That's what I call a four-wheel drive

Earlier Porsche 911s had a reputation for being unstable, but the Carrera 4 Cabriolet is safer - and more fun, says Phil Llewellin ROAD TEST

The fingers of one hand are sufficient to count the cars that have achieved classic status while still in production. They include the Porsche 911. Often described as a triumph of good development over bad design, for reasons that focus on the rear-engined layout's inherent instability, the 911 has been challenging and rewarding drivers since 1963.

Just about everything, apart from the name and the basic concept, has changed since then, of course. Among current variations on this inspirational theme is the Carrera 4 Cabriolet whose assets include a sophisticated and satisfactory four-wheel-drive system. Its efficiency is as welcome as the flowers that bloom in the spring, tra-la, because earlier generations of 911 combined sizzling pace with a deserved reputation for being very easy to "lose" in certain circumstances. Owners joked about laundry bills being a major consideration.

Nothing can make a car overcome the immutable laws of physics, but all- wheel-drive makes this ragtop Porsche one of the safest high-performers I have driven in almost 40 years. Credit for its trustworthy behaviour is also due to huge Pirelli Asimmetrico tyres, the only snag being that replacing all four will set you back about £1,000.

On wet roads, which encouraged earlier 911s to exercise their malevolence, the air-cooled, 3.6-litre engine's power can be used with confidence while cornering. In the dry, greatly enhanced traction enables this hard-riding, sharp-handling Porsche to accelerate even faster than its two-wheel-drive counterpart. Time spent overtaking is dramatically reduced - an obvious safety factor - and the ability to accelerate out of trouble, rather than go for the brakes, is a potential lifesaver.

Porsche's name is synonymous with reliable power and, as such, a reminder that only Ferrari can match the marque's record in top-level racing. Achievements include winning the Le Mans 24-hour 13 times between 1970 and 1994. That heritage is an important part of the charismatic 911's unique appeal.

The Carrera 4's superb engine combines spine-tingling pace with quite remarkable docility. Being able to hit 70mph in second gear is the sort of thing Porsches are all about. At the other end of the scale, ambling along in London's slow-moving traffic proved the six-speed transmission's highest gear to be compatible with little more than a brisk walking pace.

Few will ever drive a Porsche like that, but at open-road speeds the amount of smooth pull available in sixth gear helps make progress easy to maintain and enjoyable to experience. This can be shared with three other people, but the folding back seats are better suited to luggage than anything other than child-sized passengers.

Significant drawbacks must be placed in the balance to offset these elemental pleasures. The most obvious is the hood. This goes up and down at the touch of a button, but does not vanish under a flush-fitting panel. Instead, it lurks beneath a bulky cover whose 14 fasteners demand time and patience. When not in use, the cover hogs a significant amount of what little luggage space is available. When the top is up, wind noise is not compatible with a car costing more than £60,000.

The old-fashioned dashboard's layout is a good example of bad ergonomics. Controls hide behind the non-adjustable steering wheel and dials are masked by the driver's hands. The radio is best controlled by the passenger, unless you have the arms of a spider monkey. This can be irritating, because noise levels fluctuate considerably with the 911's speed and the nature of the road surface.

Buy a Mercedes SL500 if you want, and can afford, a convertible with almost saloon-like levels of luxury and refinement. That said, the Porsche 911 Carrera 4 encourages you to get up early and drive just for the pleasure of driving. Few cars do that.

SPECIFICATIONS

Porsche 911 Carrera

4 Cabriolet, £63,245

Engine: 3.6-litre, six-cylinder, 272bhp.

Transmission: six-speed manual gearbox, four-wheel drive.

Performance: 0-60mph in 5.2 seconds, top speed 165mph.

Average fuel consumption: 23.5mpg.

COMPARISONS

Mercedes-Benz SL500, £75,890

More luxurious tourer than redblooded sports car, but its 308bhp engine makes the Mercedes almost as fast the Porsche in a straight line. The less-powerful SL320 is almost £17,000 cheaper.

BMW M3, £39,100

The four-seater convertible version of BMW's smallest supercar looks almost mundane in this company, but the 286bhp engine delivers serious performance. Good value.

AC Ace, £56,250

Launched in October 1993, then hibernated while the design was being refined. Still something of an unknown quantity, but merits serious consideration. Powered by a 5.0-litre American Ford engine, and handbuilt in very small numbers.

TVR Griffith 500, £32,995

One of the last of the native British manufacturers, TVR has left its kit-car image behind. Aimed at serious enthusiasts, the Griffith is quicker to 60mph than the swiftest Ferrari and, as such, is a great bargain.

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