those arguments don't really apply. By any objective measure, the Porsche 911 is truly one of the world's finest sports cars. The Viper might beat it on a dragstrip (or in One Lap of America). The Ferrari 360 Modena might sing more sweetly when it's wound up at ultra-high revs. And certainly a Corvette delivers overall value that's hard for any of these sports cars to beat. But no sports car can match the 911's combination of chassis sophistication, power, overall balance, tight, rugged build quality and general livability. And the 911 does that without sanitizing all the fun out of the package.
The Porsche 911 is precision machinery. It is easy to drive, and very easy to live with. Perhaps best of all, satisfaction with the 911 will likely increase with time. You'll grow to like it more, not less, and that quality can be hard to come by in today's throwaway world. As they say, there is no substitute.
Porsche 911 Carrera Coupe ($68,600); Targa ($76,000); Carrera Cabriolet ($78,400); Carrera 40th Anniversary ($89,000); Carrera 4 Cabriolet ($84,000); Carrera 4S ($83,400); Carrera 4S Cabriolet ($93,200); Turbo ($118,400); Turbo Cabriolet ($128,200); GT3 ($99,900); GT2 ($191,700).
Options As Tested
metallic paint ($825); Porsche Stability Management anti-skid system ($1,235); Power Seat Package ($1,550) includes dual power front seats with power height, length and backrest adjust, dual adjust lumbar supports, driver's seat memory; 18-in. light alloy Carrera wheels ($1435) includes P225/40ZR18 front tires, P285/30/ZR18 rear tires; floor mats ($115).
Porsche 911 Carrera Coupe ($68,600).
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