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For carmakers, pulling off a "radical" redesign is not easy in the 21st century. There are two basic reasons for this. First, because most modern cars are already quite good; they rarely justify a thorough (and expensive) redo at the end of a product cycle. Second (and more importantly), once a model has been well received by its target market segment, any change to the status quo has the potential to drive away as many, or more, buyers than it brings in.
Porsche knows all about the precarious pitfalls that come with redesigning a legend. The last time the company introduced a new 911, in 1999, many of its traditional customers balked at the radical design changes, including the first application of a water-cooled engine and large headlight clusters with integrated turn signals (a styling cue lifted directly from the 1997 Porsche Boxster). It is worth noting, however, that despite grumblings from the self-appointed "real" Porsche guys, the 1999-2004 version (known internally as 996) sold over 60,000 units, with 12,000 units selling in the year 2001 alone. Porsche officials told us they consider the 996 a highly successful model, which is all well and good until you remember condition number two above. Put simply, if the existing 911 is doing so well, how does the company make it better without risking the current car's level of success?
The answer seems straightforward enough: improve the areas that need work without upsetting the areas that already work quite well. If you've read anything about the new C6 Corvette, you already know GM operated under a similar philosophy when it redesigned that sports car. But things aren't as clear cut with Porsche buyers. For instance, adding water cooling to the 911 clearly improved the car's performance potential, but that didn't stop a certain percentage of Porsche buyers from turning their backs on the car. The same could be said about taming the car's dicey at-the-limit handling nature that comes from its rear engine layout. Both changes ostensibly made the car "better," yet both caused undeniable strife within the 911's fan base.
For all the turmoil experienced by many of these so-called 911 "traditionalists," we continue to believe that a faster, nimbler, more refined and better-behaved sports car is superior to its predecessor, tradition be damned. Thankfully, Porsche designers agree, as seen by the 2005 911 Carrera (dubbed the 997 internally).
Within moments of seeing the car, you are assured that, at least externally, the designers in Stuttgart got it right. Ferry Porsche, who penned the original 911, is said to have described that model as "an honest and a clear shape." Thankfully, the current designers didn't muck up Ferry's "clear shape." They merely improved the areas that needed work (headlight design and side panels) without upsetting the areas that worked quite well (overall shape and proportions). Everything but the roof on the 2005 model is new, yet the car retains its trademark style.
While the round headlamps and slimmer waist look better, they also incorporate functional improvements. The car's overall coefficient of drag has been reduced from 0.30 on the 2004 models to 0.28 for the new Carrera and 0.29 for the Carrera S. Wider front and rear wheel arches not only give the car a more muscular look but also incorporate one-inch-wider tracks and an updated, wider suspension design for improved stability and ride comfort. The larger wheels (standard 18-inch on Carrera and 19-inch on Carrera S) further enhance the 911's look and performance, and standard variable-ratio steering causes the front wheels to turn faster when the steering wheel moves more than 30 degrees off center.
Other not-so-obvious changes include a reworked underbody tray, redesigned rear spoiler and new side mirrors that reduce lift and cut wind noise at highway speeds and beyond. The active spoiler deploys at 75 mph and retracts when vehicle speed drops below 50, though a dash-mounted switch can be used to raise the spoiler even at a standstill. On Carrera S models, the exhaust system ends in twin round tailpipes on each side of the rear fascia while Carrera models feature twin oval pipes. The new exhaust system is also 12.1 pounds lighter than before.
Emanating from those pipes is the sound of a more powerful flat six engine, whether in Carrera or Carrera S form. For the first time since 1977, Porsche is offering two different power plants in the 911. The Carrera starts with a 3.6-liter version that is fine-tuned for an additional 10 horsepower over the 2004 model, giving the car 325 hp at 6,800 rpm; peak torque remains at 273 pound-feet. Porsche says the new Carrera will get to 60 mph in about 5 seconds. The engine in the Carrera S features a displacement bump to 3.8 liters, along with a new intake manifold and a revised fuel delivery system. The result is 355 hp, 295 lb-ft of torque and a 0-to-60 time of 4.8 seconds. The Carrera S engine also features a vibration damper and an improved cooling system.
