Thursday, February 16, 2012

2012 Porsche 911 Carrera S Review: A Magnificent First Stab | Rumble Seat by Dan Neil -

Porsche's Magnificent First Stab at the New 911

[porsche.od] Dan Neil/The Wall Street Journal

The 2012 911 Carrera S is a significant step forward for the breed, but it's not nearly the car it is going to be.

Porsche's approach to the 911 is "perfect, rinse, repeat"—which is to say, introduce a new edition of its famous sports car, and over the years of the product cycle squeeze more and more bloody glamouring intoxicants out of it until there's no more to be had, and then start over with a new-generation 911.

This strategy is not without its downsides. Consider our test car, a 2012 911 Carrera S, the first year of the code-named 991 generation. How are we to receive this car? As a quantum improvement over the previous generation, the code-named 997? It is roomier, quieter, faster and more summarily athletic, which one would expect. This car is nearly 14 seconds faster around the Nürburgring than the outgoing model, which is seriously more than one would expect. The redesign of the cockpit has scourged the 911 of the stubborn cheapness that affected the previous cars. The new cockpit, with its banked and switch-laden central console like the Panamera, is futuristic, sternly elegant and purposeful, limned in rich alloys of aluminum and wrapped in more taut, tanned hide than a Miss Hawaiian Tropic pageant.

And there are now back seats, of a sort. The 991's wheelbase is 3.9 inches longer, while overall length is up 2.2 inches (track is up, too, marginally). The added Y-axis is largely devoted to making the rear seats more habitable for vertebrate life-forms.

So, yes, the new car is a significant step forward for the breed. However, because we've sat through the "Neue" Porsche 911 movie six times since 1963, we also know that the new car is not nearly the car it is going to be. Porsche first presents a new-edition 911 as a sort of baseline—indeed, deliberately un-optimized in terms of performance—with room for improvement pre-engineered in, if you will.

Photos: A Work in Progress?

Dan Neil/The Wall Street Journal

If I had 100 grand burning a hole in my sports-car pocket, this might give me pause. We know the folks in Weissach have left themselves development space (literally, as in cubic centimeters around the chassis) to add more power—a 4.0-liter engine, perhaps, a freer-breathing exhaust, certainly, and maybe even the rumored triple-turbo induction (is there a German word for "Boo-yah"?). There will be in due course an all-wheel-drive 4S, Turbo S, GTS, and the lightweight GT2 and GT3 club racer versions, with even more enormous brakes, more wretchedly gluey tires, and ever-angrier computer programming. And we know for sure there will be a full-hybrid 911 coming in this product cycle, perhaps as soon as 2014. Indeed, conjecture has it the 991's additional length and wheelbase is there primarily to accommodate the hybrid hardware, still in development.

A ripping, scalping, torque-wrenching, swivel-hipped snake of a car—and that's just so far.

I put it to you: Are you buying the latest and greatest when you buy this car, or are you buying a dialed-back, choked-down version of the glorious car that the 991-series Porsche will become in the fullness of time? When do you pull the money trigger? As a corollary, is it ultimately better to buy the last year of a previous-series 911—see my review of the outgoing and fully optimized GTS from a few weeks ago—or the new car?

Such questions vex the gods.

And the weirdest part for me is that this 911 is actually going to get better, when it is already such a ripping, scalping, torque-wrenching, swivel-hipped snake of a car. Start with the fact that it is 88 pounds lighter (figure 3,250 pounds) than the smaller, outgoing model, and substantially stiffer, thanks to Porsche's profligate use of high-strength steel and aluminum. Tito Puente never knew a drumhead so tight.

Dynamically, the biggest single improvement with the 991 comes with the optional active antiroll feature, which uses hydraulic actuators at each corner to correct for changes in camber. This system, which is undetectable to the driver, helps keep the big 20-inch Pirellis fully planted in corners, adding another dimension to the 911's asphalt-fanging, corner-carving agility. Theoretically, a longer wheelbase should have made the 991 less responsive. So much for theory.

