Chris Walton, Chief Road Test Editor
Something extraordinary happened when we turned from Malibu Canyon Road onto Piuma, shut off the 911's stability control system and engaged Sport Plus mode. Piuma Road is a notoriously challenging stretch we've used to test the limits of a large number of sports cars, and the 2011 Porsche 911 Carrera GTS was, not surprisingly, blurring the Malibu scenery at an astonishing rate.
There are few driving experiences that can match a 911 when its driver settles in and becomes part of the machine. But this time it felt different. The 911 GTS was inhaling Piuma. Hairpin after hairpin. High-speed bender after high-speed bender. But it was somehow making it easy. The Porsche was supplying the expected breakneck pace, but without the fear of death, which usually comes along for such a ride in Stuttgart's rear-engine icon.
And without the Grim Reaper riding shotgun, we could go even faster.
In fact, our money says a moderately skilled GTS driver would beat a similarly skilled GT3 driver on this road. Why? Because the GTS is so much easier to drive at or near its limit.
All in the Family
The $104,050 2011 Porsche 911 Carrera GTS is the newest 408-horsepower version of the legendary Porsche coupe (there's also a cabriolet), and two things make it different from the many, many 911s that have come before it: its torque-rich engine and its magical transmission.
Based on the Carrera S Powerkit upgrade (a $16,900 option that elevates that car's price to $106,650), the list of modifications to the GTS 3.8-liter engine are equally extensive and highly effective. Much of the enhanced torque characteristics were the result of thorough intake and exhaust system engineering. Sure the horsepower rises, but it is the generous and unusually wide torque curve it provides that makes the GTS special.
Beginning at a mere 1,500 rpm, there is 236 pound-feet of torque up to the maximum of 310 lb-ft at 4,200 rpm and the car only weighs 3,416 pounds. What this virtually 3,000-rpm-wide plateau of oomph means is that gearchanges aren't required nearly as often and the driver can focus on driving rather than shifting.
Rolling on the throttle (as is the Porsche way) through corners with enough tachometer headroom (it still redlines at 7,500 rpm) for the exit on the other side is not something we've experienced in a non-turbo Porsche 911. This added muscle brings a new effortlessness to a 911, especially when combined with the optional PDK seven-speed automated double-clutch transmission.
Pretty Darn Kwick, and Then Some
We're convinced that Porsche's PDK (translation: Porsche Doppelkupplungsgetriebe) interpretation of an automated manual transmission with two clutches is as close to the best of both worlds as a transmission has come.
Left to its own decision-making around town (without Sport or Sport Plus selected), the $4,320 PDK seven-speed operates in default Drive with the seamlessness of a smooth automatic transmission. Put it in attack mode (or optionally Launch mode — included in the $960 Sport Chrono Plus package) and both up- and downshifts bang off with racecar quickness but without racecar harshness.
The transmission is endowed with this magic because it doesn't necessarily need to switch gears, but simply switches clutches on preselected gears. And, of course, with a tug of the left-side shift paddle, the PDK does an excellent job with matched-rev downshifts as well.
We were, however, disappointed with the orientation of the console shifter's push-to-upshift/pull-to-downshift logic. We find solace in the fact that Porsche finally relented last year to provide two single-action shift paddles rather than two dual-purpose buttons on the steering wheel, so there's still hope.
Pointed down the drag strip with Launch mode engaged, the 2011 Porsche 911 Carrera GTS revs up to about 6,000 rpm, and when the brake pedal is released, feeds the clutch in aggressively enough to maintain wheelspin almost entirely throughout 1st gear. It does this all by itself, without any "pedaling" or shifting by the driver. The software interacts with the hardware for near-perfect launches almost every time, and of course, it never botches a shift. If the computer detects too much spin, the transmission short-shifts to 2nd gear, losing only a little time to the clock.
Our best Launch mode run to 60 mph was 4.4 seconds (4.2 seconds with 1 foot of rollout). The quarter-mile performance was 12.5 seconds at 111.4 mph. As impressive and consistent as Launch mode was, the times began to degrade with repeated attempts.
After a short cool-down, our test driver managed to shave a couple tenths from the computer's best runs with his own traction-control-defeated run of 4.3 seconds to 60 mph (4.0 with 1-foot rollout), and a 12.4-second/112.3-mph quarter-mile.
The only non-turbo 911s we've tested that could match this performance were the 911 GT3 and GT3 RS. The difference is that the PDK-equipped GTS can blaze down the track with a novice behind the wheel and those GT3s require a professional driver who's already familiar with the requirements of a precise and committed launch, equally perfect redline upshifts and a subconscious awareness of tachometer lag while rowing through the demanding manual gearbox.
A Word About Tires
This is the first Porsche 911 test car to arrive at Inside Line since 2006 wearing tires other than Michelin Pilot Sport/PS2s. This 2011 Porsche 911 Carrera GTS arrived with Bridgestone Potenza RE050A tires (235/35ZR 19 in front and 305/30ZR19 out back) and ran through the slalom at an impressive 69.9 mph. But the others managed between 70.5 and 72.2 mph. The Bridgestones are good tires: not great tires.
Porsche says a customer may choose among any of its tire vendors (Michelin, Pirelli or Bridgestone), but our experience with Michelin-equipped 911s has been better. While the GTS's 69.9-mph slalom speed and 0.96g skid pad orbit are nothing to be ashamed of, we expected more poise and pace from this GTS. After all, it's equipped with two-position active shock absorbers and sits 0.75-inch lower than standard 911s. It also rides on the same 1.7-inch-wider track as the Carrera S and the 911 Turbo.
When the Bridgestones transition from gripping to sliding, they let go more abruptly and within a narrower range than the Michelin PS2s. Not that this 2011 Porsche 911 Carrera GTS (equipped with the optional $950 limited-slip differential) was threatening to spin, but it didn't offer the kind of malleable handling character within a wider range of sliding that we've grown to admire and enjoy from the 997-generation 911. If you're serious about car control, get the Michelins.
We also have recorded shorter stopping distances from previous 911s. Again, repeated 60-0-mph stops under 110 feet speak to the GTS's bulletproof four-wheel disc brake hardware, but the grip just wasn't there for the brakes to work optimally.
Because the 2011 Porsche 911 Carrera GTS's driving experience is so rewarding, we didn't even cover the minutiae of seat comfort/support (excellent — as usual, but there are no rear jump seats), the new hard-drive-based navigation system (curiously complex — as usual) and classic Porsche instrument cluster and left-side ignition (charming — as always).
If you've spent a quality day with a three-spoked steering wheel between you and a Porsche 911, we can assure you this 2011 Porsche 911 Carrera GTS is as good as it gets. It retains the exemplary traits of every 911, like the legendary steering feel and unflinching brakes, and adds to it an impressively capable engine and one of the best transmissions on the planet.
If you're really hard-core you should still go for the GT3. It's more involving, more noisy, more badass and it costs about the same money. Then again, a GT3 would beat you senseless on most roads, but that's OK because you're hard-core.
We're not. If we had one Porsche to buy, it would be this 2011 Porsche 911 Carrera GTS. It takes you eight-tenths of the way to GT3 nirvana, but does so within a well-damped, impressively rapid, liquid-filled lozenge. We would just make sure to order the Michelins.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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