Dazzled by the fireworks ignited with the launch of each new Ferrari, Lamborghini and McLaren – and these days it seems that barely a month goes by when at least one of that triumvirate of supercar manufacturers doesn’t launch a new model – it’s often easy to overlook a machine that many regard not only as the granddaddy of them all, but also as the greatest sports car ever made. I’m talking, of course, about the Porsche 911, the rear-engine wonder from Stuttgart that this September celebrates its 55th anniversary.
In truth, the 911 is the quintessence of evolutionary automotive design, the current cars bearing the nomenclature having little more in common with the original than a similar overall design and appearance, and a flat-six engine mounted in the tail.
Indeed, the last Porsche to carry the 911 internal project number was built more than 30 years ago; subsequent iterations have borne other factory designations, such as the 964 of 1986 and the 991.2 that was introduced just two years ago.
As the 911 family multiplied from its fairly modest beginnings – and remember that an early 2-litre coupe produced less than 130bhp – it also spawned a host of derivatives. A semi-ragtop Targa joined the line-up in 1966, and the fully convertible Carrera Cabriolet was previewed in 1981. The fearsome Turbo appeared in the mid- 1970s, a period when engine sizes progressively grew and outputs rocketed correspondingly northwards. All-wheel drive was introduced as an option in the late ’80s, and in the ’90s liquid finally replaced air as the primary engine coolant. In addition to all these developments, higher-performance R, S, RS, RSR, GTS, GT2, GT3 and Clubsport variants, some in extremely limited editions that have become treasured by collectors and enthusiasts, have also been built down the years.
Of all the revisions to the 911, among the most radical was the adoption of turbocharging across almost the entire range, which came with the launch of the 991.2. Although initially resisted by traditionalists, the move has since been widely welcomed, as forced induction not only gives a hefty kick to low-end torque but also offers significant gains in fuel economy and – as Porsche’s engine team has effectively banished the issue of turbo lag – with no sacrifice in throttle response. And now, with the long-anticipated roll-out of the latest GTS, a mid-range, non- Turbo 911 has finally been endowed with levels of performance and handling that nudge Porsche’s hardy perennial into the ranks of the authentic supercars.
Positioned in the line-up between the S and the way more brutal Turbo, the GTS is the all-rounder of the 911 range, a sports car designed to be so versatile that it can comfortably handle the weekday office run while acquitting itself equally handsomely on weekend track days. Available either with two- or all-wheel drive, and with the option of a manual or double-clutch (PDK) seven-speed gearbox, its 3-litre, twin-turbo, six-pot boxer produces 444bhp and 550Nm – and as 100 percent of the latter is available from just 2,150rpm, a PDK-equipped 911 Carrera 4 GTS in Sport Plus mode with launch control can fling you from zero to 100km/h in 3.6 seconds, and onwards and upwards to a maximum speed just shy of 310.
Although sharing identical ratios with cars fitted with the dual-clutch gearbox, the rear-wheel-drive manual GTS nonetheless forfeits half a second in the dash to 100. While that performance bonus will doubtless be the clincher for the self-shifter, when I briefly drive a stick-equipped car at Cape Town’s Killarney raceway I relish its eagerness and involvement, the slick lever action and the seemingly limitless spread of power and torque in intermediate gears. In the real world I doubt it’s that much slower.
Packing some 30bhp more than the 911 S, as well as a heap of standard equipment that either comes at extra cost or is unavailable on lowlier models, the GTS is only marginally heavier. Its dark, cocoon-like interior borders on the exquisite: beautifully made, beautiful to look at and lovely to touch – especially the steering wheel, whose rim is completely covered in Alcantara fabric. Recognisable on the outside by its black-finished centre-lock wheels, logos and tailpipes, as well as smoked tail-light glasses, the GTS is also broader in the beam than regular Carreras and Targas, thanks to its wider rear axle, while Porsche Active Suspension Management lowers the ride height by 10mm (and a further centimetre still on coupes). All combine to give the car a leaner, meaner yet more muscular appearance than lesser members of the 911 range.
On the track, where in both manual and PDK-equipped Carrera 2 coupes I chase after 2016 Le Mans winner Marc Lieb (who, compared with my own frantic efforts, I must assume is enjoying a relaxed cruise around the circuit), the GTS is outstanding. Its straight-line speed is, of course, a given – though the lightning acceleration and linear power delivery are no less exhilarating for all that – but it’s on corners, where traction, grip and stability verge on the incredible, that it truly astounds.
Time was when you’d open the throttle very gingerly when exiting a bend in a 911 if you didn’t want to end up facing the way you’d come, or worse. Not in this GTS, whose brilliantly engineered chassis – aided by the wider track, torque vectoring, a limited-slip differential and optional ultra-high-performance Pirelli P Zero Corsa tyres – rewards a more assertive deployment of its almost 450 horses when feeding in the power before the apex. Indeed, so controlled, balanced and imperturbable is the car on this wind- and sand-swept circuit that it can be hard to believe the engine’s way out in the tail.
You won’t be pushing the GTS quite so hard on public roads, but a three-hour dash back to Cape Town on a glorious summer afternoon turns out to be as much fun as it’s possible to have on four wheels. This time I’m driving the Targa 4 with PDK, whose structural reinforcements and all-wheel drive system make it 150kg heavier than a rear-driven Carrera coupe, though the car is so vibrant, so responsive and so sharp on our route through the magnificent Franschhoek Pass that the extra weight seems an irrelevancy.
Unlike the rear-drive GTS, Carrera and Targa 4 models get both an electronic differential and the trick PTV Plus braking system, which in combination with the other chassis revisions help make it keener and more agile than almost any other 911 I’ve driven. The engine offers a deep well of power that’s available on demand, the brakes (350mm discs at the front, 330 rear) are astounding, and handling and steering are secure and precise. Simply put, it’s terrific.
You could, of course, settle for a 911 S, then up-spec the options so you’d have a GTS in almost everything but name – but you’d pay more in the end, and it wouldn’t look quite so cool. Moreover, I doubt it could wholly replicate the brilliance of the 911 GTS, which somehow seems to add a fraction extra to the considerable sum of its parts.
Barring special-edition GT3s, RSs and Rs, is there a better 911 right now? I’d venture there isn’t. And though I won’t stick my neck out quite so far as to say that makes it the greatest sports car ever, I won’t bet against it either.