It's eighteen degrees Fahrenheit. Factor in the wind chill, and it's red-nose, red-ears, red-runny-eyes cold. But on a day like this and in a car like this, who cares? After all, we're in Porsche
's new, 355-hp Carrera S convertible, meandering from Bavaria to Italy, searching for the sun, which in mid-January tends to be a very capricious star.
Just before noon, we approach the summit of the snow-covered Passo Giovo. Officially, the road to Merano is closed at this time of the year. Unofficially, however, a big Steyr snow plow has cleared the top section all the way to the Caf Luna, so we have five miles of virginal S-bends, dips, and crests all to ourselves.
The picturesque twisties are mainly second-gear stuff, taken at 40 to 65 mph. The Sport mode for ultrasharp throttle response, the full 7300 rpm on hand, and the PSM stability control cut it almost too fine for highly strung nerves. On the narrow, slippery, and uneven pavement, the prime worry is not excessive oversteer but terminal understeer.
The cumbersome hard top, which used to be standard equipment, is now an option. The wind deflector, on the other hand, which was an extra, is now included in the virtually unchanged list price. Do we need it? No. Erect, it looks like the mechanical equivalent of Vidal Sassoon's full-strength hair spray. Folded, it reduces the volume of the tiny, 4.4-cubic-foot trunk in the nose to the size of a shaving kit. So go ahead and fasten your hairpiece or put on a knitted cap. After all, the essence of a cabriolet is that wind-in-the-hair feeling, even if the wintry cross flow means you'll go through paper hankies at an epidemic rate.
The new open-air 911 is undoubtedly one of the most complete four-seasons droptops. Its roof is an engineering marvel that fears neither high-pressure car washes nor flat-out autobahn blasts. Designed and built by Porsche's own CTS subsidiary, the motorized awning takes only twenty seconds to open or close. Streamlined to perfection in the Weissach wind tunnel, it fits like an Armani skirt around Heidi Klum's hips. A more tapered rear end, a more elaborate network of tensioners, a composite reinforcement panel, and more sophisticated padding reduce wind noise, ballooning, and buffeting to an absolute minimum. Immune to pattering rain and stormy weather, this folding top nonetheless conveys more emotion than a retractable hard top. At 93 pounds, the entire roof assembly also weighs only half as much as an average retractable hard top. In addition, it keeps the center of gravity as low as possible, which is even more important in a sports car than in a grand tourer.
The folding top also helps the new 911 Cabrio turn more heads than any Porsche save the Carrera GT. We paraded the street cafs in Cortina d'Ampezzo and Bolzano, playing with the top, which can be operated at speeds up to 31 mph. Also worth mentioning are the rear side windows, which moved in sync with the roof on the previous 911. In the 997, however, they can be raised and lowered individually, reducing drafts at speed when the top is down and creating a graceful coup de ville effect with the top up.
Our test car was shod with Continental Conti WinterContact tires-235/35ZR-19 in the front and 295/30ZR-19 in back-whose compound is so soft that on dry blacktop they wouldn't last from Memorial Day to Thanksgiving. But on snow and ice, they are definitely one of the best life insurance policies money can buy. All the way through the Dolomite Mountains, the Contis were instrumental in letting the Porsche demonstrate its moves. With PSM in the Sport program, the 911 is allowed to display bigger drift angles, making it easier to set up the car for tight bends. Back off the throttle, and the rear-to-front weight transfer provides even better bite into the corner. With PSM switched off altogether, you get more radical ABS brake action and the stiffest available damper setting. But beware: with the electronic safety net deactivated, the car will happily perform lurid tail slides.
Uphill stints are easy: brake late, turn in early, wait half a second, then power out with as much drama as traffic permits. Downhill runs are more of an acquired taste: brake earlier, catch the momentarily light rear end if necessary, time your turn-in well, step on the gas speedily but diligently, enjoy unwinding lock as the revs build up. Through it all, we found the cabriolet to be an even more involving drive than the coupe. It not only alerts all your senses in a unique fashion, but it also feels fractionally better balanced than the more hard-core hardtop.
Even with the electronic aids, the rearward weight distribution is a serious disadvantage in strong crosswinds at 125 mph. Every serious gust plays havoc with the car's featherweight front end. In certain conditions, this waywardness becomes so extreme that you briefly need to stab the brakes to pin down the nose. Ah, yes, the brakes. On nine out of ten days, the combination of monoblock four-piston calipers and massive ventilated rotors performs with aplomb: the brakes are attentive, progressive, full of strength and staying power. When the roads are covered with slush and snow and salt and spray, however, the stoppers suddenly respond with pupil-widening lag and need precious extra moments to wipe the wet off the discs. And this was not just an occasional problem. The phenomenon stayed with us all the way back home to Stuttgart, and it took the edge off what otherwise was a truly sparkling performance. We can only hope that Porsche will fit more suitable pads and/or more comprehensive splash plates to fix this flaw as soon as possible.
Despite these flaws, it is almost impossible not to fall in love with the new Cabrio. Like every 911, it's a thrill to drive hard. Instead of excelling in a single area, the Porsche wins out because of the coherence of its controls. The steering puts the road into your hands, the chassis invites you to explore the challenging zone between grip and slide, and the drivetrain distributes simultaneous kicks to the stomach, the ears, and the seat of the pants.
While the messy and pretentious new cockpit is a matter of personal taste, we admire the build quality, the ability to use this car 365 days a year, and what a good value it is. Although the S model is nice to have, we would probably save $9800 and go for the basic 325-hp Carrera with the Bose sound system. This stereo automatically adjusts the volume in relation to vehicle speed, cabin noise, and the position of the convertible top. Trust us: Bruckner's First Symphony never sounded better than between Arabba and Corvara, with the top down, the majestic Campolongo filling the windshield, and the late-afternoon sun tickling us from behind.
On sale: Now
Price: $79,895 (Carrera), $89,695 (Carrera S)
Engines: 3.6L DOHC flat-6, 325 hp, 273 lb-ft; 3.8L DOHC flat-6, 355 hp, 295 lb-ft