It's no exaggeration to say that we'd go to the ends of the Earth to drive the new 2014 Porsche 911 GT3. Right now our destination in the Austrian Alps feels about as far away.
On any normal day the Fern Pass might seem quite beautiful. However, stuck behind an endless stream of campers when you're driving a new GT3 to a spectacular destination with a 2013 Nissan GT-R in waiting, it's about the most frustrating place imaginable. Gradually and mercifully, the traffic thins and the GT3 starts to stretch its legs.
Then we hit the stretch we've been waiting for. It climbs steeply through a wooded section that's smooth and fast. Then the trees vanish and it clings to a mountainside, hairpins easing the ascent before blending into faster 3rd-gear corners until we're delivered onto a kind of icy, sun-drenched moonscape. After the tedium of our 190-mile journey, this alien scene feels like heaven. By the time we reach the summit, some 9,100 feet above sea level, I can't help wondering if we've brought the wrong rival car.
The 545-HP Contender Awaits
We decide it's best not to concede as much to the others who arrived here in the Nissan GT-R. We've learned over the years never to underestimate or dismiss the Nissan GT-R. It remains a formidable beast, producing 545 horsepower at 6,400 rpm and 466 pound-feet of torque from 3,200-5,800 rpm from its mighty 3.8-liter twin-turbo V6. And in spite of its portly 3,836 pounds, the GT-R does things that seem impossible. It's thrilling, slightly terrifying at times and seems to compress time and space like nothing else. And in some respects, now more than ever, it does seem like the car against which the GT3 should be measured.
That's because the GT3 has evolved in giant strides and adopted a great deal of new technology of its own. The 991-series GT3 is the most technologically advanced GT3 ever, and by some margin. It features electronically adjustable dampers (like the 997), and more controversially, a PDK twin-clutch gearbox. There's also an electronically controlled limited-slip differential and rear-wheel steering.
In another somewhat controversial change, the celebrated Mezger-designed engine of the previous GT3 is gone. In its place is a dry-sump 3.8-liter direct-injection flat-6 based on that of the Carrera S. Let's not get too upset, though, because the new engine produces 475 hp at 8,250 rpm and 324 lb-ft at 6,250 rpm and revs to a stratospheric 9,000 rpm.
It might be based on a Carrera S engine, but with forged internals, rocker-arm actuation for the valves and hundreds of unique components, it's effectively an all-new motor. It's 55 pounds lighter than the previous GT3 engine, too. Porsche says it's capable of propelling the new GT3 from zero to 62 mph in 3.5 seconds, zero to 124 mph in less than 12 seconds and on up to a 196-mph top speed. It also laps the Nürburgring in 7:25: faster even than the 997 GT3 RS 4.0, so there's that.
What Can These Cars Do on the Road?
But this isn't the Nürburgring, and we haven't brought any stopwatches. Here in Austria, we're hoping to discover whether the 2014 Porsche GT3 still pulsates with the feedback that has always been at its core, and if it still rewards those willing to immerse themselves in the process of unlocking the car's potential.
With the Alcantara-trimmed wheel pulled in tight and the seat wound down low, the new GT3 feels familiar. From the Autobahn and the hellish crawl along the Fern Pass, it's obvious that this car is quieter and suppler than the 997 version. The heavily revised PDK transmission shows some refinement as well, yet it's so much more positive than the standard system. The new engine doesn't rattle and fizz quite as much as the old flat-6 with its clattery single-mass flywheel. It also doesn't feel quite so strong in the low to midrange, perhaps due to this car's slight increase in overall weight (up 77 pounds to 3,153).
The steep climb through the woods gives only glimpses of the new engine's top end because visibility is limited and the corners come thick and fast. Even when hemmed in, though, the GT3 delivers savage performance once wound over 5,000 rpm, and in the fleeting moments that the engine spins up close to 9,000 rpm with a hard-edged, resonant howl, the rabid acceleration is something to behold.
With the PDK's "Race" mode selected it's instantly responsive, hitting with the speed of a Ferrari gearbox and the lovely, engineered thud of the M-DCT in BMW's M3 GTS. Left to its own devices, the PDK gearbox makes the right shifts every single time, but we're not really interested in driving a GT3 in auto, so we switch to the weighty, short-action paddles. Is it involving? Yes, leaving us free to concentrate on the balance of the car, the braking zones and, of course, to seek out 9,000 rpm again. Once you've tasted that mad rush to the limiter you'll want to live your life between 8,000 and 9,000 rpm. And the noise is pure Le Mans.
