Friday, 15 February 2013

Six days with a 991 - Part 2

Continued from here

Wednesday. Today the car goes back to Porsche GB's base in Reading. 

My nine year old's reputation is made when I take him to school in the 991, although reputation for what isn't clear to us. Sitting outside the school I cannot help noticing the glances from the yummy mummies as wait I for the usual parking scrum of MPVs and SUVs to untangled itself.  But no-one comes up to ask me about the car. I think its an English thing, either a unwillingness to make waves, or a willingness for envy - take your pick. 

I'm lucky in many ways, and one is living within close proximity to the great driving roads that thread along the Sussex and Hampshire downlands.  I plan a route back to the OPC that should finally give me an opportunity to extend the 991 a little. The temperature indicated on the dash is still only just above freezing, but the cold dry air now being sucked across the UK from Siberia has removed the wet sheen from the tarmac that had featured over the weekend.  

I pause to take some photographs before cutting north west on fast open roads towards Winchester. As I build speed, the big 3.8litre six changes from torquey traffic slugger to race car howler, rushing the 991 through 3rd gear, and given the space, into 4th and then 5th, before braking hard and blipping the responsive engine back down through the gears for another village 30 limit. The light traffic I encounter is clinically dispatched, and for once my progress isn't marked with flashing lights and waved fists as the overtakees in their mean little hatchbacks realise the futility of attempts to show their puritan disapproval. For once I do notice of the odd creak and dull clunk from below, revealing the cabriolet's compromised rigidity, and the chassis is on occasion confused by some combination of lumpy tarmac, giving rise to an unmistakable hip wriggle of the rear biased mechanical layout.  And even in these open roads I'm always aware of the width and size of the car, it refuses to shrink around me, the invisible nose and tail just slightly too far away, constraining progress as soon as the road narrows. But we make impressively rapid progress, this car and I - borderline ballistic. I drink deep from the heady well of 400bhp, pushing again and again as hard as visibility and self preservation allows.  

But I experience disquiet too. The numbers flashing up in the digital speedo are not those I am going to be able to repeat on a regular basis without facing the possibility of jail time or an accident reassembling a satellite crash. When one's method of transport will reach 115mph in 3rd gear with four ratios still to go, there is little satisfaction to be found in burbling along at 40 or 50 mph, or even the 60mph national single carriageway limit. 

Reaching the M3, I turn north east, switch off the exhaust valve and burble in 7th along with the faster motorway traffic,  letting the adrenaline rush fade and wondering if the journey wouldn't have been more satisfying in my 964, or even my old yellow 911T - even if I would have been travelling 30mph slower. For the record, at this point the trip computer shows a 17mpg trip average, compared to the 24mpg I'd become used to.
Grey car, greyer day.

Several hundred words of amateur 991 driving impressions, and not a mention of the electric steering I hear you ask? Introduced with the 991, the system is engineered to a better level than those used by manufacturers of family hatch-backs, Porsche making an effort to allow some feedback to run up from the contact patch up to the rim of the steering wheel. The effect is definitely different, it's possible to position the car with great accuracy but there's a muted artificiality to the response, even a helpful Gran Turismo driver aid style nudge every now and again. However the new rack never dominates - much more noticeable is the non-linear character of the rack - turning into low speed right angled urban corners takes place with a rapidity that surprises me at first and takes some getting used to.

Writing this a day later I suspect that had the 991's electric steering system not been such a controversial feature I wouldn't have noticed it against the background of the car's overall step change in usability and refinement. 

I wait in the Reading Porsche Centre's showroom while the road salt is washed off my 964 (Porsche's PR department had brokered the loan of it to a magazine - my use of a 991 in its stead was the quid pro quo) and I drink good OPC coffee and wander around looking at the other 911s on display, most heavily optioned coupes with prices well into six figures. 

I look forward to learning how the 964 will feel in contrast, and I also worry that experience of the new would spoil my enjoyment of the old. 

It's time to go. Climbing in to the old car, my first impressions are immediate, the cockpit is so much smaller and closer to me that the first thing I do is try to move the front seat back 6" on its runners. The immediate clunk reveals it is already as far back as it will go, and the upright windscreen still feels inches from my face. Unlike the gear lever, which in contrast to the 991's high mounted version, has somehow been moved down to my left ankle. Moving off, the satisfying and entirely non-artificially enhanced engine note (surely the 964's basso profundo exhaust rumble is the best of all the 911s?) burbles away behind me while the cold oil gurgles into the dry sump tank. From the lack of response to the throttle it feels to me like all the torque has gone missing. 

But within a few minutes, all thoughts of the 991 have gone. As I head back to the old car's winter quarters I find myself enjoying the rustle of the wind from the old style roof gutters, the thump and roar from the tyres, the sight of the big plain instruments right under my nose, the simplicity of the 5 speed gearbox, and the big lunged feel from that old aircooled, two valve motor as it shoves the nuggety little coupe down the motorway slip road, the thin rimmed steering wheel wriggling in my palms. I grin to myself. This is what a 911 means to me.

Without any doubt, the new 991 is a big step for the 911 bloodline. It seems to me that Porsche have total clarity in their vision for the 911;  a prestigious high performance GT car that uses the best available technology to ensure its owner makes absolutely no compromises in order to drive the car daily.  The PDK gearbox (now selected by three quarters of all buyers), the electronic 'hand' brake, the opportunity to pack the car with luxury features, the lack of any particular skills needed to drive it, all make it something that can be bought and enjoyed by wealthy Middle Eastern, American or Chinese buyers. In the new car, they have the luxurious refinement of a Mercedes SL, a Jaguar XK or a BMW 6 series, while being able to feel they are still in a sports car. Yet I wonder how long this trajectory can continue before those sportscar roots become barely present in any meaningful sense, like the active ingredients in homeopathic medicine.  Certainly, any sentiment for the days when the 911s were bought in tiny numbers by knowledgeable and hardcore enthusiasts have long gone at Porsche, in spite of the respect the company pays to its heritage. Perhaps the GT cars are intended for their descendants, or maybe the Cayman's role is to take on the mantle of those early 911s. 

I wish Porsche well. I'll continue to enjoy my 1973 and 1991 cars, I'll probably make the trip to Le Mans next year to see the LMP1 challenger face Audi stable mates, and I'll try and get behind the wheel of a new Cayman. I even await the GT3 with interest, hoping that the rumours of PDK only transmissions are exaggerated. 

But there's not a 991 shaped hole in my heart.

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