Driven: 2011 Porsche 911 GT3 RS 4.0

By Tom Martin

December 13, 2011

Santa Fe, New Mexico
We’ve just finished two thousand miles in the 2011 Porsche GT3 RS 4.0. They were two thousand mind-searingly memorable miles, in part because they were on some of our great western roads, including Rt. 4 in New Mexico, Rt. 145 in Colorado, and Rts. 95 and 24 in Utah, to name a few. And memorable, in no small part, because this is the last of the 997-generation Porsches, and when Porsche gives a going-away present to its owners, it does it in style.
To properly convey what Porsche has done, it helps to clear your mind and get comfortable with the idea that the GT3, the basis for the car we have on test, is not like other 911s. While it is tempting to think of the GT3 as another, more hardcore, variant among the 20-plus variants that Porsche inevitably cranks out during a generation of 911s, that mindset doesn’t help you understand what the driving experience is like. It is better, for communication purposes, to start by thinking of the GT3 as wholly different. As different as you now think of, say, the Cayman and the 911. Or, frankly, the GT-R and the 911.
The GT3 RS 4.0 then takes that difference and increases it. This is not journalist-created hyperbole; it stems from fundamentally different hardware. For starters, the GT3 RS 4.0 has a normally aspirated engine producing 500 horsepower. That’s up 120 horsepower on the 911 Carrera S, and is equal to the 911 Turbo. But where the Turbo is by comparison a silent and sluggish torquemeister, the GT3 RS 4.0 power band lives above 6000 revs—an area where the Turbo may not tread.
[Video: Follow along with the GT3 RS 4.0 adventure by watching Tom Martin's road trip video]
Perhaps just as important, these are not tuning differences. The GT3 RS 4.0 uses a different engine than more domesticated 911s. The GT3s use the so-called Mezger M97 engine, named for Hans Mezger, designer of many famous Porsche engines including the flat-12 in the 917 Le Mans car and the TAG P01 Turbo that won several F1 championships with McLaren. The M97 design traces its roots to the engine used in the 962 and GT1 racing cars.
To take this engine beyond previous GT3 and GT3 RS versions, Porsche has moved the displacement up to 4.0 liters from the previous 3.8-liter mark. The transmission also differs from standard 911 practice, although it offers the same six gears and same shift pattern. Specs, as ever, do not tell all.
The chassis starts with the 997 body, but the suspension is lower and stiffer. It incorporates a wider track, partly due to the wider tires, which are 325-millimeter cross section in the rear (up from 305). The car incorporates a dynamic engine mount system that reduces the impact of the engine mass in fast corner transitions (which will be available for the first time outside the GT range on the new 991). Porsche also has gone slightly farther with weight reduction than in previous RS versions, shaving 22 pounds off the RS 4.0 with various carbon bits and deletions. Tweaking has extended to the aerodynamics department as well, where the giant rear wing has been fine tuned and matched at the front with a revised splitter and the first appearance of dive planes on a Porsche street car.
But, as we’ve said since Issue 1, you don’t drive a car in your head; you drive it on the road. So the real test here is whether the GT3 RS 4.0 delivers something new. We’d say it does, but exactly what that is—and whether you want it—takes some explaining.
Let’s start with the GT3 basics. We’ve held the 997.2 version of the GT3 in high esteem because it is so mechanically alive. You notice this as soon as you start one, and the engine thrums noisily to life. This isn’t an exhaust-blat sort of start, it is pistons, and cams, and injectors, and throttles whirring, and clattering, and vibrating. The RS 4.0 adds to that a clutch clatter that is slightly reminiscent of an F-350 diesel. The GT3 wears its drivetrain on its sleeve, and seems to want you to know that it is there for one purpose, and one purpose only: driving involvement.
As you roll out onto the road, this edgy, urgent feeling continues. Porsche has cut a nice balance between clearly transmitting the sound of the car into the cabin while not making the din so overwhelming that you can’t think or talk. But make no mistake, you hear what the engine and tires are doing in this car, more than in most.
You also feel what you are doing. The shifter is heavy, with clear, metallic-feeling detents. The clutch is heavy too. The steering is actually rather light, but Porsche has kept the ratio on the slow side because the car responds so quickly. What is really magical with the GT3, and this RS 4.0 in particular, is the way in which you immediately know you’re controlling something slightly wild, coupled with the sense that the controls are all set up so that you can run things predictably.
As you arc toward the first twisty road, the engine sound delivers an enticing aural pull. A flat-six, at its best as displayed here, sings differently than other engines. This one is placed sonically in between the guttural roar of, say, the marvelous LS7 V-8 and the piercing shriek of an F1 motor. The sound is full of mid-range induction noise, but what really makes it a winner is that the character changes significantly in the run from 3000 rpm up to the 8500-rev redline. The tones change, the volume rises, and a howl is layered on top of the proceedings as you get to the top end. But in each rev range and throttle position, the sound is characterful, not thin and simplistic. The word “symphonic” comes to mind, but this is Mahler, not Mozart, in its power and richness. Porsche has also chosen the volume level well, so that the sound is clear and punchy, but not annoying or deafening.
