First Drive: 2011 Porsche 911 Speedster

It May Be Humpbacked, But It's No Quasimodo.

2011 Porsche 911 Speedster - Click above for high-res image gallery

It's rare. It's fast. It's expensive. Meet the 2011 Porsche 911 Speedster. First shown in October at the Paris Auto Show, the $204,400 humpbacked 911 arrives at U.S. dealerships early next year.

On paper, the rear-wheel-drive 911 Speedster appears to be a heavily optioned 911 GTS Cabriolet, albeit one with a bubbled tonneau cover. Having just driven the new GTS with the 408-horsepower 3.8-liter flat-six and Turbo-width rear track, we knew going into this drive that the uprated equipment makes a good foundation for the Speedster. Building on the GTS' enhanced mechanicals, the Speedster also gets the seven-speed PDK dual clutch, Sport Chrono Plus, Porsche Active Suspension Management and Porsche Ceramic Composite Brakes. Take it or leave it, this is the only way the Speedster comes.

But so much for on-paper specs. To find out what the 911 Speedster is like on the road, we headed to Palm Springs, California for a mid-winter desert blast.

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2011 Porsche 911 Speedster
2011 Porsche 911 Speedster
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Photos copyright ©2010 Rex Roy / AOL

Great roads are a dime a dozen around Palm Springs. Finding one is so simple even a bell ringer could do it; aim car toward mountains, hit gas. Drive far enough and you'll find an empty, sinewy strip of blacktop where you can play Grown Up Hot Wheels. After being docile in traffic, the 911 Speedster eagerly becomes a full-size road toy when let loose.

Considering what's hanging over the rear axle, dropping the throttle rockets the 911 forward with authority. Porsche states a minimum 0-60 mph time of 4.2 seconds, and with launch control and Sport Plus engaged and the brake pedal side-stepped, acceleration is both ferocious and efficient. Electronics limit wheel spin to the optimal percentage, ensuring explosive takeoffs for even Christmas tree newbies.

2011 Porsche 911 Speedster side view2011 Porsche 911 Speedster front view2011 Porsche 911 Speedster rear view

After more than nearly 200 miles of driving a PDK-equipped Speedster back-to-back against an otherwise identical 911, we're forced to write the following: The PDK in the Speedster (and the 911 GTS) vaporizes any and all arguments for the superiority of manual gearboxes during high-performance driving. The only case for manual boxes on today's most advanced sports cars is built on emotional preference, or perhaps very low-speed tractability around town. In every other aspect of measurable performance for the 911, the ZF-manufactured dual-clutch gearbox delivers quicker acceleration and safer, better balanced performance than the six-speed manual box.

Diving into corners, gear shifts requested by the Speedster's PDK paddles happen instantly and with no drama. The car stays stable under braking, and if you want a lower gear once you've turned in toward the apex, no big deal. Conversely, and especially on unfamiliar and unpredictable roads, the three-pedal equivalent of the Speedster (the 911 GTS Cab) isn't nearly as composed, flexible or fast.

As drivers who love the challenge of physically rowing gears, the fact that a computer and fast-acting hydraulics can do it better makes us want to drive off a lonely cliff. Almost.

2011 Porsche 911 Speedster interior2011 Porsche 911 Speedster seats2011 Porsche 911 Speedster gauges2011 Porsche 911 Speedster shifter

The ZF transmission receives its power from a slightly larger engine compared to a garden-variety 911 – 3.8-liters vs. 3.6-liters. Output is up from the standard 911's 345 horsepower and the 911 S's 385. With 408 hp at 7,300 rpm, the 911 Speedster is closing in on the GT3's 435 hp. Compared to the 911 S, the more powerful engine gets a more robust torque curve and additional top-end power from a sophisticated variable intake manifold.

