Porsche 997 Turbo road trip – Peak District

A Guards Red Turbo; it’s a combination that will have a resonance, good or bad, for virtually every Porsche enthusiast. In the cut and thrust decade that was the Eighties, this was the car to have, the ultimate exhibition of success, the pin-up wheels for the masses. I know; I had a framed picture of one on my bedroom wall as a kid, and I absolutely loved it.

In the medium-term this image hurt Porsche. The rehabilitation of the 930 (the internal model name for the original 911 Turbo), and in particular the Guards Red 930, has been a slow and painful process. The general public takes a long time to forgive, and when a product is so closely aligned with the sort of money lauding, obnoxious type as in the case of the 911 Turbo, when the collective mood finally changes the ‘image’ can take decades to recover.

Thankfully, that process is now happening, even if we did receive the odd dirty look in our Guards Red 997 Turbo. For many, the old 930 is starting to look very cool indeed as the children of the Eighties can, in some cases, now afford the motoring heroes of their youth. And I tend to think that makes this particular 997 look very appealing as well, especially when you consider its specification in more detail. Which is kind of why we’re on this trip.

You see, what we have here is a ‘Generation 2’ (997.2) Turbo with a manual gearbox. That’s something of a rarity – Porsche GB is selling only 20 per cent of Turbos with such a transmission compared to the twin-clutch PDK automatic gearbox. That figure is somewhat skewed by the introduction of the PDK-only Turbo S last year, a specification telling in itself; you can’t help wondering if, like other sports car manufacturers have done, the next-generation Turbo will be PDK-only. Could this stick-shift Turbo become the last of the breed?

Or, perhaps more to the point, does such a scenario matter? And will that make this retro-themed Turbo one day highly desirable, just as the classifieds are full of Tiptronic 996 and 997 Turbos, with the typically more enthusiast-orientated buyer second and third time around seeking out the rarer manual cars?

To find out, we’re embarking on a good old-fashioned drive story, taking the latest Turbo to the beautiful English Peak District, and in particular, to the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. Well, there are many who’d like you to believe that manual gearboxes are hopelessly outdated technology, so we thought we’d take one mechanical relic to see another…

Sir Richard Arkwright built Cromford Mill, with construction work taking place in 1771. Although the village of Cromford was some way from the key cotton markets of Lancashire and Nottingham, it had a readily useable source of water and its relative obscurity meant there was less of a chance that his adventurous plans would be copied illegally.

Arkwright’s Water Frame for the mass production of cotton thread made him a very successful businessman and a true pioneer, so perhaps if then were now, or now could be then, his local OPC would’ve been tapping him up for a new Turbo order. After all, the Turbo has always been the one 911 able to transcend the sports car roots of the basic design and creep over into the supercar league. And anyway, he’d probably already have a Cayenne on the driveway…

As you can see from Ali Cusick’s stunning images on these pages, our Turbo looks very much at home within the grounds of Cromford Mill – itself a fascinating place of history and well worth a visit if you’re out that way.

It’s a typically bright, clear but cold January day as we turn out of the gates, and the only slight scar on an otherwise eagerly anticipated drive into the hills of the Peak District is the very real possibility of ice on the roads. Still, having the Turbo for the trip seems ideal; its powers of road holding and braking are rightly legendary, and this latest version has only increased that, particularly via the inclusion of new chassis technology.

We have the torque vectoring differential and dynamic engine mounts fitted to this example, although it wears the standard Turbo alloy wheels and runs steel, rather than the optional ceramic, brakes. Obviously, there are the traction benefits of the latest four-wheel-drive system, as well as the full suite of electronic safety systems grouped under PSM.

The lanes and passes of the Peaks lay bare one of the key attractions of the modern Turbo. It has frankly freakish overtaking potential, and however outlandish its performance seems at times, there are also moments when you’re glad of every 493bhp. In truth, it’s the 516lb ft of torque (on overboost) that provides the magic, particularly as it flows forth from 2,100rpm right up to 4,000rpm at full force. Describing the experience of this sensation is just about impossible: thanks to the variable vane turbos, you can rely on an extraordinary ‘hit’ of torque more or less exactly when you summon it. Time and time again, boxed in among traffic adopting a 45mph cruise in a de-restricted zone – each car nestled mere centimetres from the bumper of the car in front, too – the Turbo allows you to exploit safely a legal overtaking opportunity that would otherwise be a frustrating impossibility, In fact, your real test is not only adopting enough forward planning to take advantage of this ability, but also to watch every other car like a hawk, covering the brake and preparing yourself for any ill-advised sudden movements. Getting it right, safely but swiftly is very rewarding.

