- The 2020 Porsche 911 Carrera S is one of the last manual-transmission sports cars you can buy today.
- It represents nearly 60 years of Porsche building and improving on the 911 sports car.
- The newest, eighth-generation Carrera S is bigger than ever, but still drives great.
- My loaner came to a final MSRP of $135,840.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
If you find yourself making a list of great, engaging sports cars, a Porsche 911 will invariably appear on it. That’s for good reason: The 911 has, for decades, been an enthusiast’s choice for prime driver feedback and a pure driving experience. It has always been the benchmark. The one to beat.
But as the 911 is now in its eighth generation, it’s evolved with the times. The famous, sloped fastback design is still here. But what’s underneath is more technical and modern than ever. It’s big. It’s heavy. It relies more on digitized systems than analog ones.
So that begs the question: Does that mean the 911 still offers a pure driving experience, despite all its onboard aids and computers and such?
In a word? Yes.
The 2020 Porsche 911 Carrera S: Keeping up the (new) turbocharged tradition
The Porsche 911 has been around since 1963. Its basic but iconic formula hasn’t changed: two doors, four seats, a flat-six engine mounted behind the rear axle. Sometimes the cars are all-wheel drive. Sometimes they have automatic transmissions. Sometimes they’re turbocharged.
But those first three pillars stay consistent, because you know what they say about fixing what isn’t broken.
Debuting in 2018, the 992-generation 911 marks the car’s eighth generation. It’s 121 pounds heavier than the outgoing Carrera S, 1.7 inches wider, 1.1 inches longer, and has the same-sized wheelbase. The 911 that Porsche loaned me was the Carrera S, meaning that it’s the more powerful version of the base Carrera.
The 911 didn’t start out turbocharged. Over the years, you’d get a turbocharged variant here and there, but the base Carrera and Carrera S were never turbocharged. Halfway through the 991 generation, or the generation before this current 992, that changed. The 991.2 Carrera went twin-turbo — and with it went the possibility of buying a new, naturally aspirated Carrera. Subsequent 992 Carreras followed suit.
Details and safety ratings: Save the manuals
True rear-engined layouts in 2020 — with an engine all the way in the back of the car, not just merely behind the driver like in the new mid-engine Chevrolet Corvette — aren’t exactly popular. Google around and you’ll find lists of rear-engine cars that include the 911 and a bunch of others from the mid-20th century; certainly not ones from the 21st.
But a rear-engine setup grants you a few significant advantages through its weight distribution. When the engine is sitting over the rear axle, it means there’s more weight pushing down on the car’s rear tires and results in better traction when you accelerate. It’s the same idea as adding a spoiler or a rear wing.
Despite its contemporaries all favoring front- and mid-engine setups, Porsche stubbornly has stuck with the rear-engine layout, which it probably will for the rest of eternity. Because tradition and stuff.
As mentioned previously, that rear-mounted engine is a twin-turbocharged unit: a 3.0-liter flat-six that produces a claimed 443 horsepower and 390 pound-feet of torque. You can get the car either with Porsche’s eight-speed PDK dual-clutch transmission or the seven-speed manual — making the Carrera S one of the few new cars you can buy with a stick.
Curb weight comes to 3,298 pounds with the manual option. Power is sent to the rear wheels, but if you like all-wheel drive, the Porsche 911 Carrera 4 and Carrera 4S also exist.
The Porsche 911 Carrera has not historically been rated by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, as is typical of many sports cars.
What stands out: An utter delight to drive
Porsche 911 enthusiasts are a tricky group. They’re what you’d call “purists” — fans, drivers, and owners committed to adhering to things like tradition and the purity of the driving experience (that is, one that doesn’t include interference from pesky things like automatic transmissions and forced induction).
This 2020 911 leaves a lot of those purist ideals behind.
It has all the modern safety systems such as traction control and anti-lock brakes. It has electronically assisted steering. Its engine is turbocharged and water-cooled, as opposed to naturally aspirated and air-cooled, which means that computers and other complex systems are in place to wring out as much power as possible, while at the same time ensuring the car can meet modern environmental regulations. Four of the famed five-gauge clusters are digital, for crying out loud.
