I always loved 911s; I thought they were weird, and technical, but specially, I thought they were relentlessly fast. The few submersions I’ve had into a 911's cockpit always proved to be great automotive experiences. Enough to write home about.
But I’m in the company of a 911 today, and I feel like I have nothing to write home about. You see, this might be a 997; a flat six, twin turbo, 480hp monster that would shame Ferraris, and catch Lamborghinis with their pants down, no matter if those had two or four more cylinders. Yet, this isn’t a regular 997 turbo; oh no, this one has a five speed slush-box.
Which makes me think; companies like Volkswagen should have a secretive office, deep in their corporate guts, that deals with hopeless cars like this one.
Call it a “Futures department” that should be able to judge cars before they went on sale, based on how we’d criticize them ten or twenty years onwards.
Because back when the 997 Turbo came out in 2007; we already knew that double clutch gearboxes were reliable enough to mass produce, and VW already made cars with them, so did BMW, and so did a slew of other manufacturers. Which makes me wonder why Porsche let their marketing experts put an automatic gearbox in a 911. A 911 generation that was rushed to fix the important flaws of the previous one. Would it sell more? Yes, very probably. But it also ruins the experience, it makes the car feel like it’s not working.
It’s strange, from an evolutionary standpoint this isn’t anything other than a pretty 996; and the 996 was a new chassis as opposed to an evolution of a decades old one like the 993; but it carried over the rear suspension.
It might be as shameless as a 200hp Diesel Cayenne; which of course never existed. Even Porsche has some limit to their idea of changing the brand. People caught up with Porsche on the 997 automatics; the 997 Turbo fetches 20k more for a PDK one, and probably upwards of 50k more for a manual one.
It seems ironic, then, that I’m in an automatic 997 Turbo; the last generation to have a manual offered for the Turbo models. The 997 also was the last 911 to have hydraulic steering assistance.
It drives surprisingly strange; it feels remarkably like a 993; the cockpit feels tiny, the ride is uncompromising hard, the steering is tight and lightly assisted, the front end is light, and it’s tail happy... the list of similarities goes on, and on. Except for the brakes; these ones have a long throw, which is unsettling at first but allow for more precision. The interior is better put together than the 993; which is to be expected since it was no longer hand-made, and the engine is much more engaging than that old air-cooled turbo... It makes me think that with a manual or a PDK, this car would be an utter success, worthy of all sorts of praise.
It remains an unsympathetic car, a villain willing to screw you over at any opportunity that you give it, the gearbox however, feels like its cute yet incompetent assistant. An assistant that might kill you both out of its sheer stupidity.
The gearbox and the driver are in a relationship worthy of couples therapy; it’s like neither wants to listen to the other, and they need a mediator. Eventually there’s one situation in which the gearbox’s programing is in harmony with what you want to do... It downshifts nicely into lower gears during braking, and it holds them on acceleration; when you’re really pushing the car it works adequately; like an inexperienced driver with a manual perhaps.
But otherwise it feels out of sync with the car; it reminds me why so many people are automatic skeptics nowadays; the early 2000s were a sad, dark era of slow gear changes and limited involvement.
Which brings me back to this necessary futures department; an area that needs to look at frivolous products like tacked-on infotainment displays, PAX system tires, etc.... and tell manufacturers that those shouldn’t go on their higher end cars; the ones that will most likely be collectable in no time. A department that back in 2005 would’ve looked at a 997 Turbo with a five speed auto, and told Porsche to hold their horses and that the possible sales couldn’t possibly make up for the loss in performance, that owners would look down at 997s because of it... All these things would’ve been great.
But now it’s 2020; and as the 992 rolls out with yet another trim unavailable with a manual transmission and possibly the first hybrid or fully electric 911 to be revealed soon after, it’s a bit too late to care about their past. Maybe it’s too soon to call the 992 a success, or too late suggest that it go through a futures department and stop Porsche from dropping another manual option even if the PDK is a great transmission.
Porsche is definitively a different company than it was twenty years ago; when the 997 was being designed the Cayenne was still unproven. Which means that even without a manual base model, we could probably see a 912 come out... with a manual box.
Meanwhile this 997 is trapped in 2008; when it was made, with a horrifying gearbox, reminding us to always look ahead, and that selling out to consumers is not always the best option.