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March 19, 2005

First Drive: 2005 Porsche 911

Pluck any car enthusiast from the last 40 years, and there is only one car that he will be sure to identify from a hundred paces away.  The upright fenders and windshield, triangular greenhouse profile, and sharply sloping rear can only belong to the Porsche 911.

This latest version, dubbed 997, exudes some of the purposeful menace lost in the previous one.  The new Carrera returns to the classic 911 face, with elliptical headlamps, a slimmer bumper with integrated driving lamps and larger air intakes.  Despite a look that harkens back to the last of the air-cooled 911s, all the body panels on the coupe are new, except for the roof.  The mechanicals are all new or upgraded, aided by the latest in electronic enhancements.

The black Carrera S looks ready to pounce in the gleaming new Porsche Center garage.  As with its predecessors, form follows function: the bodywork tautly wrapped over the engine, wheels and cabin.

The interior is roomier than previous 911s, thanks to seats mounted 10 mm lower, and repositioned controls.  The layout is pure sports car, thickly covered with luxury.  Leather trim covers the seats, doors and dashboard, with aluminum inserts to offset the blackness.  The center console features a large LCD screen surrounded by buttons for climate control and telephone.  The thick-rimmed wheel is adjustable for both reach and rake, allowing for the perfect driving position.  The pedals have been positioned straight ahead of the driver.  Heavily bolstered sports seats allow power adjustment for all body contours, including thigh support.  The five circular dials faced in silver are larger now, with a tachometer taking center stage.

We turn the key at the left of the steering wheel and the flat-six bursts into life with a jackhammer rhythm.  The garage doors fold open, and we ease the car onto the highway.  As we drive gingerly to warm up the engine oil, the 911 feels like a rocket waiting to be launched.  A kilometer or so later, as both engine and driver were ready, we turn onto a long piece of straight road.

Flooring the throttle blurs the landscape and sends all other traffic shooting backwards.  We were instantly pressed deep into our seat.  7300 rpm and we were up for the next booster stage.  The short-throw six-speed manual needs a healthy tug, and gears slot in with pleasing precision.  Pressing the clutch feels less like driving a conventional car and more like operating a finely-tuned instrument.

We looked at the tail afterwards and found no afterburner—just the S’s two pairs of twin tailpipes.  Upstream of the exhaust is Porsche’s latest flat-six, developing 355 bhp and 400 Nm.  The all-aluminum 3.8-liter engine has 4 valves per cylinder, with variable valve lift and timing on the intake side.  At full blast, 0 to 100 km/h goes by in a blistering 4.8 seconds, 160 km/h in 10.7, and 200 km/h in 16.5.  Top speed is 293 km/h.  An owner in this country will likely never see those numbers outside of a test track, but the potential is always ready to be summoned.

Despite our car’s optional sports suspension that lowers the car’s ride height by 20 mm, humps can be taken head-on, albeit gently.  The ride is extremely firm, with the huge 19-inch tires telegraphing the road surface into the cabin.  For those wanting a more comfortable ride, the S comes standard with Porsche Active Suspension Management, which can soften or harden the damper settings on command or automatically.

We expected stunning acceleration from this car, but what truly made our eyes pop, literally, were the brakes.  Four-piston calipers and ceramic discs the size of large pepperoni pizzas (350 mm) haul the car down from triple digits to a crawl in an incredibly short patch of road.  No fade, no hesitation and no drama.  And no warming up is necessary.

The optional Sports Chrono Package Plus doesn’t refer merely to the analog/digital stopwatch mounted on the dash.  The system actually enhances the car’s performance by altering some its electronically-controlled thresholds.  The throttle butterfly opens and closes more rapidly, the stability management allows more slip in corners, and even the ABS cuts in later.  Porsche promises that you won’t just feel that you’re going faster—you actually will.  You can measure precisely how much many seconds you’re shaving off your best lap by using the stopwatch.  Track days will never be the same again.

The 911 has gone back to its heritage for its new look, but everything underneath that familiar skin is bristling with impressive technology.  The future of Porsche has arrived, and it is extremely fast.

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