Epiphany in a Downpour
This was a disturbing road test to perform, and not just for the usual high-dollar sports car reasons, either. Certainly, anytime we are fortunate enough to drive a highly capable machine with a highly elevated MSRP, the stress factor around here goes up a notch or two. But beyond that, we are talking 911 here. It's tough to think of another vehicle with as rich a history as this much vaunted, oft maligned, and recently redesigned rear-engine Porsche. It seems everyone has an opinion about the car, but a consensus has yet to be found. Is the rear-engine design a blessing or a curse? Is the overall shape timeless or terribly out-of-date? Did the recent redesign give the 911 much-needed refinement and broaden its appeal, or did it simply dilute the car's sporting nature, transforming a highly capable performance machine into a flabby GT?
Whew! Those are some heavy questions to contemplate for the typical auto hack who just wants to drive around in a cool car.
The current 911 was last redesigned in 1999 when the official platform designation changed from 993 to 996. For the record, 911 was the original designation Porsche used when the car debuted way back in 1963 at the Frankfurt Auto Show (the company originally planned to name the car "901" until complications with that title arose between Porsche and Peugeot). As an interesting side note, we should mention that the original 911 was seen by purists at the time as a "corporate sell out" because it was so much more luxurious and refined than Porsche's primary performance car at the time, the 356. What's that thing about history repeating itself?
Since 1965, the first year of official production, the 911 has undergone numerous upgrades in horsepower, drivetrain technology, suspension design and interior ergonomics, but a few items have remained key elements to the 911's mystique. These include the rear-engine layout, the pronounced front fenders, and the reputation for being a "purebred performance car that only true enthusiasts can appreciate." "Anyone who disparages the 911 simply doesn't get it" is how the typical Porschephile explains away the vehicle's detractors.
Whatever. All we wanted to know was whether this car could justify a $25,000 premium over the "lesser" Porsche Boxster S. To be fair, you don't actually have to pay $75,000 for a 911. A base Carrera Coupe starts at just $66,355; but that vehicle, like the Boxster, is rear-wheel drive, meaning its only real advantages over the Boxster S amount to about 50 horsepower and a top that doesn't go down (a convertible Carrera puts you back up around $75,000). Our test model was a Carrera 4 Coupe (or "C4," as it's often called by enthusiasts), meaning it was equipped with Porsche's advanced all-wheel-drive system, and the top still didn't drop.
Transferring energy from the 300-horsepower, 3.4-liter water-cooled boxer engine to each of the 911's four wheels was Porsche's six-speed manual transmission, though a Tiptronic automatic with steering wheel gear change controls is available. Other options included a body shell painted in gorgeous $800 Rainforest Green Metallic paint, a hi-fi sound system, a ridiculously priced three-spoke leather steering wheel and expensive metal doorsills etched with "Carrera 4" insignia.
Our impressions of the 911 after a few days of city driving before an opportunity finally arose to experience the car in its element were not encouraging: we didn't "get it." The appeal of the car was lost on us at first. The clutch pedal, for instance, is one of the stiffest you will find on a modern production car, and is coupled to a fussy clutch that requires serious concentration to achieve smooth takeoffs and upshifts. Though not unbearable, it easily rivals what you'll deal with in Dodge's Viper or Chevrolet's Corvette Z06, which makes slogging through rush hour traffic a major chore. We began wondering where this "diluted and tamed old man's sports car," about which so many of the 996's critics rant, was hiding?
To a lesser extent, these same "high-effort" characteristics were found in the 911's steering, brakes and ride quality. Various staff members, who were unfortunate enough to be caught in the Carrera's driver's seat during stop-and-go driving, used the words "stiff" and "heavy" repeatedly in reference to each of these categories. It wasn't until this author's third day of commuting in the 911 that clutch and shifter action became fluid, requiring no more mental effort to operate than your standard economy car. Not surprisingly, this is about when yours truly began to turn the corner on how he felt about the Carrera 4. With clutch action dialed in, brake pedal and steering effort recalibrated (both of which require more muscle than a Boxster S), and an increased tolerance for the tightly sprung suspension, the 911 took on an almost "fun" demeanor, despite continued fears of getting rammed on Pico Boulevard in the $75,000 Porsche by an '81 Toyota truck full of gardening equipment. Suddenly, the idea of using it as a daily driver for extended periods of time was within my realm of imagination.
