Porsche 911 Carrera 4S drive story

The new Porsche 911 Carrera 4S is the latest Porsche to be equipped with four-wheel drive. Henry Catchpole takes one to Austria on a journey to the birthplace of the marque’s first, little-known 4wd creation

Think of a four-wheel-drive Porsche and, if you’re like me, you’ll probably conjure up images of Rothmans-liveried 959s skipping across the desert on their way to victory on the Paris-Dakar Rally. Alternatively, you might think of that iconic red stripe across the wider-arched rump of the brilliant 996 C4S, a car which so nearly won evo Car of the Year in 2003. Or perhaps it’s the time when 911 Turbos gained more traction and morphed into mighty all-weather supercars that instantly flits into your mind. If anyone says Cayenne…

What I didn’t realise until recently is that nearly 40 years before the 959 there was another Porsche with four-wheel drive. A racer called the Cisitalia 360, it was built in 1947, a year before the 356, making it the very first car to come out of Porsche as we know it today. At the time of its design, the Porsche family had moved from Germany (thus avoiding the attention of Wellingtons and B-17s) to Gmünd in Austria, which is partly why we’re in a new 991 C4S splashing in that general direction down the motorway from Graz airport – we’re going ancestor-hunting.

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However, there is another other good reason, apart from looking up the family tree, for heading this way. It’s to find a particular stretch of tarmac nearby that I’ve got a longing to go and drive after finding suitably mouth-watering photos of it online. It’s a toll road called the Nockalmstrasse and appropriately, it’s an old Porsche test route, which seems like an excuse too good to ignore.

As we only landed in Austria after lunch, there’s no hope of getting to the road to do any photography before nightfall today, so there isn’t a great rush. For now the Aqua Blue Carrera 4S is settled into a relaxed lope along a very quiet stretch of motorway. It’s a good place to be; with its high, cocooning central transmission tunnel, its perfect placement of the pedals, the clear dials, a touch screen that works intuitively and an overarching hewn-from-solid sensation that stands at odds with so much of today’s disposable world, the 991 really does have one of the best interiors of any car on the market. The only things I’d swap are the optional 18-way adjustable sports seats, which seem plumper in the backrest and less comfortable than the standard ones.

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There’s a full complement of buttons behind the gearlever on the transmission tunnel and a closer look at the spec sheet in the glove box reveals that in addition to the standard PASM active suspension and PTM (Porsche Traction Management – Stuttgart-speak for four-wheel-drive) most of the optional toys have also been thrown at this car. Thankfully there’s no Power Steering Plus, but we have got a PDK gearbox, torque vectoring, dynamic engine mounts, the body roll-limiting Dynamic Chassis Control (which we haven’t been convinced by to date) and a sports exhaust. All of which will be very interesting once we get to the Nockalmstrasse tomorrow. But for now, as we mooch along the motorway, the only thing I’m using is the radar-adaptive cruise control.

Progress is all rather stress-free and there’s plenty of time to idly admire the landscape we’re passing through. This is nice, because I love Austria. It has some of the most unspoilt and dramatic scenery anywhere in Europe, and there’s a neat, uncrowded calmness to the way it’s all presented that is captivating. It’s all so tidy – a bit like Switzerland, but without the associated smugness.

We’re staying in a small resort called Katschberg, at the top of a pass that was also used as a Porsche test route back in the 1940s on account of its steepness (it used to have sections of 32 per cent). However, as it’s that dead season when the energetic summer ramblers have packed away their walking poles and the skiers haven’t yet unpacked theirs, everything appears to be shut when we arrive… including our hotel. After stumbling around in the dark, we eventually discover that we’ve been ‘upgraded’ to the hotel round the corner and pile in just in time for supper, after which we agree on a horribly early start the following morning and head to bed.

A sense of silence is not something you find on roads very often. Not for very long at any rate; there’s always another car just around the corner, or a trunk road in the distance creating a background rumble like the hiss on a vinyl record before the music itself starts playing. But it really is utterly peaceful up here – quiet enough to notice any residual ringing in your own ears. We paid our 15 euros at the hut and watched the barrier go up just after breakfast this morning and we won’t leave this magical toll road again until after darkness has firmly descended, yet fewer than half a dozen cars will have passed us all day. We’ve got the place to ourselves – all 21 miles of it.

The C4S is parked in a lay-by next to me, metal innards still gently pinging after the drive up to this summit, and a green and pumpkin-orange patchwork of cone-topped evergreens and larches is spread across the landscape in front of me. Mist and cloud are constantly evolving in the folds of the valleys and melting through the trees, the white gaseous cotton wool revealing then hiding different sections of road as you watch. It’s constantly teasing you like some meteorological dance of the seven veils.

