A stunner -- but let's get real about the back seat, okay?
The worst thing about the Porsche 911 Carrera is its iconic status. There's just too much about this car that its buyers won't let Porsche change. Some of it is minor stuff like the ignition switch on the left side of the steering wheel. And some of it is major, like sticking engine way out in the far-ass end where it shouldn't be, insisting that the overall shape change not-all-that-much and making sure the microscopic rear "seats" remain minuscule jokes.
The best thing about the Porsche 911 Carrera is that, despite that worst thing, it's simply the best sports car you can buy and realistically use as daily transportation. All the compromises built into the 911 to please the well-attended church that worships it simply don't matter - the moment the flat-six hums to life (and it does hum) this car is charged with mechanical charisma and positive male essence. But it's built like a 3075-pound beryllium atom, its nose doesn't scrape going up steep driveways, and those rear seats may be useless for carrying people but they're perfect buckets for holding gym or grocery bags.
Ferraris have even more personality, but they're fragile, there's no place to store anything, they're voracious gas hogs and the attention they attract quickly becomes a chore. A Ferrari is a playmate - good for a romp in the hay or as arm candy, but not much for domestic chores. The Porsche 911, on the other hand, is ready for a long-term commitment.
Subtly better outside
Porsches have never been cheap, and the 911 Carrera Cabriolet (no "S," no "4," no "Turbo") test car looked like money from every angle. Last year's evolutionary update from 996 to 997 cleaned up the water-cooled car's nose by simplifying the headlights, re-sculpting the front bumper and better integrating the under-bumper air inlets. And all the fender shapes seem more voluptuous. The current 911 now looks more like the last air-cooled 911 (the beloved 993 that left production during 1998), and less like the Boxster (though it was similarly updated). The basic Carrera comes on five-spoke 18-inch wheels that are better looking than the 19-inch wheels standard on the Carrera S and the Carrera's P235/40R-18 front and P265/40R-18 rear tires have a bit more sidewall height than the S' front 35- and rear 30-series rubber. That results in a car that appears more secure and sophisticated and less adolescent and rambunctious.
The 997 is no larger than the 996 in most dimensions, but it is larger than the 993 and it looks it. But that doesn't mean the 997 is large. At 175.6 inches long overall, it's 0.8 inches longer than a 2006 Honda Civic Si coupe and the Porsche's 92.5-inch wheelbase is almost a foot (11.8 inches) shorter than the same Honda's. At 71.2 inches the Porsche is wide, but it's a narrow-waist car with much of the width being the fenders covering the widely spaced wheels.
The air-cooled 911s had a more upright windshield and may have been less aerodynamically efficient, but they still trump all their water-cooled successors for purity of line and flat-out beauty. From some angles, the 996 is even actually awkward. But there's nothing awkward about the 997.
Obviously better inside
There was always too much going on with the air-cooled 911's dash for its own good. The instrumentation was easy enough to read in four large circular gauges, but the ventilation controls were always a nightmare and sound system was segregated off in front of the passenger and always had itty-bitty buttons. Ergonomically the 996 was an improvement, but mashing the gauges together under a hood pretty much eliminated the charm. In contrast the 997 dash is logical, useable, and the best 911 dash yet.
That's not to say, however, that it's beyond criticism. The gauges are still five intersecting circles and while they're easier to scan than those in the 996, the speedometer may as well not be there at all. The tachometer is positioned as the center (and largest) gauge and features a bold digital readout for speed at its bottom. With the digital number so prominent, there's no reason to ever look at the speedometer needle sweeping less precisely just to the right of the tach. Why not just eliminate the speedo altogether, cut the circle count down to four and make the other instruments larger and more generously spaced? Beyond that the center stack (which contained a GPS navigation system on the test vehicle) is still overwhelmed with small buttons and the ventilation controls are still less than intuitive.
Get past the dash though and the 997's interior is spectacular. The hides covering the seats feel as if the cows that once wore them spent their days rolling around in butter; the trim fits together like the slide into a Glock 19; every switch works with distinct precision; the door panels are neatly shaped and solidly constructed; and of course there are airbags strewn about so that short of a Stuka attack the occupants are likely to survive most mishaps. The seats are narrow, but for a car like this you should lose weight.
Like a proper convertible wearing a big price tag, the Cabriolet's canvas top is elegantly stitched, impressively snug and features a heated glass rear window. Of course rearward visibility is compromised somewhat when the top is up and there's more wind noise than in a fixed roof car, but those are expected compromises. And putting the top down is a one-button affair that has the whole thing snugly retracted in just a few seconds and back up in just a few more.
One fine drive
When the 996 superseded the 993 the Carrera lost the edgy, immediate reflexes that made the 911 such a joyously instinctive car to drive. In their stead, the 996 was amazingly stable and composed. The 997 hasn't lost an iota of the 996's manners and brings back some of the 993's immediacy. In short, it's the best driving Porsche yet.
There simply isn't a better steering car on Earth. The variable ratio rack-and-pinion in the 997 is precise and communicative without being heavy; it works great at speed and just as well during parking maneuvers. Porsche has tamed the weight bias so effectively that the off-throttle oversteer that marked earlier 911s can only be induced by turning off the outstanding Porsche Stability Management (PSM) system, running the car up to some insane velocity and then downshifting from sixth to second.
The front suspension is a straightforward set of MacPherson struts while the rear is a more complex mix of five links on either side. This is a stiffly sprung car, but not a harsh one; the ride is always comfortable and the wheels never seem to be anything except squarely and firmly planted on the pavement. Go through a corner once in this car and you feel confident going through it the second time at twice the speed. The third time you want to double that speed again. The fourth time you realize that going any faster is going to land you in prison. In sum, there's no practical way to approach the 997's adhesion limits on the street without risking too much.
And the brakes, benefiting from the weight bias, are awesome too.
Even though the plain Carrera carries the less powerful 3.6-liter version of Porsche's all-aluminum DOHC, 24-valve flat six, the 325 horsepower it produces come out in an even, seamless wave. The combination of variable-length runners in the intake manifold, variable valve timing, advanced engine management and the inherent smoothness of the flat six make for a powerplant that's both easygoing around town and ferocious when it's asked to fly. The standard six-speed transaxle to which it's lashed is dang-near perfect too with well-space ratios and easy shifts.
About the only hiccup in the shifting is that the dead pedal intrudes so close to the clutch that it's easy to bang one's foot into it during shifts. Buy narrower shoes.
Porsche claims the Carrera Cabriolet will rip to 60 in 4.8 seconds and top out at 177 mph. That's quick. Quicker (4.6 seconds to 60 and a 182-mph top end) comes in the form of the Carrera S with 355 horsepower from the 3.8-liter version of the flat six.
As sweet natured as the 997 is, the purists will still point to the air-cooled 911s as the "real" 911. It's tough to say they're wrong. The 997 is the best Porsche ever, but it doesn't feel directly analogous to the rear-engine Porsches of the past. It's the successor to those cars in a way the 996 was not - a true leap beyond them.
It is its own unique and great thing. Maybe it deserves its own name.
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