First Drives

2016 Porsche 911 R First Drive Review: R is for Revelation

The 911 R is rolling, sold-out proof that an entire industry is wrong

The 911 R is rolling, sold-out proof that an entire industry is wrong

The 911 R shouldn’t be a thing. Or at least not as big a thing as it is. It’s really nothing new; it’s effectively a wingless 991.1-chassis Porsche 911 GT3 with the 4.0-liter, 500-hp engine from the GT3 RS and a low-tech six-speed manual gearbox. It comes with no air-conditioning, no stereo, no navigation system, and barely any sound deadening.

It’s the sort of back-to-basics sports car that the complexity-obsessed German car industry insists no one wants.

And yet the 911 R sold out before a single one was built despite Porsche doubling its initial production run to 991 units in response to initial customer demand. And not just sold out, the R is so sold out that some miserable human beings have been caught trying to sell their slots for up to seven times the car’s $185,950 USD base MSRP.

Porsche’s out-of-touch product planners can put down their Economics for Dummies demand elasticity curve generators and admit what we enthusiasts knew all along: Porsche could have sold 3,000 or 4,000 of these cars. Or maybe even 5,000, meaning one out of 10 Porsche 911s sold worldwide this year would have been a $200,000 USD manual-transmission, two-seat stripper that no one had even driven. Or heard. Or seen in the flesh.

Oh, but now I’ve driven it. And if I could actually get a 911 R, I’d be buying one even if it meant cashing in my 401(k), selling some of my current cars, or standing on a street corner (begging for money).

To call the Porsche 911 R a revelation would be an understatement. It’s a four-wheeled dissent to the idea that modern cars can’t be involving because of safety regulations, that they can’t have great engines because of emissions concerns, and that they can’t be fun because customers don’t want that.

Hahaha, riiiiight.

You know from the second you turn the key in the R that this is all a bunch of BS. Loud, clattering, vibrating BS. The 911 R’s single-mass flywheel assembly weighs just 17.5 pounds (8 kg), (literally) a massive reduction from the nearly 30-pound (14-kg) dual-mass unit that comes standard. On the plus side, it means the 4.0-liter revs as though its pistons were made of helium. On the minus, if you’re an NVH engineer, it means the engine vibrates like the pistons were made of lead.

There’s practically no sound deadening to shield you from the violence. Inside the R’s cabin, you’re assaulted with a hundred noises, not all pleasant but every one honest. The R’s cabin is so alive that your stereotypical old-man dentist Porsche customer would think his 911’s engine was broken.

There’s a constant metallic drawl like the one you’d hear putting one end of a screwdriver to your ear and the other pressed against an alternator with a worn bearing. There’s the staccato gear lash rattle as the transmission’s internals are battered against one another with every combustion stroke. At red lights, mechanical sympathy demands that you press the clutch to protect the transmission.

Which only means other noises will replace those that fade as the gears slow to a stop. You hear the shift linkage move around as you engage first gear. Then you move off the line, and there’s a whole new layer of noise.

You can acoustically trace the journey of a pebble as it lasts a couple of revolutions in the tread of one of the front tires, gets expelled, ricochets off a control arm, and bounces between the floor pan and the road until it takes aim for the windshield of the car behind you. You hear the gnash of the transmission’s gears as they mesh together, individually excited by the pistons’ reciprocating masses. The gnash starts to disappear over 3,000 rpm only to be replaced by a high-pitched whirr made by some other shaft spinning in its bearings. The engine makes as much noise as it does power, and none of what you’re hearing is piped in through stereo speakers or even sound symposers.

Meanwhile, you’re still at walking speed.

As your foot presses the right pedal, you actually hear the throttle opening. It sounds like that pfhhwaw that a vacuum-sealed mason jar makes when you unscrew it. Taken on its own, the intake honk is familiar flat-six Porsche music, changing in pitch and anger as the engine computer plays with the flap in the intake runners. But as just another section of the orchestra, the intake’s sharp and flat notes contrast with the cacophony of mechanical noise and form a deep, complex, addicting, symphonic, and ever-changing musical score.

Oh, and then there’s the exhaust. I almost forgot about the exhaust. In the R, the haunting wail coming from the tailpipes is a punctuation mark at the end of a particularly exciting paragraph—when in most other cars the exhaust noise is the whole book.

The journey to the 911 R’s 8,500-rpm limiter is a living, breathing climax of buzzes, harmonics, and resonances that you won’t soon forget. At high revs under partial load, the flat-six shakes the whole cabin. Add more throttle, and the vibrations’ amplitude lessens. This is an engine that likes to be run wide open. Try to take your buried right foot off the floor slowly, and the engine will buck slightly as its computers try to figure out how to cope without the air and fuel. It’s like a heroin addict shaking for lack of opiate.

In the lowest two gears, the 911 R’s engine accelerates more quickly than the tachometer needle can move. The computer slams the throttle shut violently at 8,500 rpm, a hundred maddening rpm before the indicated redline and way before you expect it. It’s also 300 rpm before the GT3 RS, which uses the same engine, the lower rev limit a byproduct of the manual transmission. Its clutch is larger than the dual-clutch automatic’s, and as such it experiences higher centrifugal forces. Alas, Porsche can allow just 8,500 instead of 8,800.

You’ll get over it. You’ll hit the rev limiter about 200 times, but you’ll get over it.

