Love at first drive
THE GOOD
  • Still offered with manual transmission
  • Direct drive experience
  • Intersection of tradition, technology
THE BAD
  • I don’t own one
2020 Porsche 911 Review and Video

It struck me as I reluctantly set out to return the 2020 Porsche 911 Carrera S on a sleepy and suddenly sombre holiday Monday: I was a man in love.

It happened unwittingly and without preconception. Not that I – like so many other car-crazed kids – didn’t lust after the 911 growing up, nor was this my first encounter with Porsche’s sporting icon. But it felt different this time.

Alas, love is fleeting in my line of work. But maybe there was time for one last dance – one more splash of that sweet 94-octane nectar; one final run up to the 7,400-rpm redline. Maybe I could find an empty stretch of tarmac on which I could express my adoration a final time, the only farewell befitting of this wonderful machine. Ah, the things we do for love.

Driving Feel: 10/10

What makes this particular Porsche so enchanting is that it’s still got some old-school swagger. Forget for just a second that the entire 911 lineup is turbocharged these days, or the fact they’re loaded with all kinds of technology. Much of this version’s newness remains hidden in the background, leaving the bond between driver and machine the sole focus. There’s a certain rawness to this version of the 911 – or at least as much as a modern Porsche can possess.

For starters, it’s stiff. Like, really stiff. The 911 has never been a car that’s meant to coddle you on your commute; it’s one that’s meant to be driven. Hard. This Carrera S is a not-so-subtle reminder of that intent, with a chassis that feels every bit as though it’s been tuned for the track. No, it’s not quite as hardcore as a 911 GT model, but it doesn’t feel far off.

That it’s not a GT3 means this 911 can still be optioned with a manual transmission. It’s not driver engagement that makes this such a marvellous car, though there’s plenty of that, too. Because it’s equally as engaging to slap the paddles on the back of the steering wheel in a car like this. Instead, it’s the reward of it all – of actuating the clutch and engaging each one of the transmission’s seven forward gears – that adds to the euphoria of the drive experience. It takes deliberate force to get the car moving in the first place; the clutch pedal has a hydraulic-like heft, while the shifter needs more than a gentle nudge to find first gear.

Power: 10/10

It’s hard to top the sultry song of a Porsche-built flat-six, and the 3.0L propelling the Carrera S is no exception. To engage first gear and feather the 911’s throttle is to bring in the treble before the bassline, a metallic twang emanating from the farthest reaches of the chassis before being joined by the deep and rhythmic resonance of stainless steel. With shifter in hand, driver becomes conductor of this private orchestra made of a selection of some of the finest sounds around.

It’s forgivable to feel nostalgic for the days of natural aspiration in the Carrera range, but this twin-turbo unit is a worthy replacement. Spinning up 443 hp to go with 390 lb-ft of torque from 2,300 rpm onward, output is never lacking. As long as the right gear is engaged, the Carrera S is always ready to provide the familiar kick in the pants of a rear-engine Porsche.

Dropping a gear or two brings out the requisite burble and backfire as engine speed spikes to its 4,000 rpm sweet spot. It’s here that the 3.0L really comes alive, unleashing a frenzied assault on the asphalt below. It’s like a mosh pit has broken out inside a beautifully elegant ballroom, such is the controlled chaos and ferocity at the user’s fingertips in a manual 911. Opting for the manual means a slightly slower car in standing acceleration – it loses about half a second to 100 km/h to the same car with the dual-clutch automatic – but that meaningless measure of greatness fails to take into account everything else about this 911 that’s so magical.

User Friendliness: 9/10

Like the way the auto rev-match system increases adrenaline just enough when hustling the car through a corner without letting it affect focus. Or how all the modern touches inside the cabin seemingly recede into the background so as not to interfere with the drive experience. Because that’s what this car is all about.

There’s a sort of simplistic approachability to the Carrera S. Spin the dial on the steering wheel to cycle through the various drive modes, or use the toggle switches on the dash to adjust the adaptive dampers, stability management, or exhaust baffles. From the magnetorheological motor mounts to the spot-on steering, the rest takes care of itself. While there’s something to be said about the ability to fine-tune every aspect of the drive, a slightly more stripped-down experience like this is refreshing.

And despite a reputation to the contrary, the modern 911 is downright agreeable. It would take a compounding of errors to initiate the kind of lift-off oversteer that has dogged the rear-engine car for so many years. Credit the electronic nannies and sticky – and staggered – tires for keeping the 911 pointed in its desired direction of travel. Not even the tightest twisting roads I could find – I’m talking downhill switchbacks made of uneven asphalt, a hope, and a prayer here – were enough to unsettle the Carrera S.

Comfort: 7/10

Even with the dampers in their most pedestrian setting – my preferred pairing even with the engine set to its most aggressive tune – the ride is firm. Combined with the base sport seats that are well contoured but stiff and feel as though they were ripped right out of a race car, the ride quality can best be described as ideal for pulverizing kidney stones.

