First Drive: Porsche 911 R - the best German on the road today
If you love driving (and you can find one), this is the 911 to own, cherish and hold on to forever
Behind the wheel of the new Porsche 911 R
Porsche 911 R: “There’s nothing quite like this car on the road today, and we don’t just mean the delete-option of either green or red GT stripes.”
Ripping all that GT3 RS wingery off it robs the 911 R of the track-pack 911’s glued-down feel, especially at high speed.
Date Reviewed: June 16, 2016
In an era when 911 Carreras are as soft as a 1960s Citroën and the GT3 RS prioritises lappery above all else, Porsche had left itself an open hole for emotion and a purity of spirit.
And into that hole march 991 examples of the 911 R. It’s the Porsche that lives up to the hype, and them some. If you love driving (and you can find one), this is the 911 to own, cherish and hold on to forever.
Hard-core on-track competition has made Porsche Motorsport force speed at all costs into the GT3 and the GT3 RS. Faster shifting, more downforce, quicker steering, pinned-down suspension... The list goes on.
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But that doesn’t work for everybody, because it’s not necessarily fun for everybody. For starters, not every rusted-on Porsche lover is a track-day tragic, much less a racer. And not everybody wants the looks that automatically swing your way when your car has a rear wing you could deliver pizzas on. And not everybody lives on a billiard table.
And, critically, not everybody wants a computer to do their gear-shifting for them. Especially not everybody at Porsche Motorsport.
See, Porsche Motorsport isn’t just the maker of Porsche’s fastest cars, it’s also effectively the custodian and guardian of Porsche’s soul. In an era where Porsche’s cashflow comes from SUVs, Porsche Motorsport’s integrity keeps the whole badge credible.
And when it told the board that it needed to build the rear-drive 911 R expressly to mix speed with the maximum driving emotion, the board drove the only prototype and, fortunately, agreed.
Consider it as something like this: it’s the lightest Porsche road money can buy, it runs the GT3 RS’s thumping 368kW engine, it whips to 100km/h in 3.8 seconds and it has its very own, bespoke six-speed manual gearbox. But it’s softer, nicer and more engaging, more of the time.
You pay in inverse proportion to the weight, too, with the car listing at £137,000 in the UK, before the cost of importing to Ireland and steep on-road costs. That’s £5,000 more than the (sold out) GT3 RS it’s based on, and £10,000 upstream of the 911 Turbo.
Porsche has gone out of its way to put cars on the road, and not in the hands of collectors. However, there is already one confirmed instance of a buyer being offered a fully specced Macan Turbo to simply hand over his ticket in the 911 R line. And he said “no”.
And it’s worth it. All of it.
It is simply one of the best cars Porsche has ever built, and comfortably (literally, comfortably) the best car Porsche sells today.
It starts not with the engine, but with the bodyshell. Porsche Motorsport’s top 10 goals for the 911 R ran to emotion, feel and what it calls “viscerality”, repeated over and over, and the fastest way to do that was to rip the weight out.
So it gets a body which is mostly transferred from the 911 GT3, complete with a magnesium roof, polycarbonate side and rear glass, carbon-fibre for the bonnet and front guards and lots of aluminium. At 1,370kg, it ends up 50kg lighter than the GT3 RS.
To get down to that figure, the air conditioning had to go, so did the multimedia screen, the audio system and satnav, plus the rear seats and even the door handles, which were replaced by a pair of straps. And every time they pulled something out or changed something, they got smiles on their faces thinking of the extra fun each removal added in.
Then there’s the dry-sump, flat-six engine, all 3,996cc of muscle and not a turbocharger in sight. It’s hugely oversquare, at 102mm for the bore and just 81.5mm for the stroke, and it spins out 368kW of power at a soaring 8250rpm, though it will keep revving to 8800 as it breathes out of its titanium exhaust.
There’s torque, too, with 460Nm of the stuff at an also-soaring 6250rpm, and it even has the sharper response of a single-mass flywheel as an option, all while sitting on dynamic engine mounts that keep inertial movement of the rear-mounted engine from upsetting the car’s cornering stance.
The gearbox is a short-throw unit that’s so focused on sheer speed that even fifth gear is under-driven and sixth is only down to 0.88 to one, which accounts for the unusually shoddy 13.3 litres/100km and 308 grams of CO2/km. Six speeds are fine for fun, Porsche Motorsport insists, and besides, dumping the overdriven seventh gear saves it a kilogram.
Porsche then mates this custom-made gearbox to a mechanically locking differential and torque vectoring, plus rear-wheel steering.
There’s nothing quite like this car on the road today, and we don’t just mean the delete-option of either green or red GT stripes.
It’s like Porsche had taken all of its latest technology and tuned it backwards.
Oh, it’s plenty fast. The motor and the weight alone take care of getting it to 200km/h in 11.6 seconds and on to 323km/h, making it a genuine 200mph car.
That’s not really the point. The point is how it feels doing it. It’s how it feels doing anything.
