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Porsche 911 is bigger, but still a fun drive

Truth is, I didn’t want to like this car.  Yeah, that sounds like car-guy blasphemy, but it’s not because I don’t like Porsche.  It’s because I do like Porsche.  I’m just not thrilled with its current product direction.

A company that was built on lightweight, elemental, responsive sports cars is becoming a Panzer tank purveyor.  Or so it seems.

And now the company’s latest iteration of the flagship 911 model suffers the indignity of still more size.

Hmm.  But what’s this?  The spec sheet says it does weigh a little less.  It sure has that rip-snorting exhaust snarl that has entranced Porschephiles for a half century.  And it grips corners like a catnip-addled feline on shag carpet!

It turns out that making the 911 bigger, while antithetical to the company founder’s philosophy, hasn’t spoiled the 911.  Indeed, this car feels more directly wired to the driver’s senses than any 911 since the company retired its original air-cooled model in the late ‘90s.

One of the best avenues of involvement for driving enthusiasts is to have a manual transmission, as changing gears, matching engine revs to road speed and slipping the clutch put the driver in touch with the car's every action relating to propulsion. But paying customers (as opposed to freeloading journalists) for $125,000 cars have a diminishing appetite for such activities.  Porsche has developed a dual-clutch automated manual that it calls “PDK” which is an acronym of a typically lengthy German word describing the transmission.

“Dual-clutch,” doesn’t mean it has two clutch pedals.  Really, such mechanisms are two transmissions in one housing with separate clutch discs connecting each to the engine.  One clutch disc nests inside the other in a “dual-clutch” arrangement, hence the name.

Each transmission runs simultaneously and the car changes which clutch is engaged to switch to the next gear ratio.  The computer has the unused transmission waiting in the next gear by guessing whether you are likely to need an upshift or a downshift based on things like speed and throttle position.

The tested Carrera S featured the PDK automatic transmission, but switching the car to “Sport” mode puts the transmission in a racy frame of mind, letting the engine rev before upshift and quickly downshifting through the gears under braking.

A “track” mode makes the transmission hold off on shifts even longer, because it is truly only suitable for track use when you are either hard on the gas or hard on the brakes at all times. Trying to drive somewhere in between on the street just leaves the 911 obnoxiously revving for no reason.

On the track, the PDK transmission's automatic programming probably beats the manual transmission car with anyone other than Porsche factory driver Patrick Long at the wheel. But that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t still rather shift it ourselves, even if the stopwatch favors the PDK.

A gaggle of electronic devices that in the past would have choked any potential for fun driving has also been improved to the point where they make drivers both faster and safer, while remaining blessedly invisible.

How about Porsche Torque Vectoring?  That’s a fancy phrase for technology that sends more power to the outside wheel in a corner, helping nudge the car around the bend rather than trying to push it straight onward.

Or Porsche Stability Management, which tweaks the brake at a single wheel to help keep the car on track if it starts to slide?  It can even recognize that, um, “oh, shoot” moment when the driver abruptly lifts off the gas in sudden recognition of a problem.  When this happens, PSM automatically pressurizes the brake circuit and presses the brake pads up against the spinning brake rotors.

It doesn’t actually apply the brakes, but like a Doberman straining at a security guard’s leash, it is ready to unleash the full fury of the braking system at the first signal from the driver.

Perhaps the best part of the car’s “Sport” mode is that it opens a bypass on the muffler, letting those who revel in the sound of properly executed internal combustion relish the 911’s signature flat-six rasp. 

Even with 400 hp from the 3.8-liter flat-six engine and an authentic rip-snorting driving character, the 2012 911 Carrera S scores a surprising 27 mpg on the EPA’s highway driving cycle, and a respectable 20 mpg in the city.

So its extra size hasn’t hurt fuel economy.  But what has the extra size bought?  The newly enlarged back seat still isn’t large enough to hold two adults.  A normal-sized adult can slip into the back long enough to say “I don’t fit.”  In the past,  they would punt halfway through the attempt.

If the back seat is still unsuitable for carrying adults, why bother?  For a luxury coupe, Porsche could trim down its massive Panamera sedan, in the manner of the Mercedes CL-Class coupe, which is based on that company’s S-Class sedan.  That is a luxury sport coupe with a useable back seat.

Then we car nuts could enjoy a smaller 911 which would have the new car’s many desirable attributes distilled into an even more concentrated form.  So I’ll admit it; this new 911 is fantastic, despite my prejudice against its bigger size.  I’d be thrilled to drive one every day.  It is a worthy successor to the legendary line.  But just think what might have been if it were the size of the original car.