I'm charging through Wales in a new 911 Carrera S, complete with seven-speed manual gearbox, drawn like six-cylinder moth towards the shining beacon that is the bar of the Groes Inn, not far from Betws-y-Coed. Hopefully waiting for me should be John Barker with a Maserati GranTurismo S, Roger Green with a Jaguar XKR-S and Mike Duff in a BMW M5, along with Robert and Amanda Taylor who have kindly agreed to bring their Aston Martin V8 Vantage S and Chris Burbidge from Club GT, who has kindly loaned us a V8 Audi R8. If that isn’t the choicest selection of ingredients for a mouth-watering test, then I don’t know what is.
This is my first go in a 991-generation 911 – a moment I’ve been childishly excited about for some time. Apart from the many-ratio’d manual ’box, this Carrara (as in the marble) White car has also got the £1084 Sport Chrono Package Plus that includes dynamic engine mounts, the £1772 sports exhaust and, most intriguingly of all, Porsche Dynamic Chassis Control, which adds another £2185. Of course, even in basic £81,242 form the 3.8-litre car gets 394bhp (up 49bhp from the 3.4) and 324lb ft of torque (up 36lb ft) as well as Porsche Active Suspension Management (PASM) to justify its elevated ‘S’ status.
Although the 991 is only 56mm longer and no wider than the 997, it feels slightly bigger from behind the wheel, thanks mainly, I think, to the more reclined windscreen and the higher, deeper dash that obscures your view of the nearside front wing. Like Meaden, I’ve appreciated the much more refined cruising experience on the M6 and M54, but curiously I’ve also not felt much yet to tell me that I’m driving a 911. The classic five-dial spread looks 911 and the wonderful soundtrack behind me, with its hollow, low-revs bass rising to a complex 7000rpm yowl certainly speaks 911, but the steering hasn’t talked about a light front or a heavy rear yet. However, with the joys of a late-evening blast along the A5 ahead, I’m certain that will soon change.
Seventh gear is a fuel-saving cruising ratio and you can’t change into it other than from fifth or sixth, so there’s no confusion on the way up the ’box. The slightly peculiar thing is when you need to come down from seventh quickly to make an overtake; you instinctively go for sixth or fifth, which still doesn’t give you quite enough oomph, yet dropping to fourth feels like a big leap, both across two planes of the gate and in terms of the revs you need to match road speed. Curious.
The temperature is edging down towards zero and the road has been gritted accordingly as I hit the A5, so grip is nudging towards the lower end of the scale, but it’s dry so I’m pushing on. The Carrera S is stunningly quick, the naturally aspirated direct-injection engine pulling as strongly as any GT3 I can remember. The 991 is also remarkably composed, never giving a hint of understeer or needing a moment – like its predecessors asked for – to settle as you turn in, instead just scribing a clean line towards your chosen clipping point. There’s not a lot of feel, however, and it’s quite hard to judge just how hard you are pushing the tyres…
Sort of light-grey stone, possibly with a hint of flint – that’s the construction of the wall that I nearly hit as the 991 very suddenly becomes a 911, loses grip at the front and then snaps its big arse sideways. No warning that I’m aware of, just a massive heart-pounding-out-of-my-ribcage moment that thankfully some hasty lock and the PSM saves. Once I’ve calmed down, I pick another, slightly less precarious corner and out of interest carry a similar sort of speed. Once again the 991 goes sideways, once again without any real tactile warning, even though I’m really looking for it this time. I take the rest of the journey to the Groes Inn in a slightly wary state, and my pint at the end feels more welcome than usual.
The following morning we all head down to the beach, as you do in February, to arrange the cars for the opening shot. It’s interesting seeing all the shapes and sizes displayed on the sand. The Aston is still the best-looking car in the group, probably followed by the Maserati. The Porsche and the Audi now cut the most strikingly modern poses, impressive given that the R8 hasn’t changed in five years and the 911 still clearly carries a version of the distinctive ancestral silhouette. As Roger Green notes, the GT-R looks best when it’s grubby – it’s a car for using, and looks at its most purposeful with a bit of hard-earned road grime streaked down the sills.
