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Porsche 911 Carrera S v Morgan Plus 8
They have similar prices and performance, but otherwise the new Porsche 911 Carrera and Morgan Plus 8 are about as different as a pair of sports car rivals can get.
Like a butterfly learning to flap, both halves of the bonnet have been up and down at irregular but frequent intervals in the last hour. Phone calls have been made, fuses have been fiddled with and the recovery truck is now on its way. It’s raining too, which some people have suggested might be part of the problem.
‘It just won’t start,’ says Andy Wallace when photographer Jamie Lipman and I arrive back at Hilton Park services off the M6, having been 40 miles further north when we got the distress call. Like the trained mechanics we aren’t, we descend on the long, beautiful nose and the butterfly begins lopsidedly flapping its wings once more.
‘OK, try now!’ shouts Jamie. I sit in the driver’s seat, foot on the brake, twist the key, press the starter button and… tick-tick-tick-tick… nothing. We try this a couple more times in the next ten minutes, but to no avail. Then I reach under the dash and wiggle (and it really is nothing more technical than that) the collection of wires I can feel and suddenly the green starter button glows a little brighter.
I’m tempted to shout ‘Contact!’ but instead settle for: ‘Stand back, I’m going to try again.’ Brake, twist, press and… 4.8 litres of glorious BMW V8 rock the nose of the Morgan as it fires almost impatiently into life. It was nothing more than a loose connection to the starter button. Wallace looks about as incredulous as I feel. I can barely mend my bicycle usually…
Soon Wallace is ensconced behind the three small, swishing windscreen wipers again and Lipman and I are back in the 911 Carrera S, heading north once more on the sodden M6. The idea behind this test had been fairly straightforward: go to the coast in two similarly priced drop-tops. A splash of sunshine, some sea air and the most spectacular coastal road in the country – it really couldn’t be simpler. Except I haven’t had much luck with weather recently – snow when I didn’t want it (GT-R to John O’Groats), no snow when I did want it (Caterham on winter tyres) and now this.
It’s late afternoon by the time we near our chosen road. We can even see it across the other side of Colwyn Bay, cliffs silhouetted against the moody sky. But in view of the rotten weather and retreating light we decide to squeeze in a couple of evening laps of the nearby evo Triangle before retiring to the Groes Inn.
The new 991 Cabriolet felt rather like bringing a lightsabre to a knife fight when we turned up to the Morgan factory this morning. Yet, dynamically at least, this is a very base-spec Carrera S. It has a seven-speed manual gearbox (which no doubt contributed to the impressive 32.5mpg we averaged on the journey up), no Sport Chrono (so no dynamic engine mounts) and no Porsche Dynamic Chassis Control active anti-roll system (of which we were rather sceptical in the big 911 group test back in issue 169).
In the dry, this 394bhp 911 is stunningly quick across the ground. The front tyres give you so much confidence from the grip they generate that you keep pushing harder and harder into bends, grin getting wider and wider every time you feel it pushing back. This sort of front-end alacrity and tenacity is not something you could have experienced in any previous-generation 911, apart from the most recent GT models.
Without PDCC there is a much greater sense of connection to all four wheels. You need to be working the chassis hard, but mid-corner you’ll feel subtle messages about the weight distribution filtered through to the seat of your undergarments, and when you get on the throttle there’s that lovely sensation of the rear hunkering down onto its big 295-section rubber, squeezing the tyres a little more firmly into the warm tarmac and driving you forwards with supreme traction.
In the rain it’s a slightly different matter. There is still a stunning amount of grip, but it’s hard to tell when the contact between tyres and wet tarmac is about to fizzle out. I’m not saying that you want to spend your whole life in a 991 on the ragged edge, but it’s nice to have some warning of how close you’re getting to it, because when it does get out of shape the fundamental imbalance of the 911 comes vividly into play with heart-stopping speed. The electric power steering is the problem because although it’s beautifully accurate, it feels glassy and unconnected when you’re trying to judge how hard the tyres are working on a wet road.
In a lay-by on the western side of the Triangle I pull over to swap driving seats with Wallace. It’s raining hard so we run between the two cars, but just as I’ve shut the door on the Morgan, Wallace comes running back over and taps on the window. I slide the perspex forwards as rain trickles down his slightly concerned-looking face.
‘I know you know what you’re doing,’ he says, ‘but if you’re in anything less than fourth gear and you go over a bump, especially if you’re turning left, then it tries to kill you.’ He then grins and dashes back through the downpour to the 911, leaving me alone with the sound of the rain drumming on the taut mohair roof.
To recap, the new Plus 8 is essentially a modern, bonded and riveted aluminium Aero 8 chassis clothed with sympathetically stretched classic Morgan bodywork. This seamless marriage of old and new is a very appealing recipe. It’s also a recipe that saves 150kg over a standard Aero 8, so the Plus 8 tips the scales at just 1100kg. And with the V8 in its nose kicking out a healthy 362bhp and 370lb ft, that makes it livelier than a spaniel on a trampoline. Especially in the wet. Particularly wearing Yokohama trackday tyres (the Morgan, not the spaniel).