The GT3 is a car you choose because you want to do some work to get its rewards. With relatively little torque (339 pound-feet at 5750 rpm), this is not a stomp-and-go or a point-and-shoot kind of car. You have to think about what gear you need, make a downshift and run it through the revs to get what it can do. The 4.0 has slightly more torque at lower revs than the other GT3s, but this fundamental truth doesn’t change. And frankly, those who love this car wouldn’t want it to.
The other brilliant aspect of the GT3 is its progressive responses. While a lot of people feel competent to criticize the rear-engine layout of the 911, one thing actual physics indicates is that this configuration is born for responsive steering. The hard part is to keep it under control. Porsche has delivered a steering/suspension/tire package with the GT3 that wants to do your bidding. Some basic 911s are more understeer-oriented, which is probably wise in general, but that dials down the responsiveness when the pace is quick. In addition, the softer suspension setups of the Carreras make you more aware of the mass of the car. In contrast the GT3 feels relatively light and the Michelin Pilot Sport Cup tires couple beautifully to the tactile steering, so that you know when you’re on the edge, and yet that edge is not razor sharp.
The RS 4.0 takes this formula two steps forward. One of those steps is to do what the GT3 does, but times 1.2 or 1.3. Richer sound, tighter responses, more thrust above 5000 rpm. Those changes are good, but they are changes where the GT3 is already distinctive. They’re like more fudge on a hot fudge sundae. We want it, you want it, and yet that part doesn’t basically alter the proposition.
But, on top of that quantitative shift, the RS 4.0 summons up a qualitative distinction that makes the price tag seem almost rational. Where the GT3, at speed, sometimes feels likes it is hanging on with claws extended, the RS 4.0 feels at ease. The RS 4.0 simply comes across as more mature and more capable—it doesn’t seem to be working as hard. This is not a matter of isolation, for the RS 4.0 is more communicative than the base GT3; it is a matter of capability. At the same time, the RS 4.0 seems more playful. At less that nine-tenths, the RS 4.0 seems happy and interested, where the GT3 sometimes seems a little bored.
The RS 4.0 conveys fewer limits. Again, we don’t mean that it isn’t talkative—anything but. We mean that you sense more headroom in the engine and from the chassis. That’s partially because there is more headroom and partially because you don’t have to push it quite as hard to make it dance. Foxtrot and Jitterbug are both in its repertoire.
The brilliance of the GT3 RS 4.0 is that it finally and pretty much convincingly resolves the 911 dilemma that has existed for decades. The rear engine location is completely right for a street car, because it creates dynamics and movements that the driver must deal with, even below the limit. Inert the 911 is not, and that is a wonderful thing, amateur physics notwithstanding. But until this car, all 911s struggled to resolve the fight between these difficult movements and raw adhesion. Each generation has made progress, sometimes erring on too much control, others erring on the side of too little adhesion. Mostly though, in recent generations of the Carrera, a little too much life was sapped from the proceedings. The 997 generation GT3s put a lot of that life back in, but for the first time, this RS 4.0 strikes the nearly perfect balance between action and control, between feel and pace.
So the RS 4.0 can dance, and dance really well, but “Waltz” probably isn’t in the cards. The RS 4.0 simply isn’t an ideal daily driver. The controls are a little heavy, the sound a bit too omnipresent, and the ride on the firm side for commuting duty. If you’re looking for a car that is mostly a suburban transport vehicle, with occasional joyriding duties, the whole GT3 series misses the mark by a more than a smidge. And, frankly, the GT3 isn’t that happy on bad road surfaces, not so much because of ride quality as sound—a lot of noise from bad roads comes into the cabin, and that will wear on you if you’re going long-distance. So, if your joyriding involves occasional Saturday jaunts on back roads or long cross-country excursions, this car probably won’t do it for you. If that’s what you want, the new 991 version of the 911 is your chariot (or a Ferrari 458 or a McLaren MP4-12C). Porsche has worked hard to decrease the coupling of noise into the new-generation car, while attempting to keep the joy. The 9A1 engine in the 991 is no M97, but there are times you may be glad that marvelous, thumpy, grinding lump isn’t back there.
On the other hand, if winding road driving is most of what you do, and if that often involves driving to the track and then doing track days or HPDE, then the RS 4.0 might be your car. It is a blast on well-paved twisties and an amazing street car at the track. It has enough quirks to make you study to become a better driver. It is fast enough that you might never run out of room for improvement. And there are enough people in the same situation, that advice is easily found—both pro and amateur. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that you’ll see something not at all unlike your car in many serious racing series on Saturday and Sunday, at places like Sebring and Laguna Seca and Road America and Le Mans. Sounds about perfect to us.
2011 Porsche 911 GT3 RS 4.0
Engine: Flat-6, 4.0 liters, 24v
Output: 500 hp/339 lb-ft
0-60 MPH: 3.8 sec
Top Speed: 193 mph
Weight: 2998 lb
Base Price: $185,000