Six miniaturized furnace dampers inside the manifold channel air through tuned-length runners to optimize air charge delivery based on engine speed. Hand polishing of the manifold upstream of the heads further enhances airflow into the cylinder heads. Direct fuel injections and variable cam timing complete the intake tract, while revised engine electronics make the new intake work with the balance of the engine hardware.

2011 Porsche 911 Speedster engine

The Speedster's chassis components are identical to the 2011 GTS. Compared to an S, the two mm front track increase and 32mm rear track boost comes from additional wheel offset. The center-lock wheels measure 19 inches and feature staggered rubber sized at 235/35ZR19 and 295/30ZR19. The stabilizer bars are thicker and the PASM adjustable suspension enables good ride quality in Normal and laser-like precision in Sport.

Thusly equipped, the chassis exhibited a small amount of pleasant (and safe) understeer at its worse, and otherwise perfect balance at its best. The 911's steering feels fantastic and vibrantly communicates about the road surface and available grip.

We drove the 911 GTS the day before the 911 Speedster, and on public roads the GTS' standard brakes proved impervious to fade. The Speedster's carbon discs were expensive overkill for this duty cycle.

2011 Porsche 911 Speedster headlight2011 Porsche 911 Speedster wheel2011 Porsche 911 Speedster rear detail2011 Porsche 911 Speedster taillight

Overkill, however, is part of what makes the 911 Speedster special. The door skins are lighter weight aluminum units pulled from the Turbo assembly line. The front fenders and nose are Sport Design Package pieces (also used on the 2010 911 Sport Classic), and the functional side skirts come from the GT2. The widebody rear fenders are the same as used on all-wheel-drive 911s and the windshield is 2.4-inches shorter than a standard 911.

To those who want the optional rear spoiler from the GT2, it doesn't add any additional downforce, so get over it. Besides, it would ruin the Speedster's unique rear profile.

That profile comes from the aluminum rear tonneau. Like the Boxster Spyder, the Speedster's top is a Rube Goldberg environmental blocker. It requires 14 steps to raise and lower, and these steps must be executed from inside the car and out, depending on which step you're completing. One's first attempt will likely take more than five minutes. Thankfully, it didn't rain during the photo shoot.

2011 Porsche 911 Speedster side view2011 Porsche 911 Speedster side view

Raised, the multi-layer top seals out the world satisfactorily. Lowered, the converse it true. The driver, however, quickly realizes that the mirrors are his only practical means of seeing what's behind him. Attempting to glance over the shoulder nets an eyeful of nothing. The raised tonneau blocks everything.

But not to worry. The interior of the Speedster is nice enough you could just stare at it. Opening the door, the sill plates announce this 911's limited edition status. Each Speedster has individually numbered plaques that match the number on the dash. Leather covers everything, almost literally, with even the vent surrounds and door pulls covered in cow.

Practically, there's interior storage behind the front seats, a spot to hold an MP3 player in the center console, and a glove box. Packed wisely, the 911 Speedster would make a great weekend getaway machine. To bad most of its owners won't use it that way.

2011 Porsche 911 Speedster rear 3/4 view

While the 2011 Porsche 911 Speedster is rare, fast and expensive, it's not the rarest, fastest or most expensive 911. This begs the question, "Is this car significant?" The reality is, it's not. It's just another pseudo-special 911 variant that Porsche is using to help boost revenue and keep the 997-generation 911 relevant until the next-generation 998 (or is that 991?) arrives in 2012.

Regardless of this truth, of the 356-unit production run, the 100 vehicles expected to hit U.S. shores ought to sell out quickly. This 911 will be important to some enthusiasts and collectors, meaning that once purchased, many will be immediately cloistered in private collections alongside other Speedsters from 1953, 1988, and 1993/94. Few will be driven regularly. But somehow, for this Porsche, this seems an appropriate fate – those who value driving more than manufactured provenance will probably buy a GTS anyway.

2011 Porsche 911 Speedster
2011 Porsche 911 Speedster
View 17 Photos

Photos copyright ©2010 Rex Roy / AOL

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