The 911 Carrera GTS: pure, potent, Porsche

Porsche's latest 911 offering - the Carrera GTS - has the considerable sporting ability of other models but with better overall performance.
The Porsche 911 Carrera GTS comes as a coupé or cabriolet. Photos courtesy Porsche
The Porsche 911 Carrera GTS comes as a coupé or cabriolet. Photos courtesy Porsche

To the casual observer, Porsche’s design department seems to have the easiest job on earth. The company has been pushing out versions of the 911 for more than 50 years and each time the silk is pulled during a ­motor-show reveal, the magnifying glasses and tape measures come out. The reveal of the Cayenne at the 2002 Paris Motor Show must have sparked a wave of conniptions among the gathered press.

 Get to know the Porsche 911, however, and you’ll understand that the company’s engineers have not only nailed down one of the best performance-car recipes over the past half-century, but they’re also starting to drive a wedge between each of the Neunelf’s derivatives to help buyers channel their decisions.

The latest derivative is this, the 911 Carrera GTS, which comes as a coupé or cabriolet in a choice of rear- or all-wheel-drive and pushes the choice of 911 to 19 base flavours before you’ve even chosen which way you’d like to select your future gears. Start to wade through the hundreds of options available and you’ll realise why Porsche wants to create a bit of order within its model range.

Those three little GTS letters are important because they tell other Porsche nuts that you prefer your 911 to be both devoid of turbochargers and dialled back a touch from the mental and uncompromising track-oriented GT3. While it shares the GT3’s wide body, the GTS is closer to the Carrera S in finish, performance and refinement. It hasn’t sprouted an enormous rear wing or carbon-fibre chin spoiler like the GT3, nor has it been fitted with the rear-axle steering arrangement that Porsche fits to its high-end sports models.

You could argue that it’s the ultimate “pure” Porsche currently available because it’s about as far as you can go up the 911 performance ladder without adding complex pieces of electronic and mechanical trickery. Everything north of the GTS comes with a seven-speed PDK as standard; the GT3 has that four-wheel steering arrangement (that takes some getting used to), and the Turbo models are also all-wheel-drive. If you want a hard-tail 911 that fires everything it’s got to the rear tyres and gulps in its air without being force-fed, the GTS is the most potent 911 you can get.

It’s also tempting to think that this may be the last of the 911s in their current form before the company begins its inevitable round of midlife facelifts. The 997 bowed out with the ­introduction of the GTS, the Speedster, and a limited-run 911 Black Edition in 2012, just before the launch of the current 991 later that year. Porsche usually lines up a midlife refresh at the three-year point after model introduction, so it’s reasonable to jump ahead here and suggest that the smart money would be on the design crew in Stuttgart sharpening its 2Hs right about now.

No one at Porsche would answer the question, but took great pleasure in diverting our attention to the star of the moment.

Surprisingly, given that the Gran Turismo Sport’s initials have been around since the birth of the 911 in 1963, this is only the second to bear the nomenclature. The first was the Porsche 904 (or Carrera GTS), a sports car homologated for road and race use. The GTS initials have also found their way onto other cars throughout Porsche’s history: the 924 and 928 GTS carried the flag through the 1980s and 1990s, and the Cayenne again revived lineage in 2007, followed by the Panamera in 2012. Since its first appearance on a 911 in 2010, around a quarter of all cabriolets and coupés sold have been GTS models.

Outwardly, the 991-generation 911 GTS gets a few detail hints that distinguish it from its stablemates. The 20-inch ­centre-lock wheels you’ll find on the Turbo S are painted black specifically for the GTS; there are black-painted strips on the air intake, chrome-plated exhaust tips and the door mirrors are sportier types. The front end has a larger opening for a centre-mounted radiator and there are smoked Bi-Xenon headlights. All GTS models get the Carrera 4 wide body regardless of whether they’re two- or four-wheel-drive, and the flared wheel arches help disguise a 36mm stretch in the front and rear track. Don’t be despondent if you can’t spot that in the photographs: even with the Carrera S alongside, it’s not easy to spot any differences between the two.