It starts with the look, which is far more standard in appearance than the GT3 RS, until you start to look closely. You’ll notice there is a sticker on the nose, rather than a badge (yep, weight again) and that there’s a huge diffuser under the tail to take over where the slightly stretched 911 Carrera spoiler leaves off.
Inside, there is a bespoke leather-bound steering wheel with no buttons whatsoever, a pair of carbon-fibre seat shells with leather sprayed on and nothing else that isn’t either legally necessary of good for building giggles and speed.
It uses the stock key to fire up so gruffly that the car can occasionally rock on its rear suspension at idle and it sounds so deep that it makes the Marianas Trench seem like an irrigation ditch.
It’s not just noise, but it’s feel, with every single tremble from the motor instantly snapping at nerves in the fingers, toes and everything, even the unmentionable parts, that touches the seat.
It’s more than an engine. It’s three engines in one. There’s the round-town engine, which happily lurks around beneath 3500rpm, softly doing just what it has to do to shuffle around, showing civility and sophistication that is frankly a bit surprising here.
Then the valve timing switches to Man Cam around 3500rpm and the change is instant, with the exhaust note growing harder-edged and more metallic, pushing through to exactly like what you’ve always known a Porsche flat-six to give up: creaminess, lots of induction noise, a honeyed thickness to the power delivery, oodles of performance and timbre changes at every tick of the tachometer.
And then the tacho needle swings past 6000rpm and it’s not a flat-six Porsche engine anymore. It’s a white-hot flashpoint of rage, set free.
It’s 2500rpm of belligerence, of suppressed angst given voice, of a mask of civility ripped away to reveal a pool of fury.
It’s astonishing, screaming and roaring and swinging wildly at any ear that comes close to it, and it makes the rest of the engine range seem lame.
The thing that makes the 911 R special is that none of this is enough for the engine to dominate the car. It barely even overshadows the gearbox, which is just about the best single piece of engineering Porsche has ever put into a car. And given the brilliance of some of Porsche’s gearboxes (the current Cayman/Boxster six-speed manual leaps to mind) that’s saying something.
You use it time and again, just for giggles when shifts aren’t strictly necessary. Or even remotely necessary. Its throws are short and precise and it’s as though every scrap of metallic movement and sound in it are there on purpose. It’s sublime.
Ripping all that GT3 RS wingery off it robs the 911 R of the track-pack 911’s glued-down feel, especially at high speed. Sure, the flat underbody, the huge diffuser and the slightly bigger Carrera pop-up wing do their best, but the 911 R still moves around a lot, without feeling unstable.
Part of that is because the softer springing and damping allow you to feel the car’s rear-engined layout more than in the racers and there’s enough vertical compliance in it to bring back some of that classical 911 walking-around feel.
The electric power steering system isn’t quite old-school in its feel, especially at low speeds, but it does its best when the car is approaching the edges of its stupendous grip levels. It’s like it doesn’t bother delivering all that annoying feedback until it’s really necessary. And then it does.
The rear-wheel steering has been retuned and it also gets a new power-steering program, but the rest of the package relies on GT3 (not RS) springs and dampers.
Without all that aero to paste it down, the 911 R is a different proposition out on the winding stuff. It isn’t a point and shoot exercise. It flows, it glides and it oozes its way from apex to apex and you almost wish it would do it all slower just so you can enjoy how each corner feels for longer. Almost.
If you want to nail the apex, you’ll have to do more in the 911 R than you would in a GT 3 RS or even a stock 911 Carrera. You’ll have to be more accurate on the brakes, the throttle and the steering and you’ll have to keep feeding correction into the steering all the way through the corner. And you’ll be able to, intuitively, because the 911 R delivers that special, rare feeling of the driver being at one with the machine.
You can feel everything it’s doing below decks, the stock carbon-ceramic brakes bite as hard as you expect, but let you judge minutely how much force it needs. It pulls you in, Tron-like, until you’re part of the machine, releasing the brake like you’re part of it, tugging on the steering like you’re hand is running down the road just in front of the car, squeezing on the throttle at openings that know the difference between 6,201 rpm and 6,202 rpm.
Push harder and harder and the 911 R will deliver the steering-lightening alert of understeer, then you can feel the engine’s mass working to counteract it and you realise you can drive it on the nose or the tail, or both, and you can do it all in the one corner if you want to.
And it has an overlaying blanket of utter security about it, even when it’s sliding, because you feel everything - you are everything - that it does.
The other trick to it is that you don’t have to be driving it flat out to become irredeemably immersed and invested in the evident glee the mechanical feel at simply moving.
It’s a glorious return to back-to-basics driving with technology that is anything but basic.
It transcends fast driving and it transcends fast cars. It elevates driving from something you do for either speed or transport and it becomes something you do for the soul and for the spirit.
And, driving it quickly or gently, it all feels like it’s every bit as good for the 911 R as it is for you. Lushious.