Driven: 2012 Porsche 911 Carrera S Coupe

By Brandon Turkus

September 12, 2012

(photo credit: Chris Amos)
—Lake Orion, Michigan
When auto manufacturers talk about supercars, there’s all sorts of chatter about “uncompromising performance” and some particular model being a “road-going racer.” These OEMs bandy these phrases about more often than a politician mentions “economy,” “unemployment,” and “foreign oil” during election season.
The difference between the two camps is this: while the politicians are almost certainly lying to you, at least the manufacturers are being semi-honest. In your Lamborghini, there isn’t a lot done that sacrifices performance. The same is true when you buy a Ferrari; you really are getting a road-going racer. So why are people surprised when their $300,000 supercar is so obnoxious to drive that they only cover about 300 miles per year and spend the rest of the time driving their Phantom, S-Class, or Range Rover?
[Click here to read our review of the 2012 Jaguar XKR-S Convertible]
There is a much better way of owning a supercar, that doesn’t require quarter-million-dollar investments while still delivering thrills, and with enough comfort to be a 12,000-mile-per-year vehicle. Might it surprise you that we’re talking about a Porsche?Driven: 2012 Porsche 911 Carrera S Coupe
The brand is famous for building its vehicles in a familiar shape, with the engine hanging out behind the rear axle. They have not been simple or comfortable cars to drive, suffering from the same flaws as other supercars. They’ve been noisy and hard-riding, with heavy, cumbersome interfaces that make them about as endearing as a two-legged pit bull. Then something happened. With this, the 991 911, the legendary Carrera evolved.
From the old 997 generation, we sampled the GT3, Turbo, and Carrera GTS. Of those three, it’s surprising to know that the GTS was the most popular among the office staff. Taking the best traits of the standard Carrera S and mating them with a 408-horsepower version of Porsche’s 3.8-liter flat-six, the GTS bridged the gap between the GT3 and the Carrera S, and, in the process, created an ideal supercar that is both usable and dynamic.
Now, make no mistake, the 911—particularly the Carrera S we’re testing—is a supercar. With a 3.8-liter flat-six, it packs 400 horsepower and 325 pound-feet into a vehicle that weighs barely 3100 pounds. It’ll snap to 60 miles per hour in under 4 seconds (when properly equipped) and will hit 187 miles per hour. If those numbers aren't worthy, we aren’t sure what are. Strangely, though, it’s the 911’s lack of traditional supercar-ness that really sets it apart from the herd (this is a good thing).
On initial inspection, there’s no huge spoiler, no carbon-clad diffuser, and no street-scraping chin spoiler (at no point did we scrape the nose on a driveway). There are exactly zero stickers or decals on the body, short of the Porsche badge on the hood, and model badges on the trunk. The wheels, simple, clean, and attractive 20-inch items, feature regular sports tires, rather than semi-slick, DOT-legal racing tires.
The unassuming interior further distances the 911 from the norm. There are four seats (useless as the back ones may be) and not one lick of carbon fiber. The PDK transmission operates by way of a traditional, floor-mounted PRND shifter—familiar to anyone that’s driven a vehicle in the past 40 years—rather than some convoluted series of levers and buttons. The controls are all clearly marked, easy to reach, and usable simply by touch, while the nav system doesn’t require an Apple Fellowship to input an address.
Driven: 2012 Porsche 911 Carrera S Coupe
Perhaps the thing that truly sets the 911 apart from the competition out there is the duality of its performance and usability. As impressive as the 911 was dynamically (don’t worry, we’ll get to that in a bit), it shocked us just how civil it was when none of the extra bits were switched on.