It had been a good day even before we stopped to be mesmerised by the view. Adding a couple of driveshafts to the front axle really seems to have improved the 991. There’s definitely a touch more weight to the C4S’s steering but without it being in any way corrupted, and there also appears to be none of the slightly unnerving momentary slackness on turn-in that we previously noticed in cars fitted with PDCC. You really can lean on the more tenacious front end of the C4S, the wheel feeding back extra information to your hands. When the grip does start to run out it does so more progressively and then regains grip more swiftly, meaning you can play with it through a corner, judging how hard you’re pushing.

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The roads are cold and filthy wet – just the type of slippery conditions where I’ve really struggled with the lack of feel in the steering of the rear-wheel-drive 991, so they’re a perfect testing ground. So far I’ve certainly driven faster and (much more importantly) with vastly more confidence than I would have done in a C2S. It’s worth mentioning that the power, torque and 0-62mph figures (394bhp, 324lb ft and 4.1sec – with PDK and the Sport Chrono Package) are all exactly the same as for the Carrera S, so it really is the chassis that you’re paying the extra £6717 for.

There are a few unusual things about the Nockalmstrasse. For a start, instead of just going up one side of a mountain and then falling down the other, it seems to undulate over several different summits during its length, which is rather wonderful. Also, despite the 2000-metre-plus altitudes carved into various wooden signs outside chalets and refuges, it doesn’t actually look or feel very high or mountainous. I think it’s the lack of crags and towering peaks that does it. Finally, the road itself is surprisingly immaculate.

You might expect a piece of tarmac this high and remote to be treacherously narrow and wearing the scars of harsh winters, but not a bit of it. Yes, you have to tread lightly because clumsiness will not be readily forgiven by some of the drops over the side, but there is plenty of room along the road’s entire length for two cars to pass and there’s hardly a ripple or dodgy camber anywhere, so there’s a certain freedom to attack it. Apart from marmots, which today are no doubt burrowed deep in the mountainsides sheltering from the rain, the only real obstacles are a few unsettling cattle grids, which shimmy through the chassis like you’ve hit a strip of ice. Oh, and at this time of year there’s a carpet of larch needles on the outside of some corners, which can make you feel like you’ve strayed onto the marbles on a race circuit, with a similar reduction of grip.

The PDK ’box is faultless in its cog-swapping, beautifully smooth whether you’re pottering along in auto admiring the view or wringing it out in full Sport Plus mode. However, the smallish silver paddles attached to the back of the steering wheel still aren’t my favourite. They work faultlessly, but there’s something slightly too soft-touch about their action. I’d just like a more definite tipping or biting point in their travel that lets you know for sure that you’ve sent the electronic message for the next gear. The brakes are standard steel discs on this car, and are as powerful and full of feel as ever, encouraging you to squeeze them harder and later with each application. When combined with PDK, which unlike some systems (Mercedes) never seems to refuse a request as you rattle down the ’box into a hairpin, it is a truly immersive experience because you’re never left uncertain.

And then there’s the noise. If you’re going to be the only thing shattering a heavenly silence, then you don’t want to be so much a voice crying in the wilderness as a solo aria that makes the pine needles tingle. The C4S delivers. I’m not sure if ‘must create goosebumps’ was in the task list for whoever tuned the current generation of Porsche sports exhausts, but if it was they’ve succeeded. I’m a particular fan of the over-run that crackles like petrol-powered popping candy, but the wail from the flat-six as it climbs is equally spellbinding. For this reason I almost prefer the smaller 3.4-litre engine to the 3.8 of the ‘S’ models, simply because, although you miss the extra torque, you tend to access its 7000rpm flourish more frequently.

As we travel further it becomes clear that the Nockalmstrasse is draped almost luxuriously over the landscape. Much of the time it’s in no rush to wend its way up or down; it doesn’t switchback furiously like the Stelvio. Instead you find it varying the radii of its corners, with some bends so long that you seem to be applying lock almost until you think the circle must be complete. At other times there are long straights that seem to traverse entire mountainsides so that you keep pulling gears until the spray behind is rooster-tailing high into the air. You never quite know what sort of corner is next, let alone what’s around it.

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Out of the hairpins there is most definitely oversteer available if you want it, and the nice thing is that although it might not be quite as pure as in a rear-wheel-drive car, it is easier to manage because once the rear end has broken free, the power will transfer imperceptibly to the front wheels (as long as you don’t back out of the throttle entirely), which helps stabilise the slide. You still have to put in opposite lock to stop the swing, it just makes it easier to catch and hold the oversteer as you drive out of the corner. Most of the time, however, as in an R8, you would think the C4S was rear-wheel drive if you were blindfolded. On the TFT screen to the right of the rev-counter, you can bring up a real-time graphic that displays the distribution of torque in little orange bars, and it’s surprising to see how sparingly the central clutch sends power forwards.