Once the photography is done and Mike Duff has finished building a sand Castle Combe, we head off to the evo Triangle. For the drive across I settle behind the dark blue dials of the Maser, which feels like a big car with its large-diameter steering wheel, proper room in the back and massive bonnet. Its V8 catches with typical Italian flair. It might seem like we’ve picked the wrong ‘S’ – the ’box in this one is an auto rather than an automated manual, but it actually suits the car better. The changes with the very long (good) plastic (bad) paddles aren’t snappy, but the slight slur means they don’t interrupt the Maser’s relaxed flow and they suit its demeanour well.
Pressing the Sport button firms the dampers and sharpens the controls slightly but the steering remains light and rather aloof initially. However, push a little harder and you begin to get subtle signals coming back through the big rim and you realise that it’s easy to place that long nose accurately. There’s a relaxed, long-limbed feel to the suspension, but this means it rides the bumps well and, as in the Quattroporte, you get more feedback from it at speed than you initially expect.
Revs are key to getting the most from the 433bhp engine as it feels rather torque-lite lower down, although this means you can deploy large amounts of throttle early in the corner, safe in the knowledge that the rear will just get nicely up on its toes rather than threaten to cut loose.
It’s interesting following John Barker, who’s in the 991, because although the Maser loses a bit of ground to the Porsche, it doesn’t seem to matter. It’s not a car for racing others in; instead you find the Italian’s natural (and still very quick) rhythm and settle there, taking the line of least resistance and enjoying the flow that it creates. In short, it does exactly what it says on the Pininfarina-sculpted tin; it’s a GT rather than a sports car, and that’s no bad thing.
The bright French Racing Blue Jaguar seems like a good place to go next. There’s some debate about which actually looks better, the aero-sculpted XKR-S or the slightly purer XKR from the first group, but what’s certain is that the R-S looks more aggressive, and I for one love the paint, which complements the rest of our Estonian-coloured group nicely. The big leather Recaros are fantastic too – if they ever replace the Mastermind seat, they should use one of these.
After the almost relaxed drive in the Maserati, the Jaguar is something of a shock to the system. It’s true that the R-S tag has never quite felt accurate for the 542bhp XK – the auto ’box and light controls have always still felt too GT, like the Maser – but the sheer pace and power of the Jaguar make it an eye-widening experience. There are quite a few people on this magazine, myself included, who like a lairy rear-drive car, but there is a difference between being able to give the accelerator a decent prod to easily unhook the grip of the rear tyres and feeling like you’re treading on gossamer-thin eggshells through a turn because you’re tryng not to break traction every time you press the throttle pedal. You can immediately sense the huge supercharged forces being transmitted through the rear axle, and the throttle seems to loosen the contact between rubber and tarmac at the slightest hint of pressure so that, as Green says with a grin, ‘it feels like a wild ride’.
Not helping the impression of a barely tamed animal is the steering, which, on roads as fast, bumpy and technical as those of the Triangle, feels too light and sharp in the initial phase either side of the straight-ahead. So just where you want some calm delicacy to pour the car into a corner, you’ve got a slightly spiky reaction.
It gets better when you’ve got some lock on, and if you switch off the traction control (hold the button… keep holding… bit longer… nearly there now… and… bing!) and get stuck in, then there is a lot of fun to be had, because the chassis is friendly and the e-diff will generally leach away some power through the inside wheel to stabilise a big slide when you need it to. But it takes a big leap of faith to get over the initial intimidation.
Talking of intimidation, if an M5 walked into a bar and said you were sitting in its seat, you can be damn sure you’d be on your feet and gabbling apologies faster than it takes for the big BM to go from 50-70mph (1.8 seconds, since you ask).
The Triangle’s fast, open roads definitely suit the M5 and when John Barker describes it as ‘a saloon version of the GT‑R’ I know exactly what he means. It piles on speed in exactly the same gobsmacking fashion, with the turbos giving the V8 humungous mid-range punch and the DCT gearbox making the accelerative rush one long, breathless surge that is almost unsettling.
There has been some debate as to whether the new M5 is actually too fast and I’m inclined to agree that it is in most situations, because you have to be travelling extremely rapidly before you feel like you’re pushing the car at all. Like a zoo animal released into the wild, however, the roads of north Wales let the M5 shine, and it is incredibly impressive. It seems to steamroller bumps and compressions with utter disdain and find incredible grip for a rear-driver.