But different isn’t necessarily bad. In this case, different is good. Very, very good. It is a Porsche 911, after all. Did you expect anything short of that?
Just holding the steering wheel feels special. It’s a petite, minimalist, skinny little thing that’s easy to wrap your fingers around. Down near your right thumb is a dial so you can easily change the drive modes. You have a few other dials for the radio volume control and what the gauge cluster displays. And that’s it. The steering wheel is just there for steering the car.
The rest of the interior is similarly minimalist and attractively retro — unfussy in its presentation, horizontally opposed as a throwback to 1960s design, and dressed in attractive, optional dark red leather. (You can see how the 911’s interior has evolved over time here.)
The 911’s clutch engages close to the floor, so it takes a little getting used to. The car is also substantially torquey — meaning it has a lot of low-end power — so its instinct is to surge forward. Getting the hang of it requires some practice, which I quite appreciated.
Other manual cars I’ve driven, such as Mustangs, Mustangs, Mustangs, 124 Spiders, Miatas, WRX STIs, and Veloster Ns are reasonably easy to figure out. Indeed, you barely need to know how to drive a manual before you can get going in a Miata because it has a forgiving clutch and offers a lot of room for error.
The 911 is different. It calls for a lot more balancing of the clutch and throttle. More finessing. More perfecting. There’s a learning curve, but it’s one that makes driving the thing so much more rewarding once you get the hang of it.
The short-throw shifter slots beautifully into the well-defined gates. You can feel the metal of the gears sliding up through that shifter and beneath your fingers. You’ll find yourself shifting up and down, not because you actually need to, but just for the sheer joy of it. This lever you’re pulling and pushing, it’s connected to the car’s guts. You control how the power from the engine manifests.
The 911 also comes with a button that activates its sport exhaust system. It makes the car louder — both inside and out. The trebly tone of the flat-six becomes gruffer, lower, and more bass-filled. I don’t recommend driving a 911 with it off.
Although the Carrera S is now turbocharged, you wouldn’t know it if you weren’t paying attention. The power delivery is still very linear, but if you really wanted to find evidence of its newfound forced-induction characteristics, listen for the whoosh when you approach about 6,500 rpm. You’ll feel an extra whumph of power thereabouts, too.
My 911’s optional rear-axle steering — where the rear wheels steer by small degrees to aid in cornering and low-speed maneuvers — succeeded in making the turn-in much tighter, which was a feat considering how large the car actually felt.
Steering is another thing the purists likely howl at. Hydraulically assisted power steering wasn’t introduced to the 911 until 1989 and electronically assisted steering finally replaced it in the 991 generation. Obviously, unassisted steering is the purest option, but not one that is available to the 992 911. (You can find a quick explanation on steering here.)
For my purposes, the steering did what it was supposed to do and more: It gave me an excellent sense of the road, always communicated to me what the front of the car was doing, and flicked the nose of the 911 with just the perfect amount of necessary steering input that it just felt right. The feel was nice, and had a nice weight to it.
At the day’s end, the 911 is objectively just another lump of metal and some rubber. But the sum of so many little things about it that felt good — balancing the clutch and the throttle, the tight steering, the notchy shift-lever action, the torquey and immediate throttle response — composed together to create a symphony of great.
We also cannot discount that driving it made me happy.
What falls short: It’s big
The Porsche 911 is no longer a small car. With each subsequent generation, it’s grown in size, weight, and presence. What started out as a little sports car has now morphed into a flat-out grand tourer.
If you are looking at a 911 for a petite, light-footed backroad dancer that feels like you’re wearing it rather than driving it, look elsewhere. Look, perhaps, within Porsche’s own line and get yourself a 718 Cayman GTS instead. Yes, I’ve donned my fire suit and await your purist hate mail with open arms.
