First Drive

Sharpening a scalpel | 2018 Porsche 911 GT3 First Drive

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The countryside around Granada, I was told before I arrived, is a bit like Southern California. The climate is similar, the scrub and the sun, citrus and olive trees, the Mediterranean feel of the place. The differences are subtle, but in sum the effect is profound. The way the air smelled, the birdsong, the glass-smooth roads, the neatness of the little irregular orchard plots. I was enthralled, really.

The location doesn't have any affect on whether the new 2018 911 GT3 achieves greatness, but this part of Spain provides a perfect metaphor. Think of California as the old GT3 – an exceptional climate – with the campiña around Granada standing in for the new GT3. A subtle refinement of a proven concept – small things standing out on a background of similarities – and 500 screaming horsepower, lest you forget.

The 911 GT3, first introduced in 1999, has always been more of a GT3 R or GT3 Cup car capable of being driven around on public roads rather than a built-up 911 Carrera. In an ideal world, the 2018 911 GT3 will see a steady duty of track days in customer hands, so most of the powertrain bits and aero are intended to sling it around a track as quickly as possible without making it unlivable on the street. The outgoing GT3 handled this split personality well despite only being offered with a PDK, so the question is how much better the new GT3 is – as well as if the available manual changes the equation. As the foreshadowing above suggests, the improvements are subtle.

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I went into some detail last week about the nerdy aspects and tweaks that Andreas Preuninger and his GT team baked into the new GT3's excellent 4.0-liter, naturally aspirated engine – go read that if you want some wonderful engineering anecdotes. But on a more general level, this non-turbo flat-six is one of the few remaining engines of its type that achieves greatness. Porsche itself, like most other automakers, is embracing turbocharging to solve a myriad of fuel efficiency and emissions regulatory issues. The reason that the GT3 hasn't gone this way is its close relationship with the GT3 R and Cup – the street car essentially homologates the race versions. So long as the race cars need to be naturally aspirated due to the class rules, so too will the road car.

This is great news for Porschephiles wanting very contemporary performance with classic air-cooled sensibilities. At idle, the 4.0-liter six sounds like nothing else on the road right now, a cacophony of whirring, mechanical noises and a lopey exhaust note. That ticks boxes for the die-hards. What will tick the box for everyone else is the immediacy and ferocity with which this thing takes off when you goose the throttle. Clever engineering does an impressive job of hiding turbo lag under the rug, but there's nothing quite like an engine that isn't hiding anything at all.

The 2018 GT3 has enough torque to pull adequately from anything above 2,000 rpm, but like its predecessor and the GT3 RS, above 6,000 rpm it turns into a missile. Crest 7,000, and not only have the intake howl and exhaust bellow reached critical mass, but the GT3 screams through the next 2,000 rpm in a blink. You have to plan the shift at about 7,000 rpm, execute it just before you bounce off the limiter, and take a microsecond to pause and enjoy the fact that you have five more ratios with which to repeat this process all over again. Yup, like the 911 R, the new GT3 packs an optional six-speed manual, as opposed to the seven-speed in the Carrera line. Six is plenty.

2018 Porsche 911 GT3

The effect is similar to the old GT3, which made similar noises and had lots of the same party tricks – that broad landscape of similarity. Pay attention, and the little stuff pops out. There's more power here, and the exquisite satisfaction of rowing through a lovely shift pattern. That's not to knock the PDK, which is by any objective measure a superior gearbox. The PDK is 0.6 second faster to 60 mph, despite being 33 pounds heavier and with an ever so slightly lower top speed. But the manual is a subjective delight to use, with a weighty yet short throw and nicely defined gates. The clutch is surprisingly light, but takes up intuitively, and the pedals are well laid out for heel-toeing on track. It's not only an easy setup to operate, it's also a profoundly enjoyable experience. Porsche has, as always, nailed both the raw ergonomics and also the intangibles.

For the number geeks, the official 0-60 mph time for the PDK is 3.2 seconds, and 3.8 for the manual. Also note that Porsche is notorious for understating acceleration figures.

We're told the suspension's also more compliant, because of reduced friction between the damper piston and bore. Preuninger tells me that he, and most of the GT program staff, doesn't touch the Porsche Active Suspension Management (PASM) button, which switches between a normal and "Sport" damping profile. "It's stiff enough in Normal" for track work, he says, and Sport would probably be too stiff for the typically rough American road course.

The man's right, you know. The ride on the smooth roads winding around Granada is firm but not jarring. Sport damping is like turning up the volume slightly without it becoming deafening, but the car feels more settled and happier, on track or off, in Normal mode. (If you're wondering, the GT3 RS is considerably stiffer as a baseline – think of it as primarily a track-day car you can drive to the track, rather than the all-purpose GT3.)

2018 Porsche 911 GT3

The electronic nannies have been reworked slightly to allow the car to become a bit more unsettled coming off throttle. That makes it easier to intentionally upset the rear end in certain cornering situations, but it also makes a stronger spiritual connection to ill-handling 911s of yore without sacrificing any actual grip (or inducing dreaded trailing-throttle oversteer). And while the PDK gets an electronically controlled rear differential lock with torque vectoring, the manual cars get a lighter mechanical lock – just like other 911s. Apparently there's not much difference in terms of functionality, but it's cheaper to use the electronically controlled version on the PDK cars. That being said, the manual gearbox and mechanical locker are good for that 33-pound weight savings.

