The sound of the intake and cooling fan are very 911, but their noises are coming from much closer. More of the flat six’s vibration comes through the 904’s lightweight structure, too, but I notice a secondary vibration in the cabin. It’s Alex, who has pulled his legs up even with the seat and is nervously thrumming his feet on the floor. To lighten the mood, I ask, “So, when’s the last time you were a passenger in this car?” Staring straight ahead, Alex is deadpan: “In 1972, the day I bought the car.”
Before he can change his mind, I pull the shifter back and to the left — the traditional slot for first with a 901 gearbox. You don’t reach as far for the knob as you do in a 911; the short, straight lever sits between the seats and falls comfortably to hand even when you’re strapped in place. Clutch takeup is smooth and predictable.
The 904 feels tiny and delicate alongside the large SUVs that seem to make up 90 percent of Detroit traffic. Glancing to the left, I get a good look at the wheels of whatever is next to me. Lane changes are the scary thing, though. The long buttresses of the roof and a lack of side mirrors mean the interior rearview is my only help. And in order to line this tiny, fixed mirror up with the mail-slot rear window, I must lay my head on my right shoulder until I look like Nipper, the RCA dog. In other words, it don’t work.
The safest method? Find a roomy gap ahead, drop down a gear, roll on the throttle so hard that no Escalade or Astro van in the blind spot can hope to remain there, flip the stalk activating the turn signal, and confidently take the lane. That this happens to be a bucketful of fun is only secondary!
Also working against the 904 in this urban environment are its stiff sus-pension and light weight. On the streets of a city where potholes have become a source of civic pride, the asphalt craters come at me faster than asteroids in the video game of the same name, and there simply is no way I can swerve to miss them all. It’s nerve-wracking, and as I dodge the worst and hammer through the rest, I begin to worry that all these bangs and thuds are adding up to real damage. Alex seems unconcerned.
Meanwhile, the absence of low-end torque from the 2.0-liter engine and the tall second and third gear ratios of the “Nürburgring” box result in frustration. Right-hand turns in city traffic become a challenge because second is too tall to keep from lugging the motor out of the powerband, and it is not realistic to drop down to first just to round a corner.
Away from Detroit’s traffic, potholes, and SUVs, however, the 904 is a fantasy on wheels. Light weight, high revs, and long gears translate into speed that piles on quickly. As the 2.0-liter mighty mite comes into its powerband, it’s eager to rev, tight, and smooth — and the howl of the exhaust’s megaphones bounces off nearby buildings and thickets. Lifting off brings the rapid deceleration typical of high-compression engines, as well as a raspy, buzzing growl from the exhaust.