The new Porsche 911
It's oft said that Porsche 911 drivers are immune to any critical barbs and snide comments that might be cast their way. How? Simply put; the 911 is just very, very good indeed. To pretend otherwise is sheer bloody-mindedness, the automotive equivalent of the flat earth theory. Thus the 911 driver knows from the outset that any criticism is, most likely, ill-informed.
It's true that the 911 is not quite perfect (more of which later), but perhaps more than any other car on the market, Porsche's flagship model demonstrates the rigorous, unstinting application of technological progress to a basic template; it is mechanical evolution laid bare. The 911 Carrera 4S Coupe shown here isn't the fastest 911 model on the market (that honour falls to the Turbo and the recently launched 3.8 Sport Classic). It's also not the lightest, nor the cheapest, but it perhaps the most competent all-rounder, blending sure-footed grip, comfort, equipment and, naturally, high performance, into a very satisfying package.
The stealthy evolution of the familiar 911 form means that only a true aficionado can make a snap identification of which particular vintage a model dates from. Again, this cloak of familiarity serves to insulate the 911 owner against the shock and awe of modern supercar culture, where the extravagant and outrageous still vie for attention outside casinos and alongside marinas. We're not saying that the 911 is an entirely stealthy choice, but the decision to venture into Porsche territory demonstrates a certain disavowal of the vagaries of fashion; an understanding of design's apparently abandoned capacity for immutability.
This dogged adherence to familiarity isn't always for the best. The interior is a curious mix of technical brilliance – one of the best Sat Nav systems on the market, simple controls and beautifully designed switchgear – and ergonomic confusion. In basic concept, the 911 dash format hasn't changed for decades, meaning that all the accoutrements and additional switchgear demanded of contemporary car design are scattered about the cabin like confetti.
On the other hand, the relatively upright seating position and glassy outlook give the 911 driver a great vantage point, far removed from the low-slung isolation of the typical mid-engine two-seater, and better still than many modern hatchbacks, with their fashion-conscious chunky pillars and shrinking glasshouses.
We digress, but there aren't many downsides to 911 ownership. True, those rear seats are absurdly compact, but no more so than the +2 component to, say, an Aston Martin DB9. While the rear seats are an integral part of the 911 character, their very existence has always thrown the whole packaging out of balance by pushing the engine back over the rear axle. As a result, early 911s were often a challenging steer, qualities that have largely been ironed out of their descendants.
The Carrera 4S throws four wheel drive into the mix, making it almost impossible to exceed the capabilities of the chassis; this is a car that corners with verve and precision, goes exactly where you'd expect and has plenty of wriggle room to forgive driver error. It also possesses that true sports car trick of making you feel you're going faster than you actually are, thanks to a combination of smoothing out corners, instant throttle response and precision handling.
385 bhp is still a lot of power, even by modern standards, and the Carrera 4S is temptingly rapid (the 'sports chrono pack' option provides you with a dash-mounted chronograph, a strong hint that owners should explore the car's limits on the track and not the road). Fuel economy and emissions are both respectable and the company's quest for lightness and efficiency was demonstrated by the recent introduction of the world's first lithium-ion car battery, a pricey but lightweight option on its high-end sports models and a sure sign of things to come.
Unfortunately, it's distressingly easy to pile on several thousand pounds worth of options, many of which would be standard issue on rival cars, in the quest to take the specification up to the level of something befitting a sports GT. Whatever you chose does little to alter the basic fact: the 911 feels right as well, just as a fine pair of gloves shrink over the fingers. The thin steering wheel – a rarity in today's market – is paired with a short-throw gearchange that rewards precision and (optional) carbon brakes that inspire epic confidence.
An all-new 911 is due in late 2010 but it's not expected to deviate far from the established visual template: drivers of 911s from all eras will no doubt breathe a sigh of relief. Hybrid power and even electric drive are rumoured to be in the works, however, demonstrating that Stuttgart's flagship will continue to represent the ongoing evolution of the sports car.