2020 Porsche 911 Ultimate Road Trip: From the Autobahn to Tail of the Dragon

And yeah, we rode with it on a DHL cargo plane

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It’s dreadfully unfair, really. I’m not a Porsche Guy. The brand's engineering around an imperfect layout has always seemed stubborn, its cars have grown bigger and heavier, and in sunny Los Angeles where I live, 911's don't exactly turn heads in a sea of Lamborghinis and Ferraris. I've warmed to them in recent years — how can you not when the latest 992 is such an undeniably fantastic car? — but it nevertheless seems a bit unfair to the Porsche faithful that I'm one of the lucky few to make this road trip of a lifetime. I'm picking up a 2020 Porsche 911 Carrera 4S from the original 911 factory in Stuttgart and will drive it on two continents, including on Germany's autobahn and Tennessee's Tail of the Dragon, with a trans-Atlantic crossing by cargo plane in between. Don't hate me.

Porsche Werk 1 is the factory in Stuttgart that's churned out 911s since the model's inception in 1963. Right past the security booth still stands a small brick workshop where the 356 was built. Gleaming white bays sparkle where 917s were once assembled. The walls and windows still match those in grainy monochrome photos of Porsche’s merry band of craftsmen assembling the first flat-sixes. Though the building was remodeled, Porsche says it kept as much of the original structure's spirit as possible.

Today, it’s the visitor’s center where the 4,000-plus buyers a year who opt for European delivery meet their cars. You can take a factory tour, perhaps lunch at Restaurant Christophorus — named after the patron saint of travelers — before setting off into Germany. Everything from Panamera Sport Turismos to half-million-dollar cars in garish Exclusive Manufaktur color combos dot the courtyard, waiting for new owners to take them home. That’s where we pick up our 911 for this intercontinental road trip: a Carrera 4S in an optional $3,270 flat gray called Chalk, or "Crayon" in Deutsch, after the color of German crayon wrappers.

A chorus of turbo boxers rings out as we start our small fleet of 2020 911 Carreras. The exhausts sing with just the right amount of burble to convey high-tech machinery without being gauche. We snake through Porscheplatz, around a 78-foot-tall sculpture of three soaring 911s set in a functioning Zuffenhausen traffic circle. Though Stuttgart ranks 884th in the world’s largest cities, just above Milwaukee in population, it’s the home to Porsche and Mercedes-Benz. The industrial jewel of Germany, it’s also known as the Cradle of the Automobile. As workers arrive to their morning shifts in Golfs or on foot, knowing glances at our convoy seemed to impart a feeling I’ve never sensed from a passerby while driving an exotic: pride.

A series of quick ramps has us soon on the A81 – A, of course, standing of autobahn. Neither my phone's data plan nor the car's U.S.-market GPS system are functioning, so I'm resigned to keeping up with the German-born Porsche rep darting ahead of us on his home turf. Our first stop is the Auto & Technik Museum of Sinsheim, an eclectic collection of mechanical oddities including, among many other things, a Bugatti Type 41, Lancia Stratos, a McLaren-Honda MP4/5, a Concorde, a Russian copy of the Concorde, countless World War II vehicles and a Cadillac XLR. Gearheads could spend days poring over the contraptions, but we had distance to make up.

Like much of the autobahn these days, the stretch of A6 leading to Nuremburg for our lunch stop is saddled with traffic. Thankfully, the 911’s cabin is a supremely comfortable one. A traditional five-ringed instrument pod with an analog tach sits front and center. Even with automatic stop/start, it achieves just 20 mpg combined. The eight-speed PDK shifts with immediacy, but it’s smoother in bumper-to-bumper than basically any other company's dual-clutch efforts.

Eventually, traffic clears, my hunger is satiated by wienerschnitzel (which I discover has nothing to do with hot dogs), and we're soon winding between half-timbered Bavarian houses, a stark contrast to Stuttgart’s fortress-like concrete apartments. Germany is obviously proud of its auto industry, as it should be. Porsches are not rare here, but in a land where BMWs are rental cars and Mercedes are taxis, they’re on a different plane (no pun intended). German dudes give us thumbs up as we roll by. A random blonde asks for her picture taken in front of the cars. Like driving a Corvette in Michigan or a GT-R in Tokyo, you elicit not just respect, but thanks.

We're soon back on the autobahn, but this time a stretch adorned with the simple sign of a circle with four diagonal lines: unlimited speed. The sun is setting, we need to get a move on and our German guide is putting his foot down. The first time I reach 130 mph, I have to remind myself of two things: first, that it’s a public road, and second, to relax the death-grip I have on the steering wheel that’s causing my fingers actual pain. The 911, for its part, is steadier than a freight train.

German drivers are famous for their lane discipline, but the occasional Eastern Europe-plated MAN or DAF truck is still bound to jump out of their columns. It’s helpful to have a total of 20 pistons (six front, four rear) yanking you to a stop. Thanks to 443 horses on tap, the 911 is so supernatural in its ability to increase forward velocity that Opel jockeys are bound to find it suddenly looming in their rear views if they blink.

Over and over, we surge and slow. By the leg’s second hour, 130 feels like a leisurely 50 on American roads. I’m not really white-knuckling it until our German sherpa takes us up to 182, a new personal high score. The Porsche, for its part, isn’t even breathing hard. Sudden pulls from the lead car require a switch into Sport+ and its improved throttle response just to keep up. The touchscreen menus are pretty good, but even the slightest bumps when you’re bombing along at triple digits makes it hard to use.

