2006 Porsche 911 Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Carrera 4, Cabriolet models join new 997 lineup.
The Porsche 911 lineup has been overhauled. For 2006, new Carrera 4 and Carrera 4S models join the Carrera and Carrera S models that were introduced for 2005. Cabriolet versions also join the 2006 Porsche 911 lineup. Essentially, every possible combination is available between coupe and cabriolet, 3.6-liter and 3.8-liter engines, rear-wheel drive and all-wheel drive.
Using Porsche's internal codename, all are new 997 models, replacing the 996 series produced since 1998. Only the Turbo continues to ride on the 996 platform.
These newest Porsches are thoroughly modern driving machines, packed with the latest in material advances, engine technology and electronic management. Yet one of the most striking things about them is that in some subtle but obvious ways, the 911 has devolved.
Over the past 10 or 15 years, as Porsche engineers ironed out some of the 911's handling quirks, they'd moved developed it in a more civilized direction. The 911 has adapted the accoutrements of a grand-touring coupe, with multiple-adjustment heated memory seats, automatic climate control, more sound insulating material and one-button convertible tops. To some hard-core 911 old-timers, it's become downright cushy.
These 997 models have changed that picture somewhat. Don't get us wrong. It hasn't become a spartan buckboard of a high-performance car. Comfort, convenience and high-tech features are still here, including Porsche's fully active suspension. Yet in certain, deliberate respects, the latest 911 is more primal than its predecessor. Perhaps it's the aggressive rasp from the exhaust or the way the engines deliver power to the drive wheels or the way the shift lever snicks between gears. Maybe it's an extra tingle of vibration through the frame channels. Whatever the reason, in standard trim the current 911 is edgier than the previous generation, and we're sure driving enthusiasts will appreciate the difference.
The Porsche 911 remains one of the easiest supercars to live with in daily use. It's more user friendly than competitors, from the Corvette to the Ferrari F430. It's relatively easy to get in and out of. It rides smoothly and comfortably, by sports car standards, and it's happy to putt around all day at a Buick pace, particularly with the Tiptronic automatic transmission. The 911 has earned a reputation for being nearly bullet-proof, and there's very little about it that's finicky.
This we say with certainty: Nearly 60 years after the company was founded, Porsche continues to make some of the world's great sports cars. The Porsche 911 remains the standard by which other sports cars are judged and this latest-generation 911 is the best one so far.
The Porsche 911 lineup starts with the Carrera ($71,300), powered by a 3.6-liter version of Porsche's classic flat six-cylinder engine generating 325 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque. Standard equipment includes leather-trimmed height-adjustable seats with power recliners, a digital AM/FM/CD stereo, trip computer, leather telescoping steering wheel, power windows, power locks with keyless remote, cruise control, 18-inch wheels and a speed-dependent retractable rear spoiler. The Carrera Cabriolet ($81,400) is similarly equipped.
The Carrera S ($81,400) and Carrera S Cabriolet ($91,400) are powered by a 3.8-liter six-cylinder, delivering 355 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. Besides the bigger engine, the Carrera S gets the Porsche Active Suspension Management system (PASM), 19-inch wheels, bigger brakes with painted red calipers, Bi-Xenon headlights, a sport steering wheel and aluminum-look interior trim. The Carrera S Cabriolet is similarly equipped.
The new Carrera 4 ($77,100) is equipped similarly to the standard rear-drive Carrera, but with the added advantage of all-wheel drive. There are also other tweaks, such as larger standard wheels and tires, and the wider fenders needed to accommodate them. The same idea holds for the Carrera 4S ($87,100), Carrera 4 Cabriolet ($87,100), and Carrera 4S Cabriolet ($97,100).
The 911 Turbo models are based on the older platform (known within Porsche as the 996), but are impressive cars nonetheless. The all-wheel-drive 911 Turbo S ($131,400) gets Porsche's race-bred, twin-turbocharged version of the 3.6-liter engine, creating a whopping 444 horsepower. The Turbo S comes with Porsche's Ceramic Composite Brakes, which use exotic nonmetallic discs, and comfort and convenience upgrades such as full leather interior and a high-power, Bose-tuned stereo with a six-disc CD changer. The Turbo S Cabriolet ($141,200) features a power-operated convertible top.
