Words by Byron Hurd and Zerin Dube. Photography by Zerin Dube, Nicole Gagnon and Chase Adams (lede shot).
“Nice review. I enjoyed reading about the 3 because it is a car I may actually purchase someday. Although I like reading the reviews of the 911’s and Corvettes etc… it was refreshing to read about something more in my price range. Keep it up.”
–SSL reader “oufink.”
As of this writing, I have officially been in “the business” of doing road and track tests of automobiles for three years. It was summer of 2009 when I requested and was granted a then-new 2010 Mazda3i as my first press loan. At the risk of being too cliché, a lot has changed since then. Gone is our RX-8, replaced (such as it is) with a Jeep Wrangler. I now drive to work—even if just to catch Metro or a commuter bus—and our house in Maryland sits just minutes from the back roads I grew up on. The car owner’s nightmare that is northern Virginia is now more than two years in my rear-view mirror. And while I still drive my share of mainstream commuter cars for Speed:Sport:Life, this post is dedicated to something a little more special.
It’s a 2012 Porsche 911 Carrera S –a 991 S, in shorthand—and for the $135,000-MSRP of the Porsche, you could buy six brand-new Mazda3s, cage them, and start a NASA spec racing series. That being somewhat unpractical for our purposes (not to mention that Porsche provided us with the 911 loaner, rather than a pile of cash), we’ve done what we consider to be the next-best thing: we put our hats in our hands and kindly asked Porsche’s product team if we could drive it on a race track, sticking around only long enough to get the answer we wanted, lest they come to their senses.
The venue: SSL’s “Test Track East,” better known as Summit Point Motorsports Park’s Shenandoah Circuit. As usual, the event was hosted by our good friends from TrackDaze. Sharing paddock space with us were TTAC’s Jack Baruth, present with his own press loaner (a 2013 Mustang GT in Gotta Have It Green) and SSL contributor/fellow track rat Chase Adams, showing off his newly acquired CTS-V Coupe.
Porsche’s PR machine would like you to believe that the upper end of the 911 range represents the everyman’s exotic. Personally, I’d give that nod to Lotus, who manages to sneak some exoticism in there for Boxster prices rather than 911 prices, but I can understand where Porsche is coming from. The 911, like the GT-R and the Viper, represents the lower end of the accessible elite—the gateway to the 1% of automotive ownership, if you will. And while the Boxster may be an incredibly satisfying car to drive, it doesn’t now, nor will it ever carry the cachet of the 911.
But look no further than this performance posse for the true drawing power of a 911. Not even a screaming green Mustang GT or a still-rare CTS-V Coupe can turn attention from the red 991. Dozens of fellow track junkies—people I’ve found to be some of the most jaded and cynical of all car enthusiasts—stopped by to crawl all over the Porsche. They had questions; they had comments; they wanted to sit in it, have their pictures taken with it. There, on a little patch of grass in the West Virginia countryside, the 991 was a superstar.
On the track, it was even better.
There are three main ingredients for consistent fast laps in a street car: sticky rubber, light weight and ample horsepower. The Carrera S has all three. The cherry on top of this wonderful Porsche sundae is the 7-speed PDK transmission, which is the best transmission I’ve ever experienced, hands down. It’s as quick and responsive as the Lexus IS F’s unique 8-speed torque converter unit, but somehow manages to be even more satisfying. Maybe it’s the rev-happy nature of the Porsche’s flat 6 or the raucous chortle of the engine as the PDK rev-matches each down shift, but running up and down the gears in the 991 is more fun than it has been in any other automatic-equipped car I’ve ever driven.
Grabbing first gear for Shenandoah’s “Corkscrew” is just a finger-flick away. Doing the same with a manual transmission would likely cost the driver more time than he or she could make up in corner exit acceleration. But with PDK, it’s a no-brainer. The difference may be in the hundredths of seconds, but the attention freed up to focus on other aspects of driving is worth even more than the performance gains. If you’ve ever taken the “one gear” approach to learning a track, then you’ll appreciate where I’m coming from here.
