Review: 2009 Porsche 911 Carrera

Up Front There's one question I get asked all the time: "What's your favorite car?" For me, the answer is always the Porsche 911, the iconic German sports car that has been on the market in one form or another since 1964. But I had begun to wonder if all the turmoil at Porsche had affected its game. With Porsche trying for months to take over Volkswagen (VOWG.DE) and Volkswagen finally reversing field and taking over Porsche, sweeping out the company's CEO in the process, it wouldn't be surprising if Porsche had slipped a bit.

All is well, however, at least judging by the company's flagship model. I recently test-drove the latest 911—specifically a 2009, all-wheel-drive Carrera 4S—and it's a phenomenal machine. If comfort is your priority, you may be more excited about the elegant new $90,000 four-door Porsche Panamera sedan, which makes it debut on Oct. 17. In contrast to the 911, its engine is up front and its rear seats are relatively roomy. But my heart still belongs to the 911. If I were rich, I'd buy one in a heartbeat.

In the past, the biggest complication involved in buying a 911 was deciding which one to choose. The 911 comes in a dozen different versions, including a coupe, convertible (Cabriolet), and Targa (which essentially has an extra-large sunroof). There are S versions of each model with a somewhat more powerful engine, as well as all-wheel-drive versions. There's also an ultrafast turbocharged version of the coupe and convertible.

Now, another dilemma has reared its ugly head—and it's the main reason why we are reviewing an '09 model so late in the year: Whether to pay an extra four grand for Porsche's new automatic transmission (known as the PDK, short for Porsche Doppelkupplungsgetriebe, which is German for double-clutch transmission). The seven-speed PDK is so fast and smooth that even hardcore driving enthusiasts will want to consider getting one. No human can shift Porsche's six-speed manual transmission as quickly as the PDK shifts for you. That's why the 911 now accelerates from zero to 60 faster with an automatic than with a stick shift.

Porsche made numerous other improvements in the 911 for the '09 model year, the most obvious of which was to redesign the car's engines. Base models now come with a 3.6-liter, 345-horsepower six-cylinder boxer engine, 20 hp more than before. The "S" models are powered by a 3.8-liter, 385-hp version of the engine, 30 hp more than before. Both engines are the first ones in a 911 to use direct fuel injection, which boosts power while also reducing emissions and fuel consumption.

Starting prices range from $77,250 for a basic Carrera Coupe up to $141,650 for an all-wheel-drive Cabriolet with a turbocharged engine. Keep in mind, though, that the price soars even higher when you start picking add-ons from the 911's extraordinarily long list of options. In addition to an extra $4,080 for the PDK automatic, you can pay from $3,655 to $5,405 for a leather interior in a wide variety of colors, $1,815 to $2,440 for a wide variety of custom wheels, $3,125 for sport bucket seats. You can even add a variable volume exhaust system ($2,500), which allows you to make the car's engine growl louder and more gutturally at the push of a button.

Impressively, Porsche has improved the fuel economy of the 911 even while boosting its power. The previous five-speed Tiptronic transmission at best matched and in some models had lower fuel economy than the stick shift, but the new PDK outpaces the stick shift. For instance, the previous version of the Carrera 4S Coupe was only rated to average 19 miles per gallon with either transmission; the '09 I test-drove is rated at 20 mpg with a stick shift and 21 mpg with an automatic.

Not surprisingly, Porsche's sales have been clobbered by the crisis in the auto industry. Total U.S. sales fell 38.5%, to 11,203 units, in the first seven months of this year. However, the 911 has held up a bit better, with U.S. sales off 30.7%, to 3,968, through July.

Behind the Wheel No other car handles quite like a Porsche 911. The steering is incredibly precise and responsive and the turning radius so tight you can almost do a U-turn on a two-lane road. Having the engine in the rear makes the car tail-heavy, but the Porsche Active Suspension Management (PASM) gives it incredible grip. You can also put the PASM, a $2.490 option, in sport mode at the push of a button, lowering the ride by 0.78 inches and hardening the suspension.

The '09 911 is even faster than the previous model, especially if you get one with the PDK transmission. The '09 Carrera Coupe accelerates from zero to 60 mph in 4.7 seconds with a stick shift and 4.5 seconds with the PDK automatic. Times for the Carrera S drop to 4.5 seconds with a stick and 4.3 seconds with the automatic.

If you're into blazingly fast starts, both the manual transmission and the PDK come with a feature called "launch control." Basically, you hold the brake down with your left foot and rev up the engine with your right. When the engine approaches 6,600 RPM, you take your foot off the brake and hold on for dear life as the car takes off like a bat out of hell.

The PDK transmission gives you the option of doing the shifting yourself, either using the shift lever or steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters. However, I found myself leaving the transmission in automatic mode and marveling at its uncanny ability to adapt to different driving styles. The software is so sophisticated that the transmission almost always seemed to do what I would have done—only far faster.

Say, you're cruising along at 55 mph and want to pass another vehicle. Punch the gas pedal hard and the transmission instantly shifts down to second gear (this car can do well over 60 mph in second gear with no strain). Punch the pedal with less authority and the transmission will downshift to third or fourth gear. If you don't drive aggressively, the transmission spends most of its time in sixth or seventh gear, which keeps revolutions-per-minute low and saves on fuel. Yet, even driving slowly uphill at, say 25 mph, the engine doesn't lag in seventh gear.

Purists may not like it but the 911's interior, once noted for its austerity, now verges on being luxurious. The carpets are plush and the stone grey stitched leather in my test car could have been plucked out of a Lexus. Plus, you can get the leather in all sorts of other colors, including red, cocoa, sea blue and sand beige. If you've got the cash, just about every inch of the cabin can be clad in cowhide, including the roofliner ($1,180), sun visors ($560) and the clothes hooks on the seatbacks ($250).

The communications management system also has been modernized and given iPod connectivity, Bluetooth, and a bigger video screen. There's even an optional hard-drive-based navigation system ($2,110) and high-end Bose sound system ($1,440).

This being a genuine sport car, however, it only seats four and space in the rear seats is too tight for most adults. The trunk, which is up front, provides a mere 4.8 cu. ft. of luggage space.

Buy It or Bag It? It's hard to argue that a Porsche 911 is a bargain, but it really isn't overpriced for what it is. The '09 Carrera Coupe, which offers the best bang for the buck, sells for an average of $80,684, according to the Power Information Network (PIN). That's roughly the same as the Nissan (NSANY) GT-R, which goes for an average of $79,000 for the '09 and $84,135 for the 2010. The '09 Audi R8 sells for an average of nearly $136,000, according to PIN. (PIN, like BusinessWeek, is a unit of The McGraw-Hill Cos.)

Those Porsche 911 loyalists, with particularly deep pockets, who are really into speed may want to wait for the new, 450-hp 911 GT3 RS, which is due out in the U.S. next spring. It's expected to start at about $133,000.

Only a handful of models have remotely similar performance and sell for less than the Carrera. General Motors' Chevy Corvette Z06 goes for an average of $70,831, and the BMW (BMWG.DE) M3 Coupe for $67,478, according to PIN.

They're all wonderful cars, but for my money there's nothing quite like a Porsche 911.

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