Porsches sure are pretty, but don’t let that confuse you about what’s happening under the hood. After all, as Dr. Ferdinant Porsche, the founder of the brand, once said: “Porsches are meant to be driven.” And driven hard. We can vouch.
The marque stands by its motto in a way no other carmaker does, continually developing ways to help drivers find the thrills that come from pushing Porsche automobiles to their limits. Our first experience dates back to 2012, when we got behind the wheel during a two-day course at the brand's sport driving school in Leeds, Alabama. Two years later, we took their sport cars to the icy roads of Canada to try out Camp4, Porsche’s winter driving school located an hour outside Montreal. Earlier this season, with the opening of the brand-new Porsche Experience Center in Los Angeles, we unleashed the beast in their newest spot in sunny California.
After Atlanta, it’s the second center of its kind in the United States, and one of five in the world (the sixth will open in Shanghai in 2017). With California representing nearly a quarter of the U.S. market for Porsche and the fifth largest market for the brand worldwide, the state was a logical fit for the place, and Los Angeles (with 10 Porsche dealerships) the ideal spot.
Like its predecessors, L.A.’s PEC showcases what the Porsche brand stands for: a rich racing and performance heritage, superbly engineered sports cars, timeless design, and a passion for driving. With its 77 car fleet, the new center offers drivers a number of hands-on learning modules that include an instructor in the car at all times. The modules simulate everyday driving, not racing, teaching skills like skid control, straight-line acceleration, and emergency maneuvering. Even how to drive a manual transmission. There's also a simulator room that allows up to five drivers to practice on computerized driving simulators ahead of getting out on the track. No other manufacturer offers a similar program—and you need not be a Porsche owner to experience it.
We test-drove it all, including two handling circuits that replicate curves and conditions a driver would face on regular roads, learning the correct line for a curve and proper braking techniques. (Tip: You brake much harder than you thought necessary. Or possible. Go ahead, the cars can take it—your leg muscles may not.) But there are a few fun twists, too: A Kick Plate sends cars into a spin on a wet polished concrete surface while drivers attempt to steer around pylons. The Low Friction Circle has the driver “hang” the rear of the car out while maneuvering around a wet polished-concrete circle. The Low-Friction Circuit, a tight turning road course with the friction of ice topped with motor oil, teaches drivers how to use oversteer—letting the rear lose some traction to move faster through a curve.
There’s also an off-road course that puts you face-to-face with the elements as they exist in nature, including 45 percent grades up and down a dirt mountain, sideways slopes that had me looking up at the sky, and steps, rails, and potholes you might find in any urban jungle. The Porsche Cayenne and Macan SUVs I tested had serious off-road capability, and handled everything with aplomb. (More aplomb than yours truly, whose knuckles went white on the hill descent, especially when I had to stop on the 45 percent downhill grade and then back up!)
Off the tracks, the Porsche store offers all the swag (gear, clothing, and models of Porsche cars) fans didn’t know they needed: There’s even an infant seat designed specifically for the brand. The Speedster Café, named after the original Porsche 356 Speedster, serves sandwiches, desserts, and coffee (their fresh macarons and espresso made for a terrific pick-me-up during my day of driving) and Restaurant 917 makes gourmet meals with locally sourced seasonal ingredients. Sleek leather chairs and aero-looking design lines evoke the restaurant’s namesake, the Le Mans winning Porsche 917 racecar. (Try the New York steak or grilled portobello salad; both were perfectly cooked and satisfied this driver’s post-race hunger pangs.)
The Center also houses Porsche Motorsport North America, Porsche’s factory authorized sales, parts, and service provider for racing clients. PNMA can handle everything from parts delivery to full engine rebuilds, and vintage racing Porsche restoration. The classic race cars on display showcase the brand’s rich competition history, and provide visual evidence of the racing DNA that runs through the blood of every Porsche ever sold.
I became enamored of Porsche cars as a teen in the 1970s, just as Porsche began dominating road racing. Seeing the cars that made history, and then driving their offspring at speed, on circuits, skidpads, and dirt piles was an experience I won’t soon forget (sore leg and all). Dr. Porsche was right: the cars are meant to be driven. The L.A. Porsche Experience Center is a great place to follow his advice.
The Porsche Experience Center Los Angeles is located at 19800 S. Main St., Carson, CA. Prices to participate range from $385 for a 1½-hour session in a Porsche Cayman to $850 for the same session in their top-of-the line GT3; 888-204-7474; porschedriving.com.