2012 Porsche 911 (991) First Drive Review – part 1 (with video)

Reporting from the end of the first day of the two-day UAE launch – on road

By Shahzad Sheikh

I’m at the two-day regional press launch of the all-new (yes really, despite how it looks) Porsche 911, being held in Abu Dhabi, UAE.

Just to recap, the new car was debuted at 2011 Frankfurt Motor Show in September but was shown locally at November’s Dubai Motor Show. This week is the first chance for Middle East journalists to drive the new car.

Thing is, despite having been around for six years, the previous iteration (codenamed 997) remained a pretty awesome car right till the end. Even if you drove a regular Carrera last year, you’d wonder why you’d realistically need any other sports car – it’s still that good.

So how do you take something that’s almost spot-on to start with and make it even better? And that’s quite apart from the huge pressure of redesigning the iconic and hugely successful 911. Even in its last year, regional sales saw a 31% increase despite the fact that everyone knew it was a run-out model – unheard of. (Although all the clever special editions probably helped!)

And despite the silhouette being reassuringly familiar and the overall stance still very much ‘911’, this 911 is completely new inside and out. As Michael Mauer, Director Style Porsche, explained in the press conference, they started by putting bigger wheels on it (the S comes with 20-inch rims as standard), lengthened the wheelbase on the car, gave it a wider track whilst keeping the same width, but setting the headlights slightly further apart, extending the roofline (or flyline as he put it) and then giving it a sensational new interior inspired by the Carrera GT supercar, but which most of you might recognise as a pared-down version of the Panamera’s dash and centre console.

In the metal

Phew! All that and you still say it looks the same. Truth be told, even in the metal upon first meeting it, it does look the same. It can’t be anything but a 911, which is kind of comforting really – like that old adage: the more things change, the more they stay the same. It’s when the changes are pointed out to you, or you compare it with a 997, that you see the difference. The proportions are definitely a little better, sleeker, more hunkered down and quite slick. I instantly liked it, but then I knew I would.

And of course all of this is without even considering the monumental changes beneath the skin (90% of all components are new or totally revised) – a 40kg lighter body (though they’ve added 58kg of safety kit and gadgets, but took weight out of the body and engine lump) plus improved engine and drivetrain, it’s loaded with clever transmission, suspension and electronic tech. Of course there’s examples of Porsche’s famed attention to intricate detail like introducing a ‘Sound Symposer’ which channels engine noise into the cabin in ‘Sports’ mode. So you may think you have a sports exhaust, but it’s just that you can hear it better from inside the car – neat!

Driving the new 911

Yeah, yeah, but what it’s like to drive? Obviously we only had the amazing PDK boxes to try, the potentially confounding 7-speed manual (which I’d love to have tried) is absent from this event, simply because only a tiny percentage will order it here – although it is definitely available in the Middle East.

The cars we drove were all Carrera S models – that’s a 3.8-litre flat-six boxer producing 400bhp with a 0-100kph time of 4.3 seconds (although launch control with Sports Plus can get it down to 4.1 – and knowing Porsche, that’s probably conservative!). Porsche Torque Vectoring is standard on the S and this is the car that can now do the Nurburgring in 7 minutes and 40 seconds – the sort of time the previous Turbo or GT3 managed.

Driving on a route made up of straight roads punctuated by roundabouts was probably unbecoming of something as naturally talented as a 911, but it was enough to give us some initial impressions of the car.

Obviously it’s much easier to get comfortable inside, the seating position is much better with a fully adjustable chair and electrically adjustable steering column – for reach and rake. The controls all fall easily to hand, though you sometimes wish the hazard and Sports Plus, Sports and Suspension buttons were placed higher.

Visibility out of the car is pretty good, even with the wing up it’s not an issue. Although following a 991 with the rear spoiler is like catching sight of a girl whose skirt has blown up and getting an eyeful of rather more than you bargained for!

Leaving the suspension in normal model, gives you a remarkably comfortable and fidget-free ride in normal driving, but start to press on a bit through the corners and the body control is not quite as tight as you’d expect. Hit the sports suspension though, and if you don’t mind the slightly more direct feel of the road surface, body control improves. Although having said that, under power out of a corner the typical 911 trait of the pogoing front end is still evident – subdued, but evident. Although that just confirms despite everything, that you are still in a 911 – which is kinda reassuring.

You’re gonna ask about that clever new electro-mechanical steering – which has been a key area of concern for all 911 aficionados since its announcement, unsurprisingly seeing as the 911 is traditionally renowned for its talkative and feelsome steering. Well if you really want to get hyper picky and fussy about things, it could be conceded that there is a very slight numbness to the steering compared to the live, writhing creature that lived in your hands in old 911s. However, there is no compromise in its response, accuracy and overall feel. Plus the weighting is spot on – and gets meatier when you want to get serious.

It’s the handling though that seduces you. Some of the roundabouts were pretty sandy and therefore low grip, but thanks to confidence-inspiring steering you can yank the steering hard and despite the initial sensation of understeer, the electronics sort everything out and you feel the Torque Vectoring doing its magic, as it redirects power from wheel to wheel and you get a distinct sense of being pulled around a corner almost pivoting on your central axis. Though it seems slightly unnatural, it’s not contrived and digitised like in a Nissan GT-R whilst cornering, but feels quite mechanical. Very satisfying.

As for the power delivery, this is an engine that remarkably likes to live on high revs, so despite access to seven gears through manual shifting (I was using the gear lever as I still don’t like the Porsche steering wheels buttons – although paddles are available as options) I frequently dropped down to second to get brutal acceleration out of a corner. The changes are sharp and keen, amazingly fast, and there’s a nice blip on the down change. The performance is supercar fast, the initial acceleration and the momentum you can carry is very impressive for what is not actually laying claim to supercardom, but just wanting to be accepted as a sports car. The best sports car, you understand. But a sports car nonetheless.

How much?

A standard Carrera could be yours for $91,041 with the Carrera S priced at $107,796. The latter also gets 20-inch wheels, adaptive suspension, limited slip differential and Torque Vectoring, which varies power to individual wheels during hard cornering. The first cars are to be delivered from 11th February, but there are already 600 pre-orders, so get in line.

And Porsche won’t have any problem shifting cars. It’s had a great 2011, selling 118,000 cars globally – the first time it’s got over the 100k mark and that’s 22% up on 2010. For the Middle East and North Africa region too, there’s a record-setting pace (16.2% increase) with nearly 8000 cars sold. Most of those were the Cayenne of course (5000 units and 61% of the market), whilst the Panamera (despite how we bemoan the looks) is also selling well being the second biggest seller at 1900 cars.

For Part 2…

So tomorrow we’ll be hitting the track in these beauts at Yas Marina circuit, so come back in the evening for an update and our initial verdict!

Read Part 2 here – includes spec on Carrera and Carrera S and a full gallery of professional pictures from the launch event

Pictures by me

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