Motoring: A beast, more beautiful than ever

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Indy Lifestyle Online
There are better, faster, more beautiful cars than the Porsche 911. But there is none that serves up such a magical mix of sports car interaction, engine punch and live-wire behaviour. Gavin Green is smitten.

This is my favourite car. You don't so much drive a Porsche 911, as ride it. It is a barely tamed stallion, always on the verge of unruliness. Yet if you concentrate, drive forcefully and drive well, there is no car that rewards its master so richly.

The 911 is terrifically tactile. Drive one, and nothing else is quite the same. It is also marvellously practical. No car is better made or more reliable. It is probably the world's only sports car that can be used every day, and do its job as uncomplainingly as an Escort.

And now, 34 years after its invention, there is a new one. There have been updates over the past three decades or so, revisions that have partly tamed the beast and made it more usable and comfortable. The last iteration, unveiled in 1994 and codenamed the 993, was undoubtedly the best. Until this one, the brand new 911 - the best Porsche of the lot, and possibly the most desirable sports car in the world.

Although brand new - every panel is different, every mechanical component altered - the new 911 has been carefully designed to carry on the tradition. Its engine is nestled neatly in the tail, behind the rear axle line, which helps give the car such compact dimensions and such slingshot acceleration out of corners.

The downside is obvious: having all that weight out the back does not help handling balance. Most rival sports cars, as well as many cheaper ones (such as the MGF and Toyota MR2) have their engines in the middle, between cabin and rear wheels, in Formula One racing car-style. Others, typically, have front engines and rear drive, which - as with a bar- bell, heavy at both ends - at least gives some equilibrium to the whole.

The new 911has a flat-six engine, an unusual layout, as did its forebear. Again, it makes for compactness, and the most marvellous mechanical music at high revs - a bull-elephant bellow only a few feet behind you.

The noise has always been part of the 911 mystique. The new flat-six engine, though, is water-cooled, and those water jackets do partly dampen the orchestra. The old motor was air-cooled, like the old VW Beetle's motor, and thus there was little to muffle the tuneful cacophony of those six cylinders reciprocating at crazy speeds. The new motor doesn't sound quite as distinctive, at least not until you've passed 6,000rpm on the big central tachometer. When you're cranking on, the engine is finally restored to full voice; there is just no finer automotive ensemble. And the new motor is more powerful and economical than the old model's. Porsche 911s have always been tolerably economical, helped by their light weight, relatively small engines (in sports car parlance) and small size.

Their smallness has another attraction. Most supercars are too big, the upshots of needlessly vast engines trying to propel wastefully vast - but eye-catchingly extravagant - bodies to absurdly high and largely academic maximum speeds.

Most current supercars are, in real conditions, slower than small hatchbacks, an upshot of their bulk and their awkward driving positions. The 911, however, is small, and feels small. That is one reason why rear-engined Porsches are raced successfully and, on public roads, are probably the fastest point-to-point cars in the world.

The new 911 is marginally bigger - 18.5cm longer, 3cm wider - but 50kg lighter than its predecessor. The greater size helps to make for greater cabin space. The 911 has more front seat room than many much bigger GTs, including the vast Jaguar XK8. The old 911 was cramped; the new one feels positively spacious. The rear seat room is still exiguous; useful only for small children and chattels. The boot is usefully bigger.

The biggest change, though, is in the way the new car drives. It is still a real 911. Its agility and explosive acceleration are still uncannily like that of its predecessor. But the hyperactivity has been leavened with a degree of restfulness. If you wish to cruise down a motorway - conditions in which the old 911 always demanded maximum attention, and provided minimal creature comforts - the new one is quiet, stable, and relaxing.

The old 911 wanted to play all the time. The new one gives you a break when you simply wish to cruise, or enjoy the music. And, yes, you can hear the stereo on a long run, rather than be continually serenaded by that chain-saw buzz. But when you want to play, the new one can party hard. The steering is deliciously sharp and doesn't buck and kick back on tight, bumpy roads, as the old model's did. Instead, it rides the bumps and irregularities, and gives good clean feedback no matter what the speed or the road surface.

As before, you can balance the car on bends, using both the throttle - in charge of so much power, so instantly accessible - and the steering. And the car proves just so obedient and controllable and small, helped by brilliant brakes. There is just no other car that can leave its driver so utterly intoxicated by its charms.

Specifications

Porsche 911 Carrera. About pounds 65,000 when UK sales start in October. Flat- six engine, 3387cc, 300bhp at 6800rpm. Top speed 175mph, 0-60mph acceleration in 5.0 seconds, average fuel economy 28mpg.

Rivals

Honda NSX pounds 72,980. Brilliant sports car hamstrung by an ordinary badge. Beautifully wrought aluminium body, marvellous engine, terrific to drive. Best alternative to a Porsche.

Jaguar XK8 pounds 47,950. Bigger, slower, more cumbersome, but probably more beautiful, in an understated British way. Surprisingly, it's no roomier than the much smaller (on the outside) 911.

Lotus Esprit V8 pounds 59,995. Flasher, faster, but no other advantages over the Porsche. Now that the 911 has been replaced by a new model, the Esprit is the world's longest-lived supercar. And it needs replacing far more urgently than the Porsche ever did.

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