Porsche takes one more swing at perfection
Please Note: I wrote this paragraph three days before I flew to Granada, Spain, to drive the refreshed 2018 version of the Porsche GT3. I wrote it beforehand because I had some specific memories about the bright yellow 2015 GT3 that I wanted like to articulate before they got obscured by the fascination of the new. That GT3 marked the first time in my career I had nothing negative to say about a vehicle. True, I didn’t review it; I just flung it around our figure-eight course and then borrowed it for a weekend of joy riding. Still, in my mind there was actually nothing at all negative about that particular 3,267-pound (1,482 kg), 475-horsepower canyon annihilator. It was essentially perfect. What about the fact that there was no manual transmission? Never even thought about it because I was enamored with Porsche’s PDK dual-clutch transmission actually hitting the 9,000-rpm redline every time it shifted. If there had been a manual, I would have been shifting early. Summary: I don’t have the foggiest idea how the wizards of Zuffenhausen can make the GT3 any better than it already is. Although I suspect Porsche will tell me once I get to Spain.
Carbon-fiber hinges. No, really. Once I got to the press conference at Hotel La Bobadilla, the Porsche peeps told me about the carbon-fiber hinges. There are only two of them, just for the carbon-fiber engine cover out back, and together they save “almost 1 kilogram.” Why not up front, for the frunk hinges? You don’t want to take weight off the nose of a rear-engine car. But really, carbon-fiber hinges? My initial theory was that there was so little wrong with the 991 version of the GT3 that the engineers had to resort to near-gimmick refinements for the 991.2 version. To be fair, carbon-fiber hinges were initially intended for the seven-figure 918 Spyder. GT program boss Frank Walliser says they couldn’t figure ’em out back then. Of note is the fact that Walliser works on both street Porsches such as the GT3, GT3 RS, 911R and the (poorly kept secret) upcoming GT2 and race cars such as the 911 RSR and 911 Cup. Because all the GT products are under one roof, the technology transfer from race to street is both quick and ongoing. The carbon-fiber hinges are straight off the RSR.
They changed other bits, too. The composite front and rear aprons were also developed for the race team and now are sold to you and me. Well, at least those of us who can afford the GT3’s $144,650 USD base price. The carbon-fiber wing, crucially, is bigger. Not only does it look more aggressive (as GT model line director Andreas Preuninger told us, the GT3 “has to be the most attractive 911”), but the 20mm-taller wing also produces more downforce and weighs 20 percent less. The extra height means the wing is cutting through clean air as opposed to dirty air that’s already been tweaked by the GT3’s other aero bits—such as the lateral air blades up front, which not only (supposedly) work but also help hide the mustache tips of the DRLs, my least favorite styling cue on the 991. Also of note are larger dual air intakes below the wing. The underbody is flat and feeds air to an improved diffuser.
Another racy example: Below the carbon-fiber hinges rests the GT3’s new heart, and it’s the opposite of a gimmick. It’s a 4.0-liter naturally aspirated flat-six that’s good for 500 horsepower and 339 lb-ft of torque, up from 475 hp and 324 lb-ft of twist from the previous 3.8-liter engine, and it still spins to 9,000 rpm. Moreover, the big 4.0-liter is new, not merely an embiggened version of the 3.8-liter flat-six found in previous Porsche GTs. The crankshaft is thicker, more rigid, and hollow because oil is now flowed through it. As such, the main bearings are larger, but the oil pump is smaller because it’s doing less work. The engine uses a dry sump with a separate tank (like a Corvette Z06) and features seven scavenger pumps to ensure constant oiling. The lifters are no longer hydraulic but instead are solid, thereby decreasing friction. In other words, the whole enchilada spins more freely, improving everything. Back to the flow of tech between street and race cars, the engine was developed for the 911 GT3 Cup and is being used for the RSR, the GT3 R, and the relatively humble GT3. Also, if sinful, mechanized sound is your thing, you’re going to love the sounds of this motor, especially as it crests 7,000 rpm and keeps on snarling.
The biggest 991.2 GT3 news is the introduction of a six-speed manual transmission. Because the Porsche Doppelkupplung seven-speed will shift in less time and produce quicker laps, the initial 991 version was PDK-only. After all, you will be taking your GT3 to the track, won’t you? The sheer volume of rendered garments and gnashed teeth as a result of that purely logical decision shocked Porsche so much so that you can now opt for the manual. And what a manual. Unlike the not-so-hot seven-speed manual in the regular 911, the GT3 features only six forward gears. The biggest positive from this arrangement is that there are no longer five forward detents/positions. As a result, shifts are much more precise. Also gone are the plastic bushings from the seven-speed, replaced with copper bushings unearthed from the last time the 911 Cup race car was a row your own. It’s hard to beat the feeling of pushing metal against metal. My all-time favorite-feeling manual transmission is found in the 997 GT3 RS. This one feels surprisingly similar.
