997 Turbo Cabrio

Falling for the un-911, the new Turbo cabriolet.

Photo: 997 Turbo Cabrio 1
October 4, 2007

I feel dirty. Why? I’m going soft for a 911 that’s got just about none of the purity I crave. Soft for a soft “911,” one packed with excess gear, technology, and luxury features. For the 997 Turbo Cabriolet, a car that weighs 3,726 pounds according to its spec sheet and probably something closer to 4,000 in reality — or roughly twice as much as the first coupe to wear Porsche’s iconic badge. But that’s not the worst of it. No, here’s the shocker: for the first time ever, I think I prefer the driving dynamics of a convertible 911 to those of its coupe counterpart.

Yes, this fast “first drive” is marking itself out as an experience very different to those I’ve had at 911 Cabriolet introductions over the last decade. Usually, the most impressive aspect of any new open 911 is how well Porsche engineers have managed to make it go, stop, and handle like the coupe — giving you most, if not all, the fun plus the ability to stow the top. Weissach has a tradition of turning out top-drawer cabrios, but hit new highs starting with the from-scratch 996- and 997-based Cabriolets. Any lamentations over extra weight, softer suspension, and/or less structural rigidity were offset by the usual al fresco driving experience along with the realization you were giving up very little precision, performance, and pace to get it.

The 997 Turbo Cabriolet accomplishes the same feat, but adds something more. More pleasure, more feedback, and more fun. As someone who generally prefers coupes when it comes to focused driving, the idea that the open version is a better drive is nothing short of a revelation…

W ith a slick six-speed manual in hand and a delectable uphill section of winding road ahead, it’s time to dissect the German country lanes just outside Frank-furt. With two variable-vane turbochargers spooled up and blowing hard, the wave of torque is overwhelming, shoving the car forward towards the entry to a fast right-hander. Dipping into PCCB brakes lightly before leaning on them and then tapering off sets the nose nicely, allowing the Turbo Cabriolet to slice its way over to the apex with surgical precision.

Photo: 997 Turbo Cabrio 2

First impression: this might be the best Porsche Active Suspension Management setup I’ve sampled on a 997. Softer tuning with more weight works out to more compliance and, with it, more predictability. Turn after turn, this green machine glides over bumps big and small. You can’t deny this 997’s fantastic, effortless ability to take a back road apart with surgical precision. It doesn’t give you the neck hair-raising thrills a GT3 will, but it isn’t meant to. While the Turbo Cabrio isn’t as involving or ultimately rewarding as a GT3, it’s deeply satisfying in the same way any tool that’s a cut above tends to be.

More satisfying than the Turbo coupe? Yes, and for two distinct reasons. First, the Turbo Cabriolet’s chassis feels beautifully judged in a way the coupe’s just doesn’t. Part of why might be because its chassis isn’t as stiff. Cut off the tin top and, even if you’re Porsche, you’re going to lose both longitudinal and torsional rigidity. Talk to a Weissach chassis engineer, however, and he’ll tell you that measuring what you’ve lost isn’t as easy as comparing those two parameters because there’s a third one to consider: dynamic rigidity, which takes the engine’s oscillations into account via the motor mounts and the rails they sit on.

In the Turbo Cabriolet’s case, all three parameters have obviously been managed well. Cowl shake is virtually non-existent, yet it seems like the chassis flex lets the wheels follow the road that bit better. More likely, though, that’s down to the suspension setup, which has been retuned to satisfy a “softer” buyer profile. Either way, or both ways, the result is that the Cab just plain works better on the real-world curvy roads that remind enthusiasts why they bought a sports car. The difference is subtle, but not as subtle as you’d think — and it prompts us to wonder if what’s good for a fast time at the Nürburgring is always good for those driving sensations impressive lap times fail to capture.

Where the stiffer, flatter Turbo coupe can require corrective lock in turns even with PSM on, the Cabrio turns in, leans just a bit, sticks, and goes. That smidgen of body roll provides an important shard of feedback, one that helps you comprehend what the chassis is up to as you approach the limits of the rear end’s grip. Confidence builds quickly, scenery starts to stream. Some say the latest 911 Turbo’s proclivity toward oversteer makes it more fun, more exciting. Agreed, but less admirable is how quickly the hefty coupe moves from inherent understeer to power-on oversteer. Other cars, and other 911s, manage the key transitional period better and more predictably. That makes the adventure of approaching the limits more fun because you’re secure in the knowledge of where you are and that the correction won’t have to be a heroic — and thus hairy — affair.

