On track: 2009 Porsche 911

A look at the new 911's ability where it is best demonstrated, on a race track.

Auto Tech
Carey Russ

The usual procedure for the driving part of an automotive press introduction is four to six hours in the car, on the road. "Road" meaning a mix of entertaining and hopefully uncrowded back roads, some freeway, and as little city traffic as possible, all with the intention of highlighting the featured vehicle's capabilities and comfort.

That is adequate, and appropriate, for most cars, even relatively high-performance cars. Most cars get used mainly around town and on the freeway, with maybe a lucky clear shot at an empty canyon road early on a weekend morning.

The Porsche 911 can do all of that, easily. Like most German cars, it's seriously underemployed on American roads. So, rather than tempt fate and the Highway Patrol by exploring its limits on the street, said limits are best approached on the track. Speed is legal, and even expected, on a racetrack. Just don't try to break the laws of physics. Porsche 911s and derivatives thereof have an enviable record in competition, at all levels from autocrosses, time trials, and club racing to top-level professional motorsports. I suspect the 911 and its close relatives have more victories than anything else that has ever raced--and not only class wins, but overall wins in major endurance races.

The 2009 911 introduction was based in Park City, Utah, but the real activity was at Miller Motorsports Park (MMP), near Tooele, Utah. The first ride and drive session was from Park City to the track, after the morning commute in intervening Salt Lake City. Modus operandi: get in Carrera S Coupe with all the trimmings including PDK, put it in D, take the highway, switching drivers halfway. Verdict: The car is civilized and comfortable enough to drive all day, probably for days. No surprise there. The PDK shifted as gently as a good torque-converter automatic, and the engine was remarkably civilized--even though it produces more than 100 horsepower per liter of displacement, making it one of the most highly tuned street-legal cars available. No fuss, no drama, no rough idle, no fouled plugs.

On the track, we had the opportunity to try different varieties of 911 for two laps each. If that doesn't sound like much track time, wrong. The full course at MMP is more than four miles long and very technical. Five cars times two laps times 4 miles equals 40 miles, not counting extras. Each journalist was accompanied by a driving instructor, who offered driving tips and acted as a navigator--much appreciated due to the length and complexity of the course. "Driving instructor" with Porsche does not mean your high school gym teacher. The title of Chief Driving Instructor for the Porsche Driving Experience is held by Hurley Haywood, who has had a pro racing career since the 1970s, with five wins at the 24 Hours of Daytona, three at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and two at the 12 Hours of Sebring being just some of the highlights. My instructor was Kees Nierop, winner of the 1983 12 Hours of Sebring in a 911-derived Porsche 934.

The 911 differs from every other car in production today because of its engine/chassis layout. It is truly rear-engined, with that engine hung out behind the rear axle as in the 356 before it, and its distant relative the original VW Beetle. That can give some rather unique handling characteristics, and early 911s, not to mention high-powered derivatives like the 930 Turbo, were well-known for that. With more than the usual amount of weight to the rear, traction for acceleration is excellent, and aided by further weight transfer to the rear. But under deceleration, things are a little different.

Weight transfers to the front, decreasing the grip of the rear wheels. Turn while this is happening and the pendulum effect of the engine behind the rear wheels adds to the fun. The technical term is "trailing throttle oversteer," and it can be utilized for faster cornering by a very good driver. Kees or Hurley or any of the other instructors, yes. You or me, not likely. 911s have been tamed over the years, with chassis and suspension revisions and even engine design helping. Stability control systems like PSM help even more, activating individual brakes to compensate for oversteer or understeer. But there is still more of a propensity for trailing throttle oversteer in a new 911 than in most other cars, and 911 aficionados demand that.

I only got into trailing throttle oversteer once, and then only a little. Getting the wrong line into one corner, I came in too hot and braked heavily. The rear end gave just enough of a twitch to let me know, no major problem although I suspect that PSM had more to do with that than my skills. Pushed to a degree that, on public roads, would get you a PhD in traffic school if not free accommodations at a government hotel, the 911 was in its element.

2009 Porsche 911 at the track Carey Russ

Some cars had the manual gearbox, others had PDK. The stick shifted quickly and smoothly, and the engine's wide torque band meant that third gear was used for 80 percent of the time, with shifts down to second for tight corners and up to fourth for the straights. I used PDK in both manual and automatic modes. Surprise--automatic was quicker. The transmission computer learns what the driver wants, and quickly, as in within the first half mile. There were no inappropriate shifts, like in the middle of a corner, which can seriously upset control of the car at speed. Only once was the car in too high a gear for a corner, and that was largely my fault, as I got in too hot and jammed on the brakes. Even then it was no big deal, given the wide torque band.

There is something satisfying about using a good manual gearbox, but the PDK shifts more quickly, and also works wonderfully as an automatic when that's desired, as in heavy traffic. Its twin clutches are of the motorcycle-type multidisk wet variety, and so are designed to tolerate slippage. They should last the life of the car.

There is another advantage to the PDK, and that is launch control, part of the Sport Chrono Plus package. That was demonstrated by the pro drivers, with journalists as passengers. Technique: floor the gas pedal while holding the brake, then let up on the brake. Electronic and mechanical wizardry keeps transmission damage at bay, and traction control and the limited-slip differential (optional and highly recommended) keep rubber damage to a minimum. Still, it probably could be used for chiropractic treatment.

Sport Chrono Plus plus PASM (Porsche Active Suspension Management) plus PDK equals high-tech real-time chassis and transmission tuning. In regular mode it's fine for street comfort. In Sport mode, firmer damping, quicker shifts, and increased limits before the antilock brake and stability systems intervene allow quicker driving. In Sport-plus mode, you very nearly have your own race car. The transmission and shocks no longer learn your driving style, they're preprogrammed to go into maximum-performance mode only. It's wonderful on the track, ymmv (your mileage may vary) on the evening commute.

At the end of the day it was time for a demonstration of the 911's true abilities. That meant hot laps, with the pros driving. With a good driver, a 911 is happy to make tires sing for miles, with no fuss from the car. Lap times were probably 30 seconds or more less than the best by any journalist. No overheating, no misplaced fluids, no problem except for happy Michelin people, who were supplying the tires. This was wave one of five. By the end of the week, Michelin is going to be very happy.

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