Thursday, 14 February 2013

Six days with a 991

Inside of 20 minutes and this 911 and I have nearly fallen out.

Porsche may have a 60 year history of excellence, but all too often the company fails to distinguish between single minded determination to prove their concepts correct and bone headed stubbornness. It took 20 years of 911 timing chain failures before they finally chucked out various spring & plastic tensioner efforts in favour of an oil fed system, and the least said of the decade (and dozens of half-arsed solutions) it took to sort out the water-cooled flat six engines' ailments the better.

The list price of the 991 Carrera S I have borrowed for a few days is £97,861.00. It is a 3.8 engined, two wheel drive cabriolet with a light smattering of options; sports exhaust, parking sensors, heated seats, a two tone interior and some sound system upgrades. 

In the expensive looking, Panamera derived dashboard, the standard navigation system is beautifully integrated, and offers the driver a Bond-esque repeater in the instrument binnacle. Yet sadly for our newly minted relationship, and for some reason known only to 15 years of Porsche engineers and marketers, it will still only recognise the first five digits of a UK postcode. 

Sadder still, the address I needed to find once I'd left Porsche GB's gleaming Reading headquarters was one of two 'New Roads' located within a few miles of each other in a nearby town. 

And needless to relate, the 'New Road' the 991's system directed me to was the wrong one, something that only became apparent when my knock on the door was answered by a mystified young woman wanting to know why a perfect stranger was on her doorstep asking her about a Carrera 3.2 toolkit he'd purchased on ebay. 

To Zuffenhausen's shame, a rummage in my bag produced my trusty old Garmin Zumo 660 and we were soon heading to the New Road on the other side of town and my ebay purchase. Frustratingly, it was now late afternoon, and the Friday rush hour traffic was no place to learn about 400bhp, even if I did have ample opportunity to experience stop-start for the first time, the supportive 'comfort' seats, the 991's wonderfully natural driving position - with legs comfortably outstretched, a fine music system, a generally wonderful interior, and the gearbox.

Ah yes, the gearbox. This particular 991 cabriolet was an almost unique machine;  one of the very few 911 cabbies delivered in the northern hemisphere with both three pedals and a old fashioned gear lever. 

Porsche's new 7 speed manual gearbox is an intriguing solution to a problem I suspect was only created in the deserted corridors and subdued meeting rooms of Brussels, where earnest Eurocrats create rules demanding greater and greater fuel efficiency from the continent's car makers. 
7 Speeds good?

As a result, Porsche and their engineering partners decided that the new double clutch PDK automatic gearbox would have seven speeds, all the better to allow an overdriven top and nice low CO2 numbers at cruising speeds. Seemingly as an afterthought, the same casing and mechanism has been used to create the manual option, chosen by an ever dwindling number of hard-up, old school or contrarian buyers.

It has to be said, Porsche's gearboxes are functional things on the whole, quietly going about their business without adding greatly to the driving experience in the way a gated Ferrari shift, a snickety Alfa change or even (heaven forbid) an old Ford rocket 'box does. The seven speed unit in the 991 is no different. Its nicely positioned, falling (in that great roadtest tradition) 'easily to hand' as it sits high on the centre console. The knob is a chunky affair, well matched to the surprisingly high levels of effort needed to select a gear - especially when the gearbox is cold - or press the clutch pedal to the floor

As I flogged my way across crowded home-county commuter routes to the quieter motorways of my own bit of the country, the gearbox continued to occupy my mind. The ratios are arranged in 4 planes; 1/2, 3/4, 5/6 and 7, with springing biased towards 3rd/4th. That makes perfect sense in the 6 speeder, assisting the driver to slip out of 5th or 6th into one of the lower two ratios. However, in the 991, anyone cruising along in 7th and balked by slower traffic would benefit from a dose of 5th to regain speed, a gear that's located somewhere between 7th out on its limb and the spring assisted 3rd. I have to admit to picking the wrong one several times, not helped by the otherwise handy gear indicator in the rev counter that displays a blank until the clutch is fully home. That same indicator also contained a further sop to the eurocrats; a small arrow that suggests when the driver should select a higher ratio.  On the level it would illuminate in 6th at not much over 45mph, although the effect of such nudging on fuel usage is not dramatic - I saw consumption figures no better than the mid-twenties in my six days. 

However, compensation for the complex gearbox is soon to arrive when I discover that the pedals of this hundred grand, rich old man's boulevadier are perfectly set up for heel and toeing. Hallelujah! There must still be enthusiasts working at Porsche, tucked away out of reach of the dead hand of marketing product briefs and ring binders full of EC vehicle regulations. 

After nearly ten hours on the road I arrive home, feeling less tired than I had any right to expect.

On Saturday the car and I are reduced to taxi services, as I transport my two sons to the various weekend activities and dates that occupy active 9 and 15 year olds.  A lot of the additional 100mm or so that Porsche have introduced into the new 911's wheelbase goes into rear seat legroom. With the front seat passenger sacrificing some ability to stretch, there's now enough space in the back for a decent sized early teen, even when compromised by the traditionally more upright rear setbacks of the cabby. 

