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Why the Porsche 911 is the Definitive Sports Car

For over 50 years, the Porsche 911 has attracted car enthusiasts with its timeless design and enthralling charisma. Its life has been one of few downs and a lot of ups, with the company changing hands, yet retaining the essence of what they were always about – the sports car.

What started as a dream for Ferdinand Porsche turned into a reality that would change the lives of many. The Porsche 911 is one of the best-known names in the sports car world today. And for good reason. Ferdinand Porsche and his son Ferry Porsche were committed to delivering a series of high-quality, well-engineered, high-performance sports cars. Their commitment has led to an automotive icon the likes of which the biggest names in the world fight to compete with.

In this ever-changing world that is the automotive industry, one that is affected by factors ranging from environmental concerns to cost of production, it always is a priority for every manufacturer to stay on top of their game and deliver exciting new products that fulfil three important criteria: appeal to budding enthusiasts, turn well-heeled enthusiasts into customers, and turn existing customers of the brand into repeat customers for new or even additional cars.

Some companies struggle to find a design that lasts. This leads to ‘product lifecycles’ of barely half a decade at times. Every so often, a complete overhaul is needed. People demand more. Something different. More modern. More appealing. Yet, with the 911, Porsche seems to have cracked the formula decades ago. The 911 never falls short of customers. True, there are multiple variations not just in the power output department (while retaining essentially the same engine layout) but also in the matter of body style. Potential customers are treated with a choice of hard-top, glass-top, soft-top, and even an occasional Speedster body style. Yet, that comes from Porsche. Their design will continue to sell for many more years even without an update. The 911’s design has proven to be one that has stood the test of time.

From the days of the venerable Volkswagen Beetle – a car designed by Ferdinand Porsche – there has been one essential flow of lines and a characteristic engine layout: on the rear axle. Fundamentally, it isn’t a layout of choice. Ideally, the engine must be within the central area between the front and rear axle to account for proper weight distribution. The Volkswagen Beetle, and the Porsche 911, theoretically, should not be the best handling cars. The front should be light under acceleration, and there would be massive understeer. Yet, today and, in truth, back then, these weren’t really problems. Ferdinand Porsche had created something ahead of its time. Few cars stand true to a statement such as that. Even Aston Martin, who has a similar looking range, had more than a few variations over their several decades of existence. What is it about Porsche that was different? Why are the cars almost the same even today?

That’s what the essence is about. As mentioned earlier, it comes from Porsche. They choose to upgrade their cars every now and then. The essential elements of the design remain vastly unchanged. The smiling front face, the raked windscreen, the sweeping lines that curve into a tightening rear with a sharply sloping roof, concealing the flat-engine layout under the rear cover, with or without a rear wing all seem far too familiar with each passing generation. From the 356 to the 901 – the latter which became the 911, thanks to the naming convention with a ‘0’ in the middle usurped by Peugeot – the design has remained reminiscent.

There were considerable evolutions in the engineering department. What has stayed consistent is the design and the flat-six engine layout. The horizontally-opposed layout is considered one of the most advanced and efficient. They can also be mounted lower down leading to the far lower center of gravity, which in turn aids handling. From the 911 2.0L from 1964 and the larger 2.4L 911 S to the 2.7L Carrera RS in 1972, little changed.

These air-cooled, flat-six Boxer engines delivered punchy power outputs. That also meant that, with the light weight of the cars considered, acceleration was quick, and the cars felt nimble and responsive. Besides, Porsche knew the fixed-head coupé couldn’t be the only one they offer for sale. The first Targa body style appeared in 1967 – three years after the 911 first arrived.

Porsche weren’t the kinds to rest on their laurels. Constant evolution meant they found more ways to make their cars better – and the first turbocharged 911, the 911 Turbo 3.0L, arrived in 1975. The Cabriolet body style first made an appearance in 1983. Four years later, Porsche would build what would briefly become the fastest car in the world: the 959.

What started as an effort in Group B rallying, the need to create road-going homologated versions meant the Porsche 959 would get a turbocharged 2.9L motor capable of achieving a top speed of 314 km/h – a new record for a street-legal production car. The 959 would rival the likes of the iconic Ferrari F40. Many regards the 959 as the arch nemesis of the turbocharged V8 Prancing Horse, a car that will go down in history as one of the finest and truest sports car ever made.

The next generation, the 964, furthered the concept of evolution. As did the 993, which arrived in 1993. That generation proved to be somewhat of a milestone. The 993 was also the generation to deliver two of the most extreme cars: the first-ever 911 GT2 in 1995, and the only 911 GT1 in 1996. The 993 also became the last of the air-cooled 911s. The 996 that followed in 1998 was water-cooled, inviting mass criticism from the many purists and brand loyalists that Porsche had garnered over their 35 years of existence.

