Payne, Q&Auto: How Porsche 911 stays No. 1

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

The Porsche 911 is a living legend. Now in its 53rd year of production, it is the world’s most iconic sports car badge. It is the dream car of every young gearhead. It is the winningest race thoroughbred on the planet.

And yet, it is an anachronism.

Porsche Manager of Engine Mechanics Bruno Kistner with the new, turbocharged 2017 Porsce 911 in Napa Valley, California.

With its engine still hanging out the rear like its Ferdinand Porsche-designed forbearer, the Volkswagen Beetle, the 911’s architecture is a museum piece next to modern, midengine peers from Ferrari, McLaren and Audi. Heck, even today’s front-engine VW Bug has abandoned its great-grandfather’s butt-dragging design.

One might expect the Porsche to be in the Smithsonian next to the corded phone and video cassette. And yet, here is the new, lusty 2017 Porsche 911 setting the bar once again for balanced, jaw-dropping performance. That unmistakable, fast-back shape is the product of years of high performance testing, highly skilled engineers and a tried-and-true architecture.

“We always want to offer our customers the best concept from the best engine, best body and chassis. The combination of all these makes the 911 — including the rear-placed engine,” says engineer Bruno Kistner, 47, based in Weissach, Germany. “Its day-to-day usability, race track performance and design are unique. It’s a Porsche.”

As drivetrain manager, Kistner puts the 911’s so-called boxster, flat-6 cylinder engine through some extraordinary calisthenics to make sure it’s not just production worthy, but track worthy, too.

“Porsche thinks differently,” he says. “You won’t see this type of testing at BMW or Audi. They would say it’s a nonsense test.”

It’s this relentless pursuit of perfection that has kept the 911’s rear engine architecture competitive — while at the same time applying its own inherent advantages. Better braking thanks to less weight shift to the front wheels. Better interior room for rear seats. Better, lower center of gravity.

And traction, traction, traction. With more weight over the rear wheels, the 911 has consistently ranked with all-wheel-drive cars for best acceleration off the line.

“We had to use an all-new AWD drive system on our latest 911 to finally make the AWD drive car accelerate any faster over the rear-drive car,” says Atlanta-based Frank Weismann, 35, product experience manager for Porsche Sportscars North America.

That formula also pays dividends at the race track. “Look at Long Beach,” says Weismann, speaking of Porsche’s recent, dramatic victory there. “It’s a street course where it’s essential to accelerate out of a corner. The 911 was all over the Corvette.”

Every 911 is baselined to track performance. And every 911 is baselined to its predecessor. Porsche’s heritage runs deep — and though the company makes midengine Caymans and front-engine SUVs, that heritage is synonymous with the rear-engine 911’s distinctive silhouette.

“The 911 evolved out of the 356 that evolved out of the Beetle. So there is that lineage, and at Porsche a lot of the development has to do with tried-and-true basic layouts and dependability,” Weismann says.

But tradition doesn’t mean ignoring progress. Indeed, even as the 911’s iconic architecture has remained familiar, it has been on the cutting edge of development over the years, from water-cooled engines to turbocharging to rear-wheel steering.

The 2017 911 is no different — for the first time employing turbocharging in its base model.

“It’s a revolution to bring it into the 911 — and not just for the (high performance) 911 Turbo,” says Kistner. “The techniques are just an evolution. To change from a naturally-aspirated engine to a turbo we could have done it differently. But we only changed the displacement from 3.4 to 3.0 — that’s almost nothing. Again because we wanted to figure out the best combination. We don’t call it turbo downsizing — its turbo right-sizing.”

Porsche’s challenges don’t just come from competitors such as Ferrari and Corvette — but from governments as well. Kistner and Weismann see coming global warming regulations as the most challenging the industry ever has faced. And not just the US government’s 54.5 mpg-by-2025 mandate.

“In Europe, a significant revision in 2018 (will be) how the fuel economy cycle is conducted,” says Weismann. “That’s making Bruno’s job a lot more challenging. Emissions mandates are not the only reason (for the 911’s turbo engine) – but government’s an important factor.”

Kistner sees the turbo as a bridge to other technologies as rules tighten. Will we see an electric-hybrid 911 someday? Kistner is mum. But whatever the energy source, you know the 911 will be hanging the engine out the back and leading the pack up front.

Henry Payne is The News’ auto critic.


Twitter: @HenryEPayne