My cousin bought an iPod recently. Not a new model with the phone and touch screen and all that, but one of the originals that he found on eBay.
He thought it was cool. I told him it'd be a few more years before it qualified as "retro" and until then, it just makes him look cheap ... uh, I mean frugal.
Still, it is amazing what an icon the device has become in such a short time. Seeing even this archaic example, you immediately know exactly what it is because, despite all of the new technology found inside the latest version, the basic shape of it hasn't changed at all.
The same can be said of the Porsche 911 which hasn't been altered one iota since the first one hit the road in the 1960s. It's true. The designers don't even waste time drawing new ones when it is time to reengineer the parts underneath, they just photocopy the original blueprints, Wite-Out the names of the previous team and scribble in their own.
No one cares. In fact if some hot shot art school grad tried to come up with a clever new "design language" for it he would be severely reprimanded and forced to work on those overpriced Porsche coffee machines.
Under the skin, it's a different story, and for 2009 there are some serious changes to the 911, resulting in a car that is more powerful, faster and gets better fuel economy than the old one. Porsche pulls off this trifecta by installing entirely new engines and offering a 7-speed transmission they like to call Porsche Doppelkupplungsgetriebe, because they can.
It's PDK to you and me, and translates to 'double clutch transmission.' Pioneered by Porsche in its racing cars of the 1980s, this type of automated manual is showing up in everything from Volkswagens to BMWs these days thanks to its efficient operation, but this is the first time it has been installed on a Porsche road car.
In the 911, the PDK essentially divides the 7 gears into two sets, one for the odd and one for the even. Each gets its own computer-operated clutch, and both are engaged at all times. The PDK determines what gear you are in and, if you are accelerating, preselects the next highest gear in anticipating that you will need it soon.
When the shift happens, it is immediate, just a swap of the driveshaft from one clutch to the other, with hardly any loss in the surge of power. You can do it on your own with a slap of the gear selector or a tap on the awkwardly placed buttons on the steering wheel, or just leave it in automatic mode and let the PDK make the decisions for you, like a gearbox sommelier.
The transmission operates more quickly than a conventional manual and unlike a power-sopping old-school automatic, it gives up nothing to a stick on fuel efficiency. It’s quite possible that over the next decade or so, transmissions like this will make both manuals and traditional automatics obsolete. For now, it is a $4,080 option on the 911, which comes standard with a 6-speed and clutch-pedal combo for those who prefer a more classic driving experience.
In either case, the transmission is connected to one of two flat-6 cylinder engines installed in the rear of the car, where 911s have been keeping them since the president-elect was in diapers.
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The base Carrera model gets a 355 horsepower 3.6 liter, while the Carrera S is endowed with a larger 3.8 liter that punches out 385 horsepower, 20 and 30 horsepower more than the old engines, respectively. Both use direct fuel injection, another first for Porsche, and deliver up to 15 percent more miles per gallon, 19 city/27 highway for the PDK-equipped Carrera. Most interesting is that Porsche did this while cutting down on the complexity of the motors, using 40 percent fewer parts than before.
At the press introduction near Salt Lake City, I was able to sample both coupe and convertible (Cabriolet) versions of the cars on the 4.5-mile racetrack at Miller Motorsports Park, under the tutelage of 2007 24 Hours of Le Mans class champion, Patrick Long. It’s always a wake-up call to have someone 12 years younger than you sitting in the passenger seat telling you how best to drive, but Long has trophies, lots of them. I don't, so I was all ears.
Carrera S models come equipped with a Porsche Active Suspension Management (PASM) system that uses electronically adjustable dampers to fine tune the ride, and it is now an option on the entry-level Carrera as well. Far from the cold, technologically overwrought handling that some of its competitors strive for, the 911 remains very reactive to inputs from the driver as it reaches its limits.
Brake too deep into a corner and the rear of the car lightens up and starts coming around. Too hard on the gas, and the opposite happens, stealing grip from the front tires and causing understeer as you exit a turn. Corrections are easy to make, and the traction and stability controls give you ample time to work it out for yourself before they butt in to save you from certain embarrassment.
Larger 19-inch wheels give the Carrera S a slight advantage, but not by much. Both cars are plenty of fun to throw around. It’s mostly the power that sets the two apart, and the Carrera S is the one you want, if you spend a lot of time at the track, as many 911 owners do. If that’s your thing, an even sportier version of PASM is available for an extra $950. It lowers the suspension by 10 millimeters, but still lets you soften it up for the drive home.
Swapping seats with Long, it was entertaining to see how easily he could slide the car around, barreling through curves, using the red-and-white-striped curbing like moguls on a ski slope. But the smile on his face told the real story of the 911. This is a guy used to driving cars that make even this one look like the sofa I sit on when I watch him race on TV. Maybe Porsche pays him a bonus for every grin, but I doubt it.
For added boy-racer fun you can buy a Sport Chrono package for $960 that sticks a stopwatch on the dashboard and, when combined with PDK, changes the way the 911 shifts, allowing it to slam through the cogs even faster than normal. You can also use it to launch the car from a standstill by holding the brakes, flooring the throttle, then releasing the brakes. The result is a zero to 60 mph run in 4.1 seconds, .2 sec quicker than normal, as if you needed another reason to choose the PDK.
All of the above is also available on the convertible models which are a heavier and marginally slower, at 4.5 seconds from 0-60 in the case of the Carrera S Cabriolet on hand. Stiff for a drop-top, it remains very capable on the track and was the model I enjoyed turning laps in the most, even though I know the hardtop would take it in a head to head competition. Driving back to my hotel at sunset along the winding two-lane roads etched into the Wasatch mountain range, the choice between the two was even more obvious.
On the way, I could also do something never before possible in a Porsche, let alone a 911: listen to my cousin's lame iPod. Late to the game, Porsche has finally upgraded its entertainment/navigation system to incorporate this feature. There is also a standard auxiliary interface for digital music fans who aren’t one of Steve Job's many minions.
Of course, like the iPod, the kind of seamless integration of parts and performance that you get in a 911 doesn't come cheap. The Carrera starts at $75,600, and a fully loaded Carrera S Cabriolet easily breaks into the six figure range. It’s the price you pay to join the club.
The White headphone hordes don’t seem to mind paying a premium. With company sales down 25 percent in 2008, Porsche is certainly hoping 911 customers don't either.
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Base Price: $75,600 - $96,800
Type: Rear-engine, rear-wheel drive, 2+2 coupe or convertible
Engines: 3.6-liter flat-6 or 3.8-liter flat-6
Power: 355 hp, 288 lb-ft torque/385 hp, 310 lb-ft torque
Transmission: 6-speed manual or 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
MPG: 18-19 city/25-27 highway
What do you think of the 911?
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