Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Porsche 911 Cabriolet Review

First Drive: Porsche 911 Cabriolet

It’s Porsche’s most desirable model on paper. Fast, agile and sexy. But does the open top add or detract from the 911 experience?

It’s obvious: we’re lost. We’re heading west through Seville when we should be going south over an expressway. I stop to take pictures. Seville is enchanting: beautiful haciendas, champagne sunshine, orange trees, olive-skinned senoritas sporting wide smiles. But I barely notice. I’m lost in the beautiful, almond- shaped eyes of another enchantress, one that has a fine set of hips herself. A descendant of a family I’ve admired from afar for generations, this fresh youngster flashes a hint of a smile that’s as inviting as on any 911.

The new 911’s nose is gorgeous. It looks a tad too plain in the pictures, but the more you look at it, the better it gets —your eye stops searching for details and starts taking in the brilliant proportions, curves and shapes that comprise the snout.

It now looks just so right. To my eyes the arching roof of the 911, along with the amphibian nose and the coke-bottle rear, has always been an essential part of the 911 shape. Compared to the stunning coupe, the cabriolet lacks some fluidity. The lines seem to halt and falter, especially the heavy haunches. But it looks just as stunning from the front, classic Porsche DNA distilled down to its essence. After I’ve captured some of the beauty of the car and the surroundings onto celluloid, I jump in and fire the boxer motor. We’ve been given vague directions to a place we can’t pronounce in a language we don’t understand, but the hand signals seem clear enough . . . at least I think so.

We take off in the direction indicated, through light Saturday morning traffic, around cobblestone circles, past medieval cathedrals and the Plaza del Toro, a colosseum-like bullring. The sun has warmed up the air considerably, so we drop the auto canvas top of the 911, while still on the move, crushing through another Plaza. The cabriolet lets you do this even at 50kph, cool. It opens up an almost unlimited field of vision that allows you to take in the sights and sounds, including the deep-throated rumble from the exhausts. It’s tuned louder in the larger-engined S, and I blip the throttle on the downshift, just to make the exhausts bark and reverberate along the old city’s stone walls.

In traffic the 911 doesn’t really stand out. The 3.8-litre flat-six feels strangely relaxed at low engine speeds, the clutch is a tad heavy, it does hold back 355 horses, and the steering feels numb too. Ride quality however feels better than on the coupe, making the cabrio a car for effortless cruising as well. Soon traffic and city blocks are thinning as we follow the roads arcing out of this medieval city.

Time to reflect on how comfortable even out-and-out sports cars are today. The new 911 is not as cramped as you would expect and immaculately finished on the inside. The seats have a fantastic range of travel, are supportive in the right places and it’s real easy to find a comfortable driving position. Air-con, electric seats, a hood that takes 20 seconds to flip, six airbags (including new head bags and a thorax airbag), satellite navigation and even a specially fine-tuned Bose sound system. There’s a modern interpretation of the classic three-spoke wheel, the large legible gauges are pure Porsche and even button quality is good. Rear space is dismal though, even worse than on the coupe, due to the intrusive roof mechanism.

The flat-six, a configuration that has been responsible for the low cg and exceptional traction, seems to grow an extra row of teeth past 3000rpm. Using lightweight construction for low reciprocating mass, this motor also uses a racing car-like dry sump and a team of oil pumps. And like the air-cooled 911 motors of the past, this one utilises its engine oil to cool the motor as well. Variable valve timing, variable intake length and short-stroke racing pistons make sure that muscle is packed in the right place, at the top of the power-band.

I run the flat-six hard to 7000rpm before shifting and the result is a mind-numbing burst of acceleration that takes your vision time to catch up with. Now all lethargy disappears. Under hard acceleration the super-responsive motor reaches its redline every couple or three seconds, 100 k’s come up in 4.9 seconds, 160 is cracked in eleven. You snatch third at approximately 120kph, fourth at 160 and fifth at 205, the tightly packed upper gear ratios dropping the motor slap bang in the middle of the sledgehammer-like powerband above 5700rpm every time you up-shift.

It feels like you’re stretching, ripping the scenery apart, the 911 at the head of an imaginary cone. Max speed with the lid up, due to the amazing aerodynamics, is the same as the coupe — 293 big k’s. Of course I didn’t, I stopped breathing at 275-odd!

Sky merges with green trees, air gushes in, you smell the trees. Slow down, put the top up. Give it the hammer again. The verge blurs, lines streak, hedges flash past. Fences lean back, poles peel off, the road goes liquid. And more. Speed, control, stop or go on demand. Incredible eyeball-popping brakes, and the seatbelts lock well.

Behind my head, four large pipes arranged like a brace of side-by-side shotguns expel exhaust at ferocious velocities with a spine-tingling yowl.

The car comes alive in my hands now, fully warmed-up, stretched and limbered. Turn-in is athletic, steering feel meaty and delicious and the Porsche flicks through even evil switchbacks with incredible poise.

To justify a sticker of Rs 85 lakh, the 911 Carrera S Cabriolet has to be exceptional, a sports car that gives you everything. It has to look stunning, be quick, handle exceptionally, be comfortable to drive when it is open, protect you perfectly from the elements and be built to last.

The Porsche is all of these. It is very driveable, not high-strung like a number of sports cars, and is brimful of creature comforts and safety features. It may not have the same pin-point precision above 200k as the coupe, it may be a tad low for some of our poor roads and for all practical purposes it’s a two-seater. Other than that, it is almost the perfect sports car. Porsche’s very own ode to joy.

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