Much has changed, much has stayed the same. Does a turbo ruin the car?
We drove the 2016 Porsche 911 Carrera last week on Tenerife, a Spanish island off the coast of Africa. Don’t ask why Porsche decided to launch the face-lift of its most important car on the rim of the western Atlantic. Do ask whether or not the base 911 needs to be turbocharged, and whether or not that serves the model’s character. Answers below.
1. Don’t call it the Porsche 911 Turbo. Because it’s not. Because that car is a specific model, has been a specific model since 1975. In terms of acceleration and pure power, it remains the crest of the 911 lineup. This car is the base Carrera, a.k.a. the entry-level 911, the I Just Got My Quarterly Bonus Junior Lawyer Special and the machine that the world has used as a sports-car benchmark since Lyndon Johnson was president. It has been given two small turbochargers and a drop in displacement, to 3.0 liters, for reasons of power and fuel economy. In Porsche-chassis-speak, this car is dubbed 991.2; the car it replaces is the 991.1. (The 991.1, for the record, used a 3.4 or 3.8-liter engine, in the Carrera and Carrera S, respectively.)
Porsche claims the point was to offer more power and greater fuel economy without losing the base 911’s revvy, naturally aspirated, lag-free vibe. The engineers claim to be for it. (Similarly, I claim that every time my hair falls out in the shower, it’s to help make me lighter and more aerodynamic. Naturally aspirated engines are wonderful, most enthusiast die-hards hate lag, and more power isn’t always better, but positivity has to count for something.)
2. As with most new 911s, the changes are largely under the surface. The 991.2 is what the industry calls a mid-cycle refresh. Most people just call it a face-lift, but that term is a bit looser here, because the 2016 911 looks almost identical to its predecessor. Part of that is because Porsche is notoriously conservative with its cosmetic updates; the majority is because this is a 911, and 911s just don’t change much. Stoic resistance to fashion is in the car’s DNA. A careful look will reveal that virtually every panel and piece of trim on the car has changed; taillights, headlights, fender curves, and engine lid are all different. Among other things. There’s also a new touchscreen infotainment system; it works well and offers both Apple iOS app integration and pinch-to-zoom. If this is what you find most exciting about this car, go buy a damn Camry and watch CBS.
3. Turbo waterboxers don’t have to sound like turbo waterboxers. The water-cooled flat-six in the Carrera’s tail is a 3.0-liter, aluminum-block, direct-injected engine. It makes this car the first 3.0 Carrera since the G-body 911 of the 1980s. Both the Carrera (370 hp) and Carrera S (420 hp) use that displacement, and each makes peak power at 6500 rpm. Redline for each is 7500, and while shove noticeably tapers past six and a half, you still end up revving to 7.5. Because it’s there, because it sounds great, and because the fall-off doesn’t make the redline seem gratuitous. (Example of modern car with gratuitous redline: 9000-rpm 911 GT3, where spinning the thing past peak power just feels like noise production. Example of modern car without: 8200-rpm Ford GT350, where it feels like someone with a hand down your pants.) Seen outside the car, the engine and its accessories look ominous, a hulking suitcase of doom. Or maybe a small piece of HVAC equipment.
And that sound. The engine somehow sounds more gruff and air-cooled—hollow and throaty, with small, crackle-gargle backfires—than its naturally aspirated predecessor. (Nice work, given that turbochargers typically mute engine noise, whether intake or exhaust.) It sounds nothing like any modern 911 Turbo; the 997 reminded me of a coked-up vacuum cleaner, and the 991 Turbo was the same noise with a cleared throat. Either car was audible from the other side of a race track, or down the highway, or in the next county, hoovering air. This thing just sounds like a 911. From the curb, you get that Live from the Mulsanne thing, half snort and half ripping tenor. In the car, windows up, intake grunt. In the car, windows down, you hear the occasional whistle, a soft chirp on closed throttle.
There’s an optional sport exhaust. You should buy the optional sport exhaust.
4. Even the base Carrera is not slow. Porsche says the Carrera reaches 60 mph in 4.4 seconds with a manual, 4.2 with the optional PDK seven-speed, twin-clutch automatic. Opt for PDK and Sport Plus programming, you get 4.0. The Carrera S is 4.1, 3.9, and 3.7, respectively.