You like to go fast, do you, missy? Here's an off-the-rack sports car with lateral adhesion in the range of 1 g, a car that hits 60 mph in 4 seconds (the 394-horsepower Carrera S with the dual-clutch PDK gearbox), a car that trips the trap lights in about 12 seconds and decelerates from 60 mph to 0 in about 100 feet. These numbers reflect the enormous electromechanical leverage the computers hold over the road—particularly the active antiroll hydraulics—but the experience behind the wheel is decidedly untechnical, a kind of sinister and primal euphoria. I get out of this car very much inclined to bite the head off a pigeon or something.

This is important. A lot of fast street cars feel slightly damp from all the dynamics software onboard. The Nissan GT-R, for instance, is a hellacious piece of machinery and, by the numbers, quite a bit faster than even the new 911. But the GT-R doesn't make you oath and curse like a Viking as the 911 does. If anything, Porsche has managed to dial up the immediacy of the 911, with quicker reflexes—the electrical steering is first-rate—a more emotional exhaust note and, at full throttle, the capacity for real, edgy violence. You need only drop the Porsche into second gear and nail the throttle. The car will swat you like you have "Titleist" on your backside.

Above 4,000 rpm the max torque (325 pound-feet) comes on and stays on until 5,600 rpm, supplying big whoops with each dab of throttle. Lovely.

All this torque barks through one of two transmissions: the first, a seven-speed double-clutch automated manual, the PDK, now with proper paddle shifters available as an alternative to the Tiptronic-style two-way buttons on the steering wheel, which I loathe. The second, for those who really have it bad, is Porsche's new, weirdly retro seven-speed manual, with the seventh-gear gate to the far right, somewhere near the glovebox. The manual is much slower than the double-clutch gearbox but it's a nice, irrational touch for irrational people.

The car's performance envelope opens from the bottom, too. With the active exhaust system turned off (muting the mighty tailpipes) and the car's fuel-saving stop-start system engaged, the Carrera S is notably servile around town. The naturally aspirated, direct-injection 3.8-liter flat six mutters quietly, awaiting its chance. The suspension compliance is velvety, the throttle response relaxed. Porsche's product planners would like the new 911 to appeal to more women. Just call me Nancy.

This car is a work in progress? More like an unfinished masterpiece.

[MINI] Dan Neil/The Wall Street Journal

The Coupe throws away the Cooper Hardtop's two fold-down back seats and versatile hatch for what, exactly? The roof? That is crazy.

BMW's Mini division is the goose that laid the golden egg, and since that glorious day in 2001 when the first Mini Cooper debuted, the Bavarians have been force-feeding the goose farm hormones. Mini Convertible, Mini Clubman, Mini Countryman, the forthcoming Mini Paceman (think Countryman with three side doors and the wraparound visor of a Range Rover Evoque) and even a rumored panel van, the Mini Cargo.

Somebody call the Humane Society. This is goose-ploitation.

And now we have the Mini Coupe, a Mini Cooper de minimis with two seats, a slicked-back windshield and a radically chopped roof, a Mini with male-pattern baldness. The Coupe will in due course be followed by the Mini Roadster this summer.

Here's the part where I bemoan Mini's mission creep, but I won't, for three reasons: First, because I rather admire the gall it takes to build a full-line car company off one design. In terms of single-issue politics, this is like being elected president as the legal-weed candidate. Second, as a matter of history, the British Motor Corporation offered the Austin/Morris Mini in a confounding variety of body styles: pickup, three-box sedan, panel van and the tiny and weird Jeep-ette, the Mini Moke, without which Shriner parades would be a lot less fun.

Third, and most important: While each of the previous variations of the BMW Mini got bigger, gradually moving away from the Mini godhead, the Coupe is actually a tiny bit smaller. Well, an inch lower, anyway. The weight of the speed-activated air spoiler and various reinforcements actually make the car 3½ stone heavier. The Coupe is also a wee bit quicker and faster, says the company. The high-performance John Cooper Works version of the car reaches 60 miles per hour in 6.1 seconds (as compared with the Hardtop's 6.3) and can eke out another 2 mph of top speed, hitting 150 mph.

A tick quicker, a tad lower, a new Mini that is actually more "mini." That's worth celebrating.