You can never escape the mass, though, and as Roger notes: ‘Once it starts moving laterally that mass ensures it can let go quickly and then bite back equally hard.’ Still, it says a huge amount about what we think of the M5 that we’ve dared include it in a test of sports coupes and that it doesn’t feel preposterous.
The sky is noticeably leaking its wintry light away and the temperature has started to chill a degree or two with it. Time for one last lap of the Triangle this afternoon… What to pick? The R8’s low roofline is lurking irresistibly behind the Maserati, so I go for that. It feels considerably lower than any of the other cars here as you drop down into the seat, and it’s immediately obvious that this is the car Porsche is aiming at in terms of cabin quality. Yes, you can spot some switchgear from much cheaper cars, but it all feels so well built and the architecture is perfectly laid out around you.
It’s a while since I’ve driven a V8 version of the R8, but it’s instantly obvious why we’d choose it over the V10: with that bit less weight behind your shoulders, the overall balance is absolutely spot on. It is also plenty fast enough (this four-year-old car has 414bhp, although newer ones have 424), has a rabid appetite for revs, and gearing that means you can genuinely use fifth on a fast B-road where most will only let you glimpse fourth. And you really do want any excuse to change gear, because the open-gate manual is as good to use as it is to look at. The weight and mechanical feel as you clack-clack around the gears is one of those things you really should experience if you get the chance.
The chassis isn’t half bad either. This is a ‘poverty spec’ R8 on passive dampers, but the way it flows over the ground is sublime and the combination of perfectly weighted steering with the low-skimming view out means you can pick off apices with joyful ease. Some people might be put off by the idea of it being four-wheel drive, but it’s better to think of it as rear-wheel drive with some extra traction thrown in, as it doesn’t corrupt the experience one bit. As a last drive of the day it couldn’t be much better.
There is all sorts of chat over supper later, but one subject keeps cropping up – the new 911. ‘Stupendous thing,’ says Duff between mouthfuls of fish pie. ‘There’s a real sense that it’s been engineered to within an inch of its life. It needs to be travelling very quickly – and be driven with a fairly unlikely degree of brutality – to start to feel rear-engined though.’
The seven-speed gearbox is coming under scrutiny too. Roger’s a fan of the high-set lever, but Dickie reckons it should have been a dogleg first and describes the shift as ‘slightly knotty’, while Barker flags up the slightly inconsistent clutch action.
I say nothing, for the moment, but stepping outside from the warmth of the bar into the cold starry night as I wend my way to bed, there’s just an inkling that somewhere in the automotive firmament a crown is slipping slightly.
The silent car park is full of paintwork sparkling with frost the following morning. Gradually, as people emerge with keys, the sounds of cold engines starting and ice scrapers rasping across windscreens begins to fill the dense arctic air. It’s so cold that the sheep in the adjoining field look like they’re a bunch of early morning smokers, their breaths clearly visible in the first rays of sunlight. Doors slam, first gears are engaged with everything from a clutch pedal and a gearlever to a rotating knob, and one by one the cavalcade begins to crunch across the gravel and out onto the road.
I’m in the GT-R, and as I slide the gear selector back, across and back again to select Drive, I can hear the mechanicals beneath the rear seats making sounds like those of a train coupling to a carriage. The petrol station in Betws-y-Coed is our first port of call, and as I cruise along, eking out what little fuel is left in the tank, we file past a small boy on the way to primary school with his father. At the sight of the cars his mouth drops open and his eyes widen, just like mine would have done, and I can’t help but smile.
You’ve heard plenty about the GT-R already, but needless to say it is perfectly capable of holding its head high in this more powerful, more expensive group. After fuelling up we head towards our other favourite road in the area, near Ffestiniog. Blue sky above, snow at the side of the road, Snowdon dominating the skyline – it’s stunningly beautiful. I’m first to the road and it doesn’t take long before everything else has shrunk in the GT-R’s mirrors. Fastest line, stick with the throttle, ride the short slide, flick a gear, attack, attack, attack. Over a crest, dive left, grip changes but trust the car as fractional understeer switches instantly to fractional oversteer underneath you. It’s a deeply thrilling feeling…
Robert Taylor is insistent that I press the Sport button in his Vantage S. So I do. The most obvious result of which is that the exhaust gets a lot louder, with a touch of the low-flying World War II fighter plane about the sound. You might be wondering why we’ve got a £102K ‘S’ here instead of a standard £90K Vantage, and the answer is that a 2012-spec Vantage isn’t available yet but when it arrives it will have the same suspension settings as the S. It will also be offered with a manual gearbox, which can only be a good thing as the seven-speed single-clutch automated manual in the S is too ponderous on its upshifts, although they do get better with speed.
