The Porsche 911 Turbo S Is the Powered Exoskeleton Drivers Need Now
The “Iron Man Suit” sports car gets even more heroic for 2017.
Long before Iron Man was an ink stain off Stan Lee’s portable typewriter, the first powered exoskeleton came to life in the workshop of a Russian mechanical engineer. Nicholas Yagn’s weird, hydraulic-powered gadget, which he patented in 1890, used “compressed-fluid accumulators” to augment the wearer’s ability to walk, run, or jump. Although the device, er, fell flat, you don't have to be Dr. Faustus to know that humanity still yearns to be superhuman.
Skip ahead to the modern day. You’re at the wheel of the 2017 Porsche 911 Turbo S. A few laps around a racetrack and there it is: the feeling that Porsche engineers, with all their actuators and algorithms, have been edging us closer and closer to machinery that’s less a car than a man-machine interface.
Of course, the Turbo S is a car first. A devastating performer with the numbers to match: Zero to 60 in under three seconds, standing quarter-mile in just over 10 seconds, and a lap around the Nürburgring Nordschleife in 7:18, as Porsche estimated earlier this year (when Nürburgring officials barred unrestricted laps). If confirmed in a real-world test, that time would make the Turbo S quicker than the 911 GT2 RS screamer from a generation ago.
And yet, the 911 Turbo has rarely been the driver’s choice. Turbos of the not-too-recent past lack finesse, and even new ones don’t rouse the ardor like a spry, high-revving GT3 does. Porsche Turbos have always been sexy in the way a 14-cylinder, 100,000-hp Wärtsilä-Sulzer RTA96-C diesel engine is. That is to say, barely at all, unless you’re someone who gets heated, at an axiological level, from state-of-the-art machinery.
In fact, strident unsexiness is part of the Porsche Turbo attitude. “You’re money’s safe here,” the staid Turbo S parked out front of the hedge fund office reassures. “We’re not Italian-car people.”
And yet, over the past model generation, a growing palette of technologies have rocked Porsche Turboland, altering the received wisdom of the über-911. There’s a new sharpness, a return to brutality, an edginess that runs counterpoint to the self-conscious, all-weather stability that’s been the all-wheel-drive Turbo’s reputation in the post-930 age. It’s as if the nerds at Zuffenhausen, where the Turbo is built alongside standard 911s, have been hanging out at Weissach with the motorsports and GT guys.
The result is a potent combination of speed and ever-smarter technologies that swirl into in a motoring gestalt. The latest Turbo S produces a peak of 580 hp and 553 pound-feet of torque (in overboost) at 1,950 rpm, essentially a standstill for the 3.8-liter flat six's crank. And a remarkable amount of that massive power and twist make it to the ground. The all-wheel-drive system is now fully e-controlled, meaning the entire drivetrain now operates on the same brainwaves: from the output shaft to the PDK transmission to the fore and aft active differentials. Add a neural network (don't doubt that A.I. will play an increasing role in sports-car building) and this thing could become self-aware by next Tuesday.
Equally smart is the suspension, and its alphabet soup of acronymous verbiage—sport-tuned Porsche Active Suspension Management (PASM), with its continuously variable damping rates; optional Porsche Dynamic Chassis Control (PDCC), whose end-link actuators engage and disengage the bar as needed to reduce lean and roll as it happens. So is the rear-steer system and active engine mounts. A software upgrade to the stability control system now allows drivers some extra slip before clamping down (ironically, Porsche was late to this feature).
Delivered through today’s robust sensors and microcontrollers, these are the quickest-acting electromechanical helpers ever, edging the Turbo closer to becoming a true, motoring Iron Man suit. That, plus more subtle chassis tuning that’s gone along with the 991.2 model-generation upgrade, and the 911 Turbo S is a cohesive, manageable unit of big power and sublime agility.
Around the back of Thunderhill Raceway in Willows, California, is a sequence of turns straight off Lucifer’s doodle pad. You charge up a short hill, dunk into a shallow bowl, juke the wheel left and fire downward through a puckeringly fast right-hander. As the turn unwinds, you dive over a crest and the left side of the track falls away, which your dumb monkey brains register as "going ear-first down a mineshaft."
In most cars, with Newton’s Second Law guiding you toward the weeds, you'd wait a beat as the suspension compresses. You’d roll on the throttle to keep the nose pointed forward. You’d say a nanoprayer while looking deeply into the next corner, and you'd try not to squeeze the steering wheel into liquid alcantara. In the Turbo S, where physics are what Porsche engineers say they are, you just keep it floored and hang on.
The Turbo’s complex systems create their own distortion field. Forces are countered. Off-axis movements are sorted out and corrected deep in the software. Exhibit a little bit of skill and the systems respond with greater intelligence. The Turbo, once the fastest snoozefest out of Stuttgart, now feels like it’s alive—part sentient being, part sensory simulation. Not merely an extension of your limbs, but of your nervous system as well. Somewhere inside all the wires and mechanisms is a gorilla with a wild hair.
Yes, you can paddle-shift through the gears, but the PDK’s computer brain now thinks in lockstep with the ratios, which think in lockstep with the diffs and the torque-vectoring software and the stability control. Your crude fingers just get in the way.
And yet, while more robotic than ever, the Turbo S is also more acute in the "feelings" department. Throttle response is punchier, due to a new quasi anti-lag feature. When your foot’s off the pedal, it cuts fuel delivery but leaves the throttle open and the engine on boil. When you get on the gas again, boost pressure is up and it’s ready to fire.
While it's comforting to know that Porsche hasn't abandoned more elemental sports cars, like the Cayman GT4, a moonshot performance car like the Turbo S keeps the engineers focused on the future. What's more, this new dot-two generation of the Turbo proves we’re at the precipice of a motorsport renaissance, in which assistance technology heightens the driving experience in all directions, both extending drivers’ capability to achieve spectacular performance and delivering sensory input to feed the human being behind the wheel. While it’s still an anti-purist’s car, the Turbo is closing in on a machine with a soul.
(Indeed, I’ve buried the lede: If you buy a Turbo and don’t drive it on a racetrack, you’ve bought 30 percent of a car.)
Takeaway: Over a lifetime of technological advancement, the Turbo has evolved from a loose cannon and surgeon maimer back in the 1970s to a predictable autobahn rocket by the 2000s. Now the Turbo is entering its third wave, delivering both visceral thrills and unwavering confidence. For an amateur driver, it has never been easier to drive like a superhuman.