Driving the Porsche Carrera 997
Is More Than a Repeat Peformance

by J.D. Crowe

Look for significant improvements,
including more power and better mpg.

Now don’t get me wrong … there are worse jobs than taking one of the world’s hottest sports cars out on the road and then writing about it. But with the Porsche 911 the thought did strike me that this may be a repeat performance. After all, Porsche’s perennial flagship, the 911, has been a part of the model line since 1965. At some time writing about it might surely become old hat. But my weekend road test of the facelifted 2009 Carreras banished that thought for good.

Ever since the modern world forced Porsche to move away from the original aircooled models in 1997, which were the foundation of their reputation, a spirit of ongoing evolution and constant improvement has been taken hold of the company and remains ever present.

Changes under the hood

The current Carrera is known as the 997. It is the second generation of the “modern” 911s, following the 996, which was an allnew Carrera that debuted in 1997. Three years ago, the Carrera was given a major update that made the new car so different that it required a new number. For 2009, the 997 again receives some major improvements. There are even some who argue that they are significant enough that the car should now probably be called a 998.

Visually, the changes are not as significant as the changes made in the move from the 996 to the 997. When looking at a new Carrera, it is easy to notice the new LED taillights, brake lights and front marker lights (these react faster, use less energy, and will last longer than normal light bulbs) and slightly revised front spoiler and rear fascia. But the real changes are less obvious. Drive the car, and it is a whole different story! The nifty taillights and cleaned up interior, while nice, fade in importance when the key is turned and the engine is brought to life.

The 3.8-liter flat six in the Carrera S now produces 385 hp (3.6 liter and 345hp for the base Carrera) and is essentially a completely new engine for 2009. Although it remains the high-tech tour de force that Porsche power plants always have been, one special new technology sets this engine apart. For 2009, all Carrera models have a new “direct injection” fuel management system. This car is among the first production cars in the world to benefit from this cutting edge technology. As the name implies, fuel is injected directly into the cylinders under extremely high pressure and very precise control. In much the same way as it was a huge leap from carburetors to the first fuel injection systems over 30 years ago, (Porsche led the way back then too, producing some of the first cars with this new technology in the early 1970s) direct injection enables a whole new generation of engine management.

In the new Carrera, even though displacement is larger and more power is produced, the efficiency of the engine is better than last year’s models, now giving up to 25 mpg in highway driving. Not shown by the numbers, the engine starts easier, idles more smoothly and has a much improved throttle response.

The engine also retains the VarioCam Plus system (VarioCam Plus combines variable valve timing with two-stage lift on the inlet side. This results in smoother running, better fuel economy and lower exhaust emissions, as well as greater topend power and low-end torque) and has the latest version of the Motronic electronic engine management system. In short, the latest Carrera keeps up the long-standing Porsche philosophy of having the most technologically advanced, powerful and efficient engine that is possible at the time.

New transmission

The other major change for 2009 is the optional “Porsche-Doppel-Kupplung” transmission. (This complex German title has been shortened to “PDK” for us nonlinguists.) Porsche has been developing this transmission for over 20 years, but up to now, it has been reserved for the company’s most advanced racecars. (Part of the reason for this was that before the capabilities provided by modern computers could be used in production cars, this complex transmission required a very experienced driver to get the best out of it.) Because of the advances in vehicle management systems, this technical wonder can now be offered for street cars.

Unlike the current crop of “semiautomatic” transmissions currently available (which are still automatic gearboxes, with all of the inefficiencies that such transmissions have always had), the PDK functions just like the very best manuals.

Although the scope of this article precludes a detailed technical discussion, (Go to Porsche’s Website for detailed information) you can think of the PDK as two transmissions in one, joined at the input and output shafts, where two clutches operate sequentially, allowing each gear change to happen so quickly that power to the wheels is never interrupted. The engine computer and the PDK computer work together to ensure maximum power and efficiency at all times, and the car even calculates and matches engine revolutions needed for smooth downshifts.

Yes, the car can be driven in a normal “D” setting, which is perfect for heavy traffic and long commutes. When used this way, it provides the ease and comfort of the best automatic gearboxes. There is also a “sport” mode for full automatic operations, and this allows for higher engine revolutions before upshifts which gives a more dynamic feel. But, get some open road and the real fun can begin!

Putting the PDK into full manual mode gives the driver the maximum control over the car, while still allowing some of that complex computer power to come into play. One of the most useful features is the automatic downshift that is still available even in manual mode. Imagine cruising along in 6th gear (or even the overdrive 7th gear, used to provide excellent efficiency) and needing to pass slower traffic ahead. (It’s ALL slower when you are driving a Porsche!) Press the accelerator past the downshift point, and, depending on how FAR past that point and how quickly you push the pedal, the transmission will skip several gears to put the engine into the peak of its power band, and the car will leap forward.

Even though this might sound dramatic, it all happens under full control of the driver and the vehicle management systems, providing maximum power out and maximum acceleration while remaining safe and secure. Stated simply: The car just GOES! It will cruise through heavy traffic all day without complaining, but it is always ready to step out and “run with the big dogs” at a moment’s notice.

Plenty of perks

As has always been the case for Porsche sports cars, creature comforts are not ignored. The interior is roomy and comfortable, the ride is solid and grippy without being harsh, and the brakes are excellent. The navigation system, musical entertainment system, and the climate control system have been combined into a revamped and improved touch-screen controlled interface that is simpler and intuitive.

A long list of options, including SportChronoPlus (This interface gives the driver even greater control of the various systems of the car, and allows for higher outputs and closer monitoring of the car), upgraded stereo systems, and even detailed choices for interior colors and materials allows every driver to customize the car to suit their desires and personality.

Road warrior

We tested the Carrera 2 with manual transmission and a Carrera 2S Cabrio with PDK on the challenging back roads of the Black Forest and came to the conclusion that the new 997 is among the very best modern sports cars available from any manufacturer. It is a capable and comfortable long-distance cruiser, loves “the twisties” and can even allow a driver to spend a day at the track with the car club.

The all-new engine, now with direct injection, is powerful, clean and robust. Combine this engine with a PDK transmission and you will have a car that cannot only make any commute a pleasure, but when you decide to “take the long way home,” it will be ready to make sure that you are happy you did.