In fact, in contrast to the looks, which are love at first sight, dynamically the Aston is a grower. The steering, for example, definitely improves as you press on. Initially the lovely grey Alcantara-clad wheel has what Barker describes as a rather ‘hollow’ feeling, but with speed it starts to feed back all sorts of lovely messages about what the front tyres are doing, becoming one of the most feelsome experiences of the test.
With 430bhp (10bhp more than the regular V8 Vantage) the S certainly doesn’t feel as outgunned as the sub-400bhp Vantages of the past sometimes have, and the power is certainly enough to get the rear end moving around easily on the salty roads. The short wheelbase and compact feeling from behind the wheel is refreshing in a test where several cars seem to fill the space between the white lines almost too easily (the M5 is a much less comfortable fit on this road and you can tell because you start fiddling with the multitudinous settings to try to make it shrink around you a little). In short, despite not feeling terribly modern next to the Porsche, the Aston is very engaging and a rather wonderful overall package.
But it’s just off the ultimate pace in this group, as is the M5 – stupendously quick but compromised by its weight and size here – the lairy Jaguar and the laid-back Maserati. Which leaves three cars in the running: Nissan, Audi and Porsche.
And so we come to the 991 Carrera S. Start it up with that same chunky style of key it now shares with the Cayenne and Panamera, and the distinctively guttural flat-six soundtrack still makes me smile (although as the ever-perceptive Duff comments, ‘there’s no lay-shaft rumble in the new car’). In the daylight and with a dry road, this car is sensationally fast. It turns in without hesitation or deviation and then grips and grips while cornering incredibly flat. There is bit of rear-engined movement but you have to be going very fast to invoke it – if this was your first 911 experience then you’d be quite surprised when it happened.
Just as with the 3.4 Carrera, it doesn’t feel at all like a 911 of old. ‘We will sound like Neanderthal 911 fans for saying that, but I’ve seen a number of generations of 911 come along now,’ says Barker later, refilling his pipe and looking wistfully into the distance. ‘Every time the press have praised the increased stability and bemoaned the erosion of character, and this looks like the same again, only this time it’s a proper step-change – this sounds like a 911 and looks like a 911 but doesn’t drive like a 911.’
This wouldn’t be a problem in itself as the 991 is very, very good. But – and it’s a massive but – it also feels rather aloof and cold. ‘It’s lacking that cohesion and sweet uniformity of weights and response that is a big part of the Porsche magic,’ says Meaden. ‘It’s also missing those sensations you used to get even when pottering
along in a 997,’ adds Green. To the majority of 911 buyers this probably
won’t matter – if anything it will give them more confidence. But to us it does.
Some of this coldness is undoubtedly down to the electric steering, but there’s an inconsistency of connection with what’s happening at the wheels too that saps confidence, and for that the blame has to lie with the optional Porsche Dynamic Chassis Control active anti-roll system. PDCC employs a set of hydraulic cylinders to counteract roll at individual wheels. In a straight line the system relaxes to optimise ride comfort, while in the corners it acts to negate roll almost entirely. It obviously works – any lap times set by a PDCC-equipped 991 will be sensational – but the trade-off is an unnerving moment of deadness in some corners and a more general lack of detail through the wheel and the seat. Barker sums it up, saying: ‘As fast, poised and high quality as the 3.8 991 is, there’s a layer of gauze between you and the car.’
Another drive in the R8 immediately afterwards confirms it. In the Audi there is subtlety and soul to the driving experience. You work all the phases – into, through and out of the corner – with, ironically, the nose bobbing lightly as you coax it into the turn and the uncorrupted steering involving you just enough to let you know exactly what’s going on.
It seems strange the R8 should so clearly beat the 991 for subjective feel, but there’s no question that it does. That’s why it wins this test. That it is also a junior supercar and a genuinely useable one only adds to its appeal. Perhaps just as extraordinarily, the supremely thrilling Nissan beats the Porsche too, leaving the new 911 in third place. Now that’s a bombshell.
With huge thanks to Club GT (www.clubgt.co.uk) and Robert and Amanda Taylor.