On paper there really is very little to differentiate Porsche's latest supercar -- the 997 Turbo -- from a car the company was building twenty years ago: the 959. Both have power going to all four wheels, both have twin turbocharged flat-six engines mounted behind the rear axle and both put out more than 400bhp. So how has 20 years of progress come together -- and should we really be judging technical prowess by mere performance statistics?
It's come a long way since its debut in 1975 and nowadays anyone can drive the 911 Turbo. It devours the scenery with consummate, almost contemptuous ease and you can almost hear it whispering, "Is that the best you can come up with? Give me some more road you weak, spineless, pathetic humanoid. I haven't finished yet!" It's child's play to drive the latest 997 generation cars (unless it's a GT3) and it's easy to forget a new Turbo's towering capabilities because the driver can seem so remote from proceedings at times. The old school 911 fanatics, weaned on lift-off oversteer and antiquated ergonomics, always complain about the computers taking over and numbing what should be an involving, physical experience. And they have a point.
The 959, though, if I'm to believe all I've read, is a bit of an animal. The computers are there in great abundance but the savage delivery of power is enough to keep you on your toes and the moorland roads in Yorkshire that I'm set to drive this one on are perfect for exploring the upper reaches of a supercar's performance envelope.
911 Turbo: not perfect
Over the past few days, I've exploited only a fraction of the 997 Turbo's stratospheric limits. The performance isn't particularly different from the previous 996 generation of Turbo but the new car feels transformed. With radical, variable turbine technology (this is a first for a petrol engine) the delivery of power is almost seamless. Where there used to be lag, it's now responsive to even the slightest feathering of the throttle. Whatever the gear you happen to be in, the Turbo just keeps on powering towards its vicious rev limiter until you snatch another cog. It's quite unlike anything I've experienced before now, yet the car is far from perfect and, parking up on the roadside, giving it the once over, it's easy to pick fault.
For starters, it's not what you'd call beautiful. The standard 997 is pretty enough but it seems as though Porsche has conspired to mess up the front end with fussy detailing and those driving lamp pods at either side make it look as though there's a golf ball in each cheek. The wheels, too, are an acquired taste and the huge air intakes set into the rear wings are nasty, cheap looking plastic items. It's a shame because the Turbo has always been the best looking of the 911 ranges over the years but they've messed up here.
The interior, too, is a bit of a letdown because it's just so similar to the standard cars. It's stylish and functional but where's the sense of occasion? If I'd blown twice the money of a 997 Carrera on this, I'd expect it to look a bit more special.
But these are minor niggles in the big scheme of things. The new Turbo is undoubtedly the most useable supercar money can buy today. The 959, on the other hand, held that title many moons ago, so it's time to find out what it's really like.
Opening the door, I'm faced with an enormous sill to negotiate before settling in the driver's seat. And once again there's disappointment. Even in the 1980s the 911 dashboard was old fashioned yet it's what they used for the 959's cabin architecture. There's no real sense of occasion but it does all feel very familiar, which helps settle any first time nerves. To the trained eye there are obvious signs that this isn't just any old 911. Tyre pressure monitor, 340km/h speedometer, controls for damper settings and ride height -- the clues are all there. And everything is covered in the finest quality hide, but curiously not the seats, which are upholstered here in wool.
Twisting the key, the 2.85-litre flat-six bursts into life with a bark, settling into a noisy, very mechanical tickover. With a quick check of all the instruments it's time to ease away and get my first hit of pure, uncut 959. The first thing I notice is how stiff the clutch is in comparison to the new car. And then there's the brake pedal, which has absolutely zero travel. The steering is heavy at low speeds but as I make my way along the winding roads it eases into a wonderfully communicative setup. The seats are supremely comfortable and there is tremendous visibility all round, unlike the 959's contemporaries.
As soon as the road allows, I take a deep breath and floor the throttle in second gear. First of all very little happens -- it's quick but not especially startling. The boost gauge is flickering into life as I edge above 3,000rpm, at which point only the first of the two turbochargers is doing its stuff and it feels pretty much like a 930 of the early 1980s. As the revs quickly climb to 5,000rpm, the second turbo comes on song and the effects leave me reeling in shock and awe. The 959 simply roars, hunkers down and launches itself forward with such ferocity that I'm having great difficulty not using obscene language to describe what it feels like.
More GT than supercar?
I rapidly run out of useable road, such is the 959's ability to cover enormous distances in just seconds, so I simply turn around and go through the process again, just to experience that shocking kick in the back. What I soon discover, though, is that the 959 does show its age when it comes to very fast cornering. Where you can keep your right foot planted in a 997 Turbo, safe in the knowledge that the car knows what it's doing and won't let you down, the 959 feels too soft, too spongy, too wallowy to really trust that the nose will turn in when you really need it to, despite the four-wheel drive and all that computing power. It feels more GT than out-and-out supercar.
And this is something the two cars here share in their core DNA. Unlike the Porsche Turbos of old, both the 959 and the 997 Turbo lack soul, character and a sense of fun. They both do the job required of them with ease -- it's just that the driver doesn't really feel part of the equation, and this is unsettling for someone who likes a car to really communicate what's going on underneath, while submitting to inputs without any hint of overruling. A GT3 has character -- a Turbo does not.
The two cars here are, though, showcases for Porsche's technical wizardry. The 959 is still hailed as the most sophisticated sportscar ever built and the fact that Porsche sold each one of the 200 built at a colossal loss simply adds to its sense of mystique. The new 911 Turbo is no different -- it shows what Porsche is capable of: building insanely fast cars that anyone can drive. In fact, I'm pretty sure my grandmother could get in and drive one across Europe, and she's never driven a car before.
The magic of the 959 becomes abundantly clear as the day progresses. Any male, over the age of 30, passing us as the photography is coming together, stops and comes up to ask whether or not it's a real 959, gawping at what they see as the ultimate icon of its time.
The new car they're not bothered with -- and I have to admit that, here on these windswept moors, the 997 Turbo looks just too bland and ordinary. Neither car is actually ordinary, though. They both offer what Porsche felt and feels is the very best. They both offer identical performance times and the world becomes a much smaller place when you open either of them up and yet, after two decades of time, the 959 is the one that impresses the most. There's an edge, a sense of rawness about it that makes the new Turbo seem a bit sterile.
More to life than speed
In the 1980s, the 959 was the future according to Porsche. It was a science laboratory on wheels. The 997 Turbo is the present, yet it owes much to the 959. For ten years, nothing could touch it for sheer pace and refinement and it showcased new technology like no other car before or since. Time has moved on, though, and the 997 Turbo does make a better case for itself as a flexible, everyday mode of transport. I even managed to slowly drive through town at speeds as low as 28mph in sixth gear. Think about it: 28-197mph in one gear! Extraordinary.
I still feel no desire to own either one, though, and this is simply because they lack a certain something. They both lack charisma, and even though the 959 has more of a voice than the 997 Turbo and is trickier to drive, if it was my money on the line I'd go for something with some soul, some character, some flaws. A Ferrari 288 GTO over a 959 and an Aston Martin V8 Vantage over the 997 Turbo -- they might not offer the sheer speed or refinement of their Porsche equivalents but they'd make up for this with so many other attributes. There is, after all, more to life than speed.
Pictures by Max Earey