However, that brings me to the PDK unit’s one major downside. It’s an automatic, and in some ways it acts like one. For example, if you’re intentionally short-shifting to conserve your engine—something I tend to do approaching Shenandoah’s infamous “Ski Jump” in traffic—you have to back off on the throttle. If you hit the kick-down switch by accident, the computer will dutifully reward you with a downshift, even in full manual mode. In addition, if you’ve been driving on the track or perhaps even blasting around some back roads with the “Sport Plus” mode engaged and you forget to switch it off before popping the gear selector back to “D,” you’ll be rewarded by a series of lightning-quick, rev-matched downshifts as the transmission finds you the lowest possible gear. Lesson learned: “Sport Plus” and its accompanying PDCC setting are for extracting that last 5%, not for simple street hooning. That is, unless you don’t mind screaming along in first gear at 45 mph.
Don’t get me wrong though. If you’re going to track your Carrera S, PDK is an absolute gem. Even a zealous manual transmission junkie can be easily won over by this gearbox.
So, the basic formula is honored and it’s backed up with an excellent transmission. Is that enough to make it a winner? Absolutely. I’ll spare you a lesson on the 911’s dynamics as they relate to auto racing (check here for a quick hit), but I’ll sum it up thusly: The 991 rotates exactly the way you want it to, exactly when you want it to. It’s tail happy in the most wonderful of ways. Playing with the throttle results in instant feedback from the chassis. In Shenandoah’s “Hook,” breathing off the gas slightly will adjust your line faster than you can say “lift-throttle.” The chassis communicates so fluently that unless you’re completely ham-handed or simply ignoring what the car is telling you, it’s nearly impossible to get into serious trouble.
Speaking of serious trouble, Porsche’s stability control system, PSM (Porsche Stability Management), is the single least intrusive stability/traction control system I’ve ever experienced. Even Mazda’s famously playful programming can’t compete with the 991’s. So accommodating was its behavior that I didn’t even bother turning it off but for one or two sessions just to see what I was missing. The short answer? Not much. In a more violent performance situation, such as an autocross, I’d want it disabled. But on a track, it’s a helpful tool to have around for an “oh ****” moment and a silent stow-away when you’re driving reasonably. It’s worth noting here that PSM will intervene in a panic-ABS situation even if fully defeated, so there isn’t a 100% off mode, but if you’ve gotten it so wrong that the PSM is intervening while disabled, you should welcome the assistance.
But enough about getting it wrong, because getting it right in a 911 is one of the most rewarding experiences in high-performance driving. Exiting a corner onto a long straight with the front end lagging the rear ever so slightly as you beckon all 400 horsepower from the Carrera S’s 3.8L flat-six with complete confidence is a sensation that no other car can match.
Despite being warned ahead of time by Porsche’s communications staff that our track tester hadn’t been prepped for heavy-duty work, we never experienced any brake or engine fatigue. That’s not to say the 911 was 100% trouble-free, however. I did encounter an erroneous low coolant warning and a not-so erroneous engine compartment fan malfunction. Fortunately, as the Carrera S is equipped with both oil and water temperature readouts (I hesitate to call these electronic interfaces “gauges”), I was able to make full use of our allotted track time without any interruptions or degradation in performance. An extra glance or two at the cluster each lap kept my mind at ease. After the initial worry brought on by the appearance of the warnings, the Porsche never gave me any further cause for genuine concern.
While Byron was out having fun with the 2012 Porsche 911 Carrera S (aka the 991) on the racetrack, my week-long stint in one was relegated to the streets of Houston. As much as we’d love to believe that 911s spend the majority of their lives on a racing surface, reality dictates otherwise. Most of these cars are used for nights out on the town, commuting to work, errand running, and the occasional weekend of spirited driving. After spending a week at a time in many sports cars over the last few years, there are very few that I would consider suitable for daily driving duty. The 2012 911 Carrera S is a definite exception to this, and a car I felt just as comfortable driving to work in dress shoes as I did driving spiritedly in the Sam Houston National Forest.
Compared to the previous generation 911s, the 991 generation exhibits road qualities that have been helped by Porsche actually making the car bigger. The wheelbase is longer, the front track has been widened, and the ever important weight distribution has been helped by moving the rear wheels 3-inches rearward over the previous generation. Though making a car bigger is usually considered a cardinal sin with enthusiasts, Porsche actually lightened the 991 over the previous generation 997 by almost 100-lbs with the help of aluminum and composites.
