Motoring: The 1963 vintage won't lie down: Roger Bell is full of admiration for the new, improved version of the 30-year-old Porsche 911, 'the world's most practical supercar'

It has taken Porsche 30 years to tame the 911. The world's most practical supercar, now starting its fourth decade, still has its engine behind the back wheels, Beetle-style (it was the Hitler-inspired Volkswagen, designed by Ferdinand Porsche, that spawned the original Porsche 356 and its 911 successor). The influence of this weighty pendulum has not seriously unsettled the 911's handling for the past 15 years, but new multi-link rear suspension has finally put to rest the car's reputation for being intolerant of foolish (or inept) abuse.

The latest evolution of theme 911 is not the most exhilarating there has been. That accolade still belongs to the race-bred 2.7RS Carrera made more than 20 years ago. Nor is it the quickest. It is, however, far and away the best and safest for everyday use. It needs to be if troubled Porsche is to survive as an independent manufacturer.

When the 911 was launched in 1963 as the 901 (a name registered by Peugeot, which denied Porsche its use), the car had a flat-six, air- cooled engine in the tail of a compact coupe just roomy enough for two adults and a couple of toddlers. Today's 911 is no different in concept, though every component has been changed over the years. Less than one-fifth of the outgoing Carrera 2 is carried over, making the latest version the most dramatic step forward in the 911's history.

The original car had a 2.0-litre, 130-horsepower engine and cost under pounds 3,000. The new one has 3.6 litres, 272bhp and costs pounds 54,000 - which is less than that of a Carrera 2 equipped to the same level. Top speed (academic here but not in Germany) has risen from around 130mph in 1963 to 165-plus. Acceleration that was once brisk is now blistering.

Although the new 911 is 6in wider than the model it supplants, and 20 per cent bigger in the boot, it is still smaller and more nimble than most rivals. Little or nothing of the car's endearing style and character - the secrets of its longevity - has been lost to midriff spread. It looks all the better for a wider stance and smoother, wind-cheating skin.

The Japanese have produced rivals as fast and accomplished as the 911, but none quite as beguiling. Whopping tyres and weight where it matters (over the driven rear wheels) give the 911 terrific traction. An optional electronic gadget, which automatically applies the brakes to a spinning wheel, gives even better resistance to skidding. What Porsche describes as 'the most advanced braking system ever used on a production car' not only averts locked front wheels - the bane of earlier 911s - but reduces stopping distance by as much as 20 per cent.

Driving pleasure, the car's raison d'etre, has not been sacrificed on the altar of safety. By reducing tyre noise from an unpleasant rumble to a background murmur, aural attention is focused on the shrill, addictive wail of an engine that sounds like no other, especially when charging through the gears. And what a gearbox] The precise, short- throw lever of the new six-speeder encourages play. (For those who prefer clutchless shifting, the alternative five-speed Tiptronic offers automatic or manual changes.)

Handling is terrific, the cornering power far beyond what the average 911 owner would deem sensible, never mind possible. Assisted steering (unheard of on 911s before 1989) takes the effort out of parking without robbing the driver of feedback. Although much has changed inside, owners of early 911s would get a strong sense of deja vu in the latest car from instruments stupidly centred on the rev counter rather than the speedometer. Seats that lock you into the action with a firm embrace (absent on many earlier 911s) have changed much more.

Apart from being dynamically superior and more comfortable, the new 911 Carrera is also cheaper to maintain. Depreciation should also be low, exacerbating my problem with Porsche's best-ever car: I won't be able to afford one until its anti- corrosion warranty expires in 2003.

SPECIFICATIONS

Porsche 911 Carrera, pounds 53,995. Engine: 3,600cc flat-six with air cooling and 12 valves, 272bhp at 6,100rpm. Six-speed manual gearbox, rear-wheel drive. Equipment includes two airbags, powered sunroof, metallic paint, engine immobiliser. Performance: 0-60mph in 5.3 seconds, top speed 165mph, consumption 16- 24mpg unleaded.

COMPARISONS

Ferrari 348tb, pounds 73,879. Peerless name, style, charisma, magic - and this breathtaking two-seater needs such attributes to justify a price pounds 20,000 above the 911. Wonderful V8 engine in classic midships position, but performance marginally inferior to the Porsche's.

Honda NSX, pounds 56,950. The best supercar from Japan - and the rival that the new 911 had to beat. It has, but only just. Lovely sounding 3.0-litre V6 engine in this aluminium-framed sophisticate gives performance close to 911's. Strictly two seats, but otherwise a practical, everyday car.

Lotus Esprit S4, pounds 46,995. Terrific performance from 2.2-litre turbocharged engine. Race-bred Sport 300, pounds 64,995, even quicker. With only four cylinders, though, Esprit lacks the timbre and aural appeal of six- and eight-cylinder rivals. Outstanding handling, roadholding and brakes.

Toyota Supra, pounds 37,500. Costs pounds 16,000 less than the 911 it can out-accelerate. Technical tour de force that makes most supercars seem far too expensive. Striking looks, fine straight-six turbocharged engine, great grip and roadholding, but soul-less.

(Photograph omitted)

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