The powertrain was downright docile, delivering effortless performance around town. Even though there was 400 horsepower at the disposal of our right foot, the 911 never felt frenetic, jumpy, or otherwise unmanageable. The throttle response was smooth and easy to modulate with a natural-feeling action to the pedal. The biggest difference, though, was made by the PDK transmission. In the default mode, the gearbox short-shifted through the gears, keeping the revs as low as possible until we got into fourth gear. As the speeds climbed, gears were held longer. It was quick to downshift, with little to no hunting for gears. It didn’t roll backwards on hills, or exhibit any of the other bad behavior normally associated with dual-clutch transmissions. Overall, the seven-speed dual-clutch delivered the kind of effortless, invisible performance that we wouldn’t have expected from a supercar.
Impactful as the powertrain was, the ride and handling were where the 911 really surprised us. With wide (295s), low-profile tires, 20-inch wheels, and a very sporty suspension, we weren’t expecting an overly pleasant ride on the well-documented potholes of Metro Detroit.
Yet, with the exception of a high amount of tire roar, the suspension felt largely composed during our regular commute. It felt remarkably planted and stable at speed, and wasn’t anywhere near the handful that the last-generation Turbo or GT3 was. There wasn’t any sidestepping over bumps, and vertical motion was quite well managed. There was a fair amount of impact noise, but really, we’re willing to accept that for the overall improvement in ride comfort.
So, we have a 911 that’s quiet, comfortable, easy to manage during a commute, and loaded with a nice interior. Anything else that could make it better? Yeah, excellent fuel economy.
A 19-mile-per-gallon city and 27-mpg highway rating in a 400-horsepower vehicle of any pedigree is hugely impressive.Driven: 2012 Porsche 911 Carrera S Coupe
With the help of the short-shifting PDK, an appropriately tuned start-stop system, slippery aerodynamics, and a low curb weight, we had no issues netting a healthy 24 mpg in a mix of city and highway driving (even with our notoriously heavy right foot). In a world of four-dollar gas, even those that can afford a $120,000 Porsche will appreciate a car that’ll still net mid-size-sedan levels of economy.
When talking about any supercar, comfort is, at the end of the day, still a secondary concern. It’s performance that is the be-all-end-all of these sorts of vehicles.
Generally, we start by mentioning the engine, but this 911 had something more important. It was the feedback transmitted through those stupidly supportive seats that shocked us. There was just so much suspension chatter going on. The Carrera, when being pushed, was just one of those vehicles that really felt like an extension of our body, like we grew an extra set of hands.
We could feel everything going on between those huge tires and whatever road surface we happened to be on. Lateral grip levels were remarkably easy to interpret, allowing for a rare degree of driver confidence. We talk about cars that we can just fling into corners and are absolutely certain that they’ll hook up and pull through the turn; the Carrera S was the epitome of this quality.
The elephant in the room, though, was the electric steering. Now, let’s get this out of the way: this is the most communicative electric power-assisted steering system we’ve ever tested. However, when it’s matched up with this level of chassis feedback, it just felt somewhat overshadowed, which highlights its lower level of feedback (relative to the rest of the car).
Now, speaking of that powertrain. If you’ve ever wanted to experience what it’s like to be a Porsche race driver, a Carrera S with PDK is probably the closest most mere mortals will ever get. Between the howl of this flat-six and the brutally fast shifts distributed by the PDK, this was the kind of car that fulfilled fantasies.
Driven: 2012 Porsche 911 Carrera S Coupe
Set in Sport Plus, with the active exhausts on, and the suspension in Sport, the 911 CS transformed from a rather docile (but still quick) commuter into a tenaciously fast means of transport.
A mere tap of the throttle (in park or neutral) resulted in a sharp “WOMP” from the back of the car as the revs built fast and fell equally quick. In terms of acoustic showiness, the 911 certainly had the supercar chops. That traditional Porsche flat-six exhaust note sounded great standing still and even better in motion.
It started as a deeper growl before building into a visceral wail, followed by a gratuitous belch from the quad exhausts on upshifts. When we lifted off the throttle while running hard, we were treated to a delightful cackle from the back end that quickly became one of our favorite noises. “Intoxicating” doesn’t begin to describe it.
