Porsches with turbochargers used to be terrifying. So much so that older 911s were frequently derided—or praised, depending on how you look at it—as “widowmakers.” Now, they are the easiest way to go really fast, something that dawned on me as I drove a 2017 Porsche 911 Carrera S with two turbochargers down a twisting California backroad.
(Full Disclosure: Porsche wanted me to drive their new 911 so bad they lent one to me with a full tank of gas in Los Angeles and picked it up a week later in San Francisco.)
The five-letter “turbo” insignia on the back of a Porsche 911 used to do more than distinguish how the engine delivered its power—it used to separate an entirely different class of car and driver. The cars were so powerful, so crazy fast and so unpredictable at the limit, that you had to be insane to really drive one.
A friend of mine owns more than five old air-cooled Porsche 911s and describes the driving dynamics like an old muscle car. “Anemic off-boost,” he said. “Terrifying in the corners.” “Only fun in a straight line.” He wound up swapping the turbocharger in his 993 Turbo for a supercharger in the search for more predictable, linear power.
And this idea of having an insanely fast “turbo” version of a car was fine, because there were naturally-aspirated, “normal” 911s available. But not anymore, as the only naturally-aspirated 911s on sale are the GT3 and GT3RS. Good luck getting either one of those.
So, now that this new Carrera S is actually a “turbo” Porsche, that means it must drive like a turbo Porsche.
At Porsche, this model generation is referred to internally as the 991.2, indicating it’s more of a mid-cycle refresh than an “all new” car. But there are a few noticeable improvements over the previous 991, like the completely new motor for better power and fuel economy, a redesigned rear fascia for addressing air intake and intercooling needs, active front air flaps for better aerodynamics, a new infotainment system for less headache and new door handles.
As is traditional with Porsche, the way your vehicle looks and feels comes down to which option boxes were checked during the build process. My test unit’s MSRP was $37,065 over the original $103,400 starting price, $3,140 of which was spent on the “Miami Blue” paint job.
And boy, is it worth every penny.
I drove this car from LA to San Francisco, and part of that journey included convoying to Monterey with our friends from Road & Track. That meant my 911 was always parked next to an F12 Berlinetta, a 570GT and a Mustang GT350.
No matter where or when I looked at our group of $500,000+ sports cars, my eyes were always drawn to the 911 first. Thank Miami Blue for that. The color is polarizingly delightful.
Besides updated headlights and taillights, the Carrera S gets a new adaptive rear spoiler that directs air to the intakes for both combustion and cooling, meaning the spoiler has a thermodynamic function in addition to an aerodynamic function. Plus, the exhausts are spaced out ever so slightly wider away from one another, which looks great to my eye.
Other than a leather interior ($3,850), sports seats ($420) and a few more minute details, the rest of the option boxes checked on my test unit dealt with performance, like the $3,200 PDK transmission.
And it’s not a question of whether or not I’d miss the manual (I’ll always miss driving a manual), it’s a question of whether or not the driving experience is negatively affected by not having the manual. PDK makes this turbocharged 911 what it is; the transmission is an integral part of its handling and character.
The first Porsche PDK I ever used was in a first-generation Panamera, and like many early dual-clutch transmissions it was clunky and abrupt, especially from a stop. The car suffered as a result of its transmission. That’s not the case with the Carrera S.
This PDK is not only smoother than that first-gen Panamera, it’s smarter. Stop start, for instance, is a fuel-saving tech we’re all familiar with, but Porsche takes it a step further.
This PDK will cut the engine somewhere under five miles per hour while decelerating, letting you coast to a stop with the engine off. If that seems like it’d be annoying, it’s not. Somehow, it feels much less invasive than a traditional stop start system.
Additionally, when you’re cruising at highway speeds off-throttle, the PDK employs a behavior called “virtual intermediate gears” that, from behind the wheel, feels like coasting down the highway with the clutch in (if you were driving a manual). Surprisingly, this also never gets bothersome because as soon as you put your foot back on the throttle to maintain speed or accelerate, the transmission seamlessly re-engages. And since the PDK has oil-bathed clutches, none of this eco-behavior causes additional wear or tear.
If you opt for the $2,085 Sport Chrono Package (and you should) you get the same mode switch you’d find in a 918, which genuinely gives you a lot of control over how your car handles. In normal mode, things are as you would expect—quiet, comfortable, and cozy. Switching into sport sharpens up the steering, the ride, and the throttle response even further, but sport plus is really where the fun begins.
The shifts are instantaneous—they’re as fast as those in a sequential race box—but what’s most impressive is not the speed of the shifts, it’s when they happen.
In sport plus, when you’re caning the car, the transmission becomes intuitive. It works with you, never against, holding gears when you need it, shifting as you would if you took control yourself.
