Hubert Burda Media

Test Drive: Porsche 911 Carrera 4

Turbocharging has come to Porsche’s classic 911 sportscar – and it hasn’t dented the Carrera’s appeal one iota.

Now comfortably into its sixth decade and with no sign of its demise on the horizon, the Porsche 911 Carrera is arguably the world’s most iconic sportscar and certainly one of the most recognisable. For from its relatively humble beginnings until today, when premium models such as the Turbo and GT3 are unquestionably accepted among the ranks of genuine supercars, it has ploughed its own highly individualistic furrow, persevering with a rear-engine layout that other manufacturers abandoned long ago. That and the distinctive flat-six motor slung out beyond the rear axle are the keys to the car’s reassuringly constant silhouette and appeal, yet flip through the spec sheets of the latest iteration – officially designated 991.2 – of a machine that first saw the light of day some 52 years ago and you may be astounded by just how far ahead of the curve it has progressed.

Given the current almost de rigueur nod towards fuel efficiency, almost all 911s – and not just the range-topping Turbos – now come with forced induction. Engine capacities have mostly been reduced while outputs have headed in the opposite direction, and Turbo models feature Variable Turbine Geometry, the only cars on the road to do so. Porsche’s Adaptive Suspension Management system with electronically controlled damping and a choice of selectable programmes, as well as something called post-collision braking, come as standard on all models, while Porsche Traction Management – which electronically delivers power to each corner of the car – is featured on every all-wheel-drive Carrera 4 and Turbo. The latter also gets rear-axle steering as standard (it’s available as an option on the Carrera 4S). And so the list of high technology goes on.

Unusually, this raft of major upgrades was introduced as part of the 991’s mid-cycle revamp, which was first revealed late last year on rear-wheel-drive Carreras. The global media launch of the Carrera/Targa 4 and Turbo in January 2016 completes the roll-out of the revised range.

For the debut of its all-wheel-drive models, Porsche has commandeered the celebrated – and recently upgraded – Kyalami racing circuit on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Here a fleet of newcomers – Carrera, Carrera S, Turbo and range-topping Turbo S, and in coupe, Cabriolet and Targa versions – is lined up, fully fuelled and ready for us to drive both on the track and on a lengthy road route into the vast open high veldt to the northwest of South Africa’s business capital.

Porsche 911 Carrera

Porsche 911 Carrera

What’s of interest to most 911 enthusiasts, of course, is the move to twin-turbocharging, a technological shift that’s easily as seismic as the adoption of water-cooling in the late 1990s. On Carrera and Targa 4 versions, the capacity of the flat-six engine has been shrunk from 3.4 (or on S models, 3.8) to an across-the-board 3 litres, though as – in the words of a Porsche PR guy I chat to – “we never reduce engine capacity without increasing power”, maximum outputs have been raised to 365bhp on baseline cars and, for S models, 414bhp. Naturally, given the presence of a blower, torque figures have also moved significantly northwards, at 450 and 500 respectively, with maximum twist on both motors conveniently being available between 1,700 and 5,000rpm.

Crucially, Porsche also claims that the new electrohydraulic all-wheel-drive system gets the power onto the tarmac so effectively that Carrera and Targa 4 models accelerate faster than rear-drive cars. Equipped with the seven-speed PDK dual-clutch transmission that most customers will specify, as well as the optional Sport Chrono package, a Carrera 4S coupe will now hit 100km/h from a standstill in just 3.8 seconds, while top speed is now up to 305km/h – and that’s not far short of the kind of performance you could have expected from the 997 Turbo of just a few years ago. As for the latest 991.2 Turbo S, this 3.8-litre bi-turbo monster produces 572bhp and 725 Newtons, which means 0-100 in 2.9 seconds and a maximum speed of 330km/h – in other words, it’s the first road-going 911 variant capable of a genuine 200mph.

Of the four examples I sample on road and track, I cover the greatest distance in a Carrera 4 Cabriolet with PDK transmission, a car that quickly impresses as probably the sweetest 911 I’ve driven (and as I tick them off I realise that’s an awful lot of Porsches). While there’s little to distinguish the new car from the old, save for the revised light clusters front and rear and mildly re-jigged bumpers, the switch to turbocharging has brought a distinct change in personality – and fortunately there’s much to like about the new persona.

Porsche 911 Carrera

Porsche 911 Carrera

No, the new engine doesn’t revel in the kind of neck-wringing demanded by its predecessor and nor does it sound quite as raucously exhilarating, but the smaller, force-fed unit is way more flexible and, with the added throttle response offered when the Sport Chrono switch is set to S+, there’s no evident turbo lag either. I think the trade-off is perfectly acceptable and in any case, naturally aspirated versions of the boxer engine will still be available in the 911 GT3 and its variants, as well as the glorious Cayman GT4, so all is not lost for the traditionalist cause.

To cap it all, compared with the manual-gearbox 4S that I commandeer for a few laps of the wonderful Kyalami circuit (and how marvellous it would be to see this classic track featuring once again on the Formula 1 calendar) and is a little slower off the line, I get no sense that the standard car is wanting in either power or capability. Indeed, with its 0-100 time of 4.3 seconds and a top speed just shy of 290km/h, it’s easily quick enough for me.  

Moreover, the Carrera 4 – and especially in Cabriolet guise – has so much more than simply its power unit to recommend it. Handling is safe, predictable and controllable, yet the evident rear-axle bias can still provoke a smile when you’re going for it (and the reassurance imparted by all-wheel drive means you won’t need to pussyfoot quite so timorously in the wet).

Porsche 911 Carrera

Porsche 911 Carrera

Ride, too, is sufficiently supple for this 911 to be considered a perfectly viable everyday car, and to reinforce its quotidian qualities the Carrera’s cabin just gets better and better, gleaming with polished leather and shiny aluminium, and superbly finished into the bargain. With the introduction of the Porsche Communication Management (PCM) system there’s finally a decent infotainment set up, too, which offers real-time traffic information and smartphone (and especially Apple) synchronicity – and the sat-nav performs so flawlessly that on our jaunt across the wide-open spaces beyond Jo’burg we don’t make a wrong turn once.

In short, the Carrera 4 is both beautifully considered and beautifully made, as well as being fantastically rewarding to drive. Despite the presence of a turbocharger this new neunelfer is not, of course, the genuine Turbo (which, on the evidence of three high-speed circuits of Kyalami in the S version, is even more incandescently brilliant and rapid than ever), but I’d say it can fairly stake a claim to be the most approachable 911 yet.

As to its enduring appeal, I can only say that each time I climb out of the latest 911 I ask myself, “How on Earth can Porsche improve on this?” I find myself repeating the question after today’s drive in the Carrera 4, and – God willing – I’m fairly certain I’ll be saying it again five or even 10 years from now.