Speaking of weight, the 911 GT3 is 3,115 pounds with the manual, and 3,152 with the PDK. The manual version is 37 pounds lighter than the old GT3, and it's a wash with the PDK. As you can see above, a lot of that weight difference comes down to the transmission and rear differential. Interestingly, it's the heavier version that's undeniably quicker, but it's also not a huge weight difference all told.

And yes, there's still rear-wheel steering. The system is largely the same as on the 2014 GT3 and the later GT3 RS, and it still feels strange in action. Loaded up into a corner, if you adjust the line with small steering wheel inputs, the turn-in is unsettlingly sharp. It works great, but sometimes it feels like someone's plopped your rear axle on moving dollies and given it a swift kick. Interestingly, the Motorsport versions don't use it, mainly because that's one more thing to break during a race. In operation, the rear wheels can deviate up to 1.5 degrees to either side, either in the same or opposing direction to the front wheels depending on circumstances. It'd probably pain Preuninger to hear me say it, but I wish the rear-steer was optional or reserved for the GT3 RS. Then again, actual GT3 owners are likely more attached to the stopwatch, and less likely to question Porsche's wisdom in this regard.

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Our track time happened at the lovely Circuito Guadix, which is way out in the sticks. That's one of the reasons it's a preferred place for race teams to test in the off-season: no neighbors around to complain about the noise. Guadix is short, relatively tight, and a little technical. In what will be a stunning surprise to exactly no Porsche fans, the 2018 GT3 is a savant on track. The track revealed how forgiving a rear-wheel-drive, 500-horsepower, rear-engined car can be with the right combination of sticky tires, compliant suspension, and rear-axle trickery. It soaked up little mistakes and stuck to the tarmac ferociously.

Since this is a track-oriented Porsche, this is as good a time as any to mention changes to the exterior that are not merely cosmetic. The gist of it is that the new GT3 has gained downforce without suffering additional drag. I didn't dare look down at the speedometer on the long front straight, but high-speed stability isn't an issue near as I can tell. I did miss the GT3 RS's steering-wheel mounted shift lights, which sit in your periphery to let you focus on the road, but shifting by ear isn't difficult.

It's also lost weight, incrementally, but it all adds up. The front and rear fascias are made of a lighter polyurethane material, for example, saving about 20 percent over the old GT3. The engine lid is now held open by simple props instead of hydraulic struts, but they're made out of carbon fiber. They're complex and almost beautiful, and they save 2.2 pounds. Towering above the engine lid is a 0.8-inch-taller rear wing, which increases downforce and looms over the fiberglass-reinforced plastic ram air scoops, which feed the engine cool air. The thin exhaust air slot on the engine lid is bigger to help extract more heat. And revised underbody trays and spoilers help direct airflow around the underside. Up front, larger air intakes help cool the radiators and increase downforce.

There's been less work done to the interior, but it's still a wonderful place to be. The offset stripes on the fixed-back competition buckets are an appropriately sporty touch. There's Alcantara everywhere, a sliver of brushed aluminum across the dash, and a perfectly sized and shaped steering wheel. I was comfortable enough in the buckets, which adjust electronically for height and manually fore and aft, for several hours on the track and on the highway, but would have appreciated a touch more rake to the seatback. The uprightness was less apparent on the track, as the seatback angle was perfect for the work at hand: sawing away at the wheel and running through the shift pattern.

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Our European friends can go one better than the fixed-back buckets and option the Clubsport package, which includes a cage, a six-point harness for the driver, a fire extinguisher, and prewiring for a battery disconnect. Surely the aftermarket will step in and help American GT3 owners who'd like that degree of preparation.

As you might expect, the test cars were loaded with many eye-watering features. The carbon-ceramic brakes – lovely to modulate despite their massive effectiveness – seem worth every penny, until you realize that $9,210 is a lot of pennies. (About 5,000 pounds' worth, actually.) The buckets are $5,200, and some of the lovely colors available (Lava Orange and Chalk are particularly captivating) aren't cheap, either, at $4,220. Such is the way with Porsche. Those who can afford to tick every box really should, but for any real track work I'd say those carbon-ceramic brakes are worth the hit to your net worth.

Assessing whether the 2018 911 GT3, which starts at $144,650, is a good value is a bit difficult. As I mentioned earlier, there aren't many cars, let alone Porsches, left with high-performance, naturally aspirated engines left out there. There's also no telling how much longer the FIA is going to keep turbos out of the GT3 racing classes, so the 911 GT3 may blow with the winds of change at some point, too. Think of it this way: it's the only naturally aspirated, flat-six-powered 911 on sale. An incredible realization, considering what this brand has done with nonturbo boxers for decades.

More to the point, this is simply a phenomenal driver's car that doesn't beat up the driver, either. I don't think anyone who jumped on a last-generation GT3 will feel cheated by the new car's incremental improvements, but anyone who demurred should step right up. There aren't many cars around that can romp around a track and then take you home, and do both as well as the new GT3. And then there's the creeping suspicion that this is going to be one of the last naturally aspirated Porsche 911s ever built, and a sure-fire future classic even if it isn't.

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