Porsche's 911 has always been something of a race car for public roads. The company stuck with lightweight construction and a powerful but low-displacement engine, rather than engage in horsepower wars with other automakers.
And while the 2012 911 Carrera S preserves these traditional Porsche virtues, it is the most everyday-drivable 911 yet. With the chassis left in its comfort setting and the two Sport modes off, the car almost delivers a luxury ride. With the Porsche Doppelkupplungsgetriebe (PDK) grabbing gears automatically, this 911 Carrera S is accessible to drivers who might have previously preferred a BMW.
Sports car fans tend to scoff at dual-clutch automated manual transmissions. There is certainly more skill required, and fun to be had, working the clutch on a good old manual. But the seven-speed PDK is extraordinarily smart.
Using its computer-controlled clutches to anticipate the next gear change, it never failed to grab the right gear in automatic mode, and did not hesitate when I chose to shift manually. It may not be as fun as the seven-speed manual Porsche also offers in the 911 Carrera S, but it is very satisfying in its performance.
When I hit the brakes on the approach to a turn, it downshifted quickly, and even seemed to grab lower gears the harder I pressed the brake pedal. Swooping down twisty back roads, it knew when I was driving hard, picking the right gear to get power when it was time to hit the gas on a turn exit.
Porsche has made great refinements to the 911 Carrera S' engine, too. Preserving the flat six, this naturally aspirated direct-injection 3.8-liter produces 400 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque. Rear-mounted, it hangs out less over the rear axle than in the previous generation, as Porsche extended the wheelbase of the 911 by 4 inches, but only added 2.2 inches to the overall length.
The low weight of the car (3,120 pounds), the power of the engine, and the quick-shifting PDK all lead to a 60-mph time of 3.9 seconds. And, just as important, the 911 Carrera S drops speed as fast as it gains it. The car comes standard with six piston brakes up front and four piston brakes on the rear wheels. The stopping power is truly excellent, as modulating the brakes let me precisely slow the car depending on the upcoming turn. If this is what the simple Carrera S can do, I cannot wait to drive a GTS.
CNET's car came with the optional Porsche Dynamic Chassis Control (PDCC), complementing the standard Porsche Active Suspension Management (PASM), which pushes back against body roll to keep all four tires in maximum contact with the pavement. Adding to the fun are active engine mounts to dynamically counter the engine's inertia in turns.
A new standard feature, adding to the overwhelming list of acronyms on the 911 Carrera S, is Porsche Torque Vectoring (PTV). With the PDK present, PTV uses an electronically controlled differential lock. This system applies light braking to the inside wheel during quick cornering.
Although Porsche's handling technology sounds dangerously complex, it does not intrude on the driving experience. Apparently there was a lot going on in its brain, but to me the 911 Carrera S just seemed like an incredibly easy-to-handle sports car. It happened to be raining most of the time I was driving the car, but even on wet roads it always felt controllable. Bumpy back roads did not upset it, as it absorbed the shocks while staying pointed in the right direction.
One of the more controversial changes to the 911 comes with Porsche's adoption of an electric power-steering system. The steering feel is changed significantly, the new system giving point-and-shoot response. Most of the wheel resistance comes with the system's desire for a wheels-straight position. Some might feel Porsche numbed the steering feel, but, like the PDK, this bit of technology offered easier control of the car in challenging moments.
In a push for greater fuel economy, Porsche added an idle-stop system to the 911, shutting down the engine at stop lights. This system can be turned off at the push of a button, but I did not find it particularly intrusive, and it helps the car turn in an EPA-rated fuel economy of 20 mpg city and 27 mpg highway. In CNET's hands, the 911 Carrera S only averaged 18 mpg, but chalk that up to a lot of drive time spent in Sport and Sport Plus modes.
The idle-stop system turned out to be pretty smart. Stopped in traffic on a San Francisco hill, windshield offering a beautiful sky view, the car did not let the engine shut down, and even activated a hill hold feature to prevent rollback. It also deactivated idle-stop on down slopes.
Porsche puts a lot of technology into the 911 Carrera S' engine and handling, but does not quite match that level of innovation in the cabin. The cabin tech suite, going under the acronym-producing name Porsche Communication Management (PCM), is overall very good, and what you would expect in a car of this lofty price. But Porsche is not pushing any boundaries here.