As we sweep and dive along the Chumash Highway, in the foothills of California's stunning Santa Ynez mountains, it's clear that the new 911 Carrera S is no slow-burn, hard-to-fathom, funny handshake machine. It's dark, I've just got into it, and I haven't got the slightest clue where I'm going or how long it'll take to get to wherever it is I haven't heard of. Not the ideal start, then. But this is immediately and emphatically a genius motor car.
Where to begin? Well it fits the driver perfectly. You get in, twiddle the seat adjustment thing, and within seconds you feel like you've just pulled on a second skin. It's not too upright, its extremities are as easy to place as ever, and it's palpably a place in which to do business.
The new 911 gets the same car-shaped key as the Panamera, a chunky plastic billet that slots in to the left of the wheel (there's no start button in here). It fires up with the same ripe, arse-ended roar as every other 911 you've ever driven, then settles into that distinctive pulsing beat. So far, so familiar. Our test car is the PDK auto - a drive in the seven-speed manual will have to wait, I'm afraid - a system that I've never particularly enjoyed before. At least Porsche has abandoned the nonsensical buttons that blighted the first PDK cars in favour of conventional but logical column-mounted paddles.
This must be the easiest sports car in the world to drive. The PDK slurs through its seven ratios imperceptibly, and drops into seventh for a 70-80mph freeway cruise. The first big revelation: there is barely a whisper of wind disturbance around the door mirrors, and almost no mechanical noise whatsoever.
California, like so many other places right now, is too broke to invest in its road network, so much of the surface is a nasty, mottled tarmac quilt. The next surprise is that, like the Ferrari 458 and McLaren 12C, the new 911 has an unusually composed and compliant ride. At one point we cross a railway line, but instead of getting generously airborne you'd hardly know it was there. The 911 glides over the expansion joints like a limo, and this on the shiny new, lightweight 20in alloy wheels. It's better, in fact, than the last Panamera I drove, and that actually is a limo. The 911's overall refinement is extraordinary.
Up into the mountains now. That's one side of its character; time to unravel the other, more important one. There are a lot of buttons on the Carrera GT-inspired cockpit centre console, and the 911 has an entire alphabet's worth of acronyms, but hitting the Sport button sharpens up the engine dynamics and gives you total control over the PDK's shifts. Push another button, inscribed with what looks like a pair of owlish spectacles, and you link both exhaust manifolds via a flap-controlled exit on the silencers. It sounds far more exciting than it reads, and the exhaust note swells to something truly epic on full-throttle upshifts. In battle mode, the 911 can still clearly muster a Wagnerian soundtrack if you want it to.
It takes just three or four corners to realise that, far from being neutered by its changes, the new 911 substantially raises the bar. Yes, the trademark front-end lightness has all but gone now, and as a result that inimitable 911 sensation of being pushed out of a corner as if by a giant hand is wound back too. But it's now less an act of faith to commit to a fast corner, and the traction out is as monumental as ever. Should you encounter anything unexpected in the middle of the corner, meanwhile, the Porsche now simply shrugs it off and sails on round unperturbed.
In other words, it's a less extreme experience, and if you were being really hard-assed you might say it's not quite as memorable. But it's dazzlingly effective, and the 911 Carrera S is now a more rounded, less quixotic animal as a result. And one, let's not forget, that manages to average 9.5l/100km and emits just 205g/km (with the PDK), while pumping out 400bhp, hitting 62mph in 4.1 seconds, and doing almost 190mph. They're amazing numbers, although I'd argue that it doesn't feel quite as expressive and free-revving as before, and its mid-range is a teensy bit constricted. While the new 911 is aiming for - and achieves - an impressive cleanliness for such a powerful car, in so doing ironically it's become slightly less organic.
All things considered - its price, its performance, its economy and emissions - it's pretty clear we're talking about the world's best sports car here. The 911 used to be as much defined by its quirks and foibles as it was by its genius. Well, the foibles have gone. The genius is now more ingenious than ever.