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February 16, 2002

Review: 1997 Porsche 911 Cabriolet

When we hear the word Porsche, three adjectives immediately spring to mind: air-cooled, rear-engined, and flat-six.  With the advent of the latest Porsche products, each of these trademark characteristics has come under assault.  Noise and emissions regulations have led to water-cooled engines, the Boxster has its engine in the middle of the chassis, and the upcoming Cayenne will be powered by a V8 engine.  Hey, the Cayenne is even an SUV, for crying out loud!  To those who might wonder what a Porsche truly is, to what the brand really stands for, they should go back in time, just a few years to the last of the “true” Porsches, the previous 911, codenamed 993.

For starters, the 993’s exterior shape be can traced directly back to the very first Porsche, 1948’s Model 356.  The round headlamps leading to pronounced fenders, the upright windshield, bulging haunches and sharply sloping rear: these are unmistakably Porsche. Unlike exotic Italian machinery, where style is given equal billing as function, the Porsche shape has no pretensions: all the curves are there to house the machinery underneath.

What machinery that is, too.  With this car, examination must start at the back.  There, overhanging the rear wheels, resides the 3.6-liter flat-six engine.  Lifting the cover reveals no ostentatious cam covers, or orderly rows of injectors.  In fact, it looks like a jumble of tubes, hoses and wire harnesses.  One striking detail is the large cooling fan.  With no water jacketing the engine block and thus no radiator, the cooling fan is all that prevents the engine from melting into one fused block of aluminum. That, and 12 liters of synthetic motor oil.

Insert the key to the left of the steering wheel; twist it and the boxer engine fires up with an eager, jackhammer rhythm.  It quickly settles into a pleasant idle, its sound originating distinctly far behind the driver’s head.  In another example of a bygone era, the pedals are not directly in front of the driver, but moved slightly to the center to clear the bulge from the front wheel.  Moreover, the pedals are floor-hinged; pressing one means that you depress the top of the pedal, not the usual bottom.  The clutch is firm but not stiff, and lacks any sort of sponginess.  Press it, grab the ball-topped shifter, slot decisively into first gear, and let out the clutch.  The clutch doesn’t engage for the first few mm of release, then it grabs commandingly, and suddenly you feel the torque of the engine.

There’s 329 Nm available at 5000 rpm, but a fraction of that will suffice for most conditions. Blasting to 4000 rpm in first and second gears from a stoplight is enough to drop all traffic far behind, although the engine will eagerly spin to its 6800 rpm redline. (Max power is 270 bhp at 6100 rpm.) Throughout the rev range, acceleration—and engine sound level—are quite linear, and the gas pedal acts as both speed and volume control.  The six-speed gearbox has short throws and well-defined gates.  After every shift, the engine picks up right where it left off, as if continuing a conversation, each phrase bringing the car closer to its 260+ km/h top speed.

Braking is as fierce as the acceleration.  Cross-drilled and radially-vented discs stand guard at all four corners, and bring the car to a halt as effectively as we imagine a deployed parachute would.  No wonder: the wheels are 17-inchers, but the large brake discs and calipers are nearly scraping the inside of the rims.

Mounting the engine aft of the rear wheels benefits both acceleration and braking.  When accelerating, most of the car’s mass is on the drive wheels because of weight transfer rearward.  During braking, weight effectively transfers to the front tires, but most of it still remains at the rear.  Suddenly this rear-engine layout is starting to make sense.  At rest, about 60% of the weight is on the rear tires.  This is immediately apparent even with a quick glance at the tires.  The fronts are slim 205/50 ZR 17s, while the rears are pavement-chomping 255/40 ZR 17s.

That rear weight bias is also evident from the moment the car enters a corner.  There’s no understeer to speak of, and when the car settles into a corner, we could feel the mass rotating somewhere behind our seats.  The rear never threatened to break loose though, as earlier 911s were infamous for, and remained firmly planted even on our notoriously twisty flyovers.

Some enthusiasts maintain that only convertibles can qualify as true sports cars. Well, we won’t argue with that, because with a push of a button on the center console, the Porsche automatically retracts its canvas roof and folds it into a neat pile behind the vestigial rear seats.  Suddenly, the engine is pleasingly louder and the upright windshield feels perfectly positioned.

The body feels utterly solid, lacking any sort of squeaks, shakes or rattles, despite its topless configuration.  However, wind noise is quite loud—don’t expect to converse normally at more than 80 km/h.  Raising the side windows helps quiet things down.  Ride quality is surprisingly compliant and comfortable.

To those used to the cushy cabins of today’s cars, the 993’s cabin might seem bare.  Everything there is for function only, and sensibly so.  Why play with a CD changer when the entire car is a plaything? A large tachometer dominates the instruments, its needle spinning gleefully clockwise at one’s command.  A smaller speedometer, oil and coolant temp, oil pressure and fuel level gauges, and analog clock complete the instruments.

For those who must ask about practicality, the car does have a front trunk big enough for a couple of soft bags.  Expect to carry no more than two people, as the rear seats are only for emergency use—or for additional luggage.  As for sealing away rain, heat and dust, the folding top does an excellent job of that, and no leaks or mechanical problems have sprung up.  The 993 does pack all the necessary safety equipment, like ABS brakes and dual airbags.  Other concessions to convenience include power windows, door locks and mirrors, and power-operated leather seats.

This is obviously not a car for the timid.  Its controls, behavior and capabilities require one’s full attention.  For some, it might be too uncompromising, and there lies the true beauty of this car.  Indeed, this car has successors, but no true replacement.  The spirit of the company lives on in other models, but the 993 is a true Porsche in both body and soul.  It’s the unadulterated incarnation of the Porsche philosophy and that alone may never be recreated.

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