The autobahn is a marvel of civil engineering. A black stripe slicing through rolling green hills, mirror-smooth and flat. No tar strips, no potholes. Why can’t we have such nice things in America again? There’s also a distinct lack of billboards or commercial signage, just distant castle towns and towering wind turbines. Somewhere along the way, we pass what was once a checkpoint on the East-West German border, now a restaurant. A light rain has accompanied us for the last few dozen miles, but at this point, 120 in the wet doesn’t even seem crazy any more. No, crazy is still to come.

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DHL's global hub on the outskirts of Leipzig is essentially an entire airport devoted to DHL's shipping empire. Its main building measures one full kilometer in length and houses a staff of 6,000. An 80-person team calculates the daily load sequence, called “the ballet,” sorting 400,000 items each night, ranging in size from a postcard to a car. Each vehicle must undergo a meticulous 45-minute security screening (just to make sure we’re not smuggling anything). The cars are then painstakingly fastened to specially designed pallets and towed into the ballet’s queue. We arrive in the morning, but it’ll be sundown when our 911s are done loading on board the DHL 747-400 for its 4,400-mile jaunt across the Atlantic.

As it happens, Porsche's massive Leipzig factory is literally next door. If Stuttgart is the soul of Porsche, the Leipzig facility is its muscle. Founded in 2000, it cranks out Macans and Panameras in a state-of-the-art facility clean enough to lick. Attached is a Porsche Experience Center and track, and another museum featuring everything from a 959 Gruppe B design study concept to a 996 GT3 RS (we had already perused Porsche's spectacular Stuttgart museum).

With time sufficiently killed, we return to DHL to watch a jumbo jet swallow four 911s – it's a surreal experience. So is passing through the smallest customs booth I've ever seen, which shouldn't be surprising since there are only eight jump seats on board the cargo plane. Night sets in as we take off. Less stringent than a commercial flight, the captain lets us pass freely into the control room. A sea of lights emanate from the cockpit controls and from cities below as we say goodbye to Deutschland.

DHL’s North American hub is inside Cincinnati-CVG airport on the Ohio-Kentucky border. It’s quite a bit smaller, processing only 250,000 items a night. Unloading the cars is quicker, just 30 minutes each.

The next morning, we head south along I-75, through Georgetown, Ky., past the Toyota factory. The roads and signs are once again familiar, but the driving feels yoked. How could it not? Few drivers move out of the left lane. Kentucky’s road surfaces are pretty good, but gas station and fast food signs pollute the scenery. Eventually, our American guide has enough of the interstates and takes us on some rolling back roads — where we are promptly queued up behind old pickups and towed trailers.

We also see enough small-town sheriffs to not risk any spirited wheeling on our way to Knoxville, our stop for the night. Typically, such a slow drive would reveal seat shortcomings, but the 911’s optional sport seats never induce fatigue. They’re not so aggressively bolstered as to be painful for long drives, but are just supportive enough to hold you during sharp cornering. Even with the sport suspension's 10-mm lower right height, the suspension on Normal glides over road irregularities like Aladdin’s carpet.

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Spanning the Tennessee-North Carolina border lies one of the most famous driving roads in the country, the Tail of the Dragon. The 992 had proven itself as a superb grand tourer but at 3,487 pounds, could it be a canyon carver as well? Our 911 Carrera is equipped with the $2,090 rear-axle steering, which improves stability on the autobahn, while helping it dig into hairpins here on Tail of the Dragon. It truly helps shrink the 911's substantial heft and physical dimensions. The supply of grip feels endless, and in truth, any qualms about rear-engine-induced snap oversteer have long been quashed by technology.

Magically, the progressive electronic steering still feels analog, providing a natural weighting and crisp response. Through 318 hard-charging turns in 11 miles, the standard brakes never fade. The classic headlight nacelles still lend themselves to easy placement, and overall visibility is quite good for a modern sporting machine.

Plunging through more mountain roads in North Carolina and Georgia only further impressed upon this non Porsche Guy how indefatigable the new 911 is. After spending more time in the Porsche over the last week or so than any particular hotel room (or cargo plane), I've developed a deep admiration for this icon of motoring history. On its own, the 992 Carrera 4S is an amazing feat of engineering. It cruises at speed with the comfort of a Lexus, but turns into a Miata on tight mountain roads.

Upon arrival in Atlanta at Porsche USA — incidentally, the building doubles as the Avengers headquarters — we're greeted by yet another exhibit hall, primarily consisting of 914s celebrating the model’s 50th anniversary.

And that’s what is so compelling about Porsche. If the 992 was just on its own as a standalone model, without the 991 or the 997 before it, it wouldn’t be quite so interesting. For me, it’s impossible to separate a car from its legacy. Cars are cultural touchstones. People spend their lives dreaming about them, then spending their life savings to own them. It’s not that other companies lack the performance chops or historical significance, it's that none do a better job of being stewards of its inheritance as Porsche. Cars as art. Heritage. Racing provenance. Unparalleled service welcoming owners old and new into the fold. It shows that the company itself honors the cars. After all, if the makers don’t respect their own creations, why should customers? I was missing this facet of the marque before I set out on this journey but now, I think I need a boxer six in my life.

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