But the old car wasn’t slow, either. The torque spread is what matters. The 991.1 Carrera was peaky; you had to spin it to really make the car move at low speed. Blame tall gearing and a torque curve that resembled that of an old-school sports car. (I blame nothing, personally. Around here, we like our sports cars peaky. Makes you work for it.) The 991.1 Carrera S was grunty and quick no matter the tach position.
The turbo car, in contrast, is torquey. When you want it, when you don’t, when the car is asleep in the garage and pondering whether or not it should climb the stairs to your bedroom and crawl into bed with you while backfire-whispering sweet nothings of Alpine passes and lederhosen. All told, the base Carrera is a better balance of usable speed and turbo lag; the Carrera S is substantially quicker and possessed of a more elastic throttle. I’d take either one, but the Carrera is more fun to beat the snot out of. It feels more like a 911 should: direct, linear, connected. And you don’t miss the straight-line speed.
(Answer from the top of this story, as to whether turbocharging serves the base 911’s character: Sure, if done right.)
5. If you’re not paying attention, you can easily lose track of the changes. With the 911, Porsche has always focused on evolutionary changes. Most of these have long taken the form of detail improvements to the car’s driveline. The new car gets plasma-transferred iron cylinder liners (pro tip: the technology has been used in Ford V-8s for years), new cylinder heads, variable timing on the exhaust cam, a new composite oil pan (4.4 pounds lighter than the previous composite oil pan), and taller transmission ratios in gears three through seven (PDK and manual; the two are geared identically, sharing many components, as in 911s past) due to the engine’s greater and more widespread torque. Plus a beefier transmission to accommodate said torque. The Carrera S achieves its additional 50 hp through the use of different turbo compressor wheels, a new exhaust system, and, chiefly, new engine programming. (Read: more boost.)
PDK gains a few new tricks: The gearbox has been reprogrammed, and now offers a dual-mass flywheel that helps dampen vibration at low rpm. The reprogramming incorporates an overrun cutoff that works with the car’s start-stop system—shutting off the engine on deceleration under certain conditions—but it also includes what Porsche calls a “virtual intermediate gear shifting profile.” In a nutshell, this allows the engine to work like a CVT—the transmission’s twin wet clutches can slip while transmitting drive, creating a so-called “false gear” that doesn’t really exist. It does this for fuel economy at low load and low speed, in situations where shifting into a higher gear would lug the engine and produce inadequate torque. The technology was last used in the 911 Turbo, where you barely notice it. You barely notice it here.
There are larger brakes than before, because this is a Porsche. The front rotors on the Carrera are six millimeters thicker, for more efficient heat dissipation; the car also gains 17 percent more pad area. The Carrera S uses front pads from the 911 Turbo, 16 percent larger than before, and 10 millimeters more diameter in the front rotors. The optional carbon-ceramic brakes on both cars are borrowed from the 911 Turbo S, which means each rotor is roughly the size of a small planet and capable of dissipating almost as much heat.
Random thoughts from a writer who used to be a full-time mechanic: I have a hard time believing that turning oil pans into a consumable commodity—plastic degrades with exposure to heat and time—is a positive. Using clutch slip as a method of propulsion, even in a wet/oil-cooled environment, gives me the creeping heebie-jeebies. Clutched water pumps just seem like the best idea that should have become widespread long before it did. (Also another wear point and failure mode, but hey, worth the tradeoff.) And seriously, you could set up a buffet table on those damn carbon rotors.
6. They’re working on the steering. The 911 has had electrically assisted steering (EPAS) since the 991.1 was launched in 2011. The Cayman/Boxster also has it. Before that, the cars were hydraulically assisted. EPAS helps improve engine efficiency while reducing packaging constraints; over the past decade, it’s become the standard for new cars, fast or otherwise.
It’s also known for killing steering feel and driver confidence. Part of this is the tech itself—the controller used in EPAS systems often acts as a mass damper, dulling the conversation between your hands and the front tires. The rest is the fact that EPAS is simply a relatively young technology—it improves with development, and currently lacks the 75-year dev history of hydraulic steering.
