Porsche 911: A sports car for the ages

Who the victims were during last week’s test drive depends on where you sat. In the dark cockpit of a new Porsche 911, a black shadow under a body so blindingly yellow the door mirrors looked like oddshaped lemons, I could not escape being followed, tailgated, and dragraced across two states. It happened in the way wasps descend on an open soda can, hovering voraciously at the lid for a drop of sweet nectar. Except I was the yellow jacket.

Insurance companies would expect a 26-year-old guy in a 400-horsepower, paddle-shifted Porsche to be the obvious aggressor, hence the $2,800-per-year insurance quote I received online. But that’s not what happened as the driver of the Mazda 3 I passed immediately mashed his pedal to the floor to keep up. Or when the driver of an M3 almost kissed my tailpipes right as I entered I-95—he was that close—and then dove to the left and zinged in front of me. At a suburban stoplight, a teenager in a Jaguar sedan saw me pull up and gunned it at the green, with only 500 feet ahead of us before the lanes merged.

None of this happened last year when I drove the previous-generation 911 Cabriolet (painted silver) or even the almighty Turbo S (painted black). Like Mama Morton from “Chicago,” this 2012 “Racing Yellow” Carrera S lured in average guys and spit them back, dazed and probably a little weak, onto the street.

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Which is odd, because Porsches are supposed to be sensible sports cars, the kind that can perform at extremes while appearing normal. You don’t pop the hood on a 911 because there’s nothing impressive about a flat-six straddled over the rear axle (on the new 911, it’s hidden entirely behind a plastic cover). Its basic shape, adopted from the first Volkswagen Beetle, has changed so little over six decades as to become common. While elegant and sultry with those widened rear hips, 911s are nearly plebian compared to the bravado of a Ferrari or the suaveness of a Bentley coupe. Inside, aside from a spread of oil gauges, 911s take understatement to new lows. The back seat fits two kids or a big dog. It’s good on gas (would you believe I averaged 21.4 mpg?). Unlike most high-end European cars, a 911 doesn’t sell on name alone. You want one because you know exactly what it’s not.

To recap: If you love driving and want a pure, thrilling car that won’t age, the 911—especially the naturally aspirated Carrera and Carrera S—is your only choice. For 2012, Porsche has changed it just enough to keep the car modern while enticing loyal customers to come back for another round.

Most staggering, aside from its killer-looking rear end with the sliced LED tail lamps, is the car’s stretched wheelbase. The front and rear wheels are four inches farther apart, a significant increase in any car and huge in a small car like the 911, which also grows by two inches overall. Amazingly, Porsche lightened the car by a couple of dozen pounds. All of this translates to increased stability and surefootedness at speed. On my favorite winding roads, the 911 was truly effortless in the way it tugged corners, dove through dips with nary a load change from the suspension, and stopped without abandon. It was fantastic, as expected. Even the ride from our car’s 20-inch tires was surprisingly compliant, not like the overly stiff Audi R8’s.

But this new car raises some doubts. Its longer dimensions are straddling the edge between nimbleness and bulk, which narrow two-lane New England roads tend to easily reveal. People who want a Porsche with four doors can choose from the company’s two other models. Go any larger, and the 911’s very essence could be scrubbed clean off.

That same worry applies to the steering, now assisted by an electric motor instead of the traditional engine-driven hydraulic pump. It’s not ruined, and unlike what I’ve read elsewhere, it doesn’t steer numbly like an Audi, Porsche’s not-too-distant corporate cousin. The 911 still changes direction with alacrity and tracks perfectly, though, yes, some of the feedback from the front tires has been dulled. It’s especially noticeable off-center. In the last 911, a slight twitch of the wheel would send the car turning, however slightly. In this 911, it’s not so apt to dart, which is part of the reason why it feels sort of big on those back roads. A good thing is that the steering weight has been lightened at low speeds, and the wheel itself is a tactile feast for the fingers.

As some details get ironed out, however, others now explode in your face, particularly how the 3.8-liter fl at-six switches from raspy growl to a cacophony of soaring midtones. It’s wonderful music that was accentuated by the $2,950 sport exhaust, which pumps up the volume at the flip of a switch (it also pushes more sound through the interior, via a sound tube running from the air intakes). Then there’s the auto start/stop system, which kills the engine at a standstill —almost out of nowhere—to save fuel and reduce emissions (bystanders will think you’ve stalled).

Porsche offers two 7-speed gearboxes: a dual-clutch automatic with paddle shifters or the world’s first 7-speed manual. I’m a manual diehard. For me, the Carrera isn’t fast enough to require the rifle-bolt shifts of the dual-clutch gearbox, whereas the 530-horsepower Turbo S absolutely needs it. But this automatic is faster than the stick (60 mph in 3.9 seconds versus 4.3) and delivers an impressive 20 mpg city, 27 mpg highway. It’s programmed to fi t every mood, from soft cruise to redline-banging shifts in “Sport Plus” mode. It’s also too easy to terrorize neighborhoods by paddling back into fi rst gear and listening to the exhaust snort and crackle. It’s retuned to sound even angrier than the outgoing Carrera GTS. I never drove around town without it.

The all-new interior and its slim, tapering center stack derive from the Panamera, which means there are lots of buttons to decode. After a few minutes, they’re as easy to find as Braille. The navigation system is one of the industry’s best, with clear graphics, live traffic, and the ability to display the map on the instrument panel, next to the central tachometer, along with other vehicle functions. It’s one of the most intuitive luxury features you can buy anywhere.

Now might be at good time to discuss the $30,000 worth of options on our car, like the heated and cooled sport seats and sunroof, which drive the as-tested price to $125,490. Actually, there’s not much to discuss. It’s German and everything, even the colored wheel caps, comes a la carte.

You could call yourself a victim, but that’s like Warren Buffet complaining about paying too little income tax. If you can afford to sit in a 911 every day, most people—after they give up trying to chase you—would just call you lucky.