The model we’re assigned for the first driving stretch is a rear-wheel-drive cabriolet with a ­seven-speed manual gearbox. Given the choice, I’d have plumped for the coupé with the same transmission but the autumn California sun and cloudless skies are too good an opportunity to waste cooped up inside. My driving partner isn’t so pleased. He’d hoped for a PDK-equipped car because he reckons they’re better, but I’m a dinosaur who prefers a third pedal and an H-pattern transmission. Sure, they may not be as quick, but we’re heading to the hills for a cruise, not setting lap times and counting tenths of seconds, so a manual is, if nothing else, a way to keep the left leg busy and the whole brain engaged during the drive.

Our route takes us from our hotel in Pasadena to Willow Springs International Raceway via the Angeles National Forest and San Gabriel Mountains north-east of Los Angeles – a reasonably circuitous route through landmarks with names that seem to come purely from a sense of resignation more than anything. How else could ­anyone arrive at Spunky Canyon Road for a name, if not having run through almost every other choice first?

If you’re ever in the area and have a 911 GTS at your disposal, then it’s not a bad one to press the car over. Having enjoyed a fairly smooth run of open third and fourth gear corners, Spunky Canyon Road is the first time we’ve really had to heel-and-toe down to second to keep the 3.8L flat-six ticking over in its happy zone. Like all 911s, the GTS enjoys a broad torque spread that almost makes the seven-speed gearbox redundant, but the real sweet spot is right on 5,750rpm, where peak torque is dialled in. Interestingly, the only real difference in torque between the Carrera S, GTS and GT3 is where this peak of 440Nm comes in. The higher up the pecking order, it seems, the higher up the tach the torque appears. In the Carrera S, you’ll find it at 5,600rpm; in the GT3 you’ll discover it at 6,350.

Power-wise, the engine gets an incremental boost to 430hp over the Carrera S – just five ­ponies short of the 997-based GT3, and while a 22hp bump over the previous GTS doesn’t seem a huge amount, Porsche says the new one will hit 100kph from a standstill in just 4.4 seconds; 4.0 seconds if you’ve plumped for a PDK-equipped car.

It’s all a bit much for Spunky Canyon Road, though, and as we wind down out of the hills, the western reaches of the Mojave Desert sprawl out in front of us. The scenery is immense and the sky seems enormous. The desert floor is peppered with knee-high scrub and littered with sporadic clumps of wind turbines, blades spinning in the light breeze. The roads are arrow straight and the GTS devours the route, at the end of which is somewhere very special indeed.

Willow Springs Raceway has never hosted a major race ­series, but it has seen plenty of action since its inception in 1953. It is one of the oldest race circuits in the United States and its nine-corner, four-kilometre layout has changed very little in the past 60 years. It’s also a very fast circuit, and one in which the GTS excels. We’ve managed to secure a manual coupé for our first track session and, though we’re led by an instructor and are forced to change the order every lap, it’s still encouraging to discover that the GTS is able to keep with the 911 Turbo S pace car ahead. Even better is the fact that its driver is either struggling to stay ahead, or toying with us, because the rear of the Turbo S is shimmying about.

Even on this notoriously quick circuit, there’s no point at which the GTS feels slow or outpaced. The PDK-equipped coupé is easier and more flattering to drive, but the recalibrated manual gearbox and its slick shifter is a great challenge to master. Quite why the rest of the gathered media have chosen to ignore the manual really doesn’t concern me: I’m just thankful that Porsche – the last outpost of genuine driver engagement – has chosen to keep the manual tradition alive, for the meantime at least.

It’s also encouraging to learn we’re not alone. Porsche has come to represent the pinnacle of sports-car development, allowing true driving enthusiasts a chance to taste a little of Porsche heritage in a thoroughly up-to-date interpretation of the original 911. The GTS concept is tremendous and, although whether you spec the car with a PDK or not is entirely up to you, I’d encourage any new owner to at least test drive the manual before placing an order. It really is worth sacrificing a little speed for a whole lot more enjoyment, and it’s best to do it now before time runs out for the manual transmission altogether.

Orders for the 911 GTS can be placed now, from Dh455,500.

weekend@thenational.ae

Published: December 18, 2014 04:00 AM

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