Is the Porsche 911 R the best Porsche 911?
We test Porsche's latest 493bhp, 201mph unicorn in Scotland. Ultimate 911?
As technology whisks us kicking and screaming into a world of autonomous cars and 3D-printed pizza, there’s something satisfying about stepping off the conveyor belt and indulging in objects of the past. Teasing a crumbling cork out of a bottle of Cabernet Franc, for instance, despite screw-tops keeping your tipple just as fresh and fungus-free, is oddly reassuring. And you only need to flick through today's adverts, to see the market for biblically expensive watches, driven by intricate mechanical movements, is booming – even though we all have a smartphone in our pocket that tells us the time more accurately.
The 911R, the latest unicorn to emerge from Porsche’s GT department, is infused with that same sense of reverse engineering. It’s a traditional idea brought up to date by modern tech – so has an allure that’s more than the sum of its parts. It’s an enthusiast’s fantasy, a collection of components and styling cues designed to push our buttons and get us all frothy before we’ve even found out if it’s any good to drive. Not convinced? Try reading the next few paragraphs without drifting off and lusting after one of the 991 already-sold-out examples Porsche is planning to produce.
Images: Richard Pardon & Jamie Lipman
This feature was originally published in issue 284 of Top Gear magazineAdvertisement - Page continues below
Over the rear axle is the same demented 4.0-litre naturally aspirated flat-six as the GT3 RS producing 493bhp at 8,250rpm, but connected to a short-throw 6spd manual – a direct response to criticism that the PDK-only GT3 and GT3 RS had lost a layer of engagement. The human-based shifting mechanism means it’s a fraction slower from 0 to 62mph (although 3.7secs is enough to blow your hair back), but by replacing the fixed rear wing with the Carrera’s retractable spoiler, the top speed climbs by 8mph to 201mph.
Weighing in at 1,445kg, the R is the lightest 911 in the range and undercuts the GT3 RS by 50kg thanks to a similar round of measures (magnesium roof, carbon bonnet and front wings, plastic rear windows and rear screen, no rear seats and reduced sound insulation), but it also does without a roll cage – inadvertently making it the most practical 911 by quite some margin. The chassis and body are from the GT3, barring a unique front lip spoiler and rear diffuser, while the gorgeous carbon bucket seats are from a 918 Spyder and trimmed in Pepita tartan (a nod to the very first 911s from the Sixties). The stripes and side graphics, available in red or green, draw the line between it and the 1967 911R – a road-homologated racer of which only 20 were ever made – although I’d be tempted to delete them entirely and spend my time surprising Ferraris at the lights.Advertisement - Page continues below
Want more? You get carbon-ceramic brakes as standard, 20in forged aluminium wheels and the GT3’s four-wheel steering. For £2,024, those tightwads at Porsche will sell you an optional single-mass flywheel (it should be standard, surely) that dents refinement slightly, but lets the revs rise and fall with more immediacy. Your contact points to the road are Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2s from the GT3 – 245mm wide at the front and 305mm wide at the rear – both 20mm narrower than the GT3 RS.
It’s that last point that gives away what the 911R is really about. This is not just a manual GT3 RS minus the aggressive aero, it’s been set up to be the ultimate road car, so instantly feels quite different from its track-obsessed siblings. Lucky then, that we have the Isle of Skye at our disposal, dry roads and 911R #001 of 991 to play with.
Pared-back simplicity courses through it: there’s a hole in the dash where the satnav and stereo should be (it’ll cost you nothing to add it back in), no controls on the steering wheel and fabric loops for handles. There are buttons to control the two-stage dampers, activate the titanium sports exhaust and select Sport mode… and on the inside, that’s about it.
Get going and the stubby, carbon-trimmed gearlever has a wonderful precision to it, so you feed it instinctively into any of its six slots. Yet it has an action that’s light as air – a world away from the stubborn dog-leg seven-speeder in the Aston Martin V12 Vantage S manual, or the truculent mechanism in the 997 GT3 RS. Snap shifts with your fingertips are an utter joy, although the auto-blip function isn’t perfect. Get it right on a double downshift into a tight corner and it makes you feel like a hero, but it only works in Sport mode and can’t be switched off unless you deactivate all the electronic nannies (or switch off Sport). In other words, if you’re in the mood for a fang and want to practise your heel-and-toe technique, you’d better be on your game because you’re totally on your own.
