Payne: Porsche 911 still king

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

I’ve been club-racing mid-engine, vintage Porsches all my adult life: Porsche 904, Porsche 906, Porsche 908.

All are exquisitely-balanced, apex-carving knives. Their engines are in front of the rear axles where God intended them to be. They were the models that made the sports car marque’s reputation in the late 1960s as it amassed a trophy-case full of world championships. The Porsche 917, 956, 962 and 919 — all mid-engine masterpieces — continued the winning tradition into the 21st century.

And yet the brand’s celebrity icon is the aft-powered 911. An automotive artifact that shared ancestry with the original VW Beetle. Yet not even the Bug has a rear-mounted power plant anymore.

Mid-engine heroes have come and gone, but King 911 has carried the flag into battle for generation after generation of Porsche fans. It is the winningest-ever Porsche on Sunday, and the most-sold on Monday. Like its Yankee rival front-engine Chevy Corvette, it has defied convention for over half-a-century by resisting mid-mounted physics. And Porsche has laughed all the way to the bank.

Selling more than 30,000 vehicles apiece year after year, the volume of 911s and Corvettes produced is the envy of every other manufacturer even as we all know — we know! — that they are technical dinosaurs. But just as Coca-Cola’s secret formula has dominated taste buds for a century, so have Porsche and Corvette’s mastery of — respectively — rear-mounted boxer engines and push-rod, small-block V-8s. They have adapted to the ever-changing demands of the brutally competitive sports car market.

“Drive a 911 every once in a while to remember what a great car feels like,” my pal and ex-Detroit News colleague Scott Burgess likes to say. Last week, I drove the new 2017 911 (run, don’t walk, to your local showroom). The first 911 to feature a turbocharged, flat-six as its base mill, it is the most significant engine upgrade since Stuttgart changed its flagship from air-cooled to water-cooled power plants in 1998.

Brother Burgess would be proud. To drive the new 911 is to pilot greatness.

As a mid-engine disciple, I was skeptical. The new 911, known at Porsche as the 991.2 — that is, Version 2.0 of the all-new 991 platform introduced in 2012 — is the first 911 I have spent a full day with since my first racer’s school in 1980 as a fuzzy-faced 18-year-old. I was quick but raw. I successfully negotiated the pylon-choked race course in Ohio to the school’s satisfaction, though I melted the tail-happy car’s clutch in the process.

I’ve gotten better — as has the 911.

In between my 911 dates, I have danced with numerous Porsches — and not just the 1,400-pound, tube-frame track legends of yore. The mid-engine 914-6. The 50-50 weight-balanced, front-engine 944. And the peerless, tossable, mid-motor 2016 Cayman/Boxster, dollar-for-pound the best sports car on the planet. Surely, the 911 — 100 pounds heavier than the Boxster, its engine hanging out its keister like a four-wheeled Kim Kardashian — would be the lesser athlete.

Not. Bigger in every dimension than its mid-mill stablemate, my 911 tester — base model, $90,450, manual, fire engine red — seemed to shrink around me as I settled into its form-hugging, bolstered “Sport Plus” seats. Key on the left as always. The world’s best manual box to my right.

Its Boxster-like, firm chassis-and-suspension a scalpel in my hands, the 911 shredded Northern California’s twisty roads.

Chassis engineering aside, there is method to Porsche’s rear-mounted madness after all. With the engine in the stern, the Porsche has space for (small) rear seats so the kiddies can share in the fun. Rear-end heavy, the car dives deeper into bends with less weight transfer compared to its athletic peers, allowing for beautiful, throttle-induced rotation through corners instead of speed-scrubbing understeer.

“And with the engine’s weight over the rear wheels, the traction out of the corners is unmatched,” says Porsche powertrain engineer Bruno Kistner, who flew in from Stuttgart to take a bow.

Oh, yes, about that turbocharged engine.

I thought Porsche’s controversial switch to turbos — not just its high-price, high-horsepower Turbo — would dominate my review. Green theology obsesses governments today, especially in Europe, and automakers are under pressure to lead carbon-celibate lives even as their customers demand more performance. Porsche’s solution ingeniously satisfies both poles.

Maintaining its core boxer-six, the 911 only shaved piston displacement from 3.4 to 3.0-liters then upped the ’roids with twin, small turbochargers anchoring each cylinder bank. The result is an engine that pulls like an ox — full torque is reached at just, cough, 1,700 revs — all the way to 7,500 rpms, just 300 shy of the previous mill. No lag. No low-rpm hole.

Porsche had to widen the rear tires to 11.5 inches to help plant the prodigious, 331 pound-feet of torque (a 15 percent gain). Were it not for a faint turbo whine (more pronounced in the convertible), you wouldn’t know this was a forced-induction mill

All this plumbing added weight to the engine, but Porsche’s historical obsession with light-weighting — behold the drilled key on my 1,380-pound, 1969-vintage 908 racer — shaved pounds elsewhere so that the drivetrain gains just 44 pounds overall. Typical of the 911’s timeless, teardrop shape, small subtleties differentiate 991 Version 2.0 from 1.0. Most obvious are two vents immediately behind the rear wheels which exit air from the red-hot turbos. The rear grill strakes flip vertical. Rear taillights are more three-dimensional.

I love to man-handle sports cars, so I’d buy manual. But tack on a few grand, and the optional PDK gearbox on a 420-horsepower Carrera 4S (AWD for more grip, natch) is a delight with lightning-quick shifts and available mode selector on the steering wheel with an F1-like “push-to-pass” button.

Spying a dotted passing line on California’s Pacific Coast, I punch the button and the box jumps from seventh gear to third and hurtles the 911 past traffic.

Ninety-five grand has never seen such performance. So which icon to buy? Rear engine 911 or front-mounted ’Vette V8 Z06?

The two are as different as their national stereotypes. The Z06’s explosiveness is unmatched on an asphalt battlefield. The 911 lacks the Corvette’s nuclear firepower but gains in pinpoint accuracy.

Either will do, though I prefer the Porsche’s more controlled aggression. So much for assumptions. Greatness, thy name is the rear-engine 911.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Email: hpayne@detroitnews.com. Twitter: @HenryEPayne

2017 Porsche 911


Vehicle type: Rear-engine, rear- or all-wheel drive, 4-passenger sports car

Price: $90,450 base ($97,010 Carrera; $138,550 Carrera 4S PDK as tested)

Powerplant: 3.0-liter, “Boxer” 6-cylinder

Power: 370 horsepower, 331 pound-feet of torque (base Carrera); 420 horsepower, 368 pound-feet of torque (Carrera S and Carrera 4S)

Transmission: 7-speed manual; 7-speed, dual-clutch PDK

Performance: Zero-60: 4.3 seconds (base, manual Carrera); 3.6 seconds (4S with PDK): 191 mph top speed (Carrera S) – manufacturer numbers

Weight: 3,153 pounds (base, manual Carrera as tested); 3,285 pounds (Carrera 4S PDK as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 20 mpg city/29 mpg highway/23 combined (base, manual Carrera); EPA 20 mpg city/28 mpg highway/23 combined (4S PDK)

Report card

Highs: Classic shape; precise handling

Lows: Zero engine access; turbo takes edge off raspy six howl


Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★

Fair ★★★Poor ★