A 1980 Porsche 911 SC Targa was deposited in my driveway during the spring of 1999. A good friend left it in my care while a contractor remodeled his garage. I'd never driven a Porsche, let alone a 911, but I would tend his car for three full months. With a 3.0-liter flat-6 hung way out back, the 180-horsepower engine was noisy, its open chassis flexible, and the whole thing smelled like dirty motor oil. Regardless of its rudimentary technology and semi-backwards handling tendencies, it was an absolute challenging thrill to drive. One decade later, déjà vu, as a brand-new 2009 Porsche 911 Carrera 4S is sitting in the driveway. A direct descendant of the classic SC, it represents the pinnacle of Porsche engineering and the latest iteration of the rear-engine sports car. A week with the car reveals some surprises, exposes a few pitfalls, and confirms many theories. Read about all of them after the jump...
All photos Copyright © 2009 Michael C. Harley / Weblogs, Inc.
To put a 2009 Porsche 911 Carrera in the garage, you may have to smash several rather large piggy banks. The least expensive model is a standard rear-wheel drive model ("C2" to Porschephiles) with a base price of $75,600. Under the rear bonnet is a capable direct-injection water-cooled 3.6-liter flat-6 engine rated at 345 hp mated to a manual 6-speed transmission. Hardly a slouch, it will crack 60 mph in about 4.5 seconds (Porsche conservatively states 4.7 seconds) and can get you in serious trouble with its top speed of 180 miles-per-hour. The 911 Carrera S gets a bump in displacement with a direct-injected water-cooled 3.8-liter flat-6 rated at 385 hp. With upgraded performance goodies (bigger brakes, electronically minded suspension, etc...), the S will scoot to 60 mph in about 4 seconds flat (Porsche quotes 4.5 seconds) as it heads towards an aerodynamically-limited top speed of 188 mph.
The increased fun of the "S" model starts at $86,200. If you reside in a part of the country that experiences actual weather, or you just happen to like four paws clawing for grip instead of two, the German automaker offers the Carrera in all-wheel-drive guise ("C4"). The full-time performance-oriented AWD system carries a roughly $6,000 premium over the rear-wheel drive model, along with a weight penalty of about 130 pounds. All but transparent in operation, the electronically-controlled system is able to send 100 percent of the engine power to either axle, depending on where it is needed.
Dipped in Porsche "Racing Green Metallic" paint over full "Sand Beige" leather, our 2009 911 Carrera 4S ("C4S") was a real looker. Compared to the standard rear-wheel drive model, the C4S features a red reflector strip between the tail lamps and a nearly two-inch wider rear end. Those fat fenders struggle to hide the massive 11x19-inch rear alloys wrapped in 305/30-19 rubber (front tires are 235/35-19). The classic Porsche lines still remain, even more than four decades after the first 911 rolled off the assembly line. Our all-wheel drive vehicle had a base price of $92,300. Nearly a dozen options (including power comfort seats, XM radio, Bose stereo, and the "You gotta smell this car" full leather package) ratcheted up the tab to $102,855 (including destination). Without a doubt, that is some serious coin regardless of your economic stature.
Cost aside, the iconic Porsche 911 remains the only production vehicle on the market with its engine hanging out beyond the rear wheels. In early 911s, the placement of the powerplant made for very interesting moments if the throttle was dumped mid-corner (Google "911 snap oversteer"). These days, the Germans have massaged, tweaked, and tuned the wild beast into a docile pussycat even in the hands of an inexperienced driver. Don't assume this means Porsche has gone soft. The Carrera 4S will perform as eagerly on a race track as it will during your morning commute.
The 3.8-liter engine buried in the 911's backside may "only" be a flat-6, but any doubt about its masculinity is instantly dismissed once it runs through the swept range of its tachometer. Thanks to excellent pedal placement and a willing transmission, shifts are light, quick, and very accurate. Clutch out with the right pedal to the floor and the Carrera pulls strongly and smoothly up to redline. The sound is pure Porsche mechanical synchronicity – never to be mistaken for the growl of a V8, or a turbine-smooth V12. While a front-engine vehicle sings in stereo (mechanical notes from the front, exhaust notes from the rear), the 911 is monophonic in delivery. All of its audible notes permeate the cabin from behind your spine and work their way up to your ears. The sound of the engine at redline is both enjoyable and enslaving.
All Carrera S models are fitted with Porsche Active Suspension Management (PASM) suspension. Think of the standard suspension as being fixed on a medium setting. The PASM system allows the damping in "Normal" mode to be soft and in "Sport" mode to be firm (along with lowering the car by nearly half-an-inch). Overall, it rides very well without the harshness often associated with most sport suspensions. Unless you find yourself on the grid at your local race circuit, there really isn't a dire need to switch to "Sport" mode, as the intelligent system will immediately stiffen things up if it senses emergency maneuvers, heavy braking, or aggressive driving.
