Porsche 911 through the ages - Porsche 911 group test conclusion

The new 991-spec Porsche 911 can trace its roots back through half a century of automotive evolution. Richard Meaden charts the iconic coupe’s journey

Perhaps it’s inevitable that if you start with a layout so at odds with physics, the battle to tame the resulting waywardness becomes an overriding priority. In the days before the electronic aids we now take for granted, Porsche’s desire to control the 911s handling and simultaneously increase its performance was justified. But now?

The 2.2T was educational, especially as its soft suspension and skinny tyres showed what passed as high-performance dynamics in the ’60s. The body roll and ‘I don’t remember it raining’ road-holding made it feel all its 43 years, yet there was delicacy in how it could be driven to the limit of its grip, and its small flat-six was a gem.

The 3.0 SC was an unexpected star. It did help that this example was mint, but we weren’t prepared for how much it moved the game on from the 2.2T in performance and handling, yet preserved so many of the old-school characteristics you’d want to keep. There’s a lesson there somewhere.

Both the 3.2 Carrera and the 993 lacked a certain something; the former felt a bit cumbersome and unwilling, thanks mainly to heavy unassisted steering combined with increased mechanical grip. In the context of the other air-cooled cars, the 993 had a whiff of the 991 about it, having apparently traded the fine tactility and ‘connectedness’ exhibited by the best of its predecessors for prettier looks and greater all-round dynamic polish.

The 964 and 996 ‘underdogs’ both emerged with honour. If you’re looking for the best blend of dynamic challenge and reward, and levels of performance that remain impressive in 2012, it’s very hard to beat a 964 Carrera 2. It was also heartening to find plenty to like about the generally unloved 996. If you can look past the mediocre interior, the uplift in urgency and precision over the 993 is amazing.

Then, of course, there’s the 997, which sets the benchmark for all future 911s.

What we learned is that the best 911s share a sense of connection, transparency and an all-pervading feeling that you’re driving something unique. Things go wrong when that balance is skewed in favour of grip and power, or refinement and stability. evo isn’t lobbying to restore widow-making on-limit handling, but now electronic stability systems can smooth on-limit behaviour, it’s surely unnecessary to erase the last traces of a dynamic fingerprint that makes your car unique.

The 991 has such complete mastery of its own mass that it was hard to tell whether it was rear-engined or mid-engined. That’s an extraordinary engineering achievement, but also a little bit sad, at least if you believe a 911’s feel should reflect its engine positioning. Hopefully Porsche can accept it has exorcised the dynamic demons of that outboard motor and apply its prodigious talents to amplifying the 911’s feel and expression a little bit more.

With thanks to Thom Dean, Andrew Buchanan, Ben Bradley, Mark Hinxman and Paul Stephens for the loan of their cars, and to the Porsche Experience Centre at Silverstone. For a fine selection of classic 911s, visit www.paul-stephens.com

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