While the 991 is noticeably bigger to the eye both inside and out, it doesn’t feel like a bigger car once behind the wheel. The 911 still gets out of corners like a rock fired out of a slingshot, while the Porsche Dynamic Chassis Control (PDCC) active anti-roll system helps keep the car laterally stable even on rough pavement. Another acronym that helps the 991s manners around town is the Porsche Active Suspension Management, or PASM. PASM is standard on the 2012 911 Carrera S and allows the driver to switch to ‘Sport’ mode with the press of a button. With PASM in normal running mode, the 991 feels more like a luxury car than an iconic sports car. Hit the ‘Sport’ button and the car is instantly transformed into a corner carving monster. Unlike most active suspensions though, PASM will automatically switch from ‘Sport’ to ‘Normal’ if the car senses poor roads to help improve traction, and vice versa the car will switch to ‘Sport’ if the driver’s input becomes more aggressive. Pretty slick technology and the switch from one mode to the other felt completely seamless.
As a departure from previous generations of 911s, Porsche has fitted the 991 model with a computer-controlled electric power steering system. This has been the source of contention amongst enthusiasts as some say that it eliminates the ‘personality’ of the 911. I argue that the personality hasn’t been eliminated, merely improved. Older 911s were fun to drive because you always felt like you were driving at the edge and that the car was going to snap back and bite your head off at any moment. This might be a valid argument while having fun on the track, but let’s face it. Most of the miles that will be put on 991 911s are going to be on public roads and highways. In that sense, the 991 is far more forgiving around town than previous 911s even if there is a bit of slack in the steering wheel at very low street speeds. Overall though, the 991’s steering provides instant response while never making the driver feel disconnected from the road.
As Byron said, the highlight to the 991’s technological wizardry is the improved seven-speed Porsche Doppelkupplung (PDK) transmission. Normally transmissions of this type are absolutely miserable to drive at street speeds and I’ve come to hate almost every one I’ve driven. PDK though is something that every transmission on the planet should aspire to be. Rolling out of stoplights, the PDK doesn’t jerk like other dual-clutch transmissions, or stutter when coming to a stop. Shifts are bang-on perfect every single time, with the car never losing momentum on upshifts. Downshifts are met with a glorious pops and burbles from the sport exhaust which is one of the best sounds I’ve ever heard in a German car this side of a 911 GT3RS 4.0 at WOT.
On the inside of the 2012 911 Carrera S, the car feels more Panamera than sports car. The Panamera style center console looks like a sea of buttons at first glance, however each and every function of the car is available without a complex menu system or button combinations. The parking brake and steering column adjustments are both electronic. The gauge cluster is informative and easy to read with an analog tachometer in the center position, and digital speedo directly underneath. A traditional speedo sits to the left of the tach and an LCD driver information system to the right. The center stack incorporates a large and easy-to-read screen which provides the driver with audio information, trip computer data, and navigation functions. The actual audio and HVAC controls are located below the screen and make every setting very simple to change. Our tester was equipped with the Sport Seats Plus which include raised seat cushion bolsters, extended backrest side bolsters and electrically adjustable everything. Everything about the interior in the 991 is aimed at improving the comfort of its occupants, and it all delivers. The 991 is so comfortable that drivers might actually forget they are behind the wheel of one of the best sports cars on the market.
The 2012 Porsche 911 Carrera S is so good as an all-around car that it might be too perfect to some. Gone is the quirkiness of the previous generations of 911, replaced by electronics and gizmos to help keep the car pointed in the right direction. Fuel economy is that of a mid-size sedan, rather than a sports car. Owners who aren’t going 10/10ths to every stoplight will see north of 30-mpg on the highway with a mixed observed economy of around 26-mpg. Is Porsche going soft with the new 911? If you think so, then you haven’t been paying attention. They’ve taken the best parts of the 911 and made them better. They’ve taken the worst parts about the 911 and eliminated them. If potential owners still aren’t convinced though, here’s some food for thought: when I handed the 991s keys over to IMSA GT3 Challenge driver, Michael Mills, he was able to crack a better lap time around MSR Houston in our 911 Carrera S tester than the last 997.2 911 GT3 we tested there. How’s that for an improvement?