The additional width of the cabin makes this a comfortable place to be; spacious even for a GT. The optional stone and chocolate two tone leather go some way to compensating for the slight claustrophobia created by the heavy A pillars and the blanked-out rear three quarters view of the soft-top. 

A depressing February drizzle and low temperatures prevent too much use of the upper reaches of the car's performance abilities, but an exploratory squirt up a short section of dual carriageway reveals the traditional Porsche 'bissen', or bite, is present - the car drawing breath at 5000rpm and starting its rush for the red-line. It's proper fast this car, while a gentle push on the throttle provides enough performance to deal with almost every situation you'll meet in everyday driving, there's the potential for horizon grabbing grunt at the far end of the pedal's travel. 
And Chocolatey.

Sunday's taxi duties involve a trip through lashing rain and under dark skies to a hockey tournament. More than sixty years development of the original 911's engineering concept have, for good or ill, resulted in a car that most drivers could not identity as rear engined at all. Very occasionally its roots are exposed; even with the wider front track a sharp 90 degree urban corner on a cold wet day results in the front wheels crabbing away from the kerb, as the lighter laden front wheels (twenty inch Pirelli P Zero's on this car) give up the battle for grip. 

Of the slight differences in the way the front and rear of a 911 traditionally ride there is no sign. Sadly for those of us with a history of 911s, that signature bonnet bobbing is gone, sacrificed on the altar of refinement. Another preconception was also confounded, the flooded, pock-marked and battered West Sussex road surfaces revealed no shuddering scuttle, crashes from the suspension or creaks and groans from undercarriage or roof. This is the first convertible I've even driven with a structure that doesn't reveal its lack of strength through the steering. I know the press claimed the same thing for the previous generation 997, but I can remember steering one out of a dealership and all of 100meters to a corrugated section of road before the scuttle wobbled before my eyes. 

The 911's new found extra strength supports probably the most impressive aspect of the car. Unlike so many modern performance cars, the 991's chassis manages to combine the body control needed to rein in its 190mph potential with a ride that offers decent compliance; it neither bottoms out over undulations nor crashes from peak to crest. It certainly puts my Golf on its Bilstein suspension kit and chubby 16" winter tyres to shame, and shows my firm riding 964 (also on 16" wheels) to be the relic it is. 

However, a reminder of those old-skool semi-trailing arm chassis roots remains in the road surface induced rumble and roar from the fat rubber that still provide a typically 911 road noise back-drop to the new car's Bose stereo. A dab on the Sport button does its usual trick, tightening up the suspension, sharpening the throttle, and loosening the car's electronic safely nets, but the sodden gathering gloom wasn't the time or place for experimentation. In fact, in six days and 400 miles I leave the 'Sport' well alone. 

On this Sunday, the north easterly gale gusting down the channel had brought high winds to whip the pouring rain sideways.  After 90minutes battling the conditions, the stout hearts running junior's hockey event had had enough, and I hurried a bedraggled 9 year old into the comfort of heated seats and a volcanic heater, wincing as wet training shoes collided with pale leather and carpet. A stop for hot chocolate and cake at a local cafe went a long way to restoring morale.

Up on the Downs
On Monday I had to transport the eldest son to a week of work experience in the neighbouring county, a cross country journey that involves 40 miles of familiar fast and well surfaced roads. I had been looking forward to this trip since I collected the car four days ago. The downpours over the weekend had flooded the local bypass, bringing with it predictable Monday morning traffic chaos, and it took more than 45 minutes of clutch pumping before we reached the quieter 'A' roads. As the tarmac followed the Roman Stane Street and climbed over the downs, the drizzle started to turn fat and white, and within 5 minutes it was snowing heavily. Thankfully the roads stayed wet, the temperature hovering just above zero, but these were still far from ideal conditions for fast travel. 

As was to be expected nowadays, other road users were taking things easily, some barely crawling, and being overtaken by a flash b*stard in a 911 appeared to irritate, as evidenced by the flashing lights and waved arms. Little did they know that this ostentatious rushing past took only a slight flex of my right foot as I surfed the torque in the higher gears to slip by them, safely and sensibly.

Talking of quiet, there's little in the way of rumbling exhaust note in a standard 991 nowadays, but this one had the 'loud' button indicating the £1800 Sport Exhaust option. I was initially sceptical - it provides nothing in the way of additional performance or reduced weight, but my (not so) inner child preferred the rumble it delivered at low speed, the bark in the mid-range, and the howl in the upper reaches of the rev range. I wasn't the only one, the 9 year old child couldn't leave it alone when he was travelling with front seat privileges either. There is a downside beyond the cost,  cold starts are a clattering row as the car's fast warm up cycle does its thing

Tuesday remained damp and cold with the threat of snow. The car spent the day sitting outside my little house while I caught up with paperwork. Tuesday is swim squad day, so the only transport required was to the pool at the leisure centre, some four miles away on the other side of town. To protect the car from car parking dents I leave it in a corner, well away from the other cars, as far from the centre's front doors as I can. Inevitably, when I return to it an hour or so later there were cars huddled up on either side, surrounded by empty spaces. There's a sociology PHD in there somewhere.  

Continued here

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