Safety features on all models include Porsche Stability Management, an electronically controlled system that helps a driver maintain control in the event of a skid. Carrera coupes employ curtain-style head protection airbags, which deploy from the doors and augment the front and side-impact torso airbags.
A long list of options is available, ranging from a roof-transport system that can turn a 911 into a building material or bike-hauling workhorse to Ceramic Composite Brakes that can further its other hauling roles. Options include Porsche Communication Management, which incorporates audio, navigation system, and trip computer into a single control interface ($2,680); heated seats ($410); metallic paint ($825); and a CD changer ($715). The 911 can be personalized with Deviating Front Seat Stitching Color ($335), a Leather Dome Lamp Cover ($335), or Non-Metallic Paint to Sample ($4,315), where Porsche will match any color your heart desires. Porsche maintains its long tradition of factory customization, with options that cover colors and materials for virtually every part or surface inside the car. And if there's not an existing option, Porsche will likely go off the card, for a price. Ostrich door pulls or jade-faced pedals might be doable. It never hurts to ask.
This latest generation of Porsche 911 represents a major update, but despite the changes, no one will mistake the cars for something other than a 911. In fact, it looks conspicuously similar to the original 1964 model, maintaining the classis profile that has landed it in art museums and design school lecture halls. For Porsche, the 911's heritage can be a double-edged sword. Leave the car alone, and it might be perceived as dated. Change the car too drastically, and it might alienate hard-core loyalists, many of whom form the core group of 911 buyers.
The styling has devolved slightly from the earlier 911, just like the basic character of the car. The most obvious change is the headlights and front fascia. Rounder, single-pod lamps replace the teardrop-shaped multi-light headlight assemblies used on pre-2005 models. The new headlights sit more upright in the front fenders, and the turn signals and foglights are now laid horizontally in a squarer front bumper. The new look more quickly distinguishes the 911 from Porsche's less expensive Boxster. As significantly, it harkens back to the rugged look of 911s built during the 1980s.
In back, the 911's taillights are smaller, installed at a more vertical angle relative to the bumper. Curvy rear fenders and wheel arches extend further from the side of the car, housing the 911's classic extra-wide rear wheels. Carrera 4 models get even wider rear rubber, and their fenders are correspondingly 1.75 inches wider than their rear-drive siblings. This staggered setup helps the 911's rear tires turn its horsepower into quicker acceleration and balances tire grip front and rear for high g-force turning. All 911s have wheels at least 18 inches in diameter, and all are equipped with Z-rated tires. That's the highest speed rating available for street use.
In essence, the newest 911's styling changes sacrifice some of the 1999-2004 model's beauty in favor of more visual belligerence. Yet very little at Porsche is done strictly for appearance's sake. The newest 911 is a few hairs longer and taller than the previous-generation; more significantly, the track (the distance between the outside edge of the tires) and overall width have increased. This wider stance improves the 911's lateral stability during quick, sharp directional changes. The cars also use more aluminum body parts than those they replace, minimizing weight increases that would otherwise come with new equipment such as active suspension and head-protecting side airbags. New structural designs underneath the sheet metal improve the chassis' resistance to flexing (as when the car brakes full force or crashes over a pothole) as much as 60 percent, without increasing weight significantly.
Convertible models feature power-operated soft tops that open in just 20 seconds. In addition, they can be operated at up to 30 mph. Safety is enhanced by strong steel tubes in the A-pillars, and supplemental safety bars behind the rear seats that automatically deploy in the event of a rollover. The Cabriolets present a unique appearance. Top up, they exhibit a profile similar to the coupes. Top down, the rear end looks heavy, but you'll forgive that as soon as you get in, stomp on the gas and hear that powerful six-cylinder wailing to redline.