Conventional wisdom—or at least the “wisdom” gleaned from yacking among my fellow automotive journalists the night before we drove the new GT3—holds that the manual transmission would be better on the street. Conversely, we all prejudged that the PDK, the rapid-shifting dual-clutch automatic, would be the way to go on the track. On the olive oil–smooth Alhambrian highway leading out to the Circuito Guadix, I decided I didn’t like the manual as much as I liked the PDK in the 991.1 GT3. Why not? The 9,000-rpm redline. Hear me out: You’re cruising along at 100 mph (161 km/h) in sixth gear at 4,000 rpm. Suddenly you need to get around the diesel VW Polo in front of you. You clutch in with your left foot, blip the throttle with your right (FYI, the automatic rev matching—the only thing the Sport button does in the manual—is lame), slot the stick forward to fifth, and … not much happens. There’s not a ton of torque, and certainly not at 5,000 rpm like you blipped up to. Long story short, the six-speed is geared too long. Had you been in the PDK version, you’d bury your right foot, and the computer would drop as many gears as needed, allowing you to pass the peasant with both impunity and authority.
On the track, the PDK was masterful. As is typically the case with Porsches, you can flip the transmission into manual mode and push the stick or pull the paddles yourself. But why bother? Porsche does such an incredible job programming its seven-speed dual-clutch (also, the paddles themselves are wheel mounted, which is wrong, too small, and too far inboard to be of much use) that it’s best just to leave it in automatic and concentrate on driving. I mean, one time the PDK dropped three gears like a snare fill. Amazing stuff, really. As I predicted, the PDK is better on the track, and the manual, although a fine-feeling specimen, is little more than a gimmick developed mostly to appease big-mouthed guys like me who need something to scream about on an otherwise perfect automobile.
After lunch I was all set to head out on nice hour-long drive around the gorgeous countryside when I saw that one of the Porsche PR guys had put my name on a list of lap sessions in the GT3 manual. The sessions were one car following one instructor, which is a rare treat. Usually they stick you in a group of three or more on track at once. My instructor happened to be a 70-year-old Austrian dude named Walter Röhrl! This is the third time I’ve had the weird privilege to try to keep up with the wiry rally legend on a track. Doing so is a sobering lesson in humility and your own near total lack of skill. Yes, I lead a charmed life. You had better believe that road loop could wait!
After my session with Röhrl, I have to take back what I said about the manual being a gimmick. The manual-transmission GT3 is utterly brilliant on the track. You’d have to be the most fun-hating stereotype of a lemon-faced accountant to even consider the PDK over the six-speed. The GT3, much like Frampton, comes alive when that glorious H pattern is stuck in your fist. Because racetrack, you’ve always got the motor on full boil hurtling past 8,000 rpm. Unlike on the street, mule-kicking shifts happen when you clutch out. With the PDK, gear changes have a precision, if not a delicacy, that appeals to the type of person who has never left the cap off their toothpaste. But that same engine, when coupled to three pedals, suddenly feels bombastic. The only person timing our laps was Röhrl—who pointed out that we Americans were 3 to 4 seconds per lap quicker than the German journalists who drove the day before (put that in your pipe and smoke it, Auto Motor und Sport)—but without actually knowing, I’d swear I was faster in the manual than in the PDK. The car made more sense to me. I doubt it’s true, but on my final lap I felt as if I were able to keep up with Walter. I never felt that way in the PDK.
There is actually a physical difference between the two cars, other than the gearboxes. Because the PDK car already has a bunch of hydraulic plumbing built in, Preuninger’s team opted to go with an electro-hydraulic locking rear differential. The manual version has no hydraulic veins, so its rearend sports a mechanical locker. Call me a Luddite, but holy damn did I prefer everything about the manual on track. Perhaps it’s because the mechanical diff locks up more slowly than the electric one, but it actually felt more rear-engined—more like a 911—than the PDK car, which feels more mid-engine and a bit more stable yet sterile. When you lift off the throttle, the rear end steps out, and if you know what you’re doing (or, like me, get lucky while pretending to know what you’re doing), you can use that oversteer to point the GT3 in the right direction. Coupled with the all-wheel steering, the feeling is just magic. Serious Teutonic driving magic. I’m salivating over the memories 7 miles (11 km) above Greenland.
I wasn’t sure how they’d do it. How do you take something with no apparent flaws, no visible weaknesses, and improve upon it anyway? The 991 GT3’s engine was a miracle of engineering, yet the new motor is better. The old version’s handling was flawless—although perhaps a bit too flawless, and as such the GT team worked to add some feeling back into the mix. The last wing was ridiculous. The new wing is ridiculous plus. The previous car featured the best dual-clutch transmission on earth. Now the car offers both the best automatic and the best manual. I asked Walliser which version of the new GT3 he thought would sell better. After his initial answer of “Buy both!” he demurred, instead telling me that internally, people are taking bets. Most are assuming the PDK will win out when it comes time to write the big checks. If you are considering the GT3 with a PDK and aren’t planning on regularly bringing the car to the track, you might be happier going with the Turbo S because it has some semblance of sound deadening. If you are considering a turnkey track toy, I’m hard-pressed to think of one as wonderful as the 2018 Porsche GT3 equipped with a six-speed manual transmission. The only question in my mind is how on earth are they going to improve the thing once again when the next GT3 arrives. I’d keep an eye on the racing GTs because the next car will be better still. You can bank on it.