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Car Corner
911 Cabriolet Test Drive

December 1, 2004
By Scott Lewis

Back in February I gave my wife a 1999 Porsche 911 Cabriolet for her birthday, even though her birthday was in April. And now, just in time for Christmas, I will give you a review. I would like to tell you what it is like to drive the 911 AND tell you what I think it would be like to live with on a regular (daily?) basis. If I have time I will tell you about its replacing of a 67 Camaro RS Convertible in our garage.

Driving

The 911 is a quick car. It is a little slow off the line. There is not much low RPM torque. In fact, I bet my 93 Z28 would beat it to 30 mph. Above that I think my Camaro would be hurting. The 3.4 liter 6 in the Porsche is very smooth. It starts pulling hard around 3000 RPM, and by 4000 you need to hang on. It is not as smooth as the engine in the BMW 325Ci I drove, but that is more than made up for in power. This thing moves like no tomorrow. I have searched for road test data on the Internet, but it seems nobody likes to put numbers to a TipTronic (automatic) 911. I have found enough information to put it at about 5.7 second 0-60. With the manual that would be right about 5.0 seconds, give or take a tenth.

The car itself loves to drive fast. If you do not look at the speedometer you will find yourself settling in at 85-90 MPH. This seems to be the sweet spot for this car. I have to keep reminding myself to slow down. Fortunately, the car is equipped with a custom in-dash radar detector, with sensors both front and rear.

Overall the ride is very nice. On smooth and lightly batter roads the car is very poised and comfortable. Small road imperfections are noticeable, but never give the feeling of a harsh ride. The ride is a bit firm, but it is noticeably better than my brother-in-law's 1990 911 C4, especially over small irregularities. His car is definitely on the harsh side and would drain on you in daily driving. The 1999 model is smooth enough that daily driving is not a problem (more later). As a bonus the roads here in South Central Texas are in good condition since they never put salt down on them.

On badly potholed roads the 911 shows its sports car & convertible heritage as it shakes quite a bit. In fact, my 93 Z28 handles large bumps better than the 911. I contribute this more to the amount of wheel travel in the 911 than to the firmness of the suspension. I would be more worried about bottoming-out the 911 than my Z28.

Trust me when I say my Camaro could never match the overall refinement of the Porsche. The Porsche is much quieter. In fact with the top down and the windows up it is possible to have a conversation at normal speaking volume amongst the front seat passengers at 100 mph (yes, I did this).

As for the top. It is a joy. You must engage the emergency brake (why with an automatic equipped car they do this is a mystery) then just push and hold a button on the dash and the top hides itself away with nothing but a smooth appearance. No boots, no snaps, nothing to get in the way of dropping the top and enjoying the sun. However, this is a convertible, and you can tell. The car does have some squeaks and rattles over bad roads, even when the top is up. It is not too bad, and the best I have experienced so far. I would need a lot more time in other ragtops to tell how the Porsche compares to other luxury cars. Mostly I here the doors squeak over rough roads.

I have driven faster cars before. However, I have not driven anything that was as fast as the 911 and as smooth and quiet in the process.

TipTronic

If only this car had a manual transmission. My wife doesn't drive a manual so I bought her a 911 with the TipTronic transmission. I hate it. As an automatic it works well enough. If you are hard on the gas coming around a corner, the tranny will stay in the same gear for a while assuming you will be applying power on exit, or shortly there after. Well done.

In TipTronic mode this transmission sucks. TipTronic mode is a manual mode where you shift with switches on the steering wheel. The controls suck (more on controls later). Two little rocker style buttons for each thumb on the steering wheel. You toggle up to up shift, and down to downshift. This is weird to get used to. I would prefer a button on one side for up shifting and the other side for downshifting. Better would be if the shifter could be used to work through the gears. The shift lever allows you to select "D" or "M" only. Nothing else. You also can't use the steering wheel buttons to get a quickie downshift... something I use the shift lever in my Z28 for a lot. To get a quick downshift you first move the shifter to M then press one of the steering wheel buttons.

The worst thing, especially for a high dollar sports car, is that the transmission will up shift on its own... even in TipTronic (manual) mode... and even though you haven't. I assume this is to save the engine, which is good. But it has up shifted for me when I have been in a turning situation and it was too uncomfortable to up shift with the steering wheel buttons. I have never had a problem shifting from 1st to 2nd mid corner in a manual equipped car, but in this 911 it is a scary thing. When I get a Porsche of my own I will get a manual. From my time behind the wheel I notice the transmission up shifts at between 6600 and 6800 RPMs while in manual mode. Redline is 7200 RPMs, and I will never know what that feels like. That's a bad thing, because the engine feels like it never wants to stop revving. 6600 RPMs is too limiting in a sports car like this. I want to feel that 7200 RPMs.