When an automobile is designed to be stable at 180 mph and beyond, you'd better pay attention to aerodynamics. Much of the 911's design work was undertaken to more efficiently manage airflow over, under and around the car, down to very small details. The side mirrors were designed to direct air along the sides of the car toward the automatically deploying rear spoiler, sweeping the side windows clean in the process. A new undertray reduces friction beneath the 911, while the wheel arches are flared in a fashion that guides air around the tires (one of the biggest sources of drag on an automobile). Brake spoilers guide more air toward the rotor.
The new generation of Porsche 911 Carreras features all-new interiors, from the base of the windshield to the rear jump seats, with new steering wheels, seats, gauges, switches and climate control, and the introduction of head-protecting curtain airbags. Such thorough overhauls are expensive, and rare from Porsche. Nonetheless, after some seat time in the new 911, drivers who are familiar with Porsche will realize the significance of the improvements.
In a sense, the cockpit shares its basic theme (and look) with the earlier cars. It's a place designed for serious driving. This 911's seating position has long been perfect for most enthusiast drivers, with outstanding visibility in all directions compared to some other high-performance sports cars. Perhaps surprisingly to drivers new to the 911, it has also been a truly comfortable car for traveling long distances. The new design will feel familiar to those who have owned a 911, and the ignition key remains on the left, as it's always been on Porsche's LeMans race cars. Yet beyond functional improvements, this may be the best Porsche interior yet.
In general, there's an improvement in the quality of materials, and specifically, in the feel of plastic surfaces. The 911 still isn't quite up to snuff with the best luxury sedans in its price range, but it now comes much closer to what consumers expect at its price levels. You no longer have to spring for expensive options to get an interior finish that matches the car's overall quality.
The steering wheel has a contemporary three-spoke design, and its leather-wrapped rim is thicker and grippier than ever. As it often is at Porsche, there's more going on here than meets the eye. The steering wheel's core structure is an expensive magnesium alloy, which weighs less than the old steel/aluminum structure. More significantly, the wheel adjusts both up and down and fore and aft for the first time (albeit manually). This is also the first 911 to offer redundant controls on the steering wheel hub that operated the audio and navigation systems or the optional telephone.
The newest Carreras feel a bit roomier than their predecessors, and we suspect more comfortable for larger drivers. The difference is a combination of small things, like the adjustable wheel and a slight repositioning of the pedals toward the front of the car. The front seats, already among the best going, have been redesigned. They have higher bolstering on the bottoms and back, but they actually feel roomier. The width of both cushions seems to have increased, especially near the top of the back around the shoulders. The seats are mounted lower to the floor, creating a bit more headroom.
We found the optional sports seats in the Carrera S fantastic. They are more aggressively bolstered than the standard seats, and a bit firmer under bottom. Still, they remained supremely comfortable during a three-hour stretch at the wheel.
The gauges are spread in a larger pod than before, and the faces themselves are larger. The script and backlighting make them as legible as ever, but the extra space between them makes absorbing the information displayed a little less tedious. The dash vents are larger, and the climate control system seems to move more air at full bore than it did previously. The climate controls are located in the center stack. From an aesthetic point of view, they're the least appealing part of the new interior, but functionally they work fine.
The 911's slickest option could be the Sport Chrono Package. It's most obvious component is almost glaring to anyone familiar with this car: a jewel-like chronograph sprouting from the center of the dash. Flick a switch on the dash, then start or stop the chronograph with a switch on one of the steering wheel stalks, and it will display acceleration or lap times. What you don't see are the adjustments in electronic controls that occur when the chrono is sw.
In a word, the Porsche 911 is thrilling. Its overall performance is extraordinary. All variants accelerate with the verve of a motorbike and turn or stop on a dime, all the while behaving in smooth, civilized fashion for the more mundane demands of daily motoring.
These latest-generation Porsche 997s feed information back to the driver just a little more clearly and react to commands a nanosecond sooner than the previous generation. They also retain the wash-and-wear quality that has made the 911 a relatively easy car to live with everyday.
