Recently I was invited to a track event at Edmonton’s Castrol Raceway, meant to introduce us to the “refreshed” Porsche 911. The 2017 911 got what is considered a mild refresh, but I disagree with this. Heartily disagree, as a matter of fact. This model, internally code-named the 991.2, might look awfully similar to the last one, with a few mild external clues. Some intakes and venting changes are the most obvious if you’re looking for them. Of course, as always, the exterior continues to evolve and will always remain instantly recognizable as one of the automotive kingdom’s most iconic shapes.
But it is what’s under the 991.2’s skin that is rocking the world of enthusiasts and onlookers alike. Remember the previous 911 kerfuffles? The biggest shift was when Porsche decided that the future of the 911 included water-cooled engines and it felt like the world would stop turning for some. My goodness, I remember the pooh-poohing like it was yesterday, with plenty of naysayers claiming the end was nigh for their beloved 911s. Of course, Porsche continues to develop better, faster and more efficient vehicles and when they deem something as necessary, it’s for a good reason. 911s kept 911’ening, and kept being awesome and nobody will sit there today, arguing that the vehicles would have been better if Porsche had stuck with air-cooled boxers until today.
So here we are again, at a major junction, and it is one that has set the world on fire (a little bit) again. Porsche’s 911 line is no longer normally aspirated. Every engine in the regular line-up is now turbo-charged. Twin-turbocharged, no less. And boy, have I heard plenty of fear about how this will impact the entire 911 character, and blah blah blah. I tend to trust Porsche’s judgment on these things and wait to drive the vehicles before I get too bent out of shape about these things.
Thanks to Porsche Centre Edmonton and salesperson extraordinaire Christian Gersdorff, I had the opportunity to do just that.
Let’s get the specs out of the way. The 911 Carrera’s “base” engine is a twin-turbo 3-litre 6-cylinder boxer – it puts out 370 HP and 325 lb.ft of torque (that comes up at only 1700 RPM and remains available through most of the rev range).
The track event cycled through four cars, each very different from the others. They tried to set us up with as many variations as possible, and to expose us to all the possibilities. As with previous generations of 911, there are seemingly endless combinations you can piece together. You can start with a base rear-wheel drive Carrera coupe (which is nothing to sneeze at by the way), and add on from there. You can add all-wheel drive, bump up to the S engine (which takes things up a notch to 420 HP and 368 lb.ft of torque), and then you can choose different tops like the convertible or the Targa. You’ll find 18 combinations before you even add in some of the hornier elements like the 911 GTS, the mighty Turbo (even though they’re all turbo now) and the insane GT3.
The point was to get us into cars that gave us a taste of each of these elements. After a quick introduction to the brand, and a quick safety speech, we buckled up and played follow-the-leader. Not just any leaders, mind you – Porsche employed professional race drivers for this event, one of them being Kees Nierop, who’s been racing for Porsche for over 30 years. His passion for the brand and the sport were palpable.
So, did the new turbo engines ruin the 911 character for good? Of course not. I will say that the 911’s high-revving nature has changed a bit – while it remains happy to send the revs soaring with the blip of the throttle, there’s no longer the need to do so. I always felt the 911’s naturally-aspirated boxers were at their best when revved up and singing loudly, particularly the base engines. There’s no longer the need to do so, thanks to the prodigious torque available at low RPMs. The cars pull hard from standstill, and the torque curve is so flat, that the acceleration rush feels relentless. It’s outstanding. And addictive.
I’ve also felt that previous generations of 911 were significantly different between the base and the “S” engine upgrade. To me, that’s no longer the case. The two engines, while still noticeably different – yes, the S is measurably more powerful – feel closer in terms of performance than before. There isn’t a chasm of performance between the two, and they seem quite similar in character now. It’s up to the driver as to whether the S is worth the admission price, as the base engine provides ample power.
Something else the worry-warts had on their plate was the sound. 911s have always made some of the sweetest music to my ears. Not a frenetic shriek like Italian V8s, and not a rumble like American or German V8s. The boxer engines have always produced a sound that was just right to me. A symphony, which to me, had the perfect mix of noise, mechanical cacophony and Teutonic precision. I wasn’t alone in holding this opinion. Turbocharged engines often lose some of their edginess in terms of sound, as the exhaust gases are routed through other channels instead of straight to the back, and it takes things down a notch. There was a fear that the 911 sound would be lost to the turbos. Have no fear, purists, for your 911s still sound ferocious. Even without the Sport Exhaust option (and its wicked-looking dual centre exhaust tips), the new 911s rev freely and loudly. And they sound absolutely terrific whether you’re revving them at standstill or while they are under full load acceleration. I love the sound, and while slightly different than before, it hasn’t been diminished in volume nor character.
While I will wait to spend a full week with the new 911 to provide a true review, I got enough of a feel for it while being behind the wheel for an hour and a half on the track to come away with a true impression. And it’s better than ever before. That’s all there’s to it. It remains immensely drivable, it’s a ton of fun, it still wants to step out just a bit when you’re on the gas coming out of a corner, and it does nearly everything perfectly. I thought the base Carrera is a fantastic starting point, the base twin-turbo engine and rear-wheel drive providing a pure experience and remaining somewhat accessible in terms of pricing.
A couple of additional notes – I loved the new “manettino” style drive mode dial on the steering wheel, which allows you to choose between normal, Sport, Sport Plus or Individual modes. Speaking of steering wheels, the new one is perfect. One of the cars had the optional rear-wheel steering package, which is very noticeable – more so the harder you push the car. Every car we drove was equipped with the incredible PDK dual-clutch automatic transmission which is, in my humble opinion, perhaps the finest example in the industry. I love driving cars with manual transmissions, but I would spring for the PDK in a 911 without hesitation. It does everything right.
The 2017 Porsche 911 is a new turning-point for the fabled icon, and spells the end of naturally-aspirated engines in the regular line-up. I’m happy to report that the 911 just got better than ever and keeps building on decades of relentless improvement.
Oh, and my personal favourite? I really liked every variation, but my ear-to-ear grin that didn’t want to go away came after driving the 911 Carrera S. It was a Cabriolet, but the convertible top was up for the drive, and frankly I didn’t even notice it was there. The rear-wheel drive combined with the more powerful S engine was an intoxicating blend of addictive push, potential, competence and thrills.
Yes, it’s still a 911. And yes, it’s still the one to beat.
Here’s a video of one lap. Not my driving, but gives you some insight into what we got to do that day.
A great introduction to the 911’s capabilities, even if we never even approached its limits.
Disclosure: Vehicles and fuel were provided by Porsche Canada 911 Grand Tour.
Thank you to Christian Gersdorff and Porsche Centre Edmonton for the invitation to this event.