26 Dec 2012

2013 Porsche 911 Carrera S review

Matt Hubbard reviews the Porsche 991 Carrera S, with PDK gearbox

"This one," said the Man From Porsche.  He was pointing to a brand new 991, painted in a lurid shade of Racing Yellow.  He gave me the keys.  I climbed in the car.  It felt good.

This was my first session in a 991 and it was to be at the Porsche Experience Centre at Silverstone.  I've driven many supercars with more than 500bhp this year but all have been on the road and none have given me such a frisson of joy as I stepped inside.  It's fair to say that, for this most iconic of sportscars, my expectations were high.

The 911 Carrera S was fitted with a PDK (Porsche Doppelkupplung) gearbox.  That's an automatic to you and me - but to Porsche it is a 7 speed, double clutch manual or automatic gearbox.  Whatever - you can drive it in auto or manual.

The engine fitted to the Carrera S is a 3.8 litre, flat 6 with 400bhp and it sits way out back behind the rear seats and gearbox.  It can do 0-62mph in 4.3 seconds and top speed is 187mph.  I wasn't going to do 187mph because the circuit I was going to test the car on is the Porsche Handling Circuit, which really only allows you to get up to 3rd gear (screaming at top revs).

The car costs £83,629 as standard and with the extras fitted to the test car - sports exhaust, sport chrono, PASM sport suspension and leather sports seats - it tops out at a hefty £88,873.

The interior was black, thankfully.  Porsche produce some nasty shades of brown (Luxor Beige being the worst offender) in their interior colour schemes.  Actually the interior was unexpectedly pleasant.  The 911 is no stripped out sportscar.  Porsche spend your 80 grand on some seriously high quality materials.  The leather trimmed steering wheel, leather dash surround, aluminium strips and good quality plastics make the 911 cabin a lovely place to just sit and survey the world.

Ahead are five dials with the centre being the revs, but also with a digital gear indicator and speed readout - which is good because the analogue speedo is next to useless.  70mph takes up less than a quarter of the 'clock face' and 30mph is a mere, unmarked, line.

Fire up the engine and the sound is instantly Porsche.  Not played through the stereo, like a BMW M5, but real and raw.  You can press a button to open a flap somewhere which increases the exhaust note in the cabin.  I pressed the button and kept it on.  It is a good noise.

At low speed the 911 is agile and light.  In traffic it would be a breeze.  Keep it in auto.  Turn the wheel with one finger.  Blah, blah, blah - watch the world go by until the traffic lights and all the automatons ahead decide to eventually move.

But I wasn't driving in traffic.  A couple of turns and onto the Handling Track.  Foot down.  PDK in normal mode and go.

After a few laps I pressed the Sport button which instantly transformed the engine, suspension and the way the gearbox worked.  It held the gear for longer and changed later, the suspension was firmer and the engine's response faster.  I then played with manual mode - basically 2nd and 3rd round the Handling Track.  After a few more laps I gathered my thoughts.

I had been absorbed.  The Porsche 911 Carrera S becomes part of you.  The car is so fluid, the gearbox so fast and precise, the suspension so pliant and supple, the throttle so crisp - you just end up focussing on the road.  All else is blotted out.  Eyes on the next apex.  Dart to the mirrors, back to the road, listen for revs rather than watch the rev counter, change up, change down.

This isn't a car for posing in, though it is possible.  This isn't a car with a soundtrack so thunderous you want to hear it over and over again.  This is a car for driving.  A car that melds into the background whilst you get on with the business of driving fast.

You know there are some pens that can make your hand writing better - just by their design and the way they interact with the paper.  This car is that pen.  It makes you drive better.

At this juncture I need to address two points.

I drove the Cayman R and Boxster S beforehand and they were slightly more balanced because the engine was immediately behind the driver.  The 911's rear seats and engine out back are a feature of it's design going back 50 years.  Over time Porsche have evolved the design to reign in the 911's wayward handling which results from this imbalance.  This has been achieved with better chassis design, weight distribution (and loss, the chassis is mainly aluminium) and electronics.  The weight distribution is still towards the rear but this has been largely smothered by the above features.  It is still noticeable though, but never detracts from the experience.  At no point did I fear we were heading, rear first, towards the Armco barriers.

The second point relates to the power steering - which is electric.  I had read many reports from journalists, who believe themselves to be the almighty purveyors of truth, telling us that the electric steering was an inferior system to the previous 911's hydraulic assistance.  Bollocks.  The 991's steering is almost perfect.  The feedback from the wheel is the best I have ever encountered and certainly not inferior to the hydraulic system I had used in the Cayman R beforehand.

I discussed the electric steering with the Man From Porsche who said that when the 991 arrived he, and his colleagues (all qualified driving instructors and lifelong driving professionals from the police, motor racing etc), had all individually read these reports and, privately, disagreed.  One day, in the canteen, one Man From Porsche, mentioned it and suddenly they all opened up with their own thoughts - that electric steering is as good, if not better, than the previous hydraulic system and that the journalists who said otherwise were talking out of their nether regions.

After my session on track a Man From Porsche took me round the Low Friction Circuit, Ice Hill and Kick Plate.  You can read all about those tracks here.  All these circuits are designed to test the car, it's electronic systems and the driver's reactions and ability to cope with extreme conditions.  The 911 handled skids with aplomb.  Without electronics the driver has at his disposal a finely balanced tool.  The only limitations are speed of reaction and driver ability.  I did a good few donuts on Kick Plate.  With the electronics turned on it is almost impossible to spin the Porsche 911 Carrera S.

And that's the nub of the Porsche 991.  It is a fantastic car.  Supple, pliant and easy to use.  It hardly ever gets itself tangled in knots and when it's nose is pointed at a corner it sticks to that line without waver nor hesitation.  I drove the 991 in some extreme situations and it handled them all better than any car I've ever driven.

The car doesn't focus on all consuming power, noise or comfort.  it focusses on providing the driver with the best tool available for the job.  The cabin is well laid out and comfortable, visibility is good and  the dynamics sublime.

The Men From Porsche are proud of their car.  But they are also proud of the electronic systems that provide a safety net and, to be honest, enhance the driving experience.  400bhp with rear wheel drive and an engine over the rear axle should, in theory, make for a monstrous, ill-handling brute.  But it isn't.  The package is the best there has ever been.

The electronics are only a part of the car that make it the razor sharp machine that it is.  I just feel that this increase reliance on electronics and driver systems takes away somewhat from the whole experience.

We drove Ice Hill and Kick Plate over and over, with and without the electronics.  The Man From Porsche constantly showing me what the car could do.  I wanted to know what I could do, with a well balanced car.  My fear is that the nanny is now running the show rather than standing in the background waiting for the moment when she is needed to mop up after some cack-handed attempt at heroics - where ambition overtakes ability.

That notwithstanding, the Porsche 911 Carrera S is the best sportscar in the world.  Or at least it will be until the Turbo comes along.  If it were my money I'd buy a Carrera 4 S so I could use the car more without relying on electronics systems but, to be honest, that is nitpicking.

Porsche are riding high at the moment.  And they deserve it.  Their cars are the best in the world at what they do.
My interior photos didn't come out so this is a stock photo in Luxor Beige - argghh

The stats:

Car - Porsche 911 Carrera S
Price - £83,629
Options fitted - PDK gearbox, Sport design steering wheel, PDCC
Engine - 3.8 litre, flat 6
Power - 400bhp
Torque - 440Nm
Weight - 1415kg
0-62mph - 4.3 seconds
Top speed - 187mph
Fuel consumption - 32.5mpg combined