The standard Carrera and Carrera 4 are powered by a revised version of Porsche's familiar 3.6-liter, horizontally opposed six cylinder, otherwise known as the boxer engine for the way its pistons punch outward. It employs the latest materials technology, a race-car style dry sump lubrication system and a refined version of Porsche's VarioCam variable valve timing. Horsepower peaks at 325, while peak torque remains 273 pound-feet. Yet the updated engine is lighter, with lower fuel consumption at a given rpm and fewer exhaust emissions.
Our test car was a Carrera S with a new (for 2005), slightly larger version of the boxer engine. The extra displacement from the 3.8-liter engine pays off in a substantial increase to 355 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. The 3.8-liter shaves about 0.2 seconds off the standard Carrera's 0-60 times.
Even before the improvements, the 911's engine was one of the most tractable found in a sports car. The improved engines in the newest Carreras take this outstanding balance to new heights.
Most drivers care less about specific technologies or how they work and more about what those technologies do. Anyone with a bit of experience in a wide array of cars will grasp the benefit of VarioCam. Ten years ago, high performance engines required more significant trade offs. Build them with good low-end power so they made the car jump with authority from a start and they would likely run out of steam at higher rpm, coughing and wheezing as they approached the redline on the tachometer. Build them to spin like a turbine at higher revs, breathing like a sprinter and building velocity through the higher range, and they were likely anemic off the line. Variable valve timing allows engineers to better achieve the best of both worlds: good low end punch, free breathing at high revs. These Porsche engines deliver this combination better than just about any on the market.
Acceleration? We easily managed 0-60 mph runs under 4.5 seconds, measured with a portable, over-the-counter accelerometer. That's easily half a second quicker than a car like Audi's S4, which happens to be one of most capable, potent high-performance luxury sedans you can buy. In automotive terms you can do a lot in half a second.
However, these figures only hint at the satisfaction a driver can find in the 911's engine. The real draw lies in its tractability. Slam the 911's gas pedal at any road or engine speed, and the response is immediate, not to mention enormous. There's more speed available in just about any situation, rumbling up through the driver's backside and into the belly. We wanted to floor it every time we tracked through a turn and let the engine wind to its 7300-rpm redline, just to feel the acceleration and listen to the unmistakable rasp of a Porsche boxer engine (the best one yet). Anyone with a pulse should appreciate the visceral exhilaration built into the 911.
Acceleration is only one component of the 911's impressive performance. Porsche's engineers devoted significant energy to trimming the Carrera's weight in an effort to compensate for new, weight-increasing equipment like head-protection airbags. The steering system, suspension and attachment points have been redesigned with sturdier, lighter components, reducing unsprung weight. The Carrera's track has been widened for more lateral stability. In tota.
You might find high-performance cars with more sex appeal. You can certainly find one that's more brutish, if you prefer brute strength at the expense of finesse. You will not find a sports car with better overall balance than the Porsche 911, however, and you will not find a true high-performance machine that is easier to live with as daily transportation. The newest batch of Porsche 911 Carreras take everything that's good about the 911 and make it a little better.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent J.P. Vettraino is based in the Detroit area.
Porsche 911 Carrera ($71,300); Carrera S ($81,400); Carrera 4 ($77,100); Carrera 4S ($87,100); Carrera Cabriolet ($81,400); Carrera S Cabriolet ($91,400); Carrera 4 Cabriolet ($87,100); Carrera 4S Cabriolet ($97,100); Turbo S ($131,400); Turbo S Cabriolet ($141,200).
Options As Tested
Power Seat Package ($1,550) includes dual power front seats with power height, length and backrest adjust, dual adjust lumbar supports, driver's seat memory; Bose High End Surround Sound Package ($1,390); three-spoke Sport Steering Wheel with multi-function controls ($990); Sport Chrono package ($920); heated front seats ($480); Auto-dimming mirrors ($385); wheel center caps with painted Porsche crest ($185); floor mats ($115).
Porsche 911 Carrera S Coupe ($81,400).
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