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Driving the Porsche 997 Carrera S

Oh that engine...

by Julian Edgar, Photos by QSM

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Talk to the mythical average person about a current model Porsche and they’re likely to say things like hard ride, heavy controls, and an engine that’s a bit temperamental in traffic. After all, that’s what lots of people have long associated with performance cars and well, the higher the performance, surely the greater all these must be in evidence?

But those perceptions are a long way from the truth. We recently stepped out of a 2005 model 997 Carrera S (still available new) and what impressed us most was not the performance or the handling, but instead the way it combined these with an incredibly tractable and sweet engine, and a ride so good you could take your grandma down to the shop without a single complaint.

Let’s start with that engine. We think it’s the best naturally aspirated engine we’ve ever driven.

But that’s not the immediate impression.

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Step into the car and turn the key and resulting vibration at idle is downright unpleasant. Paul of the QSM Auto Group, owner of the car and very familiar with all Porsches of the last 20 years, suggested that in fact the idle quality was better than previous models. And that is probably the case – but it doesn’t excuse the high frequency vibration that’s a constant at idle. And no, we’re not talking about the engine being just a nice accompanying growl that let’s you know you’re in a sports car; we’re talking 3-cylinder Daihatsu vibration that’s simply ugly.

The clutch is also a bit of a disappointment. It has an ‘over-centre’ feel which, by definition, gives a non-linear weight through the travel. It’s moderately heavy; not heavy as in the muscle cars of yore but heavy in the context of other current cars. But, in contrast both to the clutch weight and also the gearshifts of all other Porsches we’ve driven, the 6-speed gearbox lever is a delight. With a factory short throw (most Porsches with short throw gears have aftermarket modification) and a light weight, the gearshift would be completely at home in a modern Japanese sports car. Reverse is over to the left and forwards; there’s no lock-out.

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With the engine warmed and the clutch out in first gear, the brilliance of the engine starts to show. For this is a car that you can idle along, foot completely off the throttle. The Porsche creeps along without the slightest hint of a stutter or a surge. And yes, you can do that in plenty of modern cars but not one other that we know of that has 261kW available from a naturally aspirated 3.8 litres! Still trickling along in first gear, apply just the slightest throttle and the Porsche moves faster; take your foot back off again and the car slows back to its idle progression. As later proves to be the case across the whole rev range, this is one engine where the power can be absolutely accurately dealt out by the driver; there’s never the slightest hint of stutters or non-linearities to upset driving flow.

Up to about 4000 rpm the response is strong but not mind-blowing. But from 4000 to 7000 rpm the Porsche just gets up and flies. But the transition in power delivery isn’t ever startling; the simply superb mapping of the engine management, electronic throttle and camshaft timing make this a car that - believe it or not – a learner driver could safely pedal. The contrast with all-or-nothing turbo cars (including Porsche’s own non-sequential twin turbos) is extreme.

In fact, even as I write this, I find it hard to describe how good the engine is. It’s not the power, although that is tremendous. It’s not the engine note; I guess Porsche aficionados might get off on it but it doesn’t do much for me in this car. It’s not even the throttle response; I’ve been in naturally aspirated cars with even greater instant eagerness.

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It’s just the sheer capability of the engine to deliver what the driver wants without requiring thought or effort. Nought to 100 km/h in 4.8 seconds yet with the ability to roll along in sixth gear, two people in the car and climbing an incline, 1200 rpm showing on the tacho and the car completely happy...

As has been shown in plenty of road-based competition events, I think cars like the Evo Lancers and WRX Subarus wouldn’t be at all far behind the Porsche in terms of handling and brakes. And in fact may even be ahead. But their engines are simply light-years behind the Porsche, feeling in comparison like shoddy aftermarket quickie jobs by Joe’s Garage. If anything at all justifies the enormous amount of money that the Porsche commands, it’s that engine.

But a glorious engine is only one part of a car. This is a sports car: what’s the handling like?

Lift the rear cover and there’s the water-cooled flat six, still stuck out behind the rear axle like an anachronistic sore thumb. But the tail-happy characteristics naturally embodied in this placement have long been quelled by suspension and tyre selection, and in the more recent cars, by electronic stability control.

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I won’t use that old cliché - handles like it’s on rails – because that’s true of no car. In slow speed corners taken fast, the Porsche progressively powers into understeer; get on the power too early and too hard and it progressively moves into oversteer. The stability control intervened only once or twice in the drive (as owner Paul says: why’d you ever switch it off?), with the car telegraphing very well what was required to stop the slides before the electronics came into action. There’s plenty of grip (in high speed corners, too much for a driver of my capability to move the car around, I think), and the car always feels poised and agile.

The two-position sports damper control (which when activated, also changes throttle mapping) does very much what you’d expect. I preferred the handling on the softer setting for much the same reason that I prefer a car with slightly less than maximum anti-roll bars – the attitude of the car better communicates what’s going on and the tyres more progressively lose grip. Ride firmness noticeably increases with the control activated but it’s still quite acceptable. The damper control switch is on the left-hand lower side of the centre dash – it would be better in right-hand drive cars if it was moved across to the other side of the panel as, on a challenging road, we could see the driver wanting to access it a lot.

The brakes look awe-inspiring – huge red calipers biting on huge discs inside the huge wheels.

But we didn’t like them.

We’ve no doubt the system is capable of hauling the car down from 300 km/h plus speeds, and on a hard brake from 160 km/h to 100 km/h they had plenty of stopping power. As of course you’d expect. But the pedal is wooden and has a complete lack of feel. A humble Falcon or Commodore has far better pedal progression (but then again that’s technically easier to achieve if high speeds are never met!) and in city traffic the Porsche pedal was like stepping on, um, the brake pedal of a car with seizing drum cylinders. Perhaps in normal use softer pads would help?

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Interior equipment of the test car – the only option fitted was reversing sensors – was pretty good. (Most Porsches come relatively stripped and then you spend perhaps 25 per cent more on options.) The car has a Bose sound system, intuitively excellent navigation, and superb instrumentation that combines digital and analog displays. The ergonomics are now well sorted.

The front boot is large and we’re always surprised by the folding rear seats that continue to be present in 911s. The rear seats clearly aren’t the sort that would suit adults but for small children, or simply as an extra load space, the in-cabin volume is a big plus.

Watch a Porsche 911 drive by and it’s easy to wonder at their ongoing success. Engine in the wrong place, hugely expensive, idiosyncratic styling, a niche car in a very small niche. But experience the car and your opinion changes: practical, comfortable, blisteringly fast, easy to drive, excellent handling, absolutely capable of doing the daily humdrum or exhilarating with a blast through the twisty bits.

And did we mention that simply wondrous engine......?

Thanks to QSM Auto Group for making this car available. Go to www.qsm.com.au for your Australian exotic car needs.

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