The transmission itself is new, a Porsche Motorsports design manufactured by ZF. It has but six forward gears, leaving the gates widely spaced for ease of use. The shifter’s action is tauter, shorter, and heavier than that of a regular 911 Carrera, reminiscent of the Cayman GT4’s, with the same perfect precision and positive engagement. Ditto the clutch, whose pedal is so light you’d swear it could handle only half of what’s lurking in the rear of this car. It’s ironic that the corporate bigwigs at Porsche think so little of the manual transmission, because this company still does the best row-it-yourself gearboxes in the business. The perfect interaction between shifter, clutch, and throttle is something that so few companies get right. The R has an auto-blip function, but you’ll never need it. The clutch engages so positively at such a clearly defined part of the pedal’s travel that it forces you to be smooth.

Then again, there’s so little flywheel weight that if you’re not careful with the gas pedal, the 911 R will turn into a bucking bull. Remember when Porsches made you be on your A game? Welcome back, driver. You’re now in charge.

The remainder of the experience is, well, what you’d expect. GT3 steering, meaning it’s not as nuanced on the straights as the old hydraulic steering was, but it’s alive when judged against other electrically assisted setups. And, of course, it’s incredibly path-accurate and precise.

Turn-in is absolutely immediate, helped by more aggressive tuning of the rear-wheel steering. As in the other 991 cars, the rear wheels move in the opposite direction of the fronts at low speeds for enhanced agility but in the same direction at high speeds for additional stability. In the GT3 and RS, the switchover happens at a much lower speed (roughly 50 mph (80 km/h) instead of just under 70 (113 km/h)) to make up for the spoilerless R’s relative lack of downforce. The biggest compliment I can give to the rear-axle steering is that you don’t ever notice it working.

Grip is, naturally, stupendous. Given that I was driving on narrow, tree-lined public roads in Porsche GT-boss Andreas Preuninger’s personal 911 R and that I was following legend Walter Rhrl, there was no way I was switching off stability control. It intervened several times when I was at max attack trying to keep up with Walter. (You’ll note I said I was at max attack; Rhrl was probably reading his favorite book at the time.) Each stability control intervention was to correct oversteer, once when I applied too much throttle, the others under maintenance throttle. I don’t know exactly how the R would have behaved without stability control, just like I don’t know how the R’s airbags taste, but I do know that understeer isn’t part of its vocabulary.

The 911 R’s ride quality is tough to judge because in 150 miles of driving, we hit precisely one pothole. It feels a little less hard-edged than a GT3, which its suspension is based on, but we’d need to have the cars on the same roads (or at least on the same continent) to know for sure. That said, any harshness is notable by its absence. At cruising speeds, the R is very civilized. Sixth gear is perfectly usable, the engine humming along at 3,000 rpm at U.S. highway speeds. And because there’s so much mechanical noise, most of what you hear is behind you, just like in the old air-cooled 911s that are suddenly worth so much money.

There’s a reason they’re worth so much money.

Knowing all of the R’s main ingredients (chassis, suspension, brakes, steering, and engine) from the GT3 and GT3 RS, we all knew it was going to be good. But I genuinely didn’t know it was going to be this good.

I’m an outspoken fan of manual transmissions in sports cars, and the 911 R highlights why. When you depress the accelerator, you’re asking for the throttle to be opened. What happens then is up to you. In any sort of automatic, you’re not asking for throttle. You’re asking for torque to accelerate the car. Outside of revving it with the transmission in neutral, you don’t ever get to speak directly with the engine. You never learn, for example, about how that light flywheel lets the engine rev up so quickly on throttle blips. Or how it makes the 911 R incredibly easy to stall. Or how it contributes to that light bucking as you get off the gas.

The difference in interaction with an engine is like, if you’ll pardon the strange analogy, spending an evening with your girlfriend versus visiting her in prison.

Visit the prison, and you get to see her behind a wall of glass. You pick up a phone and even hear her voice while watching her lips move to make the subtle sounds of speech. You make a joke, and you can watch her smile.

After a while you might get used to it. After some time, you might even think that seeing and hearing her is the same thing as being together. But it’s a tease. By then, you’ll have forgotten all the granular stuff, the softness of her hair, the smell of her skin, or the way her breathing pattern changes just after she falls asleep.

(You’ll probably have forgotten that she’s a homicidal mental patient and that’s why she wound up in jail in the first place. I digress.)

My point still applies. I suspect driving the R after a GT3 RS would feel like getting out of a simulator and into the real thing. No disrespect to the RS. By the numbers (0-60, lap times) it’s superior to the R. But I won’t stop driving just because I can’t keep up with Walter Rhrl on a back road, and you shouldn’t stop shifting just because an automatic is faster.

We don’t buy sports cars to get to work quicker in the morning. We drive them for the experience. And the R is king of the 911 experience; it’s the purest expression of a sports car we’ve seen in an entire generation of Porsches. We now know not only that it’s possible for a modern 911 to be this good but also that there’s a huge, pent-up demand for this kind of machine. Let’s hope the 911 R’s success echoes through the halls of Porsche and teaches the fat-cat managers that future non-special-edition 911s need to be more like this. Then, maybe, you and I will have a chance at owning a Porsche that’s this good.

2016 Porsche 911 R
BASE PRICE $185,950
PRICE AS TESTED n/a
VEHICLE LAYOUT Rear-engine, RWD, 2-pass, 2-door coupe
ENGINE 4.0L/500-hp/338-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve flat-6
TRANSMISSION 6-speed manual
CURB WEIGHT 3,000 lb (mfr)
WHEELBASE 96.7 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 178.4 x 72.9 x 50.2 in
0-60 MPH 3.7 sec (mfr)
TOP SPEED 200 mph
EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON 14/20 mpg
ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY tbd kW-hrs/100 miles
CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB tbd lb/mile