Throughout its history the Porsche 911 has undergone some critical design changes, each one of which naysayers have warned might kill off what makes this car so special. There have been impact bumpers, the move from an air-cooled to water-cooled engine, the last generation’s move to an electric power steering system, and now – in a move some purists see as heresy – the turbo-charging of the engine. Say hello to the Porsche 911 Carrera.
But wait, hasn’t there always been a turbo-charged 911? Indeed there has, the “big T” 911 Turbo, which has been revamped too – we drove it for the first time in May, in its higher output Turbo S format. But the lesser 911 models (if you will), the ones the majority of people buy, have never been turbo-charged. And now they are. All of them. Playing “little t” to the big, bad proper Turbo model.
To a 911 newbie, all of this will sound bizarre. A storm in a Porsche-shaped tea cup. But underestimate this change at your peril, because the 911 is a car that engenders both huge loyalty in its fans, and deep emotions among many more. If Porsche has screwed this up, it’s really serious news. Because fundamentally it changes the character of the car.
So the big question: does all this mean the 911 has lost its magic? We’ve spent a week and some 600-miles with one to find out.
Porsche 911 Carrera review: Serious hardware
You’ll note that we’ve chosen to drive the least powerful version of this new-generation 911. A long held theory is that the least powerful, lightly specified 911 is the finest of the breed. So we asked Porsche to keep it simple.
That meant shunning the Carrera S and doing without the PDK automatic gearbox (which 90 per cent of 911 owners now choose). On the chassis and powertrain side of things, our car did without a host of new chassis aid options, simply taking the £1,125/$1,6875 Sport Chrono pack, which brings the dash-top lap timer, dynamic engine mounts and an associated sport/sport plus system to sharpen everything up.
It’s a base model, so should we not set our expectations too high? Far from it. The new, twin-turbo charged, flat-6, 3.0-litre engine produces 370bhp and 450Nm of torque. Porsche’s active damper and suspension system – known as PASM – now comes as standard (on the last generation it was optional) and the manual gearbox contains seven ratios.
The result of which is that when you press the loud pedal the 911 still goes like a scalded cat. Those twin turbos come on stream at just a couple of thousand revs, which means the new 911 gets the wind in its sails from a very early point in proceedings. This is very much in contrast to the last car, which while ferociously quick, still needed a lot of revs on board before you could really feel it was travelling. It’s a perception thing, but turbos definitely help the base 911 feel and not just be faster. And fundamentally change the character and the drive.
Porsche 911 Carrera review: Serious software
But while the engine is the thing that will get the 911 purists frothing at the mouth, for those of us concerned with the real-world usability of the 911, it’s in the cockpit where the greatest changes have been wrung.
Out goes the old PCM communication and nav system, replaced by a new, much swifter running, Volkswagen-sourced system – supported by host of apps to extend and enhance your Porsche-branded lifestyle, and Google-based online mapping/navigation, DAB digital radio, a bluetooth phone system and online portal.
All of the above is now standard, which is a big deal as Porsche typically made you pay extra before now. You even get an interface for iPod/iPhone – and no that’s not us being Apple biased, it’s Porsche, as the company apparently did research and found most of its drivers had Apple devices. Your Android phonewill still connect to the car, but won’t have quite the same functionality as Apple. Talk about risking techie buyers.
The system runs much faster than before, and the expensive, curved-edged glass capacitive touchscreen responds keenly to inputs. Just a pity it kept telling us how Google was loading, or plonking the mapping technology copyright watermark right where you don’t want it. Despite online functionality, a phone running Google maps still ran rings around it for avoiding traffic. Will in-car nav ever catch the tech players for this type of thing? When it can’t in a new £80k Porsche, we do wonder.
Still, it’s nice Porsche now gives you this for free – it would be churlish to say its tech offering is not a step forward. Certainly compared to the system we ummed and ahhed over in the company’s Macan earlier in the year, it’s a lot more user friendly.
Porsche 911 Carrera review: Serious drive
The interior is a success story too, the reasons so many people default to a 911 are all present and correct this time around. Rear seats that fit children? Check. It even fits a baby seat if you try hard enough. Front boot that can accommodate a full-sized suitcase? Check. Super comfy seats that (although low mounted in the car) don’t require body contortion to get into? Check. Easy-to-adjust seat and wheel? Check. You get the picture.
You’ll note we’ve largely ignored talk of the exterior design. As this is a facelift of the last-generation car, it looks largely the same – bar for a few bumper changes and light technology detailing, which add a certain fussiness but certainly don’t ruin the looks.