Oh my God! Was I starting to get it?
A growing affection for the 911's driving characteristics notwithstanding, numerous problems surfaced in regards to its interior design and build quality. The seats, for example, offer only a single power adjustment for seatback angle. Every other adjustment is manually adjustable, which, for a $75,000 car, is rather hard to swallow. The seats themselves are quite austere, appearing to be little more than supple leather stretched over metal frames. In terms of comfort and support, they perform better than one would expect at first glance, but a deficiency in power adjustment options (for instance, no adjustable lumbar support) combined with a lack of steering wheel tilt made it difficult to find a comfortable driving position.
Now the die-hard Porschephiles are already thinking, "What's wrong with you, man? This is a performance car and you're whining about power lumbar support?" It could even be argued by some enthusiasts that "real sports cars" don't have unnecessary fat-cat items like power seats or heated seats or parking assist systems, but because Porsche offers all of these luxury items, along with a navigation system, headlight washers, a rear window wiper, etc., it seems the real message is that even a $75,000 Porsche doesn't include some very basic luxury items and if you want them, you simply gotta pay. How much that disturbs a potential buyer likely depends on the success of his recent IPO and the level of value he puts on luxury versus performance in his brand-new Porsche.
Additional interior quibbles focused on the design of the center stack. Littered with tiny, shiny high-gloss buttons, the impression is neither modern nor upscale but, instead, dated and low budget. Some fiddling and/or a quick glance through the owner's manual will have you up to speed in minutes as far as the automatic climate controls are concerned, but the audio system is a morass of buttons and foreign symbols that even our resident audio expert found confusing (see stereo evaluation for more on this). Window switches (one-touch up and down, by the way) in the center console, the turn signal stalk coming off the steering column, and the headlight switch on the left side of the dash all come from the same "high-gloss, tiny markings" school of design that dominates the interior. Similar complaints were leveled against the two Boxsters we've driven in recent months, and we find ourselves wondering why a company that can design world-class suspension and steering systems can't seem to get the interior switchgear right.
Other than the "plasticky" switchgear, interior materials were generally rated as high, with the supple, suede-like headliner and preponderance of soft-touch leather on the seats, roof pillars and door panels garnering particular attention. And, of course, because it's a Porsche, the variety of options, from exterior color-matched leather to maple burr wood to carbon fiber, is too numerous to go into here. From a personalization point of view, only Ferrari comes close to Porsche's level, and at prices that make a loaded 911 appear frugal.
We also commend the gauge layout, with the large, trademark Porsche tachometer garnering center stage, as it should in a serious performance car. The speedometer is rather small and gives you only one number for every 25 mph, but a digital velocity readout in the bottom of the tach essentially makes the size of this gauge a non-issue. But don't look for a glove compartment in the 911, there isn't one. The owner's manual hides out in the forward storage compartment, which itself holds 4.6 cubic feet of cargo.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the 911 Coupe's interior (and the convertible as well) is the existence, at least technically, of rear seats. Now we're not for a moment suggesting that anyone over the age of 5 sit back there, but that's exactly our point. Just for the sake of attempting the impossible, this editor tried cramming his entire family into the C4. That's a 6-foot, 200-pound male, a 5-foot, 4-inch female (weight withheld for reasons of my personal safety), and two children riding in car seats a 2-year-old boy (who can properly pronounce the word "Porsche" and does so every time he sees one) and a one-month-old infant girl. With both front seats moved forward to the absolute limit of comfort and safety in terms of legroom, each child seat was properly secured (child seat attachments became standard in the 911 for 2000). A short spin was subsequently undertaken with only a lack of headroom, due to the upright position of the driver's seatback, as the only real comfort issue. Suggestions of the C4 serving as a potential family car were dismissed by my better half, but the fact remains that when compared to a Viper, Corvette, NSX, 360 Modena, or Diablo, the 911's ability to haul a family of four is unmatched.
But Porsches aren't supposed to be family cars at least not until the company's Cayenne SUV arrives and they don't claim to be world beaters in terms of high quality, clearly marked switchgear. The 911's raison d'être is to provide the operator with a driving experience unlike that which he can get from anything else riding on four wheels. This has been the promise of 911 lore and literature for the last three decades. Using Southern California's Mulholland Highway near the Pacific Coast, we intended to see if it was a promise kept.