Up above the trees and into the hairpins, and with the shock of the ferocity of the drivetrain gradually easing, it's the way that the GT3 changes direction that takes and holds your attention. Combining rear-steering with an e-diff that can be fully open on turn-in creates precision that you wouldn't believe. In fact, you expect the pendulum out the back to start swinging around just from the sheer speed of response of the front Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires. Active engine mounts ensure that it doesn't, the instantaneous steering response matched by supreme midcorner stability.
Surely the GT-R can't match this thing?
A Sports Car That Obliterates Twisty Roads
The 2013 Nissan GT-R feels gigantic after driving the 2014 Porsche GT3. It also feels heavy and mechanical, the diffs grinding and juddering, the big engine chirruping and snorting, the ride thumping and the heavy steering tugging into cambers and grooves that you can only imagine the car is simultaneously creating and being affected by.
After the litheness and rigid connection you sense with the GT3, the Nissan feels more than a little clumsy. And yet for all that, the GT-R is irresistible when it's rolling. The midrange bite is outrageous, the six-speed twin-clutch gearbox matches the GT3's seven-speeder, and even though you feel the Nissan's weight every time you hit the brakes, the way it dismantles a road is quite breathtaking.
And it gets better and more thrilling the harder you go, peeling back layers of its character, demanding confidence and decisiveness. Sure, the GT-R will go pretty bloody fast without you so much as changing gears for yourself, but if you want to get the best out of it, you need to work for it. There's more body roll than in the freakishly controlled GT3, a tad more understeer in really tight corners, and when the rear tires do let go, they do so quickly.
When you squeeze everything out of the GT-R, it's like a force of nature, unstoppable and brutal. The frenzy of boost and power, managing the weight and the often-spiky on-limit balance, working with the four-wheel drive, it's a process that might not seem a very "pure" experience in theory. But the reality is demanding, physical and thrilling enough to send your pulse rate into uncharted territory. It seems we did bring the right car. In fact, against expectations, the GT3 could be accused of being a bit clinical and refined next to the snorting GT-R.
No Manual Need To Feel the Magic
The short answer is that the 991 GT3 still has the magic. The chassis is truly a thing of wonder, with a front end that is hyper-responsive, yet exhibits none of the jumpiness of Ferrari's F12. On the one hand, that means it's a much easier car to drive pretty quickly than the more demanding 997 — which is good or bad, depending on your point of view.
But it also means that there are still great rewards both when you're flat-out on a crazily beautiful Alpine road or cruising gently along in the real world. The depth of its talent and the quality of its controls easily shine through.
It really does feel as if you have the GT3 on a string and can do whatever you please with it. That's a measure of the confidence granted by the supple but controlled suspension, the excellent steering and the intuitive, almost invisible rear-wheel-steering system. The PDK setup is superb as well and it certainly contributes to both the GT3's more relaxed character at low speeds and its unerring focus and accuracy in full flight. It gives you scope to experience that searing top-end power delivery regularly and it makes the GT3 faster. Truth be told, however, it also removes a certain something.
The GT3 feels less demanding without that heavy, short-throw manual gearbox and sometimes less satisfying, too. The "involvement" issue isn't just about whether you flick a paddle or move your arm and leg. When you operate a manual gearbox, you have to read the road ahead more accurately and think more about the braking zones, the optimum time to execute a downshift, matching engine revs and how your timing will affect the balance of the car. Remove all of that and it's indisputable that you feel a less crucial part of the machine.
A Close Fight With a Clear Winner
Even so, the 2014 Porsche GT3 is a more exciting and more immersive car than the 2013 Nissan GT-R. It's near-as-dammit as fast in a straight line and murders it on the brakes and through the corners. It has more grip, better body control and is a more rewarding car to tease and work to its limits.
By comparison, the Nissan feels slightly binary, even as fast and capable as it is. The GT3 is exactly what it should be: dazzling, agile and uncompromising. It's also a triumph for Porsche Motorsport, which has taken the bigger, more refined and deliberately more inclusive 991 and created a car of stunning focus and control, yet one endowed with the sort of feedback and interactivity that purists crave. The technology has been used to enhance the driving experience, not just the lap time, a crucial point that makes all the difference from behind the wheel.
Portions of this content have appeared in foreign print media and are reproduced with permission.