2002 Porsche 911 Targa and 911 Carrera 4S First Drive

2002 Porsche 911 Coupe

(3.6L 6-cyl. 6-speed Manual)

The 911 Gets Even Better — Again

In the high-dollar world of exotic sports cars, even Porsche knows there's always room for a good value.

Consider the 2002 911 Targa. With a translucent glass roof that slides open with the touch of a button, it provides a convertible-like experience for thousands less than the full-bore cabriolet.

Or how about the all-new 911 4S? This hard-top coupe comes loaded with nearly all of the hardware found in the big-buck Turbo, sans the turbo engine, for a mere $80,000 — 35 g's less than the standard Turbo.

OK, so maybe value is a relative term. But there's nothing relative about the appeal of these new 911s. Whether you're looking for an exquisite coupe that just happens to have a huge sunroof, or you're yearning for the stunning looks and handling of the legendary Turbo minus the equally stunning six-figure sticker price, the reintroduction of the Targa and the 4S to the 911 lineup is about as close to a bargain as you're ever going to get.

The return of the Targa marks its third generation. First introduced in 1967, the Targa gave buyers the thrill of an open-air coupe while retaining the 911's stiff body structure. The concept returned in 1996, with a power sliding sunroof replacing the fully removable panels on the original. This latest version further refines the concept with even more glass overhead and a new hinged panel in back for easier access to the rear storage area.

The rest of the Targa's interior is standard 911, although there are some minor upgrades for the 2002 model year. A real glovebox now resides in front of the passenger, while the cupholder, stilly poorly placed above the dash, has been redesigned for a better grip on your morning coffee. A digital Bose sound system in now available, finally bringing the 911 up to speed in the arena of high-end audio systems. Unfortunately for the salespeople at Bose, Porsche also refined the exhaust system for the revamped engine, rendering the new stereo a somewhat questionable option.

Now displacing 3.6 liters, the 911's flat six boasts 320 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque. The addition of the VarioCam Plus valve timing system from the Turbo and a dual-stage intake system gives the engine incredible flexibility, allowing it to deliver up to 86 percent of its peak torque output between 2,500 and 7,000 rpm. V8 fans might find it a little soft off the line, but the power builds quickly thereafter, continuing well into tachometer ranges that would leave most eight-cylinders gasping for air. The slightly revised mufflers make for an even sweeter sound when running wide open, but even at idle, there's still that unmistakable Porsche purr.

The standard transmission remains a six-speed manual, with the five-speed Tiptronic automanual optional. Certain key components on the manual unit were beefed up with stronger steel to handle the added engine power, but the shifter retains the lightweight feel of last year's model. It's still a little too notchy for our tastes, but for most driving situations, and most drivers, the shifter works well.

On the road, you would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the Targa and a standard Carrera coupe. Additional reinforcement in the A- and C-pillars of the Targa maintains its structural rigidity, while revised spring and shock settings compensate for the added weight (150 pounds) of the glass roof. Handling remains phenomenal, with more than enough power and grip to keep even the most jaded enthusiast challenged for years to come. Then again, if you really want a car that will test the limits of your nerves, the 4S might be the ride you're looking for.

Although the Carrera 4S shares its powerplant and transmissions with the standard Carrera, the rest of the car borrows heavily from the top-shelf Turbo. You can see it in the more muscular body with its prominent front and rear air intakes and wider rear track. There are no side air intakes on the 4S, as their sole purpose was to feed the Turbo's dual intercoolers. The car also retains the one-piece retractable spoiler found on the standard models. Details unique to the 4S include a reflector strip between the taillights, a reinforced rear decklid and a reshaped front spoiler to compensate for the slight difference in weight between it and the Turbo.

For hardware, the 4S draws from the Turbo for its all-wheel-drive system, suspension, brakes and 18-inch wheels and tires. The all-wheel-drive system sends between 5 and 40 percent of the engine's power to the front wheels for added grip. The suspension is identical to the Turbo's, with only slight tuning changes made to the shock absorbers. Four-piston brake calipers grab cross-drilled rotors measuring 13 inches in diameter, while the massive aluminum alloy wheels that surround them wear 225/40ZR18 tires in front and huge 295/30ZR18 meats in the rear.

With all the extra parts, the 4S is about 300 pounds heavier than the standard coupe. Porsche claims that 0-to-60 times suffer by no more than a tenth of a second, and our seat-of-the-pants impression seemed to back up that assertion. Driving both the Targa and the 4S back-to-back revealed noticeably heavier steering feel in the 4S, a likely consequence of the all-wheel-drive system, so if you like your 911s light on their feet, you might want to stick with the rear drivers.

Then again, the remarkable grip of the 4S is almost too good to pass up. It humbles you at every turn, cornering with such ease that you quickly learn that its ability far exceeds yours. Even with the heavier steering, the 4S can still be tossed around with little effort, a tribute to the precise suspension tuning and flexible engine.

Needless to say, both the Targa and the 4S are brilliant sports cars with performance capabilities far beyond the reach of the average driver. Lucky for us mortals, they're equally as enjoyable when piloted at less than full tilt. Choosing one or the other is largely a matter of your driving style, and maybe the latitude of your current residence. Although neither model represents the ultimate in performance or cache in the realm of the 911, both are fully capable of providing enough high-g thrills to last a lifetime — a good value at any price.

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