The first thing you realize when driving a 911, even before making a serious canyon run, is that the aforementioned heavy steering is accompanied by a level of information transfer not found in any other vehicle costing less than six figures. The BMW M5, Honda's S2000, and, of course, Porsche's own Boxster S, come close, but the 911 has them all beat in this regard, plain and simple. This detailed appraisal of the road surface can get a bit cumbersome when navigating city streets, but as expected, it pays dividends once the traffic thins out and the corners come fast and furious. In concert with the stiff (but undeniably powerful and confident) brake pedal, along with a suspension system that manages to inform the driver while never upsetting the chassis, the result is a car that feels as capable as any street legal machine has a right to. Mid-corner bumps are dealt with in a decidedly dismissive fashion, and the speed-sensitive steering ratio allows the C4 to be flung into long sweepers, as well as quick transitions, with what always feels like the perfect amount of steering wheel input.
Speaking of quick transitions, the 911 is a rear-engine sports car with 60 percent of its weight sitting over the rear wheels. Previous hair-raising experiences in a 911 convertible (non C4) have left certain staffers a bit gun shy when it comes to exercising the car's full potential. Spinning a vehicle is never fun, but the 911 has a reputation that precedes it in this area, and despite claims that this characteristic has been all but neutralized in the current generation, tail wagging in said 1999 ragtop left us skeptical. It took only a few miles on Mulholland to realize that the C4 stays incredibly planted at up to 7/10th driving pace (as hard as we're willing to go on public roads).
Porsche first offered the all-wheel-drive C4 in 1989. As in previous models, the system uses a viscous multi-plate clutch, but unlike any previous C4, the viscous unit now sits directly behind the front differential, moving weight forward to help balance the car and simplifying assembly and maintenance. However, the advantage to front/rear weight distribution isn't significant, because the entire system adds a mere 120 pounds to the Carrera 4's curb weight. The system directs between five and 40 percent of engine torque to the front wheels, depending upon available traction and power application.
In addition to the all-wheel-drive system, every 911 C4 comes standard with Porsche's Stability Management system (PSM). Using data from multiple sensors, PSM can detect a loss of grip at any wheel and apply braking and/or reduce engine power to reduce instability. The system is designed to keep the car moving in the same direction that the driver steers on slippery surfaces, while lending a "helping hand" during enthusiastic driving on dry surfaces. We never experienced either situation on Mulholland, both because it wasn't raining and because we don't try to find a sports car's limits on public roads. However, we did confirm that, even with all four wheels receiving power, the 911's tail could be rotated just enough to give the car a rear-wheel drive feel. This delighted those of us who appreciate the security of all-wheel drive, but love the thought of gently rotating the car through a corner apex. Not many carmakers can offer both traits in a single vehicle...but Porsche can. Even more exciting was that this slight amount of mischief was allowed even with PSM turned on, giving you at once the thrill of oversteer and the peace-of-mind of stability control. When it comes to dialing in the this hi-tech nanny, Porsche got it right!
The grin plastered on my face all the way down Mulholland had me convinced: I was starting to get it.
Still, it was hard to believe that all these viscous plates and multiple sensors and computer-controlled braking components would allow the 911 to be any fun if it was truly driven at the car's limit. It took a trip to our local test facility, with a controlled environment, cloudy skies, and high-tech test equipment, to see if this "purebred" was a real enthusiast's car or a corporate shill. A zero-to-60 time of 5.1 seconds left everyone surprised; the car didn't feel that fast. Hmm, is that a comment on how refined it is, or how much it deadens the sensation of speed? Braking from 60 mph took 113 feet; another stellar number that, again, seemed even better than the stiff pedal and eye-popping stopping forces would have led us to believe. The .91 g's on the skid pad seemed about right for an all-wheel-drive car with 17-inch, ZR-rated tires, but the slalom proved the most interesting.
At 63 mph, the car was doing about as well as a Viper, 'Vette, or NSX. Cars like the Honda S2000 or Boxster S are lighter and have the advantage here, as is often reflected by their slalom times. And certain high-dollar exotics, like the Diablo and 360 Modena, will pull better times as well, likely because of their mid engine layout and highly capable chassis.
