First Drive: 2005 Porsche 911 Story and photos by Laurance Yap If only I could be half as vital as the Porsche 911 is when I hit middle age. The seminal teardrop-shaped sports car, which celebrated its 40th anniversary last year, remains one of the coolest cars you can buy, and one of the most unique driving experiences. Though it may be, in its latest "997" iteration, even more civilized and easy to drive than ever, there's still nothing like a 911 - as a design, as a tool for cutting through any road, or as an overall ownership experience. Even as a confirmed 911 fanatic, I've often wondered what's kept it going so long when, for instance, Ferrari and Lamborghini both cycled through numerous models, shapes, and concepts in the same amount of time, when the rest of the automotive world all but abandoned engines slung out behind the rear axle. It's easy enough to call the 911 a pigheaded approach taken to refining a flawed concept by a company that, during much of the 911's life, was in dire financial straits. But the car is so special that even now, with the superb, and sweet-riding Boxster on the price sheet, 911s still constitute the majority of Porsche's sports-car sales. Surely the car's iconic shape has something to do with it. Though today's car shares no body panels with the original car, and is a whole lot bigger, that teardrop shape is still instantly recognizable. Old guys and kids alike know exactly what they're seeing when one drives by, and they invariably point or nod in recognition. The 911's profile - one of the few automotive shapes that has actually been copyrighted, and the only car whose shape you can draw in one smooth pen stroke - is the purest of sports-car shapes, a stretchy, organic skin tightly drawn over the car's functional elements: lights, wheels, seats, and rear-mounted flat-six engine. The 911 poster that currently graces my walls is of a yellow mid-nineties "993" model, the last of the air-cooled cars, and widely considered the best-looking version ever made. Porsche's probably taken a positive step in trying to replicate the 993 in the new 2005 car's styling, and it's been mostly successful; the coke-bottle sides and more vertical round headlights give it a more aggressive look than its predecessor, which looked like it was sort of a melted version of what a 911 should look like. But there are a couple of discordant bits, primarily the gap between the rear wheel and its muscular fender and the clumsy front air intake arrangement which makes the car look longer and pointier than it actually is (which is, in fact, shorter than the current 996 model, a positive step). On the other hand, the Carrera S' rear end now features nicely slimmed taillights and four trumpeting exhaust pipes. Whether Porsche should have looked backwards when doing the 997 interior is questionable, though there's no doubt about the cabin's vastly improved quality of materials and construction. The 993's roll-top dash was never the best, with haphazard ergonomics and functionally spartan aesthetics, while the 996's dash is a bit flimsy in some places but quite easy to use. The new car combines both into a layout that looks kind of like an old-fashioned 911 (complete with air vents at strange angles) but has all the latest features like satellite navigation, automatic climate control, and a telephone in a layout that's pretty easy to use given the amount of space. As a watch fanatic, I love the optional Sport Chrono package which places a analog stopwatch for lap times front-and-centre on the dash top (this feature also comes with a sport button that sharpens the throttle response and elevates the stabiility control threshold), and the gauges in front of the driver have been rethought as well, with the digital speedometer now in its proper place at the bottom of the rev counter. The new seats are an improvement on the current ones, and every piece, from the steering wheel to the cast-aluminum door handles, has a hewn-from-solid quality that's absent in the 996. One of the things that initially disturbed me was the new interior's tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, which I irrationally feared would corrupt the 911's perfect steering accuracy and feel. I needn't have worried; the company's engineers seem to have found the necessary structural rigidity needed to maintain the steering's solidity while allowing for it to tilt as well. At least on the base Carrera. Move up to the Carrera S and you now get variable-ratio steering, which is really quick at low speeds and gets progressively slower for more stability at higher velocities. I didn't like a similar system fitted to a BMW 5-series I drove earlier this year, and this active steering strikes me as engineering for engineering's sake. Nobody's ever complained (at least, not that I know of) of having to occasionally go hand-over-hand in a tight hairpin, and the steering's variable-ness robs it of some of that precision and feel that are so important to the 911's identity. Thankfully, the rest of the package, from the superbly flexible and characterful flat-six engines to the slick six-speed shifters and simply amazing cornering grip and traction under full power, remain. That rear engine should have been the 911's downfall, and for some early owners, it certainly was, but in years past, Porsche has managed to turn the car's biggest bugbear into its primary attraction as well. For there is simply nothing that drives like a 911; getting into one after a spell away, it's almost like you've got to learn to drive again. The steering moves around so much, you think at first that it's broken. The nose bobs and weaves on rough roads. The ride at lower speeds can be punishing (it's less so on the new Carrera S' active suspension). On fast corners, there's a diagonal sort of wind-up action when you apply the power. If all of this sounds awful, rest assured that it isn't - even in modern, and some purists would say, sanitized form, a 911 feels alive like no other car, constantly writhing and moving underneath you, the wheel twitching in your fingers, the seat transmitting every nuance of the road surface. Every drive, you learn something new - how you can push just a bit further, how you can brake that much harder, how much more you have left to accomplish in subsequent drives. It never gets tiring, because there's always something novel. Yet these remain remarkably easy cars to drive. Unlike most fast stuff, you sit upright - 10 mm lower than the 996 - surrounded by glass. Combine great visibility with small size and the result is a car that's easy to place with millimetric precision. You can play left-lane bandit at insane speeds with as much confidence as you tackle the daily commute, such is the car's solidity, stability, and feeling of mechanical integrity. The clutch, shifter, and throttle make the optional automatic unnecessary, their motions are so smooth and coordinated. Want a couple of extra horsepower to pull smoothly away from a stoplight? Just twitch one toe gently. Want to ram home the 1-2 upshift as fast as possible but still with perfect smoothness? Done. And the brakes are simply stupendous, especially the $11,000 ceramic-composite units now optional both the Carrera and Carrera S. The new 911 is as much of a delight to drive as the old ones, only more so; it's faster and easier, sure, but also more fun. But much as I adore it, much as I want to put one in my driveway as soon as I can possibly afford to, I'm at the point now where I'm hoping that Porsche has more up its sleeve than simply more and better 911 variations. Porsche builds superb sports cars, to be sure, and the Cayenne is as capable an SUV as you'll ever encounter, but one of the reasons the company has such a strong image now is how vanguard, how innovative it has been in the past. In terms of design and engineering, the 911 is a great car, but it doesn't rock the world like some of the company's other cars - including the original 911 - did. These days, Porsche is the most profitable car manufacturer in the world, but it's also a company that's more conservative than it used to be, which isn't out on the cutting edge of road or racing-car technology the way it once was. Hopefully, some of the pioneering technology that features in the mega-buck Le Mans-racer-derived Carrera GT will start to find its way down into the more reasonable reaches of Porsche's price spectrum, and will help to restore some of the brand's still-substantial lustre. As a fan of the company and its cars, I can only hope that's what will happen. ------ !!!!!!!!