My brother-in-law sent me an email asking what, exactly, it’s like to drive a 911. Here’s what I said.
At 10:41 AM 12/5/2008, A.J. Reilly wrote:
If you get a chance, could you describe for me what it’s like to drive a 911?; From the touch to the power, handling. I think I’m falling for it.
When you get in, the first thing you notice is that the ignition is on the left. The 911 has a regular key-none of that keep-it-your-pocket stuff. The base of the key is shaped like a triangle and it’s easy to accidentally hit the buttons on it, so you need to be gentle. The seats are narrow, and you sit on them rather than in them-only skinny people truly fit in the seats. You can pull the steering wheel out toward you until you find a reasonably comfortable driving position. The wheel is the perfect size, but it’s skinny and much more delicate than BMW’s crazy-thick steering wheel. You have the sense that you’re in a pretty good-size car, because there’s lots of light and lots of room. If you flick the shifter around a little, you find that it’s very light. Notchy, but in a good way. Once you’re halfway into a gear, it falls the rest of the way in on its own.
Reach over with your left hand and turn the key. The engine cranks slowly, almost as if the starter isn’t strong enough or the battery is half dead. When the engine fires, you release the key and there’s a clattering sound as the starter winds down. The engine, however, explodes to life with a big “rawwwwr” of noise-clattery noise, mind you, with lifters ticking and pistons slapping. And all of the noise is behind you, as if someone just turned on a car behind you. You can feel the engine misfiring a little when it’s cold. You watch the tach needle move around a little. A Honda this is not. There’s only a little bit of vibration-and it’s somehow slower than it should be-but you still feel every firing of the engine. Blip the throttle a just a bit and the tach needle swings faster than you expect . . . and then drops down immediately to idle. There’s no hanging onto revs. It just dives back down. The entire car twists when you blip the throttle, too.
Press in the clutch. It feels heavy-really heavy-but mostly because of the seat, which causes you to wrench your back a little. You’re sitting too close to the wheel, with your knees are almost touching the bottom of it. The cabin is big, but the seat, the steering wheel, the gauges, and the shifter feel a little claustrophobic. You’re worried that if you stall it, you’re going to forget to go for the key on the left. But you’re in a 911, so who cares?
When you push the shifter into first, it’s a little resistant. Tap the gas a little to bring the revs up, and you get way more than you asked for. Abort. Try again. Try to keep it under 2000 rpm. At first you think it’s going to be tough. You just know you’re going to stall the engine, but you don’t, because the 911 talks to you. You start to let the clutch up, and right when you think “it should catch here,” it does. Not in an all-at-once, stall-and-lurch-forward way. It catches just enough to pull down the revs a little. Give it a little more gas, ease the clutch up a little more, and you’re off, perfectly smoothly. No jerking. No bucking. The clutch did exactly what you thought it would. It has good initial bite and is easy to modulate. Maybe you’re not such a hack.
The car takes off slowly, as if it weighs 4500 pounds. The engine feels like it has a heavy flywheel that makes it tough to stall. Unlike Japanese cars, where the first 10 percent of the gas pedal’s travel does 90 percent of the throttle opening, the 911 is more linear. Ten percent pedal means ten percent power. You move away slowly.
The steering wheel snaps straight ahead, like a go-kart. This is not a gentle reminder of where straight ahead is; it’s an authoritative “now you vill go straight” command. You may only be moving at jogging speed, but the front wheels are already reading the road. You run over a pebble and feel a tick in the wheel. The crown of the road starts to drop off to the right, and the steering tugs to the right. You go faster, and the steering gets heavier.
As you near 3000 rpm, still in first gear under light throttle, you approach the point where the power starts to run out. It’s time to shift. The engine note gets clattery again. The exhaust music is replaced by valvetrain noise and piston slap. The car’s telling you to *** or get off the pot: give more gas or shift into second.
Step on the clutch, and the shift lever falls into second gear practically on its own. You let the clutch out, and get back on the gas. But you’re not quick enough. The revs have dropped back to idle, so when you let out the clutch, it needs to bring the engine speed back up… your head lurches forward. Mental note: Next time, make a quicker shift.