Then, it rained.
It was as if God himself wanted to lend a hand with the development of our appreciation of the Carrera 4. Official testing was done for the day and we were already packing things up, but the slalom cones were still in place and it seemed only fitting to give the C4 a few more passes in the wet. This is when we came to a complete understanding of the C4. Actually, it took about four runs through the slalom at increasing speeds with increasing amounts of rain. By the final trip through the cones we were approaching the speeds we'd achieved before the rain fell, with only an occasional, and subtle, intervention by PSM. The car was basically unaffected by wet pavement, giving verified persuasiveness to the Porsche commercial where a C4 slogs along a wet canyon road while the song "Stormy Monday" plays in the background.
When the 911 Carrera 4 went away at the end of the week, the staff consensus was that there was no staff consensus. Just as it was 35 years ago, the 911 remains a controversial car. More than one staffer questioned its price, especially with the highly capable Boxster S available at two-thirds the cost. Others were convinced the high-effort clutch, stiff brake pedal and jarring ride neutralized whatever performance pedigree the car offered. And nobody wanted to defend the interior switchgear.
But just as a Boxster S can't be logically justified when a Honda S2000 is available for 20 grand less, a 911 will never survive rational reasoning. If you think about it, how many sports cars will? We do know one thing a final call can't be made until you experience for yourself what a Porsche 911 C4 has to offer.
And, if at all possible, schedule your test drive during a downpour.
#610 of 811: (vortechcobra99) Thu 16 Dec '99 (10:51 AM)
Gets 16-18 mpg in real world; that's bursting to 125 on entrance ramps and driving the car like it was meant to be driven: hard. Would never consider taking it on a long trip especially out of state; the car is almost impossible to drive under 90 mph. Hell, what's even worse is I find myself doing 60 in a 35 all the time. This car does not feel like it is moving quickly and does everything well. Gas mileage was never an issue; most hi-po cars have little range. C5 'Vette good for that but you see 7-10 a day. I have only seen 2 996s since my purchase; one had the wild, but expensive, aero kit and was speed yellow wow!!!!
#486 of 811: (marts1) Fri 22 Oct '99 (10:29 AM)
The problems with my 996 were all minor, more in the "irritant" category. The major components, engine, transmission, etc. are excellent. But I think my experience shows lack of attention to details and quality control on the part of Porsche and/or its suppliers of "non-essential" items such as radios.
System Score: 6.5
Components. The system is very similar, if not identical, to the system in the Boxster and Boxster S. With the exception of an additional pair of speakers along the rear quarter panels, this setup functions and sounds exactly like it. It consists of an AM/FM/cassette/CD faceplate that has some of the worst ergonomics I've ever seen. A row of tiny buttons on the bottom of the radio are crowded together, making for very difficult use. Also, some of the labeling is too Germanic to be understood. Speaker-wise, the doors are loaded down with impressive-looking, 6-inch woofers. The dashboard houses a pair of upward-firing tweeter/midrange combos that reflect sonically off the windshield and fire directly at the driver and passenger. There's also a nice power amplifier hidden somewhere in the system. The system is well appointed, except, as mentioned, for the funky faceplate and user-hostile controls.
Performance. This system is designed to be heard over the roar of road and engine as you blaze through a canyon or scoot along a shoreline. As far as that goal goes, it succeeds. But because the mids and tweets are positioned in the dash in front of you and reflect off the windshield glass directly into the passenger compartment, and because glass is an acoustically "bright" material, the system just about tears your head off with its aggressive sound. The result? Unbalanced sound and strange stereo imaging. There are certain advantages to this type of design in a top-down roadster, where the mids and tweets are hidden from the wind, but in a hardtop the design is a little severe. For such a great car, the sound, while loud, is a little disappointing.
Best Feature: Dash-mounted mids and tweets.
Worst Feature: Very poor radio ergonomics.
Conclusion. This sound system reeks of Germany. From the too small presets to the Achtung! tone controls, this thing aches for an American or even a Japanese touch. Some of the German automakers, VW in particular, have caught on to the significance of good audio in their vehicles. Porsche has not. While the sound itself is aggressive and impressive, the system disappoints overall. Love the car; hate the radio. Scott Memmer