With the new Porsche 911 GT3 RS, it is not the obvious elements that are the most interesting. No one is going to miss the preposterously large wing and decals plastered over the rear wheel arch. No, to understand what the RS is really about, you have to look past these items and get into the detail of the thing.
With the previous 997 GT3 RS there were whispers that perhaps it wasn't sufficiently different from the regular GT3. You see, Porsche produces the RS model to homologate parts used in its racing models, so while in mechanical potential the two cars differ quite considerably, for road car customers the discernible alterations have been limited to a Plexiglass rear window and wider rear arches.
This time around, Weissach has tried a little harder. There's still no glass in the rear window, but there is more punch from the engine: 444hp, a 15hp gain. And, for the first time, the 44mm extension to the rear width is accompanied by a 26mm gain at the front.
But, has Porsche gone far enough to justify the $20k premium (from $112,200 to $132,800) it's asking for an RS? And, if so, has it gone too far and made a car that can no longer be used and enjoyed on the road? These are just two of the questions in search of answers as we exit Nice airport and head for the hills. Well, that and just how far up the Route Napoleon we'll get before the 54-degree temperature drops to zero and Michelin Pilot Cups meet snow.
For the moment, though, value judgments take a back seat, because when you're driving a GT3 RS, it is difficult to concentrate on anything else. Not because it is especially demanding – in many ways it is a surprisingly easy car to drive – but because it is so all-consuming.
The flow of information is so rich and unfiltered that you can't help but listen. There is the noise, a wonderful mixture of mechanical whirs and induction gasps. Next to the GT3, you hear more (because of that rear window), but the sound is also different. The RS gets a titanium exhaust and uses a single-mass flywheel, both on grounds of weight. Together they produce a more irregular, unsettled idle and a snappier throttle response.
But your ears have it easy compared with the bombardment of information being channeled through your hands and backside. There are lessons to be learned here that every car manufacturer could heed, not only those making sports cars.
For drivers who want to know what's going on with the car beneath them, few things are more important than seat position and steering wheel. A seat should be able to be set low, and regardless of how good the actual steering system is, the driving experience will always be improved with a steering wheel that is round (not flat-bottomed) and without excessive padding.
The GT3 RS gets these two elements spot on. You sit there, high enough to see out, low enough to feel bonded with the car, the wheel exactly where you want it.It helps that the GT3 RS has one of the best steering systems of any car on sale. On the fast-flowing section of the Route Napoleon heading north from Saint Vallier-de-Thiey, there's enough weight for stability without ever feeling laden, and then later, as the turns get tighter, the weight ebbs away progressively.
That the steering is so intuitively weighted and feel-some makes the GT3 RS an easy and satisfying car to drive – not just at the immense corner speeds of which it is capable, but at any speed.
Does the RS steer any more sweetly than the regular GT3? Without driving the two back to back on the same road, it is difficult to be categorical, but from where I'm sitting today I'd say so. There's just a fraction more feel and confidence on turn-in, especially through the faster stuff. The reworked PASM suspension and wider rear track undoubtedly contribute, but the RS's weight advantage will also help.
This model has always been about minimizing weight, and this generation is no different.
At 3,020lbs, the RS saves 55lbs over the GT3. Why not more? Because the weight-saving measures have to first claw back the mass added by the extra bodywork and wider wheels (an extra 10mm at the front and 20mm at the rear).
Indeed, to get down to 3,020lbs requires careful work on the options list. You need to do without air conditioning (44lbs) and a stereo (13lbs), and pay for ceramic brakes (44lbs) and lighter (and more expensive) seats. Do all this and you'll have the exact specification of GT3 RS shown here. For the truly committed, doing away with bi-xenon headlamps saves a further 13lbs, and an optional lithium ion battery sheds 22lbs.
Thankfully, even without Porsche's entertainment system you still get an external temperature gauge – and I'm watching it like a hawk. Michelin Cups dislike cold temperatures almost as much as they don't appreciate standing water. At La Doire, it is showing 36 degrees, a sign that we've climbed as high as we'll be going today. But branching south on the D21 and D955 turns out to be the best thing we could have done. We find a terrific bit of road, with minimal traffic, stunning scenery and a blend of corners linked by decent straights. It's also wide enough not to worry about a wide-bodied Porsche.
On the occasions when it's possible to use everything the 3.8-liter motorsport engine has to offer, does 15hp make a difference? On paper the RS is more accelerative than the GT3, but only fractionally (there's just 0.1sec in it from rest to 100mph). In reality you'd be hard pushed to tell the two apart in pure performance, but in character they perform slightly differently. The extra power comes not as a result of changes to the engine internals, but a more efficient induction kit and higher compression ratio.
The flip side is that the maximum torque, although identical, is produced at higher revs in the RS, so you have to work a little harder for the performance. But the payoffs are greater, because over the final 1000rpm the RS sings that little bit more sweetly. That's impressive, given how sensational the regular engine sounds.
To balance the additional drag produced by the RS's overdeveloped aero package (it produces 375lbs of downforce at 186mph, or around double that of the GT3), Porsche has dropped the standard gear ratios. In doing so it has, perhaps inadvertently, solved one of the regular GT3's main drawbacks as a road car: exceptionally long gearing.
Second is still good for 77mph and third 106mph, but when presented with a brilliant road, you end up using more of the rev range and more ratios. When so many supercars are being launched with super-quick dual-clutch gearboxes, there is something refreshing about a stick and three pedals. It's not as fast, and sometimes you'll get it wrong, but that makes the times you get it right all the more satisfying.
Closer to sea level – and with the temperature threatening to climb back above 50 – we get an opportunity to push a little. The grip levels are so high that realistically, on the road, you're only ever going to get near the limit through the tightest turns. But do so and, contrary to what you might expect, the RS proves easier to manage than the regular car.
Because you have more front-end grip, it feels better balanced, with less understeer and more neutrality. And because the RS gets active engine mounts as standard, it better controls the mass of its engine and gearbox (595lbs) in direction changes.
It would be easy to dismiss the GT3 RS as a track-day irrelevance. Many will be used as just that, their owners able to tinker with the adjustable suspension settings. As such, you might have expected to read a track test here but, actually, the tougher test is how it fares on the road.
Having spent a day on some of France's best roads, I can honestly say it exceeded my expectations. The GT3 RS is the most extreme road-going 911, not just because it concedes just enough comfort and forgiveness to get by, but also because it is genuinely thrilling and engaging to drive. The ride is hardly any less supple than the GT3's, and some of the other changes actually make it a more usable road car.
Does that make it better overall? Certainly. But $20 grand better? Not really. But the reality is that each model probably appeals to a different type of customer, and every RS will find a home.
It is testament to the car that the list of defects runs to just three items, and only one is remotely serious. While I'm not convinced by the new color options, Porsche will paint it any color you like (including Viper Green) for a little extra coin, and it can be persuaded to forget the dubious stickers.
That only leaves the height of the brake pedal, which, combined with the effectiveness of the ceramic brakes, makes heel-and-toeing tricky at road speeds.
But you know what? I could probably live with that.Jamie Corstorphine/Autocar