Photo: 997 Turbo Cabrio 3

Powering out of turns, the Turbo Cab’s rear end feels planted in a way that lets you know the alignment isn’t just in spec but idealized, an advantage of testing a factory-prepared car that hasn’t been shipped overseas. Coming out of slower turns, all four tires key into the pavement and transfer all 502 lb-ft of torque available from this Sport Chrono-equipped test car. The Turbo Cabriolet may be a heavy car, but it’s one of those rare heavyweights that wears its weight well. Its heft would likely add up to pitch and roll on track, but, on the road, one has to admire what Por-sche has accomplished with this setup.

But there’s a second trait that sets the Turbo Cab apart from its coupe counterpart. The twin-turbo six’s sound is stirring, top up or down. Upon first exposure to the 997 Turbo coupe, a big criticism among testers was that the flat six’s song seemed two steps too removed. The Cabrio, however, lets quite a bit more of the tailpipes’ tale through its fabric firmament. Top up, it’s just enough but never too much. Stow the top — in 20 seconds at up to 31 mph —and it just gets better. It’s neither the scintillating soundtrack of a GT3 nor the beautifully hollow, refined rasp of a Carrera, but it’s just as alluring. Whispers and whistles one moment, a rip-snorting, multi-layered mechanical rhapsody the next. Feed in the throttle while leaving a low-speed turn and the roar is that of a 911 ready pound other supercars into submission with unadulterated torque and silly traction. In other words, it’s fitting.

The VTG turbos build boost quickly, and, when they do, this 997 provides forward progress few open cars can match. Porsche says its 480-bhp Turbo Cabrio is fastest with the optional Tiptronic transmission, claiming a 3.8-second 0-62 mph run — the same figure given by also-conservative Mercedes-Benz for its far more expensive, 626+bhp SLR Convertible. As for Porsche’s own fastest convertible to date, the 612-bhp Carrera GT? Its 0-62 mph run is listed at a slower 3.9 seconds. The Turbo Cab can thank its all-wheel-drive system’s ability to more effectively transfer its power to the ground as well as its big, flat torque curve courtesy of VarioCam Plus variable valve timing/valve lift and Variable Turbine Geometry.

Porsche AG would have you believe VTG virtually eliminates turbo lag — the period between your foot going down and the boost kicking in — but VTG isn’t exactly lag-free. It’s considerably better than the 450-bhp 996 Turbo X50/S, but we remain unconvinced that it has less lag than the original, 415-bhp 996 Turbo. Put your foot down on the way out of a slow turn or when you’ve fallen off the boost and you’ll wait ever so briefly for the turbos to get the message from the ECU, alter the geometry of the vanes surrounding the impellers, and…blow. Fractional it may be, but lag is lag. When the boost does come in, however, the payoff is vivid acceleration.

Photo: 997 Turbo Cabrio 4

Even in Sport Chrono’s Normal mode, the peak torque of 457 lb-ft from 1950-5000 rpm shoves the 997 Turbo down the road with an alacrity no car weighing close to 4,000 pounds should possess. The Tiptronic may be faster — because you can stand on both pedals to load up the turbos before leaving the line — but we still prefer the slick six-speed stick. We’ve noted some variance in the slickness of Porsche’s optional short-shifter (from too-notchy to brilliant), but every standard 997 shifter we’ve tried thus far has impressed us. Things are no different here, and stirring the ball-topped lever from second to third to fourth and back down again is as effective at keeping the stunning six on boil as it is fun. It also provides an element of involvement the Tip doesn’t while allowing you to more finely balance the chassis on your way into turns.

That said, Tiptronic is better than ever, with programming to raise revs to smooth downshifts on the way into fast turns. But there’s still a computer that must figure out which shift maps to apply and when to do so. It’s a tough job in any environment, but especially hard in the variable landscape of street driving. Also, Tip still won’t/can’t do exactly what you tell it to, when you tell it to. Occasionally, commands for downshifts are delayed longer than necessary or ignored completely, even when they won’t cause a mechanical over-rev.

We feel the Tip is good enough to be a viable choice for those who would prefer to (or must) skip shifting for themselves. Even so, DSG/PDK is a dual-clutch future that can’t get here quickly enough. We’ll be curious to see how quickly Por-sche can introduce a dual-clutch transmission that can handle 500+lb-ft of torque — and how much of the 100 extra pounds Tiptronic adds between the rear wheels can be eliminated. Those pounds can’t be helpful, but the good news is you don’t really feel them because of the Turbo’s overall heft and where it puts them.

Throttle back and there’s a lot to enjoy in the 997 Turbo. Top up, the standard full-leather interior is hushed, comfortable, attractive. As with other 997s, it’s a big step up from the 996 generation. Materials are top notch, the basic seats offer excellent support, and the gauges are near perfect. Our only gripe inside is that the standard steering wheel is too skinny. We know some prefer thin steering wheels, but we’d order a thicker optional wheel.