The 911 got an A+ for its bark, but there was a lot to enjoy about its bite. Throttle response was razor sharp, with slight taps sending the needle towards redline. Despite this near-instant throttle response, modulation wasn’t difficult, making precise inputs on the right pedal rather easy. Old 911s could get an inexperienced driver into trouble when they’d apply too much throttle. We don’t see that being as much of an issue with the 991.
With 400 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque on tap, speed was, unsurprisingly, not an issue. Torque built quickly, and really gave the engine a potent feeling from 4000 rpms all the way up to redline. Nail the throttle at those engine speeds and the 911 catapulted forward, with 50 to 100 mph disappearing disturbingly fast.
Part of the fun of ragging on the 911 came with using the PDK to its fullest potential. Really, guys, this is a gem of a transmission, completely capable of replacing a manual gearbox in terms of fun factor (it’s that good). Yes, it’s capable of near-invisible activity during normal driving, which is great, but when driven in anger it becomes an entirely different beast.
Our first experience with it came from a standing start, where we floored the throttle. Tugging the right paddle, our first upshift delivered a sudden jolt that forcibly reminded us of our turn in the Ferrari 458 (from the last Supercar Issue). Honesty, it felt like we were being kicked in the back of the head, and we mean that in the best way possible. It’s just such an instantly quick transfer, then before we knew it the revs were back on and we were getting ready for another upshift. Downshifts were equally abrupt, with a quick tug of the left paddle bringing about a series of pops from the exhausts (again, our favorite sound).Driven: 2012 Porsche 911 Carrera S Coupe
We did have one slight niggle though. The action on the shifters just didn’t feel quite as crisp as we’d expected. The left paddle felt almost spongy, and resulted in accidental double downshifts more than once. We suspect, though, that given a longer drive we’d eventually adjust to the feeling. Still, the rest of this car had a hewn-from-granite feel; we just expected the same from the paddles.
With the suspension set to Sport, the 911’s handling prowess went from impressive to downright great. Body roll was nearly nonexistent, with flat cornering through even the tightest turns. Squat and dive were similarly well controlled, while the balance (traditionally a tricky spot for rear-engined 911s) didn’t feel quite as prone to understeer. Instead, the balance was much more neutral, which resulted in a more confidence-inspiring driving experience.
Perhaps what’s most remarkable about the 911 is that it wasn’t intimidating. The straight-line performance and handling weren’t as unforgiving as one might find in a Ferrari or Lamborghini or even a Corvette Z06, instead offering an accessibility that was rare at this performance level. What’s more, the assorted modes allowed us to grow with the car, and really learn to exploit its abilities at each performance level.
Of course, buying it is the issue. With a starting price of $96,400, a standard Carrera S is a pricey proposition (our PDK-equipped model starts just a shade over $100K). We managed to find 130 hardtopped Carrera S models nationwide, the vast majority of which are optioned with the PDK dual-clutch transmission. The cheapest we found was a $99,800 example in Miami, while more heavily optioned cars approached $140,000. The distribution of cars actually looks quite even nationwide, with a large majority in California (not surprising), but there were also cars in less Porsche-friendly markets like Kentucky, Alabama, Colorado, and Ohio. So from a brief look, finding one might not be the problem, you’ll just need the coin.
While it’s a dream to own a supercar, many people don’t anticipate the sacrifices that need to be made in order to simply drive it on a regular basis. The 911 Carrera S takes a different route, delivering supercar performance in a package that you’ll actually want to drive regularly. It’s good looking, comfortable, quiet, and yet it’s also capable of world-class speed and performance. Sounds like the best of both worlds.
2012 Porsche 911 Carrera S Coupe 7AT
Engine: Flat-six, 3.8 liters, 24v
Output: 400 hp/325 lb-ft
0-60 MPH: 3.9 sec
Top Speed 187 mph
Weight: 3120 lb
Base Price: $100,480