Porsche 911 Carrera S and Jaguar XK-R at BIC. 300kmph club, part 3
Steering noise. I won’t pretend to be an expert on the subject, heck I hadn’t heard of the term till the 991-generation 911 was launched and Porschephiles raised a collective howl of protest against the new-fangled electric power steering.
Sure we do know the pros and cons of hydraulic and electric power steering but the extent to which purists ranted about the dilution of steering feel, the loss of that last millimetre of feedback, the dulling of responses, I thought to myself this must really be horrid. Strapping myself into the new 911 at the Yas Marina circuit in Abu Dhabi I said a silent prayer for as little pain when the inevitable crash happened.
I didn't crash. In fact I enjoyed the car so much that I forgot about that steering issue. Over the day spent at Yas Marina I learnt how PDCC, PASM, PDK, PTV, PTM and the rest of the alphabet soup actually makes the new 911 the best 911 ever. How active anti-roll bars keep the car flatter through corners while delivering a surprisingly good ride on the open highway; how the dynamic engine mounts become almost solid during hard cornering to remove that last bit of inertia from the engine hanging out back; how the torque vectoring rear differential brakes the inside wheel and spins up the outside rear wheel to help the car turn faster (which in all honesty Mitsubishi was already doing in their Evos). The 991 was an absolute revelation, the longer wheelbase and better axle-weight distribution imparting greater stability and stronger front-end bite out of the corners. I was so utterly bewitched that it was only when I reached the airport that I realised I hadn't noticed the steering. Which can only mean one thing – it did a damn good job.
Steering noise? What were they smoking?
A few months later I found myself at the BIC (not this BIC, the Bahrain International Circuit) with the entire Porsche range to play with. Over the course of the morning I blasted away in the 991, marvelling at the astonishing rear-end traction that only an engine hanging out at the back can muster. Even more astonishing was the near total lack of understeer; with most of the 911’s mass hanging out back you’d expect the front to lighten up and push into understeer but it does not. And none of us experienced lift-off oversteer even though we all secretly prodded at the stability control buttons and were driving at the limit of our abilities.
Later in the afternoon I swapped into the previous-generation 911 (the 997) with the much vaunted hydraulic power steering. No ordinary 997 this, it was the more focused GTS complete with serious looking aero appendages. Hmm. Charging out of the pitlane, tucked it into the slow right and accelerated hard for the uphill turns 2 and 3, corners that are flat-out, full-throttle, but on-the-limit in the 991. A thrilling sequence. Immediately I notice the new 911 I’m following has pulled out a slight gap and then as we climb up the apex the steering jiggles over the changing surface and mid-corner the helm kicks back. Caught unawares I did what an amateur would do and lifted off the throttle and the rear said a big hello, doing the sideways dance I recall reading in many a 911 story. I caught it; you would too. Here was steering noise. And I was thrilled.
As the laps piled on it became obvious what Porschephiles were banging about. The 997 had this telegraphic quality to its steering, transmitting in rich detail the road surface – every bump, dip and surface change. It jiggled in your palms. It demanded concentration. The nose bobbed through undulations (which I did not like at all and had nothing to do with the steering). The 997 had wrinkles, but those wrinkles put a bigger smile on my face. Get used to it and it was a harmless but nevertheless engaging characteristic.
Today I’m not driving flat out. This is a brand new car and the clouds have opened up. And the track is slippery as hell. In these less than ideal conditions the 911 is in its element. I’m following the Jaguar XKR, a 503bhp super-charged beast that’s making the most incredible noise and it charges flat-out up the back straight, rear squirming as it hits the wet patches. With 400bhp the 911 Carrera S is hopelessly outgunned on paper but on track it hangs on gamely matching the Jag metre for metre, the lower weight and younger stallions making a brilliant fist of things. The dual-clutch PDK gearbox too is utterly brilliant though the push-for-up, pull-for-down steering-wheel-mounted switches on this car is a massive irritant. Do not forget to spec your car with the lovely paddle shifters.
It’s on the brakes though that the 911 simply demolishes the Jaguar. In all my experience nobody does brakes as consistently well as Porsche. It starts with perfect ergonomics – pedal position and travel. It has the most natural and responsive feel, easy to modulate at whatever speed and whatever the road condition. And the balance is spot-on so there’s no shudder or squirm from the helm even when trail-braking for the last few metres. Acceleration in any sports car cannot but bring a big fat smile to your face. The Porsche makes braking equally entertaining. From turn-in to exit the 911 gains three car lengths on the Jaguar and though the ferocious acceleration of the Jag has it clawing back the gap on every straight, by the end of the lap the 911 is gone, such is her mastery on the brakes and the grip and tenacity in every type of corner – slow, fast, edge-of-the-seat.
The back end of the track is curiously bone dry and the Porsche reveals a near total absence of understeer, as if cornering on rails as the terrible automotive cliché goes. It turns in without hesitation and grips while staying absolutely flat, the extra 100mm in the wheelbase calming the previous 911’s propensity to bobble over undulations. Tail-out histrionics too are no longer part of the car’s dynamic behaviour. This is a German car and it demolishes lap times with German efficiency. Not that it is any less fun; a track-day enthusiast will absolutely love the 911. And I bet he won’t ever complain about the steering. I’ve just done five laps and only now have I thought about the steering!
The extensive control logic for the EPS is claimed to filter out unwanted 'noise' through the steering and indeed the helm is more filtered with most of the jiggles and tugging wiped clean. However it does feel natural enough and I can’t see any of you complaining unless there’s already an older Porsche in your garage.
The Jag is out of its depth here. After the Porsche you feel a little more remote from the action, apexes are missed far too often, there’s less precision to the overall experience. There isn’t the turn-in bite or the tight body control. Traction, in the dry, is amazing. You step on the throttle and there’s this all-mighty slug of supercharged torque and the rears just grip. But in the wet, and it is properly wet now, the Jag squirms and wastes away all that horsepower to a perennially flashing yellow triangle. In these conditions you have to be brave to switch off the DSC entirely; there’s a whole load of power and when the rear steps out things can happen way too quickly. You have to predict and dial in the necessary steering correction rather than reacting to the event as you would expect to.
Inescapable fact: the 911 is the best driver’s car here. If there ever was a car you could drive to the race track, bang in 20 laps and drive back home it is the Porsche 911. It has been doing it for 50 years and it continues to do so today, better than anything you can think of – Nissan GT-R excluded. More than any other car here the race track is Porsche’s home. It is a true sports car and delivers the most rewarding driving experience.