If, then, the 911 is going to act like a grand tourer, it’s missing a crucial grand-tourer characteristic: It’s not very quiet inside. On highways, both road and wind noise permeate the cabin in a droning fashion — not very becoming of a car that costs well over $100,000. You can get more sound-insulating windows as an option, however.
True, the 911 comes with back seats, but unless you are a child or perhaps a professional contortionist, I don’t see you fitting back there very easily. Backpacks fit great, though!
My loaner also came with Porsche’s Active Suspension Management system — a fancy electronic suspension system that automatically adjusts to driving and road conditions. Having PASM also means the car’s body sits 10 millimeters lower than on non-PASM cars. As a result, there isn’t as much wheel travel in the suspension. That, in turn, means a hard and jarring ride quality for passengers.
Put it this way: I drove that 911 from Brooklyn to Vermont and back again. The highly calibrated, super-sensitive suspension system evaluation tool I keep on my person at all times, aka My Butt™, can tell you exactly which roads between those two destinations need the most work.
And as a final, small markdown: the 992 now has a cupholder in its center console. If you have a drink in it taller than a can of soda, your elbow will collide with it during shifting. I found this annoying.
How the 911 compares to its competitors: The only one of its kind, with many styles to choose from
For 57 years, the Porsche 911 has stayed rear-engined, even though its contemporaries have largely left the practice behind. (The Smart ForTwo had one, but it’s been discontinued in the US.) At this point, rear-engined cars have sort of become synonymous with the 911. It’s certainly the most famous example.
That makes it stand out from its crowd of competitors, the likes of which include the Chevrolet Corvette, Aston Martin Vantage, Jaguar F-Type, Lexus LC500, Audi R8, Acura NSX, Mercedes-AMG GT, and Nissan GT-R. Tough competition all around, for sure.
In terms of price, the 911 exists smack in the middle of them all. A base Carrera S starts at $113,300. My loaner, after thousands of dollars in options, came out to $135,840. It’s a lot of money, no matter which way you look at it.
But with a 911, you’re not just getting a sporty grand tourer. You’re getting a Porsche 911. It’s a tacit, prestigious status symbol that wordlessly proclaims to the world and your neighbors that you not only have made it, but also that you’ve selected a purish driving machine for yourself. If this appeals to you, then the oft-times haughty Porsche 911 culture awaits.
Plus, 911s come in all sorts of body styles. There are all-wheel drive versions, Turbo versions, Turbo S versions, cabriolets, and targas. As time goes on, Porsche will update the 992 lineup with even more models. This means that buyers have a lot more options under the 911 umbrella to choose from.
Our impressions: The easy choice to make
Because of the undying popularity of the 911, it wasn’t before long that an older, 993-generation 911 quickly found us and blew by in passing, its driver punching the throttle all the way to redline.
At this, I had to let out a small sigh. The naturally aspirated, air-cooled engine does indeed sound better. No amount of technological wizardry will ever change that.
The 992 911 is objectively great, but it’s hard to expect anything else. It’s great this generation, it was great the previous generation, and it was also great the generation before that. Porsche’s been perfecting this very formula for nearly 60 years, and I would be shocked if the 911 suddenly became bad.
The 911’s biggest problem is that other 911s exist. Older ones that have all those pure driving characteristics that enthusiasts love and seek. That’s why prices for used, air-cooled 911 have risen so stratospherically high in recent years. People want 911s, and they are willing to pay more for an old one just so they can have the tactile feedback that the new ones just don’t offer.
That’s one side of 911 ownership, to get sucked into the heritage of it all.
The other is that buying a 911 is an easy choice. You want a nice, sporty car? Buy a 911. Want something with a manual? Buy a 911. Want a nice, sporty, manual car with decent practicality and that’s objectively good? Buy a 911.
The Porsche 911, for many, has checked so many boxes for so long that it’s sort of become the go-to answer at this point. Perhaps other cars might bring you more fulfillment and joy. But going home with a 911 is an unthinking choice, one that’s guaranteed not to lead you astray if you’re risk-averse.
It’s the safe option, and there’s power in that — because when you keep at something for 60 years, there had better be.