A (Borrowed) Life in the Fast Lane
By Thane Peterson
I got the idea for this column back in January, when I interviewed Wendelin Wiedeking, the CEO of the German sports car company Porsche (see BW Online, 1/12/01, "On Exhibit at the Auto Show: Detroit's Woes?"). I asked him: What if you took an average schlub, say, a middle-aged skinflint suburbanite bachelor with about $3 in his bank account who drives a '96 Ford pickup, and gave him a supercool, ultra-expensive sports car to tool around in for a week? In other words, a guy exactly like me, in a top-of-the-line Porsche. Would it earn him new respect in the neighborhood, give him sex appeal, change his life in significant ways?
To his credit, Martin Peters, Porsche's U.S. press guy, quickly agreed to participate in this weighty experiment by lending me a turbo-charged 2001 Porsche 911 for a week. Even with Porsche's help, carrying out my research wasn't easy. The company basically only makes two models, the speedy 911 that retails for well north of $100,000, and the "entry level" Boxster, which sells for a mere $50,000 or so (that's still about four or five stories above my market-entry level). A third model, the Cayenne sports utility, is due out next year. Porsche's total annual production is only about 50,000 cars, just a small fraction of which are turbo-charged 911s.
SELFLESS, THAT'S ME.
Even in a weakening economy, these cars are in extremely high demand. The wait for Porsche buyers is about a year. Just to borrow one of the 911's that Porsche lends to journalists for test drives, I had to wait eight months. But, hey, I figured I was doing a major service to my readers by driving the car on their behalf, so I went to the trouble. We journalists live to serve, after all.
So, did it make me a babe magnet, earn me new respect, change my life? In a word -- no. But that wasn't the Porsche's fault.
"My car" -- as I almost immediately came to think of the loaner -- was a beautiful, smoky metallic gray model with a list price of $115,000 (before sales tax). At rest, it looked more like it was perched than parked, thanks to the curvy, aerodynamic design in which everything has been done to eliminate drag. It had huge tires like the ones on race cars -- with rubber about three inches deep, and a foot and a half wide -- that almost entirely fill the wheel-wells. On the sides are big, scoop-shaped air vents for the turbo and on the rear end is a spoiler that automatically goes up if you top 80 miles per hour. Even my art professor neighbor remarked on the car's beauty.
What really sets it apart, however, is its acceleration and handling at high speeds. The 415 horsepower engine can power the 911 Turbo from 0 to over 60 mph in 4 seconds, making it one of the fastest cars in existence. Top speed is close to 200 miles per hour. I found myself pulling out in front of oncoming traffic -- not advisable in my '96 pickup truck -- knowing I could almost instantly accelerate to highway speed.
GET A GRIP.
The Porsche squared off well against my Ranger in other respects, too. It's more spacious, for one thing. There's plenty of leg room up front for anyone under 6-foot-6, and the rear seats are pretty comfortable, too. The Ranger's bed gives you more cargo space than the 911's tiny trunk, which is about the size of the overhead bin in an airliner. But the Porsche has all-wheel drive. That's largely to keep the car -- which has a rear-end mounted engine -- from fishtailing during fast driving. However, a Porsche devotee in Germany, where I lived for a couple of years, told me this also makes the car handle well in snow and ice. Chalk up another plus for the Porsche: It's probably better for winter driving in suburban Chicago, where I live, than a small, two-wheel drive truck.
So all the pluses are in the Porsche column, right? Not so fast. Surprisingly, the Porsche's ride is a lot rougher than the Ford's. This is a driver's car that hugs the pavement with the ferocity of a long-lost lover. You're supposed to feel every bump in the road -- and you do.
A substantial downside to the Porsche is that I drove in constant terror that some klutz would bash into me. A fender bender could easily cost more to repair than the $8,300 I paid for my used Ford. Another downside: I don't see how a car can be a babe magnet for a middle-aged guy when it's constantly surrounded by admiring teenage boys. At one point, two 14-year-old boys followed me on their bikes goggle-eyed, and took snapshots of the car when I stopped for gas. When I took Samantha Allen, 15, and Hannah Kinzie, 15, daughters of some dear friends, out for a spin, the just-starting-to-drive boys they hang out with were totally entranced. "Don't touch it," said one of the starry-eyed lads as he gazed upon "my car." "It's too beautiful to be touched."
EAT MY DUST.
Of course, as a writer for a reputable, law-abiding publication, I would never really test the 911 fully because I would never (perish the thought) exceed the speed limit. But (without going too deeply into specifics) I did have several fine Porsche moments. One came when I took the car out for an afternoon of driving along Illinois 47, west of Chicago. BB King was crooning on the CD player just as a woman in a little red Ford sedan suddenly decided to pass me. Dream on, was my only thought.
"It's all over baby. You know I'm all alone," BB King sang as I crinkled my eyes at the woman in the rearview mirror -- and punched it. In a few seconds she was a quarter-mile behind me. Then she disappeared.
O.K., I know what you're thinking. This guy (me) must be having a midlife crisis and he probably wears gold chains and a Rolex. And how decadent can you get, riding around in a macho gas guzzler?
Well, fair enough. About 92% of all 911 buyers in the U.S. are men. Their average age is 52 and a good number of them are probably doing some midlife reassessing of priorities (as we middle-aged guys prefer to refer to it).
Don't get on your high horse about Porsches being decadent. A Porsche 911 Turbo is rated at 15 miles per gallon in the city and 22 on the highway by the Environmental Protection Agency. That's better than the EPA city/highway rating of an eight-cylinder Lincoln Navigator (12/16) or Land Rover Range Rover (12/15). So what if the Porsche costs more than twice as much and can't haul a passel of kids and their gear? We're talking the stuff of dreams here.
Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BW Online
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht
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