Mention "Porsche" to a car nut anywhere, and the imagination is stirred. Unlike Ferraris and other classic sports cars that look gorgeous from every angle, the Porsche 911 has an egg shape that's an acquired taste. It's both a VW bug on steroids and Germany's pragmatic answer to temperamental glamour cars. A 911 is not so much beautiful as purposeful. The stark interior is no symphony in hand-stitched leather. But the thing is fast. And unlike flashier competitors, it works day in and day out, on jaunts to the dry cleaners or at the racetrack.
I first became aware of the Porsche mystique when I got the sports-car bug back in my youth. I took up rallying in a stylish but mechanically dodgy Triumph TR-4 and began attending road races. Back in the late '60s, Porsches were bathtub-shaped and showed their VW bloodlines. But they flew around the track, and as much as I disliked their styling, I was impressed by their speed and reliability.
A STREET-TRACK HYBRID
Being a sucker for a pretty face, I spent years thrashing around in sports-car hell before I wised up. Aside from the aforementioned Triumph, there was a Corvette that rattled and leaked. Next came an Alfa-Romeo GTV-6 that gushed oil and crunched second gear. Even the Japanese invasion offered little solace. My pretty Datsun 240-Z was well bolted together, but it needed better shocks, an aftermarket exhaust, and other add-ons to provide the performance that matched its looks. After I added those things, of course, they broke, and then the Z started to rust.
I finally bought a Porsche in 1987 and have never looked back. I am now a P-car addict and attend regular meetings -- weekends at road courses -- to commune with my fellow slaves to speed.
The three Porsches I have owned have been solid and reliable, of course. But I discovered that the real joy in these things is modifying the basic car with go-fast parts. Beginning with a '95 Carrera that turned into an all-out racer complete with composite bodywork and a screaming 390-horsepower motor, I went on to convert another 911 into a rare 3.8-liter RS Clubsport. At only 2,650 pounds and with 298 hp on tap, it's perfect for weekend racing -- yet it's still street legal.
Lately though, my wife has complained about the uselessness of the RS (race seats, a roll cage, stiff springs, and aluminum bodywork hardly befit a daily driver). I began to wonder if there was another Porsche for slightly irrational people with day jobs like me (I'm BusinessWeek's Washington bureau chief) who want to cut loose on weekends. I found the answer in the 996 GT3, a limited-production model (base price is $104,000 and only 800 will be sold) that's a true street-track hybrid. The GT3 is lighter than a stock 911, has a beefier suspension and quicker steering, and sports a 380-hp engine. There's no backseat, no spare, and a tiny gas tank. On the road the car still gives a firm but acceptable ride. Folks, this is my kind of car.
I took a GT3 test car out to Summit Point Raceway, a 2.4-mile circuit in West Virginia, and entered a "driver's education" event sponsored by the National Auto Sport Assn. NASA people are a congenial group of enthusiasts that offer drivers the opportunity to hone their skills on the racetrack.
It was a revelation. The GT3 corners flat, the close-ratio gears were perfect, and the engine provided turbo-like acceleration. As I rocketed down the front straight at nearly 150 mph, I realized that there was so much more that the GT3 could give with a little more familiarization and some stickier race tires. Afterwards, I peeled the magnetic numbers off the car, packed my race gear, and drove home thinking that life in Porscheland is sweet.
This car -- the last and best of a 996 line that will be supplanted by an evolutionary series in 2005 -- is what Porsche is all about. It melds the rational side of your brain with the goofy adolescent side. And it does it in a mechanical package that defies the stereotypes about sports-car exotica.
By Lee Walczak