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TG checks out the new Porsche 911

  1. February 2011, South Africa. Amid such secrecy that we can talk about it only now, Top Gear climbs into a car that looks very much like a 911. Even though the body and chassis are all-new, you wouldn’t know it at a glance. But then when did a new 911 ever look much different from the old? Not since ever. This one sounds the same too. Again, no surprise, given its flat-six isn’t vastly modified from what today’s retiring 911s have.

    Then we arrive at a road that curls its way up some emphatically three-dimensional landscape, and suddenly this machine doesn’t feel like a 911 at all.

    Words: Paul Horrell
    Photos: James Lipman

    This feature was originally published in the August 2011 issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. The whole car squats down and attacks the road, every part of it shoulder to shoulder, working together. There are mid-corner crests in the road, and occasions when we come smartly up behind lumbering fruit lorries and the driver has to lift off sharpish. All I feel is the whole car acting as one - no pitch, no corkscrewing. Admittedly, my driver is August Achleitner, boss of the 911 line and therefore a man who knows a bit about driving it with finesse, but even so it’s obvious this car works in a different way from all its predecessors. In 911s up to now, the engine’s weight, cantilevered out over the tail end, meant that when the rear was disturbed by a bump or the throttle, the car pivoted about those wheels and the front would be levered off in the opposite direction. Often not where you were aiming for.

  3. So even from the first moment you load up the tyres, the new 911 - it carries the codename 991 - is obviously a very different car than before. But it’s very much a Porsche in the obsessively rigorous, thorough way it’s being developed. Three of the 60-odd prototypes are here in South Africa because this country is endowed with some of the extreme environments the engineers need to prove the production car against whatever real life throws at it.

  4. Yesterday, the air was 43 degrees - hotter than human blood. Useful for checking the cooling, of course, but also less obvious stuff, like whether any of the insulation or seals decay, or whether the cabin starts to smell acrid. The team even carries a magic police permit for high-speed road runs up in the empty north of the country. And, as we’re finding today, the country has a limitless variety of coarse surfaces and cruel gravel roads, testing the trim against squeaks and rattles, and the whole car against the determined invasion of the dust that’s fretting into my body’s every crevice.

  5. But this country also has some perfect driver’s roads, and we’ve just been up one. Hard to blame Achleitner for just checking up on the chassis work they’ve already done at the tracks. But really it’s not the chassis tuning that makes it feel so different. It’s the new body and gearbox. Broadly, it feels less rear-engined, because in a way it is.

  6. Oh yes, the engine’s where it always was, but the rear wheels have moved 70mm back to meet it, reducing its leverage over the rest of the car. The overall weight distribution hasn’t changed, so traction will still be colossal. They moved the wheels by changing the gearbox - the new manual is a version of the current three-shaft PDK box, and this has its driveshaft flanges further back than the old manual. Obviously in converting the PDK to a manual, they won’t have blocked off any of its seven speeds.

  7. Also, the new shell has its front wheels further forward, and a more sloping windscreen centreline, though the screen pillars are still fairly upright to make the car as easy to see out of, as all 911s are and most other supercars defiantly aren’t. The total wheelbase stretch is about 100mm, giving more room for people, but total length goes up by rather less because overhangs are down, and the width is the same. So it’s still compact, praise be.

  8. The stylists did their best not to let the new proportions alter the 911-ness of the thing, and the prototype disguisers did even better. The full drum-roll debut is at the Frankfurt show in September. But to make these prototypes resemble 997s, they’ve got matt-black plastic wraps to dull the curves, plus bra and pants front and rear, and a trompe-l’œil Turbo air-scoop in the middle to disguise the new proportions. But you can see the curvier line to the top of the rear wings, and the way the rear window sits slightly recessed in the bodywork.

  9. The new platform isn’t just about moving the wheelbase relative to the weight, it’s also about actually cutting weight. Aluminium is used for the floor, the main structure front and rear and most of the external panels. The rear wing and inner and outer bodysides are steel because they’re too deeply contoured to press from aluminium. For strength, the front crash members, screen pillars, roof frame and sills are steel too. And the beam inside the dash is magnesium. The car is more rigid, yet the new shell and other weight improvements shave somewhere between 30 and 40kg out of a base 911 Carrera. If they’d left it as all-steel, it would have been 60kg heavier than before, because it’s longer, has more kit and its standard wheels have gone up to 19-inchers.

    This has consequences for the rest of the range: the plant can’t build new and old shells at once, so you can assume that we’ll see the new Turbo, cabrio and GTs in pretty short order.

  10. More new stuff. The cabin uses lots of Panamera parts, and has a five-dial instrument pod to make an extra space for a screen showing a map or other info to choice - that’s in addition to the main touchscreen. There’s no handbrake lever because it’s electric. But don’t worry, it doesn’t feel like a saloon in here. Just a sports car with shedloads of buttons.

  11. Performance options - including Chrono pack, adaptive dampers and switchable loud exhaust - can add four more buttons. There’s another canny chassis system too, which is related to the Cayenne’s adaptive anti-roll bars. On the PDK car, there will be an e-diff option. It shares an oil pump with the PDK clutches, so the manual cars stick with a mechanical limited-slip. The engineers say the e-diff car turns in more adroitly because it can free up completely. I don’t suppose I would be able to tell. All in, a Carrera S with all the hot options will get round the Nürburgring in a time about halfway between an old Carrera S and a GT3 RS. Blimey.

  12. That’s a whole lot of track speed. But I don’t care. I want a 911 that feels right on the road. From the passenger’s seat, this one does, but I’m still worried. For the sake of fuel economy, the steering is now electrically powered. I’m visibly dismayed when Achleitner tells me. He’s not surprised, but swears his system is different from the remote-feeling ones elsewhere.

  13. Performance numbers aren’t final yet, but in the Porsche way they’ll all be a sliver better than the cars they sell now. For economy, the base car drops to a 3.4-litre from a 3.6, but it’s still very slightly more powerful than it was, at 350bhp - 20bhp more than a Cayman R’s 3.4 because it has its own heads. The S still has a 3.8-litre, but now revving up to 7,800 because of new injectors, camshafts and their drive. That means 400bhp. Economy rises on all, but especially the PDK car which can declutch and shut the engine whenever you coast. So the 3.4 Carrera PDK should do about 33mpg and 200g/km. That’s ruddy unbelievable for a GT that’ll do 0-60 in the mid-fours.

  14. Back to that hill we went up at the beginning. To me, this car feels mid-engined, like a faster Cayman from the passenger seat. Which is all I want in life, really. But what about those 911 loyalists for whom no day is complete until they’ve danced with that self-willed unbalanced creature? Won’t they object? Achleitner snorts. “I know Walter Röhrl hated that feeling. He loves the new car.”

  15. Well, given Achleitner had a clean sheet, why not change even more? “I’ve got many people in my team who aren’t young. They know the 911.” Sure enough, one of his project managers here today, Bernd Kahnau, has been at Porsche 42 years and is the son of a Porsche factory production chief - as a baby, he came home from hospital in a Porsche. “But as well as them, we have young people with new ideas.” In the end, the balance between traditionalists and innovators is a matter of instinct. “Some things you change because there are definite objectives from the customers, but some you just do by your stomach. We all have petrol in our veins. We’re not making a washing machine.”

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