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The 911 Carrera S: Two pedals good, three pedals better

Porsche designed the 992 around the PDK gearbox; why is the manual so darn good?

Over the years, the Porsche 911 Carrera has changed. The silhouette may still be the same, the engine is still in the back, and after all these decades, it's still a treat to drive. I won't dissect all the changes made over the years from the first 911 (nearly called a 901, until Peugeot intervened), for Ars has you covered with one of those we prepared earlier. But you only have to park the current car—known as the 992—next to an older one, even just a couple of generations old, to see the effect of time. All that extra stuff is added technology.

The 911 has grown, in length and width, largely to fit the energy-absorbing safety structures that we now reasonably expect our cars to contain. The interior uses glossy, pixel-dense digital displays instead of the old-fashioned arrangement of dials. The engines are all turbocharged now, even though it doesn't say "Turbo" on the back in that distinctive cursive typeface. This arrangement balances out the fast version of the electric Taycan being called a Turbo, but more importantly, it means the distinctive flat-six engines can meet modern emissions requirements, and there's enough power to account for the addition of weight over time. (The 911 Turbo is a separate, more expensive, more powerful model, which we would have reviewed in March, but COVID-19 set fire to those plans.)

Doppelkupplungsgetriebe

And more often than not, the engine sends its power to the rear wheels via a PDK transmission. PDK standing of course for Porsche-Doppelkupplungsgetriebe, or Porsche double-clutch transmission. Porsche first developed PDK in the 1980s to win races at Le Mans, before debuting the technology on its road cars in 2009.

PDK can change gears faster than a human with a conventional three-pedals-and-a-lever manual transmission, and in automatic mode, it's more fuel-efficient. And in a fine display of eating one's cake and having it, too (or whatever the compound German word for that would be), the shift paddles on the steering wheel provide plenty of driver engagement in manual mode.

It's not quite fair to say that PDK saved Porsche—not like the Cayenne and Macan SUVs—but the fact that you don't have to know how to drive stick to use it means a PDK-equipped Porsche is more accessible to a wider range of drivers than a conventional three-pedal manual, particularly in some of Porsche's newer markets. But you can read all about the 2020 Porsche 911 Carrera S with a PDK gearbox, because we reviewed one in late 2019.

Instead, the $113,300 metallic-silver 911 Carrera S you see in the photos above might look a lot like the one from last year, and its 3.0L flat-six engine generates an identical 443hp (330kW) and 390lb-ft (529Nm). But the car is notable because it's a proper manual. Yes, in the driver's footwell you'll find three pedals, and there's a proper gearstick to select one of the seven forward (or one reverse) gear. The 992 might be the most technologically advanced 911 in the history of 911s, and it might have been designed with the technocratic PDK as the default, but it's still available with this mechanical throwback as a no-cost option.

A matter of opinion

I know instinctively that, as one who writes about cars for a living, I'm supposed to reflexively champion the manual tranny at every possible opportunity. But in fact, I'm not much of a three-pedal extremist. Two-pedal cars are much easier to live with in traffic, and on track I actually prefer paddle shifters and left-foot braking, plus the protection you get from executing . After driving a previous-generation 911, I even declared that "the dual clutch gearbox alone is worth the price of admission."

Reader, I was not expecting to enjoy the three-pedal 911 as much as I did.

The seven-speed shift pattern did not require much getting used to, as reverse is a dogleg off to the left. This means that the shifts from 1-2, 2-3, 3-4, and so on, are in the directions you expect them to be. The clutch is light, but the bite-point is not at all vague, and the throw of the lever is short and free of slack or slop.

911s are supposed to be the kind of sports car you can daily-drive (particularly in anonymous silver), and in this regard, the manual gives up little in everyday usability to the PDK car. You give up a mile per gallon in city driving (17mpg or 13.8l/100km), but you gain a mile per gallon on the highway (25mpg or 9.4l/100km); both PDK and manual Carrera S achieve the same combined 20mpg (11.8l/100km).

Living in the future

There's still some 21st-century electronic wizardry on display. The car has a clever anti-stall feature and can sense when you're on an incline, engaging the parking brake to prevent you from rolling backward or having to balance the car on the clutch. In days gone by, you'd merely need to engage the hand brake, but now those have all become little electronic switches rather than big mechanical ratcheting levers. Now, instead of balancing the car on the bite-point and then disengaging the hand brake, the car automatically disengages the parking brake as it detects the clutch engaging.

911s are also supposed to be the kind of sports car that you enjoy pouring down a twisty road, and in this regard the manual delivers all the things you expect from a 911. Having the engine located behind the rear axle means a 39:61 weight distribution, and you take advantage of that by turning in early and getting on the power early, secure in the knowledge that there's more than enough mechanical grip to punch you out past the apex. Meanwhile, the steering is able to communicate what the front wheels are doing to a degree that is still notable for an electronic (as opposed to hydraulic) power assist.

There's an auto-blip feature that revs the engine when you downshift that some might think is cheating—simply remind those people who heel and toe that rev-matched downshifts are really the preserve of the race track and you shouldn't ever be driving quite that hard on public roads. (If the idea leaves you aghast, it is easily disabled in the car's settings.)

I am sure that, driven back to back, an earlier 911 Carrera would prove even more mechanically engaging to drive. But I also know those earlier 911s don't come with adaptive cruise control or modern infotainment with Apple CarPlay, to say nothing of modern crash protection. And when compared to any of its more conventional sports car rivals, even the computer-controlled 992 generation proves there's nothing quite like a 911.

Listing image by Jonathan Gitlin

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