Transmission choices continue to be either a six-speed manual transmission or five-speed "Tiptronic" automatic. While the gear choices are the same, the design of the six-speed manual is all new, with thicker shafts and wider gears, along with strong steel gear synchros with carbon-coated first, second and third gear rings that resist wear. These changes are designed to shorten the shifter throws and reduce the effort required to row gears. The Tiptronic continues with minimal changes, though Porsche says it will now hold first gear until 7,200 rpm at wide-open throttle, rather than shifting at 6,900 rpm as in previous years.
Perhaps the most important mechanical feature added to the 2005 911 is the one called Porsche Active Suspension Management (PASM). The system, standard on the Carrera S and optional on Carrera models, is designed to offer 911 operators the choice of "two distinct driving personalities at the touch of a button." By pressing this button, located on the center console, the system switches from "PASM Normal" to "PASM Sport," lowering the car by 0.39 inch and incorporating firmer damper control. Porsche claims the system has cut lap times at the Nurburgring test track by 5 seconds compared to a 911 with the standard suspension.
PASM's continuously variable shock absorbers use multiple sensors to measure everything from steering wheel angle to road surface conditions to body movement. Even when the system is in "Normal" mode, it will modify suspension settings to account for emergency maneuvers, bumpy roads and heavy braking. This system works in conjunction with Porsche Stability Management (PSM), which returns on the 2005 Carrera and Carrera S, but with refinements of its own. New wheel sensors now allow it to react faster when a loss of traction occurs.
Both the exterior and the mechanical changes are subtle, but an all-new interior is what vaults the 2005 model ahead of previous versions. We've long considered the car's cabin its Achilles' heel, but we'll have to find a new area to harp on with the 997. First, the basic materials are improved with softer leather and a classic dash design that is more compact than in recent models. The steering wheel is lighter, offers tilt and telescoping adjustments and can be ordered with multifunction controls to operate the audio, navigation and telephone systems. The front seats have received a much appreciated upgrade with wider seat bottoms and seat backs, higher side bolsters and a lightweight design. Buyers can also opt for sport seats that offer more lateral bolstering, as well as adaptive sport seats with full power adjustments.
Further interior improvements come in the form of a larger gauge cluster that is easier to read and relocated window switches (from center console to driver door) that are easier to use. Standard audio includes a nine-speaker system with a single CD player and prewiring for easy installation of a CD changer. The navigation system is now DVD-based, and an optional Bose surround sound system bumps the speaker count to 13 while adding AudioPilot technology that is designed to compensate for wind and road noise inside the vehicle. Heck, the car even has two semifunctional cupholders that can retract and disappear above the glovebox when not in use.
Those seeking the ultimate interior toy can opt for the Sport Chrono Package Plus. Part of this package includes revised settings for PSM and PASM (if equipped) to allow for more aggressive driving styles. But the package's most unique interior feature comes in the form of a digital/analog combination stopwatch mounted at the top, center part of the dash. By using a stalk on the steering column a driver can control the stopwatch to theoretically record lap times. It's not quite as accurate as fixed timing lights located on the driving course, but the system will provide real-time updates and display the results on the car's central screen. After driving one lap, the system will have a sense of where the turning and braking points are on a road course, allowing it to tell the driver how fast he is going compared to previous laps. Of course, serious drivers know they should be focusing on the road, and not on a digital readout, when driving hot laps .
Our limited seat time in the new 911 didn't allow for a final assessment of its abilities, but we can tell you that the PASM system effectively alters the car's driving characteristics, the new six-speed manual works better than ever and the variable-ratio steering gives the car a more responsive demeanor. And while we're big fans of the updated interior design, the Sport Chrono Package Plus needs a consistent trigger system to provide the kind of race-day functionality and accuracy needed to justify its cost.
But the most important question about the new 911 was answered during our brief time behind the wheel — the legend still lives. Sure, the traditionalists will no doubt bemoan the improved cupholders as yet another sign of the car's evaporating soul, but the rest of us know it is simply a better sports car than the previous version again.