When I take my wife's Acura MDX in for service they always provide me with a loaner RSX. This car has the "manumatic" feature. You use the shifter to manually go through the gears. Slide the shifter to the right from the drive position (similar to Porsche's TipTronic) then push the lever forward to go up a gear and pull back to go down a gear. This feels very natural and allows easy mid corner gear changes similar to the way a real manual would. In fact, I find it very comfortable to jump into manual mode to cut through some cars in traffic then slide the lever back into "drive" when the fun is over. Porsche could take a cue from Acura on this one.

I love the brakes on this car. They are the most confidence inspiring brakes I have ever felt. You know that you can just stomp on them and you will feel massive braking... even before the ABS kicks in. In fact, I have never felt the ABS unless it was on wet roads.

The Controls

This is the downside to a German car. I have heard this before, and now I know what they are talking about. The controls are annoying to get used to. Some are annoying even after you get used to them. The radio is by far the worst culprit. The preset buttons are so small that anyone with average or larger fingers will have a hard time pressing only one. I have slightly thin fingers and find it difficult to hit only one preset.

The stereo comes in for more problems when you are trying to set it up while driving. I did this on my way home from Houston when I bought the car. As soon as the Houston stations had trouble coming in I figured I would just seek stations, but no stations would come in this way. I could still get a couple of stations that were preset by the previous owner, but I thought this would be a good time to tune in and set the stations for San Antonio. It took me about 15 minutes to figure out how to manually tune a station so I could start tuning San Antonio stations from over 100 miles away. I assumed I would be able to read the owner's manual later to get all the finer points of the radio. No such luck. The owner's manual has almost nothing about the stereo in it. Just a paragraph that tells you it is the stereo. It has nothing on the controls.

You have to look at some cryptic buttons along the top of the stereo to switch to different modes. One of these is how you can tune stations manually. I can't even figure out what some of these buttons do, or what some of the modes do. And this is with having the car for months.

The heat and A/C controls are a little better, once you get used to them. The up and down arrows next to the fan speed indicator do not raise and lower the fan speed. That is left to the plus and minus buttons below. There are many things like this. The cruise control functions are equally a mystery until you finally figure them out. You "arm" the system by pushing a little toggle button on the end of the stalk. Then you push the stalk back (toward the dash) to set or accelerate. To slow or resume you push the stalk down (toward the floor). None of this is intuitive.

The gas pedal even gets some criticism. It sticks a bit through its travel. It seems to take more effort than I feel it should to move. This means on long drives you better learn to use that cruise control.

The power windows work quite well. I love the one touch down and up for the front windows. Why not the rear? You can put up the windows by holding the key in the lock position on the door, and you can open the windows by holding the key in the unlock position. However, this gets tricky with the cabriolet. You can lower the top from the key. Just hold the key in the unlock position long enough and the entire top just folds out of the way... even without the emergency brake on. You can do the reverse to put the top back up. I think this whole affair would be better suited if it would work from a button on the key. As it is the button on the key just locks the doors and arms the alarm.

Here is a weird one. The button for the power locks is on the dash. Well, at least it also locks the door to the gas filler.

The gauges are better than the 1990-98 911's. I love the huge tach front and center. The temperature and fuel level are together in a semi-circle to the right of that. The temperature gauge has a light that blinks when the water level is too low... very nice, and already used quite well. Further to the right is the oil pressure gauge, again in a semicircle against the temp/gas gauge. However, the oil pressure is in bar not p.s.i. (14.7 psi = 1 bar). Why in bar and not psi? The speedometer is in mph. The speedometer (analog) is to the left of the tachometer and is almost useless. Its numbers are so small and in increments of 25 mph that you can't determine your speed at a quick glance. Of course, this ia a performance car and the tach is more important. Fortunately there is a digital speedometer in the tach, which is very useful when trying to obey the law. A voltmeter rounds out the gauge package to the left the of speedometer.

All in all the gauges do there job wonderfully. I could see replacing the analog speedometer with an oil temperature gauge if I was designing it.