We will deal with the drive in fine nuances, because that is the way the 911 itself goes about business. To pronounce conclusive judgement on the model’s dynamic qualities is tricky, such is the array of permeations and variations that the 911 comes in – from two- or four-wheel drive, a range of wheel sizes, suspension setups and driving assistance systems. As we’ve said, our car is almost as pure a 911 as you can have today. And so it perhaps serves as a range benchmark.
Inherent to any Porsche driving experience is the consistency of control weighting, and in this new car Porsche proves it still is the best in the industry at matching the way a set of pedals, gearshift, steering and cabin switches can work together in harmony to perfectly portray the idea of a well-oiled machine. Nothing feels too light, too sloppy, nor too hard to work. It might sound precious, but it’s from such consistency that much of the joy of driving a 911 comes.
The gearbox and ride are worthy of separate note. We never drove the manual, 7-speed version of the old 911 – but many journalists felt the gearbox was not worthy of the Porsche name. While the 7-speed gate can still catch you out (7th can only be selected from 5th or 6th) the action of the shift is hefty, precise and a general delight to use.
Likewise the ride – with our car running on 20-inch wheels – has a firmness that’s befitting of the 911’s sporting nature, and allows precious little body pitch and roll, yet manages to deal with the sorry state of British roads with aplomb. Most hatchbacks handle potholes worse. It goes without saying the level of grip is astonishing. In the dry, and with the stability systems switched on, the days of a 911 ejecting you off the road, hedge-first, should be gone, for all but the most ham-fisted.
The steering is an ongoing moan, though, because the electrically-assisted setup doesn’t transmit as much information through the wheel as a hydraulic system. But it is nonetheless perfectly well weighted, and very accurate. It makes the 911 fun to drive. Only when you step into another Porsche from a generation or two back do you realise the new setup is giving you less information. But as far as contemporary competitors go? Maybe Jaguar’s F-Type setup just shades it.
Porsche 911 Carrera review: Engine alterations
Which leaves just that new element: the engine. On a cold start, it’s still loud, bold and has a level of chatter that any owner of a Porsche flat-6 unit will identify with. At revs, it develops a blaring, baritone note that is not unpleasant. It just lacks the range of the previous engine – which grew to a spine-tingling wail, over the last 1,500rpm of its range.
It’s the noise we miss if we’re honest. We have fond memories of drives across the North Yorkshire moors in a 2013 911 Carrera 4 S, on one bright June Sunday morning. Memories involving repeatedly changing down to simply rev out the engine and hear that incredible, spine-tingling noise as it passes 7,000, then 8,000rpm. In 2016? Well, we rode a wave of torque and changed up 2,000rpm earlier (partly because the new engine has a lower rev limiter).
Note that in give-and-take driving the 2016 Carrera feels just as fast as a previous-gen Carrera S. It’s just not quite as addictive or memorable in the way you exercise it.
Our review 911 also came with a sports exhaust (£1,773/$2,6595), with pops and splutters on the over-run. It’s a laugh at first, you can activate it more or less via a button on the centre console. But after a week you realise the noises are repetitive – giving the game away that this is programmed, thus just feeling a little synthetic.
Let’s get things in perspective: this is far from a bad engine. It still sounds more cultured than any four-cylinder. It sounds, largely, like a 911 should. And for a turbo-charged engine, it is mercifully free from turbo lag. It’s also easier and quicker to overtake and take advantage of gaps – because of the torque lower down in the rev range. Ultimately it doesn’t ruin the 911. It just doesn’t define it anymore, either.
For the purists, that could be a problem. For those less steeped in 911 culture it may not be. We think it’s a slight shame, but not a deal-breaker. And it’s certainly not enough of an issue to see the 911 dethroned from its position as the best car in its class.
It’s perhaps telling of the 911’s new approach that so much of this review is about the engine. The wider concept is evolved so gently, that changes such as the move to a turbo engine seem disproportionately massive. But as we move towards an increasingly electrified mobility fleet, and as Porsche itself moves towards this way of doing things (the Mission E concept will turn production some time after 2018), standing back, we have to question how relevant it is to continue to bang on about such a small part of the car?
The bigger news is the 911’s move forwards with cabin technology, and the big increase in standard-fit technology. That this generally works intuitively, and in a manner that fits the Porsche way of doing things, is a much bigger plus point than the engine is a minus.
Perhaps more than ever, the 911 retains its mix of being a deeply covetable object, yet an easy day-to-day device to use, that you won’t be worried to leave it out on the street, yet always excited to drive it for kicks on a Sunday morning drive. No wonder, throughout its now 50+ years history, it has remained such an effervescent force.