We remember the first time we learned the original Porsche 911 was based on a Volkswagen Beetle. We almost spat our Corn Flakes out through our nostrils. It was just like that time we found out Grace Jones was female, or that Boris Johnson was actually in charge of running London. We simply weren't ready for it. We've long since calmed down though, so hopping into the latest Porsche 911 Cabriolets for a test drive was a pleasure rather than a chore.
In the cabin
Climbing into the cockpit of one of the world's finest sports cars should be a humbling experience, but that's far from the case. The 911, as exotic and mystical as it is, makes you feel perfectly at home. It's one of relatively few sports cars designed for comfort and everyday usability, just as long as your everyday use doesn't involve more than one passenger. Its rear 'seats' are a joke, offering only enough room to dump a rucksack or a very small, flexible and well-oiled child.
Gadgets are in plentiful supply. Porsche provides a range of options including the frankly magnificent Porsche Control Management (PCM) 3.0 that serves as a sat-nav, iPod dock, carphone and climate-management device in a single unit. It boasts several improvements over the 2.0 edition, not least a reduction in the number of fiddly, mechanical buttons. Instead, we get a fancy, 16.5cm (6.5-inch) 16:9 aspect-ratio touchscreen, whose finger-friendly interface is far more intuitive than the knobs and switches found on its predecessor.
As we saw in the new Boxster, one of the biggest benefits of PCM 3.0 is its hard-drive based storage system. This, unsurprisingly, allows faster access to maps and gives the system a slick, responsive feel. We can't help but thinking Porsche missed a trick, though -- the hard drive is relatively large at 40GB, so it would have lent itself well to local audio storage. Unfortunately it's impossible to rip CDs directly to the drive. Instead, you'll have to make do with Porsche's Universal Audio Interface -- a optional box of tricks that allows you to dock an iPod, play music from an external USB hard drive, or connect an ordinary MP3 player via an aux jack.
Audio playback is generally impressive. The 5.1-channel Bose sound system in our test car delivered an evenly balanced sound, particularly with the roof up, but also thumped loudly enough at high speed to counteract wind noise and alert fellow road users to the fact that we were driving a Porsche 911 drop-top, and they were not.
Under the hood
It took us a moment to realise, though we were giddy with excitement, we hadn't even switched the engine on yet -- and what an engine. The Carrera 4S Cabriolet packs a 3.8-litre six-cylinder 'boxer' unit kicking out 345hp at 6,500rpm. That's good for a top speed of 185mph and acceleration of 0-100kmh in 4.9 seconds. That compares favourably with the 911 Carrera 4S coupe, which reaches 0-100kph in 4.7 seconds and has the same top speed.
Those who swap the six-speed manual transmission for the seven-speed double-clutch PDK (Porsche Doppelkupplung) gearbox can expect acceleration that's even more brutal -- 0-100kph in 4.5 seconds -- and, if you buy the Sport Plus package, the option of launch control.
This works identically to the system in the latest Boxster S -- hit the Sport Plus button, plant your left peg on the brake, stomp hard on the accelerator and hold until the nearest pretty girl drops her hankie. Then, when the time comes to embarrass your opposition, release the brake and pray your neck doesn't snap. Some drivers will prefer the manual transmission because they like to know their fast starts are due solely to their skill with the clutch and accelerator pedal, but you really can't beat launch control for sheer coolness.
Porsche 911s have never really been known for their high fuel economy or low emissions, and not much has changed of late. In an urban cycle, the 911 Carrera 4S gets 17.9mpg with the six-speed manual and 17.5mpg with the PDK gearbox. That's 15.8 litres per 100km and 16.1 litres per 100km respectively. The car spews 247g/km, which Mother Nature probably isn't too happy about. A Seat Ibiza 1.4 TDI 80PS Ecomotive diesel, for example, gets 99g/km.
On the road
Driving a Porsche Carrera 4S is a life-changing experience. We don't mean it'll help you find God or anything like that -- but it will change you as a person. We believe we're normal, likeable individuals, but hopping behind the wheel of one of these things, we found ourselves turning into 'that dude'. You know, the one that's full of self-confidence, bravado and utter contempt for anyone not driving a Porsche.
The reason for this is simple. The Carrera 4S, despite being a convertible, is a stunning driving machine, and it lets you know it at every opportunity. It's primarily two-wheel drive, but the instant your front wheels begin to lose grip, more power is passed to them to provide extra traction in tight or weather-affected bends. It actually makes you think you know what you're doing and others on the road are ham-fisted idiots.
It's not all good news. Being a convertible, the 4S is susceptible to scuttle shake -- an annoying wobble of the chassis transmitted through the steering -- when going over rough or uneven roads. It's more of an annoyance than a danger, although over time interior panels could begin to loosen and irritating rattles may develop. You should also be aware of the problems associated with the 911's soft top, which despite benefiting from three layers of fabric, is far more prone to vandalism than cars with a mechanically folding roof. Still, the roof can be operated at speeds of up to 30mph, which is coolness personified.
The 911 Carrera 4S is stunning in just about every way. It's the sort of car that excels no matter what speed you're doing and will leave you grinning from ear to ear -- even if all you're doing is going down to the shops. The coupe is, ultimately, more of a driver's car, and does have superior handling, but given the choice, we'd opt for the drop-top time and time again.
Model tested: Porsche Carrera 4S Cabriolet
Engine: 3.8-litre flat-six
Power: 283kW (385hp)
Top speed: 295km/h (183mph)
Acceleration: 0-100kmh (0-62 mph): 4.7s (4.5s Sport+)
Edited by Nick Hide