By Thane Peterson
The Good Handling, speed, thoughtful design
The Bad Options really add to the price
The Bottom Line A great classic sports car
Let's suppose you have a bad case of the midlife blues and can afford to cheer yourself up by buying any car in the world. Which one would you choose?
Me, I might hesitate about whether to get a convertible or hard-top, whether to get the turbo-charged engine or not, and if yellow, grey, or midnight blue would be the best color. But I'm pretty sure I'd buy a Porsche.
The Porsche Carrera, which has been redesigned for 2005, isn't the fastest car around. With a stick shift, the S version of the car -- S for sport, the one with the extra-powerful 355-horsepower engine -- only does 0 to 60 in 4.6 seconds, vs. 4.2 seconds for the new Corvette convertible and under 4 seconds for a Ferrari. There are also plenty of more expensive sports cars you could choose. The 2005 Carrera S starts at about $90,000 -- considerably less than, say, a Ferrari 612 Scaglietti ($275,000) or an Aston Martin Vanquish S ($255,000).
But dollar for dollar, pound for pound, sports cars don't get better than a Porsche -- and the 911, of which the Carrera is one classic version, is pure joy to drive. I took my "speed yellow" Carrera S for a long cruise with the top down in the rolling hills of northeastern Pennsylvania one sunny Saturday, and for a quick run along the Delaware River one evening just as the sun was setting.
Cars don't get any better. There's none of the corner-cutting in the interior you often find in American cars, where one or two cheap features mar the overall effect. In the Porsche, you're constantly aware of the care that went into making the car perform well while also making it comfortable.
Unless you're a Porsche fan, the 2005 Carrera probably doesn't look much different from previous versions. But to aficionados, there are obvious changes. The headlights are oval and smaller than on the preceding model. The six-speed manual gearbox also has a 15% shorter throw, so the shifting is sharper and more precise -- at least going forward. I had trouble several times getting the car into reverse, a problem I also had on the previous version of the car.
RAISING THE ROOF.
To my eye, the new 911 is sleeker than the last one. Its drag coefficient is a low 0.29, making it one of the least wind-resistant cars in existence. It also has 19-inch wheels with distinctive, brutal-looking red brake calipers on each wheel. That's one way you can tell it's an S model -- the calipers on the basic Carrera are black. When a car accelerates so fast and tops out at 182 mph, you need huge brakes in case a deer or something happens into your path, and this car's brakes are significantly bigger than those of the previous Carrera.
The new Carrera comes standard with the Porsche Active Suspension Management System, which lowers the car by one-third of an inch vs. the regular suspension, and automatically increases damper forces on both axles to avoid sway during hard driving. Porsche says it appreciably improves lap times on its test-track in Germany. If you want a classic sports car's hard ride, just push a button on the dash and the difference is quite noticeable. You'll really bounce around on bumpy back roads. A rear spoiler can be raised and lowered manually via a switch on the dash.
There are all sorts of thoughtful touches in the car's interior. In most ragtops you have to unlatch the convertible top manually, but this one is entirely automatic, retracting into a covered space behind the passenger cabin, and going back up and latching itself without help. By Thane Peterson
LEAVE THE KIDS BEHIND.
Even the cup holders are minor engineering marvels. Open a door on the passenger side of the dash and a pair pop out on little stalks. They're adjustable, holding everything from a small cup of coffee to a Big Gulp.
Then there are the electric seats. They don't just adjust forward and back, up and down. The side bolsters, which hold you snug during hard cornering, are also adjustable, meaning you can form the seatback to the fit your body. I wrenched my back the week before I drove this car and can testify that the lumbar support is excellent.
The rear seats are incredibly small -- but it's amazing that there are any rears seats at all in a car this compact. They're O.K. for small kids. Some friends of my family once took a trip from Illinois to California and back with their three small sons, all crammed into a Porsche 911. That wouldn't be legal these days for safety reasons, but you probably could make it work with two small kids (and the patience of Job).
Of course, the luggage space -- which is under the front hood in the rear-wheel drive Porsche -- is a mere 4.8 cubic feet, not much for four passengers.
Still, there aren't many negatives to the Porsche. I've read that the brakes don't perform well in snow and slush, but obviously couldn't test for that in mid-summer. My main gripe is an old one: The price really mounts when you start adding optional features.
My test model cost $99,070, which included $3,315 for stone grey stitched leather interior (admittedly, flawless), $920 for a dash-mounted lap-counter for racetrack driving, and $1,390 for high-end Bose sound. Adding a navigation system and a Tiptronic automatic transmission would cost another $2,070 and $3,420, respectively.
Otherwise, my complaints are general ones. Between the in-dash information system and the onboard computer (on the dash, to the right of the driver), expensive cars like the Porsche are just too complicated to operate. Finding a radio station becomes a major chore requiring considerable study. The Carrera has two owner's manuals, one entirely devoted to "communication management." Also, Porsches are very safe if you just look at the government crash data, but I didn't feel safe on the highway at night with 18-wheelers and SUVs bearing down from behind. The car is just too small and low to the ground.
Ideally, these are second or third cars, anyway. They're best driven on the weekends, when you can get out somewhere and put them to the test, say, on a fast run down the Delaware with the sun setting across the river and Ella Fitzgerald on the CD player. Your midlife blues will melt away. Peterson is a contributing correspondent for BusinessWeek Online