With a little more load in second, you give more gas and slowly bring up the speed. The front end no longer cares where straight is-it’s following Sir Isaac. Road crowns, truck grooves, it goes wherever Newton tells it to. You round a bend, and the steering doesn’t stop reading the road to you, but the crazy thing is that the effort builds so much off center. You know if you let the steering wheel go, it’ll snap right back to center, not ooze back like in most cars. Plotted on a piece of paper, the steering effort would be a gradient, not a straight line: the more you turn the wheel, the harder it is to turn. In most cars, the steering wheel feels the same whether you’re turning from center to half-lock, or from half-lock to full-lock. In the 911, if someone blindfolded you in mid-corner and put your hands on the wheel, you’d find straight-ahead in 0.3 seconds flat. And you’d know that the road had positive camber and a dropoff to the right, because as you moved right in the lane, the steering would tighten and then loosen. Oh, there’s the peak in the road crown. I’ll stay in the middle, thank you very much.
The front end is moving around a lot, vertically, because there’s almost no weight there. Big, heavy cars with a lot of weight move up and down slowly-light cars move quickly. Light cars with the engine hanging out back have negative weight on the front axle (well, not really, but they feel like it), so the front end pitches and bobs and moves around. You hear the engine behind you, which could simply be a loud exhaust but isn’t-the motions of the front end that tell you where the weight isn’t.
Once again, the exhaust starts to clatter. It’s time to shift. This time, you squeeze the throttle a bit more and the smooooth six gets a little angry. The whir turns into a bark, the exhausts sound like trumpets, and the tach starts climbing quickly. You know this is a fast car, and when you hit 4000 rpm, the engine comes alive.
Revs build and build, and each time you think that the fury is going to ease off, the engine just gets stronger. You reach 5000-now the flat six is seriously angry. At 6000, you think it’s got to stop pulling, but you’re not going to lift; it sounds way too good for that. You get to 7000 and the hairs are standing up on the back of your neck. People are watching, and you’re placing your foot on the clutch to prepare for your shift into third.
But you hit the limiter first. It’s soft on this particular 911. Somewhere over 7000, you just suddenly run out of steam. You didn’t shift because the engine never stopped pulling. And it didn’t sound like it was going to blow up, either. It wanted more; the computer just wouldn’t let it. So you shift into third-quickly now, don’t forget that the revs drop like a brick. And you nail it. The gears are spaced more closely than you think, so the revs are once again pretty high. The clutch caught so progressively that it put the engine right where it wanted to be-there’s no bucking this time. Back on the gas.
Third comes and goes in no time, and you’re at 100 mph.
Every shift from this point on is smooth. There’s no reason to be rough; the car helps you avoid it. There’s just enough vibration in the shifter to tell you where the engine’s revs are. The clutch is progressive and positive enough to give you some slack, and the throttle will let you hold the revs where you want during clutch engagement. Don’t think for a second that this is a sappy throttle linkage. Any movement you make with your right foot creates an instantaneous response from the engine. But it’s the response you wanted, not some computer saying, “Hey, this dude thinks he’s driving in a sporty way now, so we’ll give him 90 percent throttle even though he only asked for 50 percent.”; There are no “sporty” gimmicks with the 911; it is far too mature for that. It simply gives you the immediate response that you want.
When you lay on the gas coming out of a corner (once you can see through it, mind you), you’ll feel the engine’s weight and thrust tugging at the rear wheels. The first couple of times, you think it’s going to pull the car sideways. There’s a lot going on in back-the weight makes up-and-down motions at the rear much slower than at the front. And there’s a ton of tail-wagging. You don’t feel it so much yourself, but the steering tells you. If the right rear tire puts down more thrust for a split second, it turns the car to the left the steering wheel tugs to the left. Under lots of load around turns with broken pavement, you’ll get 500 messages a second. Left right left right, right right right vibration left left… Once you understand that the 911′s rear end isn’t actually going anywhere, you realize that the steering wheel-which is connected to only the front wheels of course-is actually now telling you what the *rear* wheels are doing.
Mind you, it never stopped telling you what was going on up front, either.
Unlike a normal rear-wheel-drive car, the 911′s ass isn’t ever going to step out under acceleration. You’re not going to spin a tire, either-not in the dry, anyway. So you can power out of crazy, second-gear turns under full throttle. The car squats on its rear, and the weight transfer makes the steering go a little light. The front end will start to push a little, and you know immediately when that happens, because all communication is cut off. Well, maybe not all, but compared with the assault of steering feedback you’ve gotten used to, there’s effectively nothing there. Effort is gone. You can turn in more; there’s no resistance.