Although sliding out of wet hairpins is fun, it’s the chassis balance through quicker stuff that is so enjoyable and where you really appreciate the extra confidence instilled by the four-wheel drive. On such slippery roads I doubt I would have been brave enough to turn off the PSM in a C2S, but when grip starts to run out in the C4S and you feel the front start pushing, you know you can work with it and ride the car on its limit of grip. Stepping over the edge doesn’t feel so intimidating.

At intervals throughout the day the rain returns and breaks across the mountains in great waves, ensuring the slickness of the roads stays somewhere between an oil spill and Roger Moore in a dinner jacket. Frequently the downpours are accompanied with high winds that at least carry away the curses of snapper Tom Salt and videographer Sam Riley as they get soaked again. In between, the mist returns, tantalising with mesmerising vistas one second, hiding the hand in front of your face the next. It’s fine for me – this driving nirvana might be spoilt by hordes of bikers if the weather was nice – but it couldn’t be much more difficult for Tom and Sam capturing the images. And then, mid-afternoon, the light disappears entirely. Which really pleases them.

When I open the curtains in the morning, it looks like a ski resort outside. Assuming the same rules apply in Austria as in Great Britain, I decide to defrost the 911, fire up the heated seats and find a big pristine car park to mess up with some tyre tracks. It’s utterly childish but huge amounts of fun sending plumes of snow into the freezing air from all four wheels. Turn the traction and stability controls off and it couldn’t be simpler to make yourself dizzy doing slow doughnuts.

After a suitable amount of time looking like a dog chasing its own tail, we load all the kit up and head off down the steep, slippery road towards the valley, trying to ignore its resemblance to a bobsleigh run. Once the snow has retreated a bit, we head south along the merely damp valley road towards Gmünd and it strikes me that the 4S’s even wider track, combined with the optional engine mounts and PDCC, make this possibly the flattest-cornering 911 ever. It hardly rolls at all, and those classic 911 handling traits are subtler than ever. No real waiting for the nose to settle, no real caution about the engine being slung out pendulously behind you. It almost feels like a well-balanced mid-engined car and you drive it with much more positivity as a result, especially on turn-in. The smooth-shifting PDK only adds to the sense of invincibility. That’s not to say the C4S is boring, but it’s more normal in the way it behaves.

The Pfeifhofer Porsche museum in Gmünd is a family-run concern set up in 1982, but it is sufficiently regarded that it has links to the main Porsche museum in Stuttgart, which loans some exhibits. Gmünd is a lovely small town on the border with the Czech Republic, with a castle and a wide high street. The museum is on the outskirts, in a half-timber building that used to be stables. Inside, amongst other things, is a wonderful collection of scale models, a line-up of early boxer engines, a gorgeous Martini-liveried 935, a 996 police car and a fascinating cutaway of a 968.

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There are also some pictures of the Cisitalia on the wall, with a few details. The bodywork looks quite delicate with a slightly duck-bill slant to the nose, but round the back you can also see hints of the Auto Union C-types that Porsche worked on before the Second World War. The Cisitalia had a 1.5-litre supercharged flat-12 engine that produced 385bhp at 10,500rpm and was attached to a sequential gearbox. Bafflingly, the four-wheel drive could be manually engaged or disengaged.

As we move to leave, Tom, who speaks excellent German, has a chat to Helmut Pfeifhofer, who set up the museum and is manning the ticket desk. Tom explains what we’re doing and Helmut asks if we’d like to see the original factory. If so, his son Christoph will be along in a minute and can take us there – it’s only a few minutes away. It turns out that Helmut has bought the original factory to save it from being demolished and has restored it to what it would have been like in the late ’40s.

Sure enough, Christoph turns up and we follow his A6 the couple of miles to what was originally a sawmill. The gate is unlocked and we’re allowed to park the C4S in front of the shuttered building to take a few photographs.

‘Would you like to see inside?’ says Christoph once the camera has stopped clicking. Cue much smiling and nodding from us.

As you walk up the steps and through the main door, it’s like you’ve gone through into Narnia. The smell is slightly musty and there’s an overriding sense that you really have stepped back 65 years. You’re in a narrow, dark hallway with a row of hooks where an old white mechanic’s jacket is hanging, complete with threadbare VW patch on the breast pocket. Off to the left is a large room that was the canteen, but turn right and you’re in the main reception where workers clocked on and off. It’s incredible to think that this is what everything in Zuffenhausen grew from. Walk across the wooden floor and through another door and you are in Ferdinand Porsche’s office, complete with large drawing board. You almost expect him to come wandering through the door and take up a pencil.

And what is pinned to the wall? Technical drawings of the Cisitalia. It’s impossible to stop a shiver running down my spine. I’m glad Porsche still does four-wheel-drive cars, not just because I think the C4S is the best current 911, but because it’s led me here.

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