The steering, too, is lighter and less meaty than a GT3’s. It’s by no means as twirly and whipcrack-fast as a Ferrari, but it’s heading in that direction. Frankly, it seems an odd choice to alter it at all when the steering on the GT3 and GT3 RS is so sublime. Once up to speed, though, with the suspension working hard beneath you, it still offers enough feedback as the cornering forces build and a feeling of chuckability and a sense of humour that the locked-down RS can’t match.
A large part of that is the spring and damper settings that have been softened off to let the car move more with varying road surfaces. In fast corners, that and the lack of aero mean it bobs and weaves like a prizefighter, keeping you busy at the wheel, but still full of confidence that you’ll exit the corner facing the right direction. Turn it in, and it rolls, grips, then at the point you think it’s going to let go, grips again. It’s doesn’t feel nearly as locked to the road as a GT3 RS, and therefore doesn’t devour corners with quite the same appetite, but the whole process is more organic and asks the driver to use more feel and finesse
There’s another obvious benefit to this softer character: the ride is remarkable. It breathes better the faster you go, but also works at low speeds on scrubby British B-roads, so you feel the surface beneath you, but aren’t beaten up by it.
And we haven’t even got to the engine yet. It sounds like a gathering storm, beginning with a smooth buzz that hardens at 3,500rpm, then again at 6,000rpm, before it rips its shirt open and takes on a barely containable savagery between 7,500rpm and 8,500rpm. This is quite a powerplant to try to measure out with a clutch pedal and a lever grasped in your sweaty left palm. It’s not that the chassis can’t handle the power, more that the bespoke gearing isn’t ideal. Keep your right foot in, and you’ll hit 80mph in second and 130mph in third – that’s fine on track, but on public roads it’s a recipe for either prison or frustration, given that this extraordinary engine is at its very best in the upper echelons.Advertisement - Page continues below
So is this the perfect road-going Porsche? Pending a more extensive stint behind the wheel, my instincts say no, that title remains with the Cayman GT4. The 911R is still a wonderful thing to drive, so simple and forgiving, and that manual ’box lets you shake hands with the engine, rather than Skyping it via PDK. But, the GT4’s performance envelope is better suited to UK roads – while the GT3 RS’s gearbox and aero make better use of this engine’s abilities.
Having said that, if I had to own one of the above, it would be the 911R. It’s under my skin. It proves how well Porsche knows its customers because none of the cars it makes are perfect, but one of them will be perfect for you.
Power vs Purity
If the R is about stripping back the distractions to enhance driver involvement, then the hybrid 918 Spyder is its antithesis. It’s Porsche’s Starship Enterprise, showcasing everything it can dream up to make a road car faster and more efficient, with budget a secondary consideration. And yet, driven back to back with the R, it doesn’t keep the driver at arm’s length, or smother the controls with artificial feedback, it’s among the most visceral experiences on four wheels.
The electric motors mean you can snap your head back from as little as 1,000rpm… in seventh, and that’s before the engine really hits its stride, emitting a proper, jagged racecar howl as it closes in on the 9,150rpm limiter and the world goes very blurry indeed. It’s the seamless interplay between the sci-fi electric power delivery and the organic-feeling, naturally aspirated V8 that bring the whole thing to life. Each enhances the other, so it feels novel and futuristic, but raw and old-fashioned at the same time.
Lean on the chassis and its width, those tyres, the aero and torque-vectoring four-wheel drive make it utterly unflappable. Basically, it makes you feel like a better driver than you are, allowing you to brake later, stay flat in corners where you’d be lifting in a 911R and cover distance at an unruly pace without feeling you’re one twitch away from a mouthful of undergrowth. It’s not intimidating at all; it’s unimaginably good fun. That a company can take two such wildly different concepts, and put the driver at the very heart of both, is impressive beyond belief. Porsche has us in the palm of its handAdvertisement - Page continues below