Porsche's "Big Red" brakes are standard on the S models too. The huge 4-piston calipers clamp down on meaty 13-inch cross-drilled and ventilated rotors front and rear. With the vehicle's mass hung optimally low over the rear wheels, braking hunches the car down immediately with expected results. Some cars can brake really hard once or twice before the pedal goes soft, but with stability control and anti-lock assist, the 911 C4S decelerates like it has snagged an arrester cable on the deck of the U.S.S. Carl Vinson. There is no such thing as fade.
Enjoyed on the same mountain roads as the Porsche Cayman S and the Nissan GT-R, the Carrera C4S eagerly dances from corner to corner with aplomb. Sophisticated electronics divided the available traction to effectively blot out nearly all full-throttle wheel spin (as if tire slippage were possible with most of the weight over those two steamrollers in the rear). Under the hardest braking, with the inertia reels in the seatbelts locked by sheer force, the sticky Michelin Pilots only hint at ABS threshold. The non-intrusive traction control system (nearly always left on) allows a joyous amount of fun before it shuts down the party.
Surprisingly, the 3,263-pound C4S feels much lighter and smaller the harder it is pushed (the stout GT-R edges 3,900 pounds at the scales). The weight penalty of the all-wheel drive system seems to disappear as the pace increases. It's not as tossable as a Cayman or a Boxster (their mid-engine balance and lighter curb weight take it by more than a nose), but the 911 edges out its siblings with pure brute strength when it really matters. Compared to the GT-R, the all-wheel drive system of the C4S is nearly transparent (you can feel the front wheels clawing at the pavement in the GT-R). The machinery and computer wizardry of the Nissan overwhelm the driving experience, while the Porsche lets the occupant of the front left seat make the delicate decisions. The Nissan GT-R is faster and ultimately more agile, but for this pilot, the Carrera is more involving and much more rewarding to drive.
The Porsche is also more accommodating. The front seats are very supportive and comfortable, and this 6'-2" 195-pound frame had more than enough head and legroom in the cabin. The cockpit of the Cayman and 911 are very similar (think family... like the Boeing 757 and 777 jetliners), but the flagship 911 is slightly roomier, less claustrophobic overall, and it is fitted with a more comprehensive instrument panel. The quality of materials, from the stitching on the leather to the Alcantera headliner, is first-rate and worthy of a vehicle in this price bracket.
The view from the driver's seat is excellent. Unlike most sports coupes, outward visibility from a 911 has always been strong point, and the latest 997-generation is no exception. An upright seating position, large windows, and exterior mirrors with a slight convex curve offer a commanding view of the outside world. Backing up, with that huge rear end, would be easier with a parking-assist system (optional, but not fitted to our test car). It is worth noting that Porsche's HID headlights on the C4S are some of the best we have ever experienced. Superior illumination, with locomotive-worthy high beams, these units turned night to day as we drove home across the Mojave from our desert photo shoot.
Pushed into family service, the 2009 Porsche Carrera C4S does exceedingly well. Most 2+2 press fleet coupes end up staying at home during family outings for meals or soccer tournaments. The Carrera C4S attended all of them, with style. The rear seats accommodate two children (in this case, 4- and 10-years-old) with elbow room to spare. The kids liked it, but no legal-age significant other will sit back there while still breathing. The front trunk is large enough to swallow up a decent-sized carry-on suitcase or several cases of beer, but not both. Larger items may be stowed in the back, with the small seatbacks folded forward. Overall, the Carrera offers a surprising amount of utility for its size.
No, the Porsche 911 is not the perfect sports car for everyone. In fact, it is very easy for naysayers to immediately point to the rear of the 911 and question what that powerplant is doing back there. Front-engine placement offers much better overall packaging, while a mid-engine vehicle arguably handles better. That age-old rear-engine configuration is partly responsible for the intrusive road noise in the cabin and the lack of room for additional cylinders under the rear decklid, but who really cares? Do fighter pilots moan about the deafening roar of their F-16 jets, or feel embarrassed because they only have one engine when nearly everyone else has two?
This enthusiast took his first sip of Porsche's Kool-Aid when that 1980 911 SC arrived in the driveway nearly a decade ago. The primitive rear-engine bliss lasted just ninety days before my friend arrived to retrieve it. The 2009 Porsche 911 Carrera 4S faithfully matches the salivary gratification of its predecessor, but thirty years of engineering has made the brew vastly more powerful, unquestionably more refined, and far safer. There are arguably much better (and less expensive) drinks out there, but that P-Car nectar still remains one of the sweetest on the shelf.
All photos Copyright © 2009 Michael C. Harley / Weblogs, Inc.