Porsche’s EPAS is the best in the business, and the 911’s is the most talkative helm they offer. The hardware on the 991.2 is virtually identical to that on the 991.1, but thanks to software updates, the wheel feels better. And it’s felt better in every successive press-fleet 991.1 I’ve driven, no matter the tire or wheel package. The 991.2 offers more of the traditional 911 wiggle on uneven pavement; you have a slightly more accurate idea of what the front tires are going through. Chiefly, it’s more entertaining. The wheel dances a little under load, makes you feel like you’re doing something, running a machine in the real world.
It’s not perfect, but it’s better. And in a car where they’ve engineered out a lot of the model’s charming quirks—hobby-horse nose pitch, a conscious need to attend to the engine’s mass—it’s a welcome reminder of what you’re driving.
7. They’re also working on the gearbox. The 991’s seven-speed manual is derived from the car’s seven-speed automatic; it uses the same case and shares some internal parts, including ratios. It’s not a patch on the intuitive, mechanical-feeling six-speed manual in the current Boxster/Cayman—an update of an older Porsche unit—but it’s gotten better. The Boxster/Cayman’s gate is wide, its synchros positive, the feel and embodiment of the age-old rifle-bolt cliché. Early versions of the seven-speed had narrow patterns and vague spring-loading. It was deeply preferable to the automatic, but it still felt like someone had thrown too many gears into too small a box. The transmission was updated for the 911 GTS, and you have to assume the technology carries over. There’s stronger self-centering to the lever and the gates seem more defined, whether they are or not.
Long story short: You concentrate less on the wrong things (is there a gear there?) and more on the right things (GOD THAT SHIFT FELT GOOD I GOT THE TIMING RIGHT I AM A GOLDEN GOD).
8. The car is still too big. This is no surprise, because the 991.2 was never going to be a fundamentally different car from the machine it replaces. That’s how automotive face-lifts work. But I’m sorry, anything that makes a 997 feel small is too big to be a modern sports or GT car. Cockpit intimacy matters. The distance from your head to the A-pillars or rear of the car matters. One of the great things about old 911s—from the 1965 short-wheelbase car to the last of the 997s, a few years ago—was how the machine always seemed to wrap around you. I thought I was alone in caring about this, until more than a few journalists on the launch commented on it.
“Your passenger’s shoulders were next to yours,” as my friend Pete Stout once put it. Every 991 puts you at arm’s length from the car. Maybe it’s part of the model’s metamorphosis from sports car to GT car. I know the platform was lengthened in wheelbase and made wider to house a hybrid system that didn’t appear, and supposedly in part, for high-speed stability. But I want an intimate car again. The chassis wants to give you a bear hug, but the proportions keep you at arm’s length.
9. You’re never going to use the optional “push to pass” function. Or the nav system’s new handwriting-recognition feature. Or the new PSM Sport feature in the stability control. You can write on the nav system’s touch screen with a finger. And you can have an intermediate setting for the stability control that allows more yaw and freedom in the car but still gives you a safety net.
Just mat the throttle and don’t think about it. Stop and type in directions or wait for practical, workable voice-recognition technology to appear. Turn stability control off or leave it on; if you want yaw, learn how to use it, like a damn human being with a talent, not a dude with a computer as crutch. Thank you, Germany, for reminding us what sells product, but that we don’t need or use.
That said, you do want rear-axle steering. It’s optional, the same system used on the 911 GT3. It’s expensive. It’s one more thing to fail at high mileage. But it’s great. Below 30 mph, the car’s turning circle goes microscopic. Above 50 mph, the system makes the chassis a telepathic missile. Up to two degrees of toe change at the rear. Rapid-fire directional changes just happen, like thought. It works great on the GT3. It somehow seems more fitting on a softer, more comfortable car.
10. The details still make the car. Randomly: Miami Blue, new this year, is an excellent color—like Porsche’s old-school Mexico Blue, but with more sky in it. Gorgeous. The non-American-market fixed-back sport seats are fantastic, but also a kind of overkill: You can’t recline them, and they really only fit one body type. Still great. The face-lift works in person, but not around other 911s; on its own, the car looks dignified and simple. Next to older cars, it just seems tarted-up and unnecessary. Maybe time will change that. (It’s worked with most of the rest of them.) The optional electric front-axle lift, a feature ported in from the GT3, seems unnecessary, given how high the Carrera and Carrera S ride. At least it’s available if you want it.