And the truth is, it almost doesn't matter how Mini refracts its own celestial light. Even the Countryman, overfed elf that it is, is a hoot to drive. And the 2,700-pound Coupe, with the billowing torque (192 pound-feet) and 208 horsepower coming from the JCW's turbocharged 1.6-liter, offers pleasures so intense they're practically conjugal. The steering is whip quick; the road-holding and out-of-corner acceleration (with electronic limited-slip differential between the front wheels) are excellent; the chassis is tighter than Mitt Romney's pores. Everything about this car is snubbed-down, torqued to spec, frictionless, flickable, ardent.

I suppose there are more-fun ways to move—the Bell jet pack, a trampoline made of La Perla garter belts—but really, if you don't dig the way this car drives, you are a bitter and miserable person and I am done with you.

A few months ago, writing about the BMW 1 series, I lamented that BMW fans no longer had the option of a truly small car with the brand's magical handling. Not so. That car is the Mini JCW Hardtop. If only it were rear-wheel drive.

Photos: A Mini That's 'Mini'

Dan Neil/The Wall Street Journal

The Mini Coupe is a Mini Cooper de minimis with two seats, a slicked-back windshield and a radically chopped roof.

The word "coupe" comes from the French phrase carrosse coupé, which is to say, "chopped carriage," and sure enough, the Mini Coupe is just that. But for the haircut, the car is mechanically identical to the JCW Hardtop, right down to the spring rates and damping of its front-strut, rear-multilink suspension. The deletion of the rear seats and the addition of a rear deck, of sorts, means the car has a proper boot, and on a recent trip to Virginia International Raceway my buddy and I managed to get a day's worth of photo gear, helmets and extra clothes stowed, no problem.

Surprisingly, given that the car seems to be under a mushroom cap, the headroom is compromised by a mere half-inch compared with the Hardtop. Alas, the three-quarter and rear visibility gets crunched pretty good, and when the rear spoiler comes up you can dispense with the rearview mirror entirely (a rear-parking sensor comes bundled in the Technology package). Otherwise, the ergonometrics are the same as in other Coopers: the same upright seating position, the same secure bucket seats (Recaro seats with color-coordinated piping are available), the same nap-of-the-earth ride height.

2012 Mini John Cooper Works Coupe

  • Base price: $31,900
  • Price as tested: $36,000 (est.)
  • Powertrain: Turbocharged 1.6-liter OHC in-line four-cylinder engine with variable valve timing; six-speed manual transmission; front-wheel drive with electronic limited-slip differential
  • Horsepower/torque: 208 hp at 6,000 rpm/192 pound-feet at 1,850-6,000 rpm
  • Length/weight: 148 inches/2,700 pounds
  • Wheelbase: 97.1 inches
  • 0-60 mph: 6.1 seconds
  • EPA fuel economy: 33/25/28 mpg, city/highway/combined
  • Cargo capacity: 9.8 cubic feet

One of the charms of Mini is the brand's high-key interior design, from the aeronautic-style toggle switches overhead to the wacky, dinner-plate-size speedometer, situated dead center of the dash. Our loaded test car was equipped with the company's excellent color navigation/media display built into the speedo, controlled with the Mini's new and strangely erogenous nub of a controller.

As for the exterior styling: I think it just rips—unhinged, subversive, undomesticated, and not at all pretty. Yes, of course, Mini's designer thought hard about this roof. Note the perfect bow of brightwork around the base of the windows and the matching cut lines, rising at the side marker and descending at the C-pillar. And still, it looks rash and impulsive, something a sleep-deprived Sam Barris might do with a Sawzall. Why? Because you have this completely unmolested lower half of the JCW Hardtop, topped with this utterly mad, finished-last-night roof. It's practically punk rock. A lot of people will hate the looks of the Coupe and not know why. One looks for the Hardtop's missing roof like one might scratch the itch of a missing limb.

But after a few days, the car's design starts to make sense. This is a sawed-off derringer, a pint of bile, the angriest man in Munchkinland.

All that's worth celebrating, as I said. Worth buying? Let's not get carried away. For one thing, the Coupe throws away the Cooper Hardtop's two fold-down back seats and versatile hatch for what, exactly? The roof? That is crazy. For another, the Coupe is just barely sportier than the JCW Hardtop. This car absolutely needs another 50 hp to argue its case. And lastly, it's $1,300 more expensive than the JCW Hardtop.

In the words of John Cooper himself: Blimey.

Posted via email from Tony Burkhart

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