The finest piece of the PDK transmission, though, is somewhat of a secret. On the center of the mode switch, there’s a small black button Porsche calls the “Sport Response Button” that you’d otherwise glance right over. When pressed, though, it’s like turning Dr. Jekyl into Mr. Hide.
A series of instantaneous changes happen to the car the moment you press the button. The car sets itself up for “maximum acceleration” for 20 seconds, and a timer pops up on the gauge cluster telling you so. The transmission downshifts into the perfect gear depending on your speed and throttle application.
The turbos spool up, the center console with all the various suspension, steering, and exhaust modes light up like a Christmas tree and when you mash the throttle, you’re gone. After 20 seconds, the feature disables itself, and resumes the mode you were previously in.
Have to quickly pass a car? Hit the button to get a quick downshift and blast on past them. Is there a tunnel approaching? Hit the button to open up the exhaust. Is there a straightaway ahead with a chance to let loose? Hit the button. Pressing it is as addicting as it is dangerous, since triple-digit speeds could be reached within five seconds of pressing the button, while another 15 more seconds tick away on the clock.
The 991.2 Carrera S’s engine is a 3.0-liter twin-turbo flat-six producing 420 horsepower and 368 lb-ft of torque. Even though respectable but that’s not an astronomical amount of power by today’s overinflated performance car standards, it doesn’t matter, because the 911 feels much faster than the advertised power output leads you to believe.
That’s due to the harmonious relationship between the PDK and the new turbocharged engine. Drive the car on a twisting Californian back road and it becomes abundantly clear.
Part of what makes the Carrera S feel so fast is that Porsche engineers essentially made their own version of a rally-style turbo anti-lag system. If you’re hauling ass and you ease off the throttle, the throttle valve is kept partially open, retaining boost pressure so that when you eventually go back on the throttle, you’re met with all 16 psi of boost. Pairing this with a transmission that shifts instantaneously is a big part of this car’s uninterrupted speed.
There are a set of twisties just south of San Francisco, CA that’s the closest thing I’ve found resembling the set of chicanes at Virginia International Raceway. As soon as they came into view, I flipped the car into Sport Plus mode, mashed the throttle and hung on.
The $8,520 carbon-ceramic composite brakes were smooth, as was the suspension. The Carrera S has new and improved dampers, a new chassis tune, a lower ride height and a wider rear track, but the car’s limits are so high that you really don’t notice those things on the street. What you do notice is the optional rear-axle steering, the same unit found on the 991 GT3 and GT3 RS.
Between 31 and 50 miles-per-hour, the rear wheels can steer either in the same or the opposite direction, depending on the driving situation. If the car’s computers decide that the wheels should turn the opposite direction, the wheelbase is effectively shortened, making the car more nimble with less steering input.
If the car’s computers decide the wheels should turn in the same direction, you’ve got greater stability due to the “faster build-up of lateral forces at the rear axle.” Those are Porsche’s words, not mine.
What this means behind the wheel is the car feels agile but also stable. The car always feels planted, as if you don’t actually need the bolstering on the seats. It feels like the g-forces are pushing down on you, more so than side-to-side. It’s a weird feeling, but a good one. A new generation tire from Pirelli also helps grip through the corners, but where the Carrera S really excels is coming out of them.
Again, if you rewound the clock 30 years back, stuck yourself into a Porsche 911 capital-T-Turbo and mashed the throttle exiting a corner, you’d be gone. Turbo lag, uncompromising chassis, they’d do you in. This is where the 2017 Carrera S separates itself from that old Porsche stigma.
Thanks, oddly, to the new car’s PDK transmission, there is no turbo lag to surprise you, no snap oversteer, no lack of grip. Because this engine, transmission, and chassis are so in-tune with one another, the car feels faster than advertised. When you do get on the throttle exiting a corner, you just accelerate without drama.
After that stretch of backroad ended, I hopped on the highway and headed back to San Francisco. I thought about my friend who had replaced that old turbocharging unit on his 911 years ago.
The level of chassis and engine technology in these new turbos does more than make the car not-terrifying on a country road; it’s fun, but it’s also easy.
No longer is the car only good in a straight line, no longer do only crazy people drive turbo Porsches. Anyone can get in one. Anyone can go fast now. You don’t need to be special.
Engine: 3.0-liter twin-turbo boxer 6
Power: 420 HP at 6,500 RPM / 368 lb-ft at 1,700-5000 RPM
Transmission: Seven-speed PDK (Porsche Doppelkupplung)
0-60 Time: 3.7 seconds (claimed)
Top Speed: 191 MPH
Curb Weight: 3,219 pounds
Seating: 4 people
MPG: 22 City / 28 Highway (from EPA)
MSRP: $103,400 and $140,465 as tested