The seats are very good. I would like to say they are great, but they are not. I like a firm close gripping seat, but the 911's seats are difficult for me to get completely comfortable in. Surprising, my brother-in-law is 6'1" and he found legroom fine. My 5'10" frame finds leg room barely adequate. We have the "manual" seats. This means that the recline is power, while seat height and for-aft movement are manual. The height also moves the seat slightly forward while going up. I assume this helps get a better relationship to the steering wheel which does not tilt. However, the steering wheel does telescope. You spend a few moments getting the height where you like it with a nice view of the road over the steering wheel. Next adjust for legroom (I put the seat all the way back unless the kids are on board). Finally telescope the steering wheel for a comfortable grip. But all this just doesn't work as good as it should for me. I do like sitting it the car, but I think an $80,000 car should be better. Granted, I assume the full power seats (?optional?) would make things better, except the leg room. Both my wife and I never more the steering wheel from its fully extended telescoping position, so maybe the legroom issue is just me.

I don't like the arm rests. The center console is way to low to use as an armrest, so your right arm just hangs there when not driving in a sporty manner. The left arm rest is too low and too hard to the touch. Finally the door sill is too narrow when the windows are up. It too, is also too hard. In fact I find a lot of the plastic that you come in contact with to be much too hard. I am pretty sure we have what is called the "partial" leather interior. This means the seats and steering wheel are leather. I believe that the full leather interior has leather anywhere your likely to touch. Whatever. For $80,000 I think this car needs a slightly softer touch to the driver. Since many people look at this as a luxury car it should be a little more comfortable to relay in. I find my 93 Z28 to be more comfortable to ride down the highway in. And it was 1/4 the price when it was new. Maybe it is just how use to the Camaro I am. We will see as I put this to the test soon with the new Mustang.

At What Price?

This car cost $80K new and I find some of its annoyances outrageous. Particularly the plastic rear window. Porsche finally fixed that in 2002, three years too late for us. Operating the power top must be done with the emergency brake on. I find this unnecessary in an automatic equipped car. Why not let the top operate when the car is in park, since a lot of people (myself included) don't use the emergency brake in automatic equipped cars on flat ground... like my own garage. Better would be if the top could operate at speeds below 30 mph. For all the money this car cost some of these items should be a given. Sorry.

Overall

You may think I have a lot of pet peeves about the 911. I do. But once you get past the quirks and start driving all the problems just go away. You have a fully automatic top that requires no boot. You have a car that gobbles up road like it was starved for months from doing so. You have a car that drives very fast and is smooth as silk doing so. Porsche, there is no substitute. So far, I have not driven a car that qualifies as a substitute for this 911 Cabriolet. However, I would enjoy the challenge in finding such a car.

Why Not A 67 Camaro

This is the big question many of you might be thinking. Why would I sell a car that was going up in value (I paid $13K and sold it for $14.5K a year later) for a car that is going down in value? Here is the short answer:

1) Air conditioning & Heat
2) Power Top
3) Power steering & brakes
4) Disc brakes
5) Stereo
6) Performance

Now for the long answer. People did not want to ride in my Camaro because it road like crap compared to a 911, or even any modern car. It floated over the road and could not stop on a dime if it was raining dimes. The biggest concern with the Camaro was the lack of air conditioning and lack of a stereo. These items alone would improve the likeability of the old car with other people.

Then again, some people just don't get it. If I spent the time and money to rebuild the suspension in the Camaro with the right performance parts I could get it to handle as well as a modern car. Not a 911, but surly as well as a Camry or Accord, maybe as well as a stock Mustang GT. That would cost at least $4,000. But some people think that is a waste of time. I don't. I happen to think driving a classic car with modern mechanicals is cooler than driving a new Mustang.

Ultimately I can jump in the 911 and head to work and not worry about the weather. Mind you, we want this car to last a long time so we still don't drive it in the rain... at least not on purpose. If it is too cold in the morning to put the top down that will not stop me from taking it to work and enjoying a top down ride on the way home. And if it should happen to rain while I am at work I don't have to worry either.

The 911 is quieter than my 93 Camaro Z28. It handles better than the vast majority of cars out there. It is fast, and relaxed while driving fast. It is cramped inside, but still capable of hauling my two young sons when we need to.

All in all it is a pleasure to drive, as opposed to a car that has as many compromises as my 67 Camaro.

Conclusion

Now that we have a 911 to take care of top down motoring, I can concentrate on a classic car to be a project car. And that will happen someday. I am a little concerned with the long term reliability of my 93 Camaro. It has over 125,000 miles. The most major problem it has ever had was the A/C compressor going out. But the transmission is shifting might softly. I don't think it has much life left in it. My brother-in-law's brother is a transmission mechanic, and he said he can hook me up with a fully rebuilt transmission for the Camaro for $1,000. I may have to start saving for that.

For the time being I am making two car payments. That's my limit. Once I know the final fate of the Camaro's transmission I will make the final decision on whether I will get a new car or a classic car. I have time on my hands... and more so knowing I can drive a convertible anytime the mood strikes.

Until next time...

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