There aren’t many automotive designs that go essentially unchanged for decades. Usually, examples of long-running shapes are from some former Soviet-bloc country that built a government-issue sedan for basic transportation. The one American car that comes to mind is the Checker Marathon, a favorite of cab companies, which used the same Eisenhower-era body right up until its demise in the early 1980s.
Beyond that favorite car of cab drivers in decades past, one of the most iconic silhouettes in the car world belongs to the Porsche 911. The original example debuted as a 1965 model and has endured for more than forty years. Yes, every now and then the car is completely re-engineered and mildly re-styled, but there’s still no mistaking Porsche’s most identifiable car when you see it.
Recently, I was handed the key to a 2009 911 Turbo for a test drive. There’s lots going on at Porsche these days, including the upcoming Panamera four-door touring sedan, and I wanted to re-familiarize myself with the car that’s seen the company through thick and thin over the years. (Recessions? Heck, people have still bought 911s during every one of them going back to the 1960s.)
What makes a Porsche 911 unique is its engine layout. Starting with the early 356 models (the ones that look like an upside-down bathtub) and continuing on today, Porsches have the engine way out in back of the car behind the rear wheels. For years the balance of the car was a mixed bag, with many an inexperienced driver losing control in an aggressive maneuver, while many pros could dance the cars around race tracks like no other.
True, Porsche has strayed from this design with other models. The Boxster and Cayman (and the 914 of the 1970s) utilize a mid-engine placement, with the motor sandwiched between the seats and the rear wheels. And the grand touring 928 and 924/944 models broke with Porsche tradition and used a more conventional front engine design.
But for the purists, the 911 will always be the true Porsche sports car. There’s something a little magical about twisting the ignition key with your left hand (Porsche chooses to locate the switch on the left side of the steering column—one of its quirky traditions) and hearing the muffled bark of the flat-six engine come to life way out behind you.
There’s also a great balance to the steering like no other car enjoys. Modern Porsches do have power assist like every other modern car, but for years it wasn’t really necessary, as there was relatively little weight over the front of the car. As speed builds, the advantages of the lighter front end mean that you really feel connected to the suspension as you move the steering wheel through curves and turns.
The basic Porsche Carerra comes with a 3.6 liter engine making 345 horsepower, which is probably plenty for anyone. But there are upgrades from there, including a Carrera 4 which adds all wheel drive, and Carrera S and Carrera 4S variants that have a slightly larger engine good for forty additional horsepower. And then, there’s the 911 Turbo.
Even people who know nothing about cars know the term “Porsche Turbo.” When fantasies of dream cars come up, the Turbo sits right up there with names like Ferrari and Lamborghini. It’s one of the more expensive models in the 911 lineup, and is one of the most exhilarating to drive.
While most people who own a Porsche Turbo won’t often (if ever) have the chance to exercise the car’s full power potential, it does make for a great companion on even a regular freeway drive. Need to speed up to begin a lane change? No problem. Just apply a little pressure to the accelerator pedal and with a quick “whoosh” from the engine compartment, you’re going much faster. Practicality from an exotic car!
While the power level of the Turbo is rather insane for regular street use (480 horsepower), what’s amazing is how docile and civil the car can be if you choose to use it that way. The engine is perfectly happy just loafing along. The car is roomy and comfortable for a sports car (I’m rather tall and wasn’t cramped in the least), and the outward visibility is excellent, which you can’t say about most exotic cars.
Of course there’s the issue of cost. The 2009 Porsche Turbo has a base price of $130,000. But Porsche loves to make a lot of things optional, and the test car I was fortunate enough to drive came in at just over $140,000, before the tax and license are figured in, the combination of which probably add up to what you could buy a very nice basic-transportation car for.
But as much as I think the Turbo model is essentially worth its asking price, I’d be perfectly happy with a basic 911 Carrera model for just over $76,000. The way I figure, I could have about 90% of the fun of the racier model for less than 60% of the price. And when it comes right down to it, they both have the same classic Porsche shape.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7. He’s also a car enthusiast and owns several classics. Dave can be reached at TVCarz @ pacbell.net.