The elegant, louvered bonnet with its pinstripe of silver down the middle feels very, very long when you head into the first few quick corners. You want to pour the nose in, coax it round like you’re trying to befriend a nervous creature. But there’s a good deal of resistance from the steering around the straight-ahead, so although you want to guide it gently, it’s tricky because you need a fair amount of initial pressure to get the wheel to move at all. As soon as it does move, the resistance dissipates almost instantly and the steering – which is now considerably lighter – darts the nose quickly into the turn, which is precisely what you were trying to avoid. Imagine holding a tray with four full pint-glasses on the edge furthest away from you. Now imagine trying not to spill anything as someone suddenly takes away the two glasses on the right. Then puts them back on. Off then on. Off. On. Offon. That’s the long-corner balancing act. Interestingly, the last Plus 8 we tried wasn’t like this, so I think it must be partly to do with the stickier tyres.
Junctions and tighter corners are more fun, and the straights are just outrageous. On the way out of each bend you need to feed in the throttle progressively – because you’re sitting on the back axle you can sense the torque building and you know when the elastic is about to snap. Nearly… fraction more throttle… bit more…. gone! The tyres let go, your bum- cheeks clench and you feel the car slew sideways. Thankfully the quick steering means you can catch the tail easily and, if you’re brave or lucky, you can even get back on the throttle and hold the slide with the tyres zizzing on the wet tarmac underneath you.
It’s when it’s all hooked up and pointing forwards that the Plus 8 is at its best, though. Like a light aircraft, it feels as if there’s no weight apart from the engine in front of you, while the optional auto ’box in this car simply slurs the gears and maintains the heady, unshackled rush towards the next corner. Where the Porsche feels almost serene at times, the Morgan never feels less than loopy fast; a claimed 0-62mph time of 4.5sec doesn’t really do it justice. I realise I’m laughing as we pull into the car park of the Groes Inn. Whether it’s maniacal or nervous chuckling I’m not quite sure.
It’s still dark – that proper, bottom-of-the-coal-sack darkness you get in the depths of the countryside – and from under the safety of the duvet I can hear the wind and rain howling and lashing violently against the window panes. Ten minutes later, Jamie, Andy and I are standing under a porch, preparing to run to the cars on the count of three…
This morning we’re going to what I’m boldly proclaiming is the greatest coastal road in the UK. We’re going come hell or high water, and at the moment it looks like we might be dealing with both – we’re certainly being wildly optimistic getting there in time for ‘sunrise’.
Llandudno is an old-fashioned seaside town. There’s a pier, a long beach and countless hotels and guest houses unmodernised since the world discovered package holidays to Malaga. However, the town does have an ace up its sleeve: it is also the gateway to the Great Orme.
If you’re a rally fan, then you might recognise this limestone headland as the location for stages one and two of Wales Rally GB last year. Marine Drive, which winds its way around it, is actually a one-way toll road, but at 6.30am in faintly biblical weather there’s no one here collecting money. We park up with a view over the pier. Thirty seconds later, Jamie’s been blown to the ground by a gale-force gust of wind and a wave has scaled a 30-foot wall and engulfed the Morgan. With Andy Wallace inside. This is not quite the trip to the seaside I’d envisaged.
Under the cliffs there are signs warning of falling rocks, and within the first half a mile we encounter several large chunks lying menacingly in the road. I’m glad I’m in the Porsche. Its roof might technically be a soft-top, but the sleek, magnesium-framed construction is resoundingly and reassuringly solid. In fact, when it’s up and everything’s quiet and you’re surrounded by one of the most beautifully put together interiors of any car at any price, you tend to forget that you’re not ensconced in the coupe version. That goes for the driving experience too, which is probably the biggest compliment I can pay the 991 Cabriolet.
Life inside the Morgan is a little more akin to camping. The roof is supported by a vicious-looking, hinged metal frame that threatens to snack on fingers while you’re erecting it or folding it away. It’s also a little cramped inside and whenever it rains in this example there is a persistent drip that soaks your right trouser leg just above the knee. And yet… with the heater set to full blast and the engine burbling away there is an undeniable cosiness to the Plus 8. You probably have to be a certain sort of person to regard it as charming and enjoyable on a day like today, the sort of person that thinks a Scottish bothy in winter can be cosy, but the sense of adventure is invigorating.
Amazingly, after a few hours of battling against the elements, there’s a break in the cloud and we manage to get the roofs down. This breath of fresh air also allows the cars’ soundtracks to eddy and tumble into each cockpit, the rock faces acting as nature’s own sounding boards. You can specify side-exit exhausts on a Plus 8 but ours has a simple quartet of rear pipes dispensing their relaxed, throbbing bass beat. If there were a formation motorcycle display team that used Harley Davidsons then it would probably sound something like this. I’d also want front-row tickets to a performance.
Not to be outdone, the 911’s 3.8-litre flat-six combined with the optional sports exhaust sounds like a GT3 that’s been to elocution lessons. It’s a much harder-edged sound with a tighter timbre to its resonances but it seems to run just as deep and tingle your flesh and bones just as wonderfully as the Morgan’s.
Despite their comparable prices, power and performance, it might seem odd, unfair even, comparing a new 991 911 with a Plus 8. After all, would someone considering spending their hard-earned on a 911 really put a Morgan in their list of alternatives? And vice versa? There was a worry that the 911 has now become such a polished item that character is the sole preserve of something like the Morgan. Conversely, I wondered whether the Morgan would simply feel too hand-built to compete with the stunning technology and quality of the Porsche.
The truth is that both of these soft-tops are fantastic. Neither is perfect, but they’re fantastic nonetheless. Even when the weather for your visit to the coast isn’t quite what you had in mind.