The 996 was followed by the 997, which was one of the more substantial updates the 911 received design-wise during its lifetime. That’s because of the 911 even today, in its 991.II guise and the previous 991 avatar isn’t too different from the 997. The more pronounced smile on the front face, the curves, the haunches, and the design of the side windows have remained more or less consistent over the years in the more recent past.

What the 997 generation also gave was the first GT2 RS. Now, there was no shortage of variations. The ‘Carrera’ name had stuck around. The iterations had grown. There was “base” rear-wheel-drive Carrera. A four-wheel-drive Carrera 4. A more powerful Carrera S. A combination of both called the 4S. Then the Turbo version which added turbochargers to the flat-six, raising the power output to 480 hp, along with a quick-shifting automatic transmission driving all four wheels. Oh, and you can have any of those combinations with a fixed-roof or a convertible top.

Turbocharging was becoming more common. The idea of getting more power out of an otherwise smaller engine meant there was more potential to be enjoyed. The GT2 was the next level. If ever there was a car that highlighted what turbochargers could do, this was it. It was essentially a 911 Turbo with more power, minus the automatic transmission and the four-wheel drive, making it an extreme performance car, not for the faint-hearted or those who had ambition outweighing talent. Now, if that wasn’t enough, Porsche created the GT2 RS.

In 2010, the 911 became the first car in series production to offer variable-geometry turbochargers: an evolution of forced induction that sought to eliminate the dreaded ‘turbo lag’. Lag was essentially the delay experienced between putting your foot down on the throttle at low engine speeds and getting a response that actually got you going. This was because the turbochargers were driven by the engine’s exhaust stream, and that meant there would only be power after the necessary ‘boost’ from the compressors was developed after the flow of exhaust gas was considerable.

The variable-geometry turbochargers – also called variable nozzle turbines – altered the size of the orifice increasing pressure even at lower engine speeds, effectively combating this delay. Imagine blowing with your mouth wide open, versus with pursed lips. This dynamic alteration was all that was needed to deliver staggering power very, very quickly. The 3.6L flat-six engine developed 620 hp – more than the 8.4L V10 – an engine more than twice its size – could muster in the Dodge Viper at that time.

Now, turbochargers aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, so to speak. There always will be people asking for classic Porsche. Naturally-aspirated flat-six engines were the way to go, and thanks to their involvement in the GT3 racing series, the road-legal 911 GT3 was offered, first in 996 guise with a 3.6L engine, then in 997 guise. With 400 hp, then 415, then 435, then 450 hp, the 911 GT3 kept evolving through the generations. In 2011, a massive 4.0L engine in the GT3 RS delivered the power, revving to well over 8,500 rpm for an intoxicating soundtrack of an engine note.

That brings us to the present. Porsche have maintained the diversity of the 911 range well. It’s over 50 years now, and, with this 991.II generation, you can still buy a 911 Carrera with or without four-wheel drive and an ‘S’ badge with a more powerful engine. The only difference is, the Carrera range is now turbocharged.

With climate change and the need to reduce fuel consumption and emissions, downsizing of the engine – moving from larger displacement motors to smaller one started becoming a norm. To compensate for power and torque, turbocharging was employed. The compressors allow the smaller engines to produce power equal to or even greater than their larger atmospheric predecessors. This also meant a slight bump in power, to the tune of five to 10 percent, but a much larger boost in torque, sometimes over 15 percent. Besides, the corresponding drop in fuel consumption and exhaust-gas emissions meant it became an incredibly popular trend worldwide.

The new Porsche 911 received a 3.0L flat-six making 370 hp in the Carrera, 420 hp in the Carrera S, and 450 hp in the Carrera GTS. While those numbers are mere 20 hp more than their previous versions, the torque increase was substantial: 60 Nm. So far as body styles go, you can have a Targa-type convertible glass-roof with standard four-wheel-drive. You can also have a 911 Turbo with a larger 3.8L engine making 540 hp, or a more intense Turbo S with 580 hp. And, the list goes on. There’s a GT3 with 500 naturally-aspirated horsepower. And, the most recent addition is the new GT2 RS, with a heavily reworked 3.8L engine from the Turbo S getting the most hardcore treatment yet. A full 700 hp is what it delivers, and the promise of a 0-100 km/h time of 2.8 seconds and a top speed of 340 km/h – a number that exceeds what some exalted supercars are capable of.

That’s why the Porsche 911 is still a big name, on top of the list for many a car enthusiast. The 911 GT2 RS today still draws parallels with the first 993 GT2, and not just in the styling department. It still has a flat-six engine straddling the rear axle.

It’s still created in the heart of Stuttgart by a team that is just as if not more passionate about the 911 today as the folks in the factory were 50 years ago. It’s a car that has stood the test of time not just in design, but, more importantly, in character, and what it stood for. Ferry Porsche said the last car the company builds will be a sports car. With this sort of heritage, there isn’t much doubt that.