Given the level of traffic on our roads this ability of the Turbo to time-warp from point A to point B is very useful. In terms of outright performance, though, it’s basically become immaterial; held flat to the boards in second, third and fourth gears the Turbo digs into the roads and rips apart the horizon, in the process vastly exceeding the limit without even getting into its real stride. This is the devilish temptation – a very real risk for the Turbo driver intending to use their steed every day; this is a car that can get from rest to 60mph in less than 3.5 seconds! As such, you tend to use the performance on offer like a big stick in a riot; it’s always there, you occasionally show a glimpse of it, but only rarely do you deploy the full ferocity of it, and when you do only in an accurate and contained fashion.

But it’s that six-speed manual gearbox that has really driven this feature, so it’s time to consider its qualities in detail. If there is a flaw, it’s in moving off from rest. With such a large amount of torque to contend with, clearly this needs to be a very strong set of drivetrain components. So that a manual-equipped Turbo remains an easy drive for all types and ages of driver, you sense that Porsche has worked hard to make the pedal action light, which is undeniably a boon in traffic jams. Nevertheless, for me the trade-off is a slightly false, springy action that requires real precision if you’re not to make a clumsy getaway with too many revs dialled in. I also find myself wishing for the PDK’s long seventh gear on the motorway, just to reduce the engine noise a little bit and, of course, to aid the fuel consumption.

Other than that, though, it’s all good news. The manual gearbox isn’t really that much extra work because in normal driving you tend to use either the even or odd numbered gears, but never all of them such is the breadth of torque on offer. And when you do want to drive, the connection you feel with the car, and the rewards you derive from this, mean a far greater bond develops between you and the machine. Emotionally, I feel engaged with this car in a way that I have never even slightly felt with a twin-clutch-equipped version.

I rejoice in the fact that in nearly two hours of driving I haven’t had to press one single button, other than selecting ‘Sport’ to gain the extra torque when an overtake looked likely (and then immediately switching the dampers back to normal again because, as usual, they are far too firm for road use in their harder setting). I haven’t needed to change ‘driving modes’. I haven’t needed to mess about with automatic and manual control, debating whether I want to change gears or ‘it’ should and then switching back. I’ve just driven, the working of arm and feet undertaken on a subconscious level.

So for that freedom and, to be honest, relaxation, I’ll willingly trade the auto’s faster shifts and therefore marginally quicker acceleration against the stopwatch. I’ll also trade it for the sheer pleasure of actually driving a car, and the directness of the throttle response, which seems to make a manual turbo feel quicker initially than its twin-clutch brethren.

Don’t get me wrong, however, as I’m only extolling the virtues of this actual car for the enthusiast buyer or reader – this is Total 911 after all – and I do appreciate the PDK’s talents, of which there are many, as well as the market it caters for. Given the Turbo’s role, a twin-clutch gearbox is a no-brainer to have in the range – it’s essential for Porsche to offer it.

The roads of the Peaks make an ideal test for the Turbo, and to be honest it excels. Sometimes they’re fast, well sighted and smooth; sometimes they’re tight and twisting with poor surfaces. Occasionally they’re very slippery. But this latest version feels more alert, agile and composed than the Generation 1 car. It turns into corners with more precision, and the nose stays flatter than before allowing you to relax into the drive rather than fighting the car at times. In some ways I miss the character of the old 3.6-litre Mezger engine, but you can’t argue with the lag-free response of the new unit – it just isn’t a very romantic device, but then, 911 Turbos have never romanced the ears with their induction or exhaust note.

Only the long homeward grind on the motorway exposes some weaknesses in the Turbo. Experience says this is a UK-specific problem, but the amount of road roar generated in this scenario is huge, and it has to be said, rather wearing. You have to turn the stereo up a long way to beat the thrashings coming from below – or rather I would, had my iPod not run out of battery juice hours ago, thanks to the connection in the centre console being the only example I can think of where it doesn’t also charge the battery while it’s playing. But then again, I’m loathe to criticise the Turbo too much for these practical issues, because if it was a perfectly refined, long-distance companion, we’d probably all be moaning that it was too quiet and had lost its soul…

If I’m honest, the PDK-equipped Turbo and Turbo S models I’ve driven left me impressed but rather cold and ambivalent, and in the wake of the brilliant GT3, GT3 RS and GT2 RS, I’d started to see the Turbo as a bit of a soft choice.

However, this car has changed all of that; reviewing our time together, I relished the lunacy of its real-world pace, its malleable and multi-faceted personality and the air of unabashed glamour it exuded. Although not without flaws, it remains a tantalising prospect as an everyday car – the kind of choice that might hurt in the wallet, but that would reward immeasurably.

Some might think that this particular 997 Turbo is rather retro in its colour and transmission choice, but I think it’s more relevant than ever. Long may that continue.

This was taken from issue 73, for all Total 911 back issues visit www.imagineshop.co.uk/

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