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Saturday 25th March
First Drive

Review: the new Porsche 911 R

Published: 07 Jun 2016

What’s this then?

The 911 that’s been giving us sleepless nights ever since its reveal at the Geneva Motor Show back in March. The latest unicorn to emerge from Porsche’s GT department is a heady combination of a GT3 RS engine, GT3 body, toned-down aero and a smattering of retro design cues, plus - and this is the biggy – a six-speed manual gearbox.

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Where do I sign?

Join the queue. Porsche is only building 991 of these and even with a £136,901 starting price, every single one is already accounted for. In fact, such is the fevered demand that one German buyer has already tried his luck, offering his yet-to-be-delivered 911 R on ebay for $1.25m, although the advert has since been taken down. Suffice to say, if you’re interested in a used example get ready to dig deep.

What exactly are you paying for here?

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 six-speed 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 0-60mph (although 3.7 seconds is enough to blow your hair back), but by replacing the fixed rear wing with the Carrera’s retractable spoiler, top speed climbs by 8mph to 201mph. 

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You get carbon ceramic brakes as standard, 20-inch forged aluminium wheels and the GT3’s four-wheel steering system that shrinks your turning circle at low speeds and boosts stability when you up the pace. 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 tyres from the GT3 – 245mm wide at the front and 305mm wide at the rear - both 20mm narrower than the GT3 RS.

Guessing it’s pretty trim then…

Yep. Weighing in at 1,370kg, 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 60s). 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 the decals entirely for the ultimate Q car.

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So it’s basically a GT3 RS, but slower and with less grip?

That’s missing the point - the 911 R is a different beast entirely. It’s been set up to work on the road, so instantly feels quite different to its track-obsessed siblings. Pared-back simplicity courses through it, starting with the hole in the dash where the sat-nav and stereo should be (it’ll cost you nothing to add it back in), no buttons 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 the Sport mode… and on the inside, that’s about it.

This thing specialises in ease of use, so the stubby, carbon-trimmed gearlever has a wonderful precision to it, yet has an action that’s light as air. Snap shifts with your fingertips are an utter joy, although the auto-blip function on downshifts isn’t yet perfect. Get it right on a double downshift into a tight bend 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. In other words, if you’re in the mood for a fang and want to practice your heel and toe technique, you’d better be on your game because you’re totally on your own.

Is it a softer experience all round?

To a degree. The spring and damper settings that have been slackened to let the car move with a wide variety of 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 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 dialled into 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 requires more feel and finesse.

The steering, too, is lighter and less meaty - by no means as light and whipcrack fast as a Ferrari, but it’s heading in that direction. It seems an odd choice to change things at all when the steering feel on the GT3 and GT3 RS is so sublime. Once up to speed, though, with the suspension working hard beneath you, it still offers abundant feedback as the cornering forces build and creates a feeling of chuckability and a sense of humour that the locked-down RS can’t match.

And the engine?

Oh yes, that. It sounds like a gathering storm, beginning with a smooth buzz that hardens at 3500rpm, then again at 6000rpm, before it rips its shirt open and takes on a barely-containable savagery between 7500rpm and 8500rpm. This is quite a powerplant to try and meter 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 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 it’s very best in the upper echelons.

A mixed bag, then?

In isolation the 911 R is predictably wonderful to drive: forgiving yet playful, hugely fast but requiring skill and patience to extract its full potential, and capable of detailing the road surface without letting you get beaten up by it. There’s just a niggling thought that the GT3 RS harnesses aero and PDK technology to better exploit this epic powertrain, while the Cayman GT4 isn’t as quick or quite as dripping in retro desirability, but has a performance envelope better suited to UK roads.

Having said all that, if I had to own one of the above to use exclusively on the road, it would be the 911 R. It’s under my skin and I can’t stop dreaming about it. This is how well Porsche knows its customers and fans – none of the cars it makes are perfect, but one of them will be perfect for you.

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