Road cars are by necessity exercises in compromise. Even those that purport to do one thing very well – be that one thing luxury, economy or sportiness – must make tradeoffs to accommodate at least some of the other elements and keep their occupants safe.
Among sports cars, that is especially true. Most people would have no trouble wrapping themselves in luxury every day. Cars that get 50mpg while keeping drivers comfortable and safe are becoming quite common. But automobiles built for pure driving excitement are harder to live with on a daily basis. Comfort adds weight; economy robs power. That's why the ultimate expressions of road-going sports cars – say, the Ariel Atom, Lotus Elise or Porsche GT3 RS – are usually second (or third or fourth) cars.
The wonders of modern technology, however, are closing the gap and allowing for more plushness to sneak into ever-more-capable road cars. That's the sort of thing that impresses a racecar driver like Oriol Servia about road cars.
One might suspect that such plebian transportation leaves nothing to excite a guy used to something that can accelerate to 100mph faster than most road cars can get halfway there, and then keep going to over 230mph. Servia lapped his Telemundo Newman/Haas Racing Dallara-Honda at 227.168mph in qualifying for the front row of the Indianapolis 500. But he can't drive the racer down a twisty canyon road. And he certainly can't take his girlfriend out for a nice dinner – or anywhere else – in it.
“I know how rough and unpredictable a real racecar is,” Servia notes. “But that's how you get performance. What impresses me is how car companies are able to put as much as they can of the performance – acceleration and handling – and still make it an acceptable everyday car.”
That's where the Porsche Carrera GTS comes in. One of the latest iterations of the iconic 911 – there are now more than two dozen, from the basic Carrera to the Turbo S and on to the RS models and special editions such as the Speedster – it's the most capable normally aspirated 911, short of the GT3 and the extreme GT3 RS.
However, while the 3.8-liter 408hp flat six – that's 23hp more than the Carrera S – provides plenty of motivation and the suspension is more than up to the task of handling that power, the Carrera GTS has multiple personalities thanks to a few little switches on the center console just ahead of the gearshift lever.
Chief among these, assuming one ticks the Sport Chrono Package Plus box on the order form, is the Sport Plus button. Press it and the shocks get stiffer and the shift pattern of the PDK double-clutch gearbox changes, holding a gear until redline before shifting in automatic mode. There's also the less extreme Sport button. A few buttons toward the passenger side, there's a switch that does nothing but make the exhaust louder. Next is the button to raise or lower the spoiler and, at the far right, the button to turn the stability management off.
At one extreme, Sport Plus with the loud exhaust and the transmission in manual mode, it's a canyon-carving extreme machine. “It would be too aggressive if they only sold it like this,” says Servia. “It wouldn't be comfortable.” At the other, a still very capable sports car, just a little more refined and plush.
“My favorite thing is the compromise,” says the Spaniard, now making his home in California. “I don't think there are many cars that can give you the character that this car has with the driveability, the everyday usability. It's a total pleasure. You can go have dinner with your date and she'll be impressed. And then you can go have the most fun on a twisty road. It's a great compromise – how smooth it is when you are in the most comfortable settings and then, in Sport or Sport Plus, how extreme it gets in the suspension and the downshifting gets quite brusque.”
As if the intent was to prove that duality, Servia tested the car on a road trip to Napa. He found it to be a great traveler, especially with the easy-to-understand navigation and audio system controls. Once in California wine country, he found some suitable roads to see just how much of a Porsche it really is.
“One of the days it was raining and I had my chance to have a little bit of fun in the wet,” he grins. “It gets out of shape if you want it, but it wasn't diabolical. They've done a really good job with the suspension settings. It doesn't bounce back too much. The stiffness in Sport Plus makes it a little rougher, but there's definitely more control, it's more precise. Whatever you're doing to the wheel happens right away with the car. The floaty feeling you got at the front end of earlier Porsches is gone.”
And the limits definitely move outward with the different settings, he notes. “When you put on the Sport Plus, you can go through the corner a lot faster. The reactions of it are much more like a racecar. I was surprised how almost radical the Sport Plus is for a road car; but it's great that it gives you all the options.”
While he loves the car, Servia sees two areas where it falls short of perfection. The first is power (his work vehicle has 650hp, after all), which he feels the chassis could handle more of with no problem. The second is the inability to turn the stability control completely off. It's unobtrusive, but kicks in when the computer thinks a crash is imminent.
The Carrera GTS – available in four versions if you count the all-wheel-drive models and coupe and convertible body styles – fills the gap in the 911 line between the Carrera S and GT3. It doesn't seem a particularly large chasm, yet the introduction of the Carrera GTS makes it appear bigger by providing the best of both worlds. You get much of the performance of the GT3 without the boy racer looks or the bigger price tag, and you get the option of the PDK gearbox: the GT3 is manual only.
While it's missing the big GT3 rear wing, there are other cues to let on to the fact that the GTS is a notch above. To start with, it has the wide body (thus wider track ) of the all-wheel-drive models. Then there's a black lip spoiler, black centerlock wheels, alcantara interior and the absent back seat (available as a no-cost option).
The power differences on either side of the GTS in the 911 range aren't great, but there's more to it, Servia insists. “It's more than just 23hp; it's the accent that horsepower has, and the handling, and the little things. If you get the regular Carrera, of course, you have a great sports car. But with the GTS, you have no doubt that this is a sports car. I think it's getting more to the heart that it should have. You can go as comfortable as the normal one. But at the other end, it's badass enough.”
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the August 2011 issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.