Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Touring through the family tree

If for some unspeakable reason Porsche decided to ditch the whole carmaking thing and go into the foodstuffs business, they could probably do fantastically well producing upscale ice cream. Not only do the potential senses of gratification and indulgence delivered by a Badener riff on Ben & Jerry's or, maybe more accurately, New York's cherished Il Labratorio del Gelato align nicely with their current attitude, but they have become the absolute masters at spinning off a seemingly endless variety of pleasantly differentiated product from the same basis.

The newest flavor is of course the 911T, announced Sunday night amid a fair bit of historically-tinged hype. Having taken the lesson of the 911R's triumphant popular reception to heart, the theme is "driver engagement": start with the standard base-model 911, add PASM and drop the suspension 20mm; gearing is shorter and there's a traditional mechanical limited-slip differential; the sport exhaust system is standard; the rear glass and soundproofing are lighter, and the Sport Chrono system is available (it's not on the standard Carrera) in "weight-optimized" form. Interior trim is revised; the pretentious but cute fabric door-release pulls are back. The rear seat has been left out, as has the PCM infotainment system; they can both be replaced at no cost.

All this nets a weight loss of a whole whopping 20 kilograms - 44 pounds - over a comparably equipped standard base 911 Carrera and a MSRP of $102,100 plus delivery, a full $11,000 up from that base Carrera and closing in quickly on the Carrera S.

And this is where I start to get a little confused about what Porsche is trying to say here. The intention to sell this as a stripped-down, more elemental car isn't exactly matched by what has been presented.

As always with 911s, we have history upon which to reflect (with Porsche's active encouragement, in this case). The first 911T - Porsche says that T is for Touring, more about enjoyable driving than racing - was introduced in 1968 as the revised and somewhat decontented Euro-market base model. They came over here in that same market position in 1969, and they were universally loved for their good manners and all-around drivability, especially compared to the more temperamental MFI-fueled 911E and 911S.

And yes, you could tune them a bit if you wanted. Still can.
And doing this makes sense, because - as noted in that video - the 911T wasn't just the lightest but also the simplest of its contemporary 911 variants. Standard gearbox was a four-speed through 1971, standard wheels were rather narrow chromed steelies. The 911T that was produced in 1973 was the first Porsche with Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection - again, not for maximum power but for improved everyday drivability. They were the truest thematic continuation of the 356.

So step forward almost sixty years and consider what Porsche has wrought with this iteration of the name.
The corporate tagline is, somewhat predictably, "less is more." Problem is, there's not a whole lot less here. Yes, the lighter glass (which frankly never sounds like a good idea on a street car) and the trimmed soundproofing (which frankly is rarely a bad idea anywhere lately, although turbo cars by nature don't make the most of it) add a bit of brochure attitude, as does the deletion of the rear seats and sound system - the latter of which will likely be spec'd in a huge majority of produced Ts. But then the sport exhaust system and the revised PASM are installed, and Sport Chrono and the GT3's rear-axle steering rack shows up as options. And unlike similar previous exercises (the Boxster Spyder comes to mind) the active aero remains. This is not really a minimalist machine.

But leave that aside, string it all together without the marketing spin, and it starts to make some sense: this is supposed to be the all-chassis version of the 911, more a backroad runner or trackday special capable enough to render the S's 50 additional horses superfluous.

Interesting, but that's not less - and it doesn't make it a T. If anything, it sounds a lot like a base-powerplant version of the Korb-of-goodies approach that is the GTS.

Really, the base 911 Carrera could be called the T going forward and it would make perfect sense, fitting the letter back into its traditional position at the base of the line with the sense of conceptual continuity - a wonderfully enjoyable all-around touring car without too many Le Mans pretensions - fully intact. Maybe it would even grant that model a bit more dignity and identity than it currently possesses as the mere entry-level 911 Carrera (which is not a bad thing, of course, but still).

So granted the presented version of the 911T isn't really a 911T. What is it?

Dispense with the "less is more" sales line. Yes, weight is down (marginally) and the reduced-content interior has a certain vibe, but this is not another 356 Speedster. And then there's the inclusion of all the suspension goodies and the airport gearing and the sport exhaust. No extra power, but plenty of implied handling and responsiveness.

By my understanding Porsche picked the wrong historical reference. This isn't a 911T; it's a 911 Club Sport.
One of Porsche's earlier efforts at pushing back against a growing rep for making plush luxury cars, the late-1980s Club Sport was a 911 Carrera with a batch of weight-saving measures (no radio, no A/C, no passenger sun visor), a bit of engine fiddling, and the upgraded sport suspension, although in that case they kept the MSRP even with the standard Carrera. (The model was an absolute disaster saleswise and consequently is now a prized collectible exemplifying all that is true about Porsche and tradition and etc. Kinda like an E30 M3 except more so.)

And that's what we have here: the standard car optimized for canyon blasts and track days for those who don't want to go full GT3. In that it completely makes sense, and it should have been presented as such.

I'm not even sure how much a truly much-less-is-supposedly-more hyperminimalist 911 would work anyway. Porsche is not Lotus. Porsche has always been at their best when their cars hit a distinct blend of well-managed raciness and everyday usability and high design, like an Eames Aluminum Group executive chair with a tendency towards oversteer. And in an era with heavy regulations and even heavier consumer demands, the idea of recreating something as elemental as a 1973 Carrera RS resolves to daydreaming. I suppose a properly motivated someone could buy a new 911 and strip it out and tune it to the edge of street-registration permissiveness, but that's more art project than manufactured product, and the GT3 covers that territory anyway.

So what is in a name, anyway? And does it mean something when such an identity-sensitive company  starts to blur an identity? Taken on its own terms, the 911T looks to be a welcome (if smallish) shift away from a pure-numbers game and back towards sharper street drivability. But summoning history as a tool means accepting everything that goes with references and associations, and the car deserves to be called what it is. Odds on that in this market the Club Sport name would have worked much better this time, too.