The Porsche 911 is often described as the best all-round sports car on the planet. Is the 911 Carrera 4 GTS Cabrio the best of all? Adam Hay-Nicholls gets to grips with a German icon.
At 52 years old, the Porsche 911 is probably the most developed car ever built. Each generation sees new gains; more control, improved safety, greater power and sharper looks. Those frog-eye headlamps, the engine right at the back, and the seductively sloping roofline remain; consistently a technological tour-de-force and perhaps the most iconic of all four-wheeled silhouettes.
One gripe I have with the 911, though, is that they’re everywhere and always have been. They’re like Starbucks. We’re told that luxury trends are going bespoke, that wealthy people all want one-of-a-kind. The psychological pinpoint of sports cars has always been to stand out. By way of testament, dart-shaped Ferraris and Lamborghinis jam the feeds of every petrolhead’s Instagram, less so the 911.
The 911 is so ingrained in our consciousness that it no longer shocks the senses visually. It’s like Arne Jacobsen’s Model 3107 chair, a design milestone that has endured for nearly 60 years and never looked less than bang up-to-date but which due to its omnipresence manages to blend into the background, unless a naked Christine Keeler is straddling it.
Although I enjoy nothing more than spending a week with a head-turning automobile, a long-term relationship with a ‘car-parazzi’ magnet would almost certainly drag and it’s here that the 911 appeals. It’s the sports car for a driver who demands performance and prestige but wants to keep their private life private. The Porsche 911 is, therefore, the perfect mistress. Perhaps this is why so many Hollywood stars drive them.
Discretion is the 911’s middle name. Well, actually, it has a whole bunch of middle names. More names than a serial-killing aristocrat. The example that I’ve tested is the most recent birth: The Porsche 911 Carrera 4 GTS Cabrio.
A quick guide to the lineage of those names: The original 911 was invented by Dr Ferdinand Porsche and its unusual engine layout inspired by his most popular car, the Volkswagen Beetle. It was to be called the 901 until French auto maker Peugeot, who always name their cars something-oh-something, kicked off. Porsche’s record on Mexico’s Carrera Panamericana race added the next bit. The ‘4’ stands for four-wheel-drive. The GTS badge dates back to the pretty Carrera GTS which successfully shouldered the company’s racing ambitions in the mid-sixties. And Cabrio, or ‘cabriolet’, describes this car’s convertible roof.
It makes for some busy badging on the car’s rear and also hints at the scale of the range. While it’s true that 911s are everywhere (nearly 850,000 have been sold since the first rolled out of Stuttgart in 1963), they’re not all the same. There are currently 20 different models in the 911 household, ranging in power, weight, two or four-wheel-drive, coupe, targa and rag top. You can easily tailor a 911 to your desires and budget, fulfilling the exclusivity that exotic car customers demand, while still preserving that almost unique low-profile. Unless you order it in bright orange, and I cannot fathom why some people do.
What makes the Porsche such a strong all-rounder is that it’s fast yet easy to drive in and out of town, with great visibility, a spacious and comfortable cabin, reliable engineering, excellent urban and touring fuel economy, and the engine and handling of your dreams. The GTS, which slots between the S and the GT3 in the range, has just the right level of styling enhancements; enough to stand-out from the standard car by looking more purposeful and premium but doesn’t go as far as the GT3 whose aggressive fins and intakes spoil that discrete charm I mentioned. The special 20in matte black wheels are mean but not too ostentatious, the smoked lightbulb surrounds and quad exhausts look stylish, the radiator scoops hint at the extra power but aren’t in your face, and the rear spoiler only pops up at high speed so as not to disturb that unmistakable silhouette.
The 3.8 litre boxer engine delivers 430bhp, which is 30 more than the S. Zero to 100 km/h takes 4.4 seconds with the automatic PDK transmission, which is really in race car class. Yet despite the power hike, sports exhaust and firmer suspension this car remains totally smooth and composed under normal driving conditions.
I recommend getting four-wheel-drive if only for the peace of mind, as 911s have long had a reputation for being tail happy. For the last 20 years the reality is no longer the case, the engineers putting a huge amount of R&D into countering the physics of having that engine in the rear. Now the car has ferocious grip and reassuring stability but the 4 ups the ante and inspires increased confidence in the wet. Despite this, it hasn’t stopped celebrity owners Linsay Lohan, Chris Brown and Robin Thicke each crashing one, but stay alert and you should have no worries. And whether you get the 2 or 4 the GTS will come with the more voluptuous wheel arches that are normally only the reserve of the 4 models. They make the car look so much more buff, though they’re a pain at the Drive Thru.
As a result of these subtleties the GTS is, in my opinion, the best looking of all 911s. The power upgrade will satisfy anyone who fears the standard or S models don’t quite shift enough, but it remains just inside the envelope of real world ability without having to resort to the stripped-out steroid-stuffed GT3 or the insane world of redline debauchery, noise citations and financial carelessness that is the Turbo. The pleasure of the GTS is that it does everything you could ever want it to.
Inside, the interior is a well-judged mix of contemporary style with nods to its ancestry. It’s refreshingly unpretentious. There are a lot more buttons than in the mk1 model Steve McQueen used to hoon around in, but it feels focused, the angular surfaces happily retro but in a fresh ‘the 80s are cool again’ way. The seats are a design delight and I can attest that you can drive seven hours straight without wriggling.
The GTS Cabrio does one thing extra, over the coupe. It can go topless. Now for a car that shuns the spotlight this kind of attention-seeking behaviour seems at odds. When the sun comes out it certainly adds to the sensory experience of hugging the cliffs of a coastal road with the throttle jammed open, but without a roof the 911 loses its looks. It feels undressed, the cellulite exposed. That said, there’s no sagging in this chassis – it feels as stiff as the coupe.
The best of both worlds would be the Targa 4 GTS, with its handsome wrap-around rear windscreen and removable hardtop which lets you be a sun king in summer and converts to cozy coupe when the cold sets in.
The Porsche 911 has garnered gushing praise from enthusiasts for half a century, and the nodding approval of those, like me, in search of style and substance without a big arrow that says ‘look at me’. All 911s are brilliant but, with apologies to George Orwell, some are more brilliant than others. The GTS isn’t the fastest or most advanced, but it’s the best all-rounder in the range. And that is the central appeal of the 911. It’s the GT that can do it all, and does it really really well.