Features: 8/10

Those seats are both heated and ventilated, though they’re slid fore and aft manually (tilt and height adjustments are powered). In that way they’re almost the perfect metaphor for this version of the 911. This the place where Porsche’s past and present collide in a wonderful, almost elemental way.

Make no mistake, it’s possible to add an assortment of packages that make this a capable commuter car – adaptive cruise control, night vision, you name it – but it’s best enjoyed as an homage to the days before any of that stuff got in the way of the blissfulness of just driving. The Carrera S comes with cruise control but it’s conventional, not adaptive. There’s a big and bright touchscreen on the dash yet it doesn’t dominate proceedings but supports them instead.

Some of the options added to my tester I could live without – glass sunroof, Bose stereo, aero kit – while others only elevated the drive experience. The 911 isn’t a car that needs to feel smaller, yet it’s better because of the rear-axle steering. Then there’s the sport suspension, with its adaptive dampers and shorter springs with cranked up spring rates, that add to the old-school charm.

Safety: 9/10

It’s a better car because it hasn’t been fitted with all kinds of advanced safety and driver assist systems, but this 911 can be loaded up with the latest and greatest Porsche has to offer.

Value: 9/10

Before any extras are added, the 911 Carrera S starts at a reasonable $131,200 no matter the transmission. The manual includes some goodies from the Sport Chrono package – the classic dash-mounted clock that doubles as a lap timer, the drive mode selector on the steering wheel, and those motor mounts filled with magnetically charged fluid – as well as torque-vectoring and a mechanical locking rear differential.

All that’s almost enough to keep me happy, though the Sport package that groups the sports exhaust and adaptive suspension is too good to pass up – and it’s only $3,870. The rear-wheel steering adds another $2,390 to the pre-tax price, which would put my perfect Carrera S at $138,960 with freight and fees – not bad at all. The version I drove had lots of other expensive extras that pushed the price to $161,900 before the government’s share is tacked on.

Styling: 9/10

The most expensive option added to my tester also happens to be its most controversial. At $7,880, the aero kit certainly isn’t cheap – nor does it necessarily belong on a Carrera (after all, some things in the land of Porsche should remain sacred in my books). While the front lip and updated fascia that comes with it is a nice touch, the GT-inspired fixed wing in the back is a little garish for a car that possesses such class.

Otherwise, it remains among the most stylish and sophisticated cars around. While it’s certainly grown in scale over the years, everything else about the design screams evolution over revolution. There isn’t an angle of this car I don’t absolutely love to look at, though it’s the bulging rear haunches that hide massive 305-mm wide tires that provide the best views.

Practicality: 8/10

Catching a glimpse of that bulbous back end in either door mirror provides the necessary perspective of just how low-slung the seats are. It’s a pleasing feeling to slip inside a car like this, with a sense of control accompanying it. Of course, climbing back out is something of a chore; consider it the risk that comes with the reward. Being a 2+2, there are a pair of jump-seat-style buckets in the back, though they’re better used as supplementary storage space to offset the small cargo hold up front.

Fuel Economy: 8/10

I can’t imagine predicating my potential purchase of a sports car such as this on its usefulness. Ditto fuel consumption, though it returned roughly 11.5 L/100 km over nearly 800 km of testing. Granted, that’s burning 93-octane or better, but it’s a number I’d happily live with for the harmonious performance that accompanies it.

The Verdict

The Porsche 911 is something that every car-obsessed kid dreams of driving, and this manual-equipped Carrera S is everything I imagined it to be when I was young. And that’s the magic of this car: that despite all the modern technology it’s filled with these days, it still manages to feel the way a 911 should. Simply put, to drive this car is to love it.

If any brand is going to stand by the manual transmission for as long as possible it’s Porsche, but even then it’s hard to predict how much longer a car like this will be offered. For those looking to capture the essence of both Porsche brand and the 911, this is the only way to go.

Love at first drive 9/4/2020 9:00:00 AM

Competitors

Specifications

Engine Displacement 3.0L   Model Tested 2020 Porsche 911 Carrera S
Engine Cylinders Turbo H6   Base Price $131,200
Peak Horsepower 443 hp @ 6,500 rpm   A/C Tax $100
Peak Torque 390 lb-ft @ 2,300–5,000 rpm   Destination Fee $1,500
Fuel Economy 13.8/9.3/11.8 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb   Price as Tested $162,000
Cargo Space 132 L  
Optional Equipment
$29,200 – Aerokit, $7,880; Black Leather w/Chalk Stitching, $4,370; Sport Package, $3,870; Rear Axle Steering, $2,390; Glass Power Sunroof, $2,280; Bose Stereo, $1,820; Gloss Black Wheels, $1,480; Porsche Dynamic LED Headlights, $1,450; Exclusive Design Taillights, $1,130; Front Seat Ventilation, $960; Porsche Comfort Access, $630; Heated Steering Wheel, $370; Gloss Black Porsche Logo, $340; Gloss Black 911 Logo, $230