The last rear-engined sports car Porsche developed before the boutique carmaker merged with the gargantuan Volkswagen Group this year, the 2012 Porsche 911 Carrera S embodies everything Porsche does best ... and all the things VW can help it do better.
The seventh-generation 911 is an engineering masterpiece: bigger and more powerful, but lighter, faster and more fuel-efficient than the car it replaces. Porsche is a very small company, though. Its limited resources announce themselves in a lack of some features and the need for refinement in the automatic stop-start system.
The new 911 Carrera S is the seventh generation of the 911. It hews close to the original design by the late Ferdinand Alexander Porsche, grandson of company founder Ferdinand Porsche. Ferdinand Alexander died at 76 in April, but lived to see this latest and best version of the icon he created.
The new car's 96.5-inch wheelbase is about 4 inches longer than the previous model. Its overall length grew an inch, and the roof is slightly lower, creating proportions that may be the most elegant in the history of the 911, which stretches to 1963.
For the 2012 model year, Porsche sold four models of the new car: the Carrera and Carrera S coupes and convertibles. Other 911 models continue to use the previous platform. Porsche will roll the new platform out across the multi-model 911 line over time.
Prices for the new 911 start at $82,100 for a coupe with a 350-horsepower 3.4-liter horizontally opposed six-cylinder "boxer" engine and seven-speed manual transmission. That's right -- seven speeds. Don't ask me what it's like to master that spider-web of a shift pattern. I tested a 911 with Porsche's marvelous PDK dual-clutch automatic, which has seven speeds, is quicker than the manual and requires no work from the driver. The PDK is a $4,080 option, and worth every penny.
The 911 Carrera S features a 3.8-liter boxer-six engine that produces 400 horsepower. It's available with the same two gearboxes. Prices start at $96,400. I tested a Carrera S that cost $121,745. All prices exclude destination charges.
The car I tested competes with luxury-performance two- and four-passenger coupes like the Audi R8 4.2L; BMW 650i; Cadillac CTS-V; Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport, ZO6 and ZR1; Jaguar XKR-S; Mercedes-Benz SL 550 and CL 63 AMG, and Nissan GT-R.
The 911's power, performance, handling, fuel economy and looks all rank at the head of the class. Acceleration is effortless as the computer-controlled gearbox works quickly and smoothly though the gears. The S's sport mode holds each gear to the redline and raises the normally civilized exhaust note to a banshee's wail. The car clings to the road, hugging fast curves and holding flat and stable in quick maneuvers. The suspension absorbs bumps for a comfortable ride.
The Carrera S's EPA fuel economy rating of 20 mpg in the city, 27 on the highway and 22 combined easily tops the competition. None of the other models I've named even scored 20 mpg in the EPA's combined rating.
Unfortunately, the auto stop-start feature that contributes about 3 percent to that fuel economy needs work. It shakes the car noticeably when it automatically turns off to avoid idling at traffic lights and stop signs, and the restart takes just long enough to make you think twice about narrow gaps in traffic.
Beautifully fitted black leather covered most surfaces inside the Carrera S I tested. The headliner was suede-like Alcantara. The front seat is roomy and accommodating. The rear-seat is about as much use as your appendix.
Some features fall short of the competition. The car I tested did not have voice recognition for its hands-free phone connection. Nor could it stream music from Bluetooth players. The gauges are simpler and beautiful, but the lack of voice recognition or a touch screen -- preferably both -- requires the driver to take his eyes off the road too frequently. Steering-wheel controls for audio, phone and other features were also not among the options covered by the Carrera S's six-digit MSRP.
The new 911's faults -- voice rec, auto-start -- are not because Porsche doesn't think these things matter. Porsche's existential dilemma has always been that it's a small company in an industry dominated by giants. It had to pick its spots and settle for excellence in its core areas: handling, performance and efficiency.
That limitation disappears now that Porsche's part of the mammoth Volkswagen Group, and that makes the last 911 the company developed solo a car to celebrate both for its 60-year run of excellence and for what may follow.
2012 PORSCHE CARRERA 911 S:
--Vehicle type: Rear-wheel drive four-seat sport coupe and convertible
--Base price, base model: $82,100
--Base price, test model: $96,400
--Price as tested: $121,745
--Rating: Three out of four stars
--Reasons to buy: Performance, handling, fuel economy, looks.
--Shortcomings: Operation of stop-start system; lack of common features.
All prices exclude destination charges.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Mark Phelan is the auto critic for the Detroit Free Press.
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