Back off the throttle slightly, and *bam* the steering comes back. Whoops, you just learned how to understeer a 911. As you turn the wheel, effort builds and builds and builds, and just when you think about getting a gym membership so you’re strong enough to deal with all that steering weight, the wheel melts in your hand. The whole thing-wheel, steering column, rack-all gone. Melted into a puddle of goo.
Mind you, when you lifted-just that little bit-you felt the steering snap back to work. But you also felt the back end snap back into line. “I’m still here,” it said. Not really a warning; just a reminder. This is a 911; understand what will happen if you lift. Yes, sir. It won’t happen again, sir.
It’s time to brake. You’ve heard the expression before, but the 911′s pedal is rock solid. What that means is that the pedal doesn’t seem to move in response to more and more pressure. You just press harder, not deeper. There’s no give. And the relationship between pressure and stopping power is perfectly direct. It’s as if your sneaker is pressing right on a brake disc that’s spinning under your feet. You press harder, and the car slows more. You relax your leg, and the car stops stopping so hard. It sounds so easy and so simple, yet it must be tough to do, because so few car companies get this right. If this were an Audi, your sneaker and the rotor would have Velcro and Krazy-Glue on them-touch the rotor and you come to a screeching halt 50 feet before you meant to. If it were a GTI, you would have sprayed your shoe with maple syrup and marshmallows first. Yeah, you’ll slow down, but your shoe feels all gooey.
Not in the 911. And what you don’t know now is that after twenty laps on a track, when other brake pedals feel like you’re sticking your foot into 3M Rubbing Compound (slimy, but with lots of little gritty sand in it), the 911′s brakes will feel exactly the same as they do now. They’ll never change no matter how hard you beat them, and there’s nothing more reassuring than that.
Like almost all modern cars, the latest 911 will cover huge amounts of ground with ridiculous speed with ease. The difference between it and other cars, though, is that it lets you know how hard it’s working. Most cars tell you essentially nothing. You can only infer what’s going on by looking at the speedometer. Some cars-like the Lotus Elise, also one of my faves-tell you a little too much on public roads. It beats you up. The 911 tells you just the right amount: you know what it’s doing at all times, not because it complains or because it makes you withstand some of the abuse, but because it sends you the equivalent of really well-worded reports from an anal-retentive project manager. You know exactly what is going on. You’re not feeling it directly, but someone you trust is telling you everything you need to know.
Is the 911 perfect? I think it is, but I’m sure some people will find fault with it. Sure, some people object to the 911′s rear-engine layout. I don’t find it to be a fault, merely a variation. The rear engine’s liabilities on the road (its tendency to swap ends if you lift in a corner) become an asset on the track, as it’s the very definition of throttle-adjustability. More important, no front-engine, rear-wheel-drive car can put down power like a 911 can. Without provocation, a 911 is as likely to power oversteer as Amy Winehouse is to make it to 30. Of course, a Scandinavian flick with a lift will kick the ass right out-and then judicious power will hold it there with no problem. If you’re smooth, however, the 911′s rear end will stay obediently in place under power.
In fact, driving a 911 fast on a racetrack isn’t unlike driving a front-wheel-drive car. Too much power often incites understeer; not oversteer. Lift in a corner and get it sideways, and there’s only one way to gather it up: get back on the gas. People are afraid of lift-off oversteer, but watch a FOX special on insane car crashes, and you’ll see that a Camry will do that, too. Use it correctly, and lift-off oversteer becomes a tool to help position the car… a quick, slight lift tucks the nose right in.; On the road, older 911s will kill you if you lift (or heaven forbid, try to brake) in the middle of a corner should a deer jump out in front of you. But the modern marvel of ABS and PSM stability control have fixed that issue.
On the track, there are cars that are better balanced and more precise (the Cayman and the Boxster, for example), but they’re also easier to drive. The 911 isn’t about boiling anything down to the least common denominator. It’s not about being easy to drive. I don’t want a car to be easy. A Camry is easy to drive. The 911 is a tool that needs to be mastered. It takes work. And once it’s mastered, it can accomplish more than any other tool on the planet.
In fact, there’s no car on earth more rewarding to drive every day-on the street, on back roads, in the mountains, or on the track-than the Porsche 911. So it’s no wonder you’re falling in love with the idea. Whatever you do, don’t drive a 911, or you’ll do what I did: you’ll buy one.