Photo: 997 Turbo Cabrio 5

Outside, the Turbo Cabriolet only looks big if you insist on an early 911 perspective. Compare the 997 Turbo to its marketplace rivals and it’s remarkably compact. By and large, it’s a handsome car, though the busy venting details and foglights from the coupe do the Cabriolet no favors. Also, deleting the signature sweep of the 911 coupe’s roofline introduces a blockiness to this Cabriolet that’s odd because there’s nary a straight line on the car. Avoiding light colors helps quite a bit in this regard, though — the best looking Turbo Cabs on the press launch weren’t the ones painted white, silver, red, or yellow.

Speaking of colors, Porsche introduced three new metallic hues on the Turbo Cab: a cool green called Malachite Green, a dark brown named Macadamia, and a darker red called Ruby Red. Brown 911s are back, then, but Tobacco/Copper/Nou-gat Brown Metallic fans may be disappointed to learn Macadamia is hardly subtle. It’s a good brown, but Porsche chose to follow Ferrari’s suit by giving it the big-flake sparkle of a 1970s speedboat.

As for options? Well, the Turbo Cabrio comes loaded in the first place, with Por-sche Communication Management, DVD-based GPS navigation, and the just-okay 325-watt Bose sound system with 13 loudspeakers. The $1,145 adaptive sport seats are nice and are a better deal here than in less-expensive 911s, but we feel the no-cost sport seats are a better way to go for those thin enough to fit them. Interestingly, racy shell buckets should be available for 2008, which PCNA says will save a significant 31-40 pounds per car and describes thusly: “The new optional sports bucket seat with folding backrest and integrated thorax airbag features glass and carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic in its construction. The folding backrest allows the 911’s back seats to still be used. This will be U.S. compliant.” And, paradoxically, “not available on (the) 911 GT3 and GT3 RS.”

We remain fans of the $8,840 PCCB ceramic-composite brakes for their feel and initial bite, but feel less equipped to render a judgement regarding the optional $950 limited-slip differential for manual-transmission Turbos without driving two examples equipped with and without back to back. The fact Porsche is still offering a $650 six-disc CD changer as an option says someone in the audio department is hopelessly out of touch. Porsche should have had either full iPod integration or, at the least, an “auxiliary in” jack years ago.

Porsche lists the base price of the new Turbo Cabriolet at $136,500, or a bit more than the usual $10,200 up on the coupe version (the Turbo coupe is $122,900). We still see it as a good value against marketplace competition from Aston, Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Mercedes, and others — especially once versatility, performance, and driving fun are taken into account. On the other hand, Porsche’s own Boxster S is more involving than the Turbo Cabriolet, offers most of its comfort, and costs less than half as much. In fact, you could buy the brilliant $55,500 Boxster S 3.4 and the equally wonderful $72,400 Carrera coupe for less than the price of one 997 Turbo Cab. Our guess, however, is that the typical prospective customer wouldn’t consider that Porsche pairing as an alternative to a single Turbo Cabriolet.

No, the Turbo Cab is a flagship kind of car, chock-full of features and technology that make it fast, capable, accomplished. It’s a supercar for any season, reason, driver, and road — one that’s eminently enjoyable in use. As an answer to the SL55 AMG or BMW M6 convertible, the Turbo Cab is more fun, offers more bang for the buck, more performance, better economy, and a better use of space. And, based on our European drive, at least, it’s more fun than the Turbo coupe.

Some will say comparing Turbo coupe to Turbo Cab is an exercise in futility, that a 911 coupe buyer isn’t a convertible buyer, and vice versa. A fair point, perhaps, but there’s a subtle satisfaction to this droptop 911 that’s hard to pin down, one that, for this writer at least, makes it more desirable. It feels better resolved in its mission than any 997 bar the basic Carrera coupe. At the polar opposite end of the spectrum it may be, but this Turbo gels in a strangely similar way. With its top stowed, its twin-turbo flat six playing a fine song to the backs of your ears, and scenery rushing past its windows, the Turbo Cabriolet suggests just how far convertible 911s — and convertible sports cars in general — have come. And it’s a long, long way.

Also from Issue 159

  • V2: Paul-Ernst Strähle’s Famous 356
  • Patrick Long Helps Porsche Win Le Mans
  • How Porsche is Buying Volkswagen
  • Light Flyer: 914-6 GT on Track
  • Emil Pupilidy: Porsche Pioneer
  • Family of 911 Racers
  • Market Update: 911 Turbo and 912
  • Sensible Speed: A Fast 930, Well Bought
  • Eight is Enough: 968 V8
  • Porsche Icon: 968 Turbo RS
  • 356 Restoration Part 19
  • Cheap fix for 911/914 steering
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