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Pride of Porsche: Redesigned 911 Carrera H
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2012 Porsche 911 Carrera S - photo by Photo Contributed

There were some changes made to the new 2012 Porsche 911 Carrera that caused consternation among corporate board members and raised eyebrows among loyalists. But in the end, the 911 Carrera—known in company terms as the 991—is a soaring successor as an icon of the brand. The 2+2 coupe is lighter, stronger, faster, more fuel-efficient, cleaner-burning and just more fun to drive.

The 991 is the seventh generation since the debut of the 911 model in 1963, which retired the 356 nameplate. It is the identity of the brand and the icon of sports cars. In 48 years, about 700,000 Carreras have been sold around the world, and 80 percent are still on the road, Porsche says.

Making changes to this car is not taken lightly, not just because it has a following to maintain but also because Porsche's goal for its "Strategie 2018" is to remain the most profitable car company. Period.

It expects a 15 percent return on sales and a 21 percent return on investment. Porsche is expanding full-speed-ahead in China, India, Russia and Brazil and is expecting its highest sales growth in those markets. But it also admits it has not "fully exploited its potential in the United States," Wolfgang Hatz, head of Porsche R&D and a member of the board of management, said at the 911 media preview in Santa Barbara, Calif., in early November.

You'll know it's the 991 on the road by its wide face and the wide rear haunches, with some Aston Martin influence in the winged taillight treatment.

The roofline was lowered by a barely perceptible 5 millimeters, or 0.20 of an inch. The wheelbase moved almost four inches, but overall length is just about an inch longer. Base curb weights are 133 to 144 pounds lighter, and that's with adding 128 pounds in safety requirements. To keep weight off, Porsche put the 911 on a racing-car diet and used more high-strength steel and more aluminum body panels, including the hood, fenders, doors and trunk.

With the changes, the new body is much stiffer—20 percent in torsional rigidity and 13 percent in bending rigidity. The physical changes were intended to lower the center of gravity, which improves stability at high speed and in cornering. This rear-engine car will still spin and bite in careless handling maneuvers, but it is less prone than in the past. There is even a little more rear legroom because the front seats have longer tracks for forward adjustment.

Starting prices begin at $83,050 for the Carrera and $98,250 for the Carrera S. On paper, that works out to a $3,100 increase for the base model and $4,500 for the S, but Porsche says there is more standard on the new car that was previously optional or not available.

Compared to the 997 Carrera, the 991 includes:

•19-inch wheels on the Carrera (up from 18-inch wheels)

•20-inch wheels on the Carrera S models (up from 19-inch wheels)

•Porsche Communication Management (PCM) with navigation (previously a $2,110 option)

•Automatic headlights

•Six-way power sport seats (an upgrade from four-way, height adjustment)

Performance was leading the changes, but a close second and third were fuel economy and emissions.

The new base engine is a 350-horsepower, 3.4-liter, horizontally opposed (boxer) six-cylinder, which is down from 3.6 liters. But it has more power and gets better fuel economy. The 3.8-liter version in the Carrera S has 400 hp and 325 foot-pounds of torque. A new seven-speed manual is standard and an industry first, Porsche says. Optional is a seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual Porsche calls Doppelkupplungsgetriebe , which most people refer to as PDK.

Fuel-economy estimates improve by 1 mpg. The Carrera S with PDK is rated 20 mpg city, 27 highway and 20/28 for the Carrera with PDK. Helping stretch fuel is an auto start-stop feature, which kills the engine at short stops. And a coasting function opens the clutch and disengages the engine so it can run at idle when cruising on the Interstate in seventh gear.

The previous-generation 911 was no slacker, but this one is a major evolutionary step. There is new refinement to the brake action, an infinite smoothness to engagement. There's a new precision to the throttle and how the driver can hold a speed with little more than 1 mph variance.

The controversies were in making the interior more luxurious and getting rid of the manual parking brake for an electric one. The new angled console, a treatment from the Carrera GT and similar to that in the Panamera, groups controls in almost logical arrangement. Cup holders are still inadequate, and, of course, there is an ashtray.

There is a new richness to the cabin appointments, greater detail in such areas as the leather stitching, an Audi-like softness to leathers, and artful design elements. And it's quieter on the road now, too. Not numbingly so, but enough that conversations can be enjoyed while the engine tone still penetrates. Ride quality on the normal setting is quite comfortable, and it stiffens in sport but does not punish.

New electric-hydraulic steering was tuned first for performance and second for fuel economy. If you didn't know it was electric, you'd think it was old-school mechanical.

Put all of these elements together, and there's far more horsepower than can be enjoyed within most legal limits. But the optional PDK and Sport Chrono package, with its Sport Plus model and open exhaust function, distills that moment of pleasure. The roaring engine and exhaust sound fast even when not breaking the law. I was much more prone to enjoy my boyish side with the PDK than the seven-speed manual, which seemed almost pedestrian, or just serious, by comparison.

In spirited driving when Sport Plus is engaged, the Carrera S paces at up to 80 mph before an upshift to third gear and onto 107 mph before moving to fourth. Make a full-power launch, and the rush of force is heart-pounding and so balanced that there is no pull at the steering wheel.

You can be loafing along in seventh gear at 65 mph and floor the pedal, and the PDK in auto mode will make an instantaneous drop to second gear and launch with scorching force. A driver cannot make manual paddle shifts as fast as auto mode, and it's certainly quicker than the stick shift.

Then jump hard on the brakes, and the car lunges to the pavement with absolute force and also without pull. You can do this maneuver at 65 mph without touching the wheel. It stops dead straight. It is a phenomenal bonding experience.

The PDK makes a hero out of just about any driver.

When you begin driving the 911, your first impression will be, "Oh, it's a 911." And then you'll begin to feel the more refined suspension and start soaking up the nicely appointed interior. And then you'll stab the SportPlus button, open the exhaust pipes and start flicking off PDK shifts. The pipes have a rock-gargling bark followed by a howl and then a blaze of shifts.