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"Swapping ends" is the term professional race-car driver Andy Pilgrim used when I spun a 1998 Porsche 911 Carrera 180 degrees at Portland International Raceway. (I took an S-curve too low and too fast—at roughly 75 mph.) It's a rite of passage in this car, which is legendary for getting drivers with more nerve than skill in over their heads. In fact, the whiff of danger that the 911 exudes is a goodly part of its mystique. That's why, unlike many other powerful sports cars sold in this country, Porsche's flagship has always lacked governed top speed. "Our customers would never stand for that," sniffed a Porsche executive when I asked him about it. Thus this car's siren song: Drive me as fast as you dare. If you swap ends in the process, well, that's the essence of owning a 911.
What, then, to make of the brand-new 1999 Porsche 911 Carrera I drove next? The difference was extraordinary. Even my minimal racetrack skills could not shake it from the line I set, imperfect as that was. The tires barely protested when I cornered sharply, the car righted itself from over- or understeer with a shrug, and I was soon back hitting more than 100 mph on the straightaway without damp palms, dilated pupils, or the urge for a quiet beer. What manner of 911 was this? Porsche as pussycat?
Nein. This 911, the first entirely new version in 34 years, is worthy of being the marque's new standard bearer. It goes from zero to 60 mph in 5.2 seconds, has a top speed estimated at 174 mph, and an engine that cranks out 296 horsepower, which is 14 more than the 1998 model. But these figures are only abstractions until you hit 161 mph on a lonely country road. Behind the wheel was Pilgrim, who demonstrated that ungoverned top speed means exactly that. He ran out of road before the engine ran out of power.
This is the first time that the 911 has been redesigned and reengineered from the ground up since it was introduced in 1964. The results are startling in some ways, comforting in others. Purists will be happy to note that cupholders are still not an option, and they may rest easy knowing that swapping ends is, but less of one. For the new 911 is far more controllable than any of its predecessors
Let's begin where Porsche enthusiasts always do, with the powerplant. A revolutionary new water-cooled engine has replaced the traditional air-cooled one. It is smaller, lighter, and quieter, yet it generates more torque and power (296 hp versus 282 hp), exhales fewer pollutants, and provides better mileage (manual-transmission fuel economy is 17 mpg city, 25 mpg highway). Still there's that high-pitched wail the old engine emitted when pushed, but it isn't as shrill because the big magnesium cooling fan is gone. The engine is coupled to the sweetest six-speed manual transmission on the planet, or for the laid-back, the equally remarkable five-speed Tiptronic S, which has two modes: automatic, and gear-shifting via buttons on the steering wheel.
The new 911 also has a much stiffer chassis (Porsche says 45 to 50 percent stiffer) for improved tortional and bending resistance—in layman's terms, better, safer handling. The company has addressed the safety issue in a multitude of other ways—from the standard four-airbag system (two front, two side), automatic pop-up rollbars mounted behind rear seats in the convertible, and the first automatic-traction control system ever offered by Porsche (a $1,215 option). The company's four-wheel, antilock disc brakes are still the best in the world.
The new 911's profile, the beloved "upside down bathtub" shape, hardly seems changed at all, yet subtle refinements, such as the lack of rain channels above the windows and flush seams, have yielded the most aerodynamic automobile Porsche has ever made. The coefficient of drag has been reduced to 0.30 (see chart), and that ups fuel efficiency and top speed while reducing wind noise. But place this Carrera next to the previous model, and the cleaner design is evident—gentler curves, less bulge in the fenders, more rake to the windshield.
Less apparent is the fact that the 911 is 6.8 inches longer overall than the '98, and has a wheel base 3.2 inches longer and 1.2 inches wider, which also improves stability and handling. The enlargement translates into more room in the passenger compartment—2 inches of legroom, 1.33 inches overhead. There's even a bit more storage space in the front trunk and behind the seats, plus a cubicle between the rear seats that the last Carrera didn't have at all.
Porsche has designed the cabriolet 911 separately from the coupe. The former body has been reinforced to compensate for the lack of roof support, but without adding the extra braces previous 911s have had. And the separate design has eliminated the signature top-down bulge. The soft top now stows neatly under a smoothly operating lid. The only flaw I could spot was that the aluminum hard top, which comes with the convertible, fitted imperfectly at the back edge.
Diehards will no doubt insist that the spartan interior, get-out-of-my-way sneer, and twitchier handling of the old 911 is far more "Porsche" than the softer, rounder, better behaved, more logical '99. I've driven lots of 911s, and I find this version as thrilling as previous models but more practical as an everyday sports car.
As always, the 911 Carrera is a limited-production model. Porsche expects to sell 7,000 here this year (1998), 55 percent of them cabriolets. The base price is $65,030 for a manual transmission coupe ($68,450 with automatic Tiptronic S transmission), $74,460 for the cabriolet ($77,880 with Tiptronic). That's before taxes. For one thing hasn't changed: The 911's brand of thrills doesn't come cheap.
For further information on the new Porsche 911: 800-545-8039; www.porsche.com.
Porsche enthusiasts almost never refer to a 911 by that designation. Rather they use Porsche's internal terminology for each major model change. For those of you keeping score, the new 911 is called Type 996.