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Car review: Porsche 911 takes an evolutionary leap

Sports CarsCar Engine RepairPassenger CarsLuxury VehiclesPorscheCharles Darwin

One hundred years from now, when auto historians go all Charles Darwin dissecting the evolution of Porsche's 911 sports car, they may notice a bit of a dogleg in the year 2012.

The car's progress since its inception in 1963 has been carefully modulated. Along the way, its blend of aptitude and approachability has earned it the unique distinction of having as much respect at the racetrack as it has with both patrons and proprietors of our nation's plastic surgery clinics.

Yet the 2012 model is the most liberal interpretation of the 911's ethos yet.

Available now as the basic Carrera and the more powerful Carrera S that I tested, it grows significantly in size and it puts a previously unappreciated importance on efficiency. What's more, its overall demeanor can lean precariously toward a grand touring car if the driver so desires.

A bigger, greener and more relaxed 911 may be considered heretical by fans of previous generations and will forever alter its course. So too could its pricing. Although the Carrera S starts at $97,350, the loaded model I tested takes a mighty jump to $126,750.

But lurking beneath the surface of a demure everyday sports car is an evil-seeking reprobate bent on annihilating asphalt. Nearly as interesting as what it's like to drive is how it has evolved to drive like that in the first place.

The changes this year start with the 911's growing. Its wheelbase is nearly four inches longer for more high-speed stability, the front track is wider for more front-end grip, and the rear axle has been moved aft relative to the engine to spread out a chunk of the car's rear mass.

In addition to rote dimension changes that enhance the 911 experience, Porsche reached into a bag of tricks deep enough to make a JPL engineer smile.

The most notable is an optional active hydraulic suspension system that monitors your driving with surprising prescience.

Chuck the car into a right-hand turn, and it essentially stiffens the suspension on the left side of the car. This drastically reduces the degree to which the car leans to the left (body roll). Thus, drivers can tear through a corner faster because the inside tires are losing less grip.

The flexible nature of the 911 doesn't stop there, thanks to an assembly of buttons on the center console.

A Sport driving mode dials up the car's throttle response, revises the transmission shift points for more spirited driving and throws out delicious throttle blips during downshifts. Drivers can also choose one of two suspension stiffness settings.

On cars so equipped, drivers also have the $2,950 option of turning on more exhaust sound. Nothing makes a grown man giggle with glee quicker than a "more noise" button; I'd even put one on my microwave if it sounded like this Porsche on the open road.

Finally, a Sport Plus drive mode comes with the $2,370 Sport Chrono package, and it's what truly transforms this 911 from point-and-shoot to grip-and-grin. Porsche says it's with the Sport Chrono package that the Carrera S tested is able to go from zero to 60 mph in 3.9 seconds.

Helping this 911 nail such a quick zero-to-hero time and also contributing to its agility is the fact that the car is lighter. Porsche saved 88 pounds on the 2012 Carrera S, despite its larger size and additional content. Much of this comes from extensive use of aluminum.

But this lighter weight also hints at how seriously Porsche took the car's efficiency, thanks in part to ever-tightening fuel economy regulations in the U.S. and Europe.

A start/stop function kills the engine when the vehicle comes to a rest, and a coasting function decouples the engine from the transmission when cruising on the freeway, in effect letting the car run in neutral. The most drastic green-minded change was that Porsche did away with its much-lauded but less efficient hydraulic power steering and replaced it with an electric unit.

Thus, the 911 Carrera S is rated at 20 miles per gallon in the city and 27 on the highway. During a week of testing, I averaged 20.9 mpg.

The model I tested came with Porsche's sublime seven-speed, dual-clutch automated transmission. To some, the thought of driving a Porsche without a manual transmission seems like visiting the Grand Canyon blindfolded. But the sharpness of the shifts on this $4,080 gearbox and the immaculate timing of them, even during very aggressive driving, are hard to pass up.

If you'd still rather conduct your own orchestra, Porsche does offer the world's first seven-speed manual transmission.

Connected to that transmission in the Carrera S is a 3.8-liter, direct-injected, six-cylinder engine making 400 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque.

The engine itself seems smoother and a touch more refined than in the previous 911. Around town and with all the car's settings in their normal positions, the car is surprisingly restrained. The engine and exhaust are quiet, the throttle takes some real goosing to accelerate quickly, and the transmission's shifts are nigh imperceptible. If this were your first time driving a Porsche, you'd be wondering where the sports car was.

Fear not, it's there.

Switch the car into Sport Plus mode, turn on the louder exhaust and sport suspension, and keep all legs and arms inside the cabin. The car moves toward the horizon like someone stepped on its tail, throwing out a throaty, mid-range wail all the while. Throttle response is immediate, and shifts come only when the engine is screaming near its 7,800 rpm redline.

When the road goes curvy, that fancy suspension system deftly keeps the car flat and composed, while the stability control gives you the benefit of the doubt before subtly intervening.

This Porsche feels more stable and predictable than an older 911, with grip easier to find. Some will see this as a loss, as indeed this 911's polish comes at the expense of older versions' more raw and kinetic predilections. I'm fine with the trade-off; seek out Porsche's Cayman R if you want a truly raw experience.

What is certainly lost is the granular feel of the old hydraulic steering system. To be clear, the setup on this new 911 is excellent, but it's excellent with an asterisk.

Completely free of caveats is the rest of the driving experience inside the 911, as the car's interior takes an august step into the 21st century of refinement.

Not so much constructed as it is chiseled out of a block of granite and then wrapped in leather and adorned in aluminum, it joins Porsche's Panamera sedan and Cayenne sport-utility vehicle as members of the industry's 1% interior club.

Step outside the car and the casual observer might have a tough time differentiating new 911 from old, at least from the front. The traditionally oval-shaped headlights return, as they will indefinitely. Porsche deviated from this recipe just over a decade ago and might as well have turned the 911 into a minivan, such was the uproar.

But park a new 911 next to an older model, and you'll see how the new one is larger and appears to be covered in a gossamer scarf that smooths and stretches its lines and curves. The tail of this 911 is noticeably refined and alluring with thin, graceful LED taillamps.

Seductively designed, efficiently engineered and eminently pliable. Dogleg or not, this is how you evolve.

david.undercoffler@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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Sports CarsCar Engine RepairPassenger CarsLuxury VehiclesPorscheCharles Darwin
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