Since its birth from the pits of the Can-Am racing series in 1975, the Porsche 911 Turbo has stood for the idea that going fast meant putting yourself at risk. No matter the size of whale tail spoiler, or the skill of the driver, 911 Turbos were machines that could be tamed with practice but never fully domesticated.
To sample Porsche’s latest 2014 variants of its iconic turbo 911s, we ventured to Germany to take laps on the Bilster Berg racetrack, a new venue that models itself on a mini Nürburgring. With crests, yumps, bumps and ridges, any car that handles the course without staining its occupant’s underwear remains highly impressive. Prior to embarking on track, I chose a pair of black Calvins. Just in case.
It’s easy to complain about the lack of evolution when it comes to Porsche designs. The 911, especially, seems to have lost its brutish demeanor in favor of a more sleek approach, but with the 2014 Turbo and Turbo S, wider rear shoulders induces a more evil stance, while a wider front distorts that image. From behind, it looks like a turbo should, but from the front, it remains subdued. Still, that wideness helps keep the car planted through the turns.
And that seems to remain the playbook for the 911 Turbo and Turbo S; sacrifice character in the name of capability. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily.
Power derives from the notorious 3.8-liter flat-six, with the Turbo boasting 520 hp while the Turbo S delivers 560 hp; a 20 and 30 hp gain over the outgoing models. Weighing around 3,500 lbs., 60 mph occurs in 3.2 and 2.9 seconds respectively, in part due to 487 and 516 lb.-ft. of torque and a highly efficient all-wheel drive system. Top speed? 198 mph.
Needless to say, with figures like that, both turbo variants are fast enough to shove you into the seat. The Turbo S has noticeably more punch prior to the turbos kicking in at 3,000 rpm, but after that, the difference remains minimal. But with a mundane exhaust note that sounds like any other 911 – albeit one with a deep rumble from the overrun resembling a distant thunderstorm — both the Turbo and Turbo S appear lightning fast but somewhat nondescript.
And that brings me to the rapid PDK 7-speed automatic gearbox (like the GT3, no manual is available. Commence the rending of enthusiast garments.) With gearshifts occurring quicker than a hummingbird flutters its wings, it remains one of the best dual clutch systems on the market. But pulling the paddle is like changing a gear in Gran Turismo 6. You feel nothing. It simply upshifts with indiscernible ease, just like the videogame. From an engineering perspective, it’s perfect, but from an engagement perspective, losing a millisecond to develop a visceral snap would add some emotion to the experience.
A more raucous exhaust note and snappier shifts might elevate this car beyond compare. But without it, you battle a colorless flavor. This is a 911 Turbo and Turbo S. While menacing lift-throttle oversteer like the 911s of old certainly needed taming, the turbo variants should still hold an intimidating presence. But you could be in any modern-day 911. It’s smooth and refrains from clatter, even when the roads get rough. It’s practical, with rear seats to hold items that won’t fit in the decent sized front trunk. It’s a car you can use everyday, and you should.
But it doesn’t feel special.
Hitting the track evokes different sensations. Attributes like adaptive aerodynamics — where the rear spoiler raises into a rear wing and a pneumatic front spoiler lowers to increase front downforce — become discernible. Mesh that with a roll control system that keeps the car’s platform flat, and rear wheels that physically turn a few degrees to aid low speed rotation and high speed stability, and you realize that this car is loaded with technology that makes high-end racecars appear cheap.
And when you hurl the machine into the treacherous bends of Bilster Berg well above 100 mph, everything begins to make sense. The car doesn’t wallow; it maintains its rigidity throughout the turn. Braking, especially with the carbon-ceramic options, is effortless; the car won’t behave like a squirming eel, meaning you can stomp on the pedal harder than Lance Armstrong after a blood transfusion. If you want to maintain some braking into the turn (a technique called trail-braking) you can with no concern of the car over-rotating. It’s perfectly balanced and induces confidence to make even lackluster drivers appear highly-skilled. Power down, too, remains all but impossible to break traction.
Much has been made about Porsche moving from hydraulic to electric power steering. While some harp on about the lack of feel with the electrical option, and Jaguar avoided it on the F-Type, Porsche has done a good job minimizing its deficiencies. It really is a non-issue, which is good, because there's no going back.
Over the vicious blind crests, I tried a number of times to push the envelope: How far would the 911 let me go before firing me like a missile into the perilous steel barriers? At times, I felt sure the back would break loose, forcing me to wrestle it back into line like a wishful bull fighter. But it didn’t. It just slid in a controlled, well behaved manner. It didn’t fight back. It never made a fuss.
Old 911s were sadistic, merciless and occasionally homicidal. The slightest lift off the throttle would have the heavy rear-engined machine facing backwards quicker than you could curse someone's mother. They were savage cars that scared you. They demanded respect.
The 2014 Porsche 911 Turbo was domesticated. And it was oh so very fast.
Where it once threatened to punish any mistake, the new 911 Turbo incentivizes drivers to push harder. They’re easy to drive fast, and loaded with technology that makes any random driver's top speed faster. As a civilized sports car for the track, few boast similar credentials, and at $148,300 for the Turbo and $181,100 for the Turbo S, their competence make both seem like a relative steal, especially when compared to the more expensive McLaren 12C and Ferrari 458.
But would you buy a 911 Turbo S over the similarly priced and more rousing Audi R8 V10 Plus? The Porsche, by all accounts, is the better handling car, but the Audi looks more unique, and sports a soundtrack that reverberates like the Hallé orchestra after a case of Johnny Walker Black. It’s a Volkswagen Group conundrum with no right or wrong answer. Of course, you could add the cheaper Nissan GT-R to the mix too. And McLaren’s upcoming P13 will surely only add to the dilemma.
The 911 Turbo and Turbo S perplex. On one hand, you can’t help but marvel at the technological achievements, but on the other, you yearn for a more emotional character. For me, as a racer that’s spent my entire life flying around racetracks, its proficiency left a distinct impression I won’t forget. It’s without question one of the most competent road cars I’ve ever driven on track. I needn’t have worn my black undies after all.