THERE ARE sports cars and there is the Porsche 911 Turbo. Regarded by many as the ultimate incarnation of the German company’s flagship car, the Turbo is the product of years of refining, tweaking and burnishing by the engineers in Stuttgart.
In its lifetime, it has attracted followers like no other car, sometimes called “Porsche bores” because of their obsession with minutiae. This week, Porsche is celebrating the Turbo’s 40th birthday with a line-up at the Goodwood Festival of Speed next weekend. It is a cause for celebration, but the anniversary has also divided Porsche lovers over which model is best.
It is an argument that will never be resolved. It’s impossible to measure the aesthetic appeal of the 930 series Turbo against the engineering excellence of the 997. Instead, we’ve asked self-confessed Porsche bore and Turbo owner Andrew Frankel to nominate his favourites and explain why.
One point on which all Porsche owners agree: these are not the easiest cars to drive. They demand patience, skill and courage, qualities that most modern point-and-shoot sports cars don’t. The Turbo feels alive and can bite back. Some drivers swear it is the most frightening car they have driven.
One point on which all Porsche owners agree: these are not the easiest cars to drive. The Turbo feels alive and can bite back.
When Porsche unveiled the Turbo at the Paris motor show in 1974, the oil crisis meant that car makers were for the first time beginning to worry about fuel economy. In Germany there was a speed limit of 60mph to conserve fuel. But it seemed as if no one at Porsche was paying attention: with 260bhp and a top speed of 180mph, the 911 Turbo didn’t so much rewrite the rule book as tear it up and blow it out of its exhaust.
When it went on sale in 1975 it was the world’s fastest production car — the German company’s first proper supercar — described by one dumbstruck American reviewer as “a Panzer among Porsches, a street racer that will guarantee you a place at the top of the pecking order in a way that not even a Ferrari or Lamborghini can”. Steve McQueen bought one immediately.
Since then, its instantly recognisable bodyshell has been altered but never changed wholesale. Its layout with the engine in the back shouldn’t work but somehow does. Some versions have been better than others but all have been unmistakeably Turbos, all of them “Panzer Porsches”. Happy birthday, and remember: life begins at 40.
The classic: original Porsche 930 Turbo (1975-89)
How frightening? At speed in the wet, completely terrifying
Cost today £40,000-£70,000
By modern standards, the first 911 Turbo was a pretty ropey car and if you want to understand just how in its infancy turbocharging was in the mid-1970s, there’s no better illustration than this.
Below 3000rpm the car is so slow you’d think you’d broken it. Then, with a whoosh, the turbo cuts in and you’re holding on for dear life, desperately grabbing another gear, only for it to turn into Del Boy’s three-wheeler again. The car’s powerband is so narrow it would be hard to keep it on the boil even if it had five gears like every other 911 of the era. But it doesn’t: because its gears had to be strengthened, there’s space in the box for only four.
It will lock its brakes with hideous ease in the wet and if you try to drive it fast through some corners you’ll discover it prefers to go straight on or, if you tread on the brakes to slow it down, spin. Not for nothing was it quickly, and only half in jest, christened the Widowmaker.
And yet the car has a malevolent magic about it. Learn how to drive it properly and conquering the challenge it presents can be immensely rewarding. It is also beautifully built. The best are post-1978 3.3-litre cars (with 300bhp rather than 260bhp) which, while faster, were slightly easier to drive.
Price £14,479 (1974)
Acceleration 0-62mph: 6sec
Top speed 180mph
The bargain: Porsche 996 Turbo (2001-2005)
How frightening? For a 911 Turbo, arguably not quite frightening enough
Cost today £18,000-£30,000
Think what £20,000 buys you today. A high-spec Ford Focus or a mid-spec Nissan Qashqai. Or it could buy you a 911 Turbo that, despite Porsche’s overly conservative claims at the time, would hit 60mph in less than 4 seconds and carry on to almost 190mph. The 996 generation is not just the best-value Turbo of all, but the best-value Porsche, full stop.
Why? Because the standard 996 has a terrible reputation, not least for engine failure. But the 996 Turbo engine is different from that used in any other 996 save the GT3, and is based on a race unit so strong it powered Porsche to its most recent Le Mans victory in 1998. It has been unfairly judged for the sins of its sisters.
The 996 Turbo is also one of the most dramatic-looking Turbos, with its vast front valance and slots behind the door to feed air to that racing motor. If it disappoints at all, it’s because it’s really not that scary. It was the first Turbo to be fitted with electronic stability control, and with soft suspension and four-wheel drive, it was more a businessman’s express than an all-out road warrior.
Price £86,000 (2001)
Acceleration 0-62mph: 4.2sec
Top speed 189mph
The scariest: 997 GT2 RS (2010-2011)
How frightening? Fairly, even when parked. Merciless if you get on the wrong side of it
Cost today £180,000-£200,000
There were a few candidates for this spot, including the 993 GT2 of 1995 whose response to the throttle could be so savage it would spin you 180 degrees before you could say “opposite lock”.
But if you believe frightening and thrilling are the closest of cousins, the GT2 RS offers the most of both. For 20 years Porsche has kept most of its Turbos tamed by making them quite heavy, providing them with four-wheel drive, and restricting their power to merely awesome rather than apocalyptic. But when its motor sport department was briefed to produce its take on the Turbo, it felt no such constraints. Out went the four-wheel drive and up went the power, all the way to 611bhp. And down went the weight.
The effect was monstrous: a 911 that was damn near as quick to 100mph as a McLaren F1. Only the very skilled or extremely lucky stood a chance of controlling all that power, and for many the slower non-turbo GT3 RS was a far better and safer car.
Price £164,107 (2010)
Acceleration 0-62mph: 3.5sec
Top speed 205mph
Used example: these are rare machines and none were in stock on driving.co.uk at the time of writing. Try a more general search for Porsche 911s to buy
The fast one: current 991 Turbo
How frightening? When you realise how easily it will lose you your licence, very
Cost today £120,598-£142,120
The only fear factor here derives from the fact the latest 911 Turbo is so startlingly fast. In S guise with 560bhp it’ll take you to 100mph in a fraction under 7 seconds, a reasonable time for a fast car to hit just 60mph. Yet this is also the most luxurious, hi-tech, cosseting and comforting Turbo of them all.
Indeed if you weren’t so close to the ground you could forget that you’re in one of the most potent supercars on sale. Until of course the time comes to dispatch a row of dawdling traffic, at which point the car will accelerate as smoothly and almost as quickly as a Bugatti Veyron.
But while this is unquestionably the most effortless 911 Turbo made, it is far from the most fun. In trying to make this the quickest and most sophisticated 911 Turbo, Porsche engineered out some of the involvement taken for granted in the previous-generation car. So if you’re more interested in having fun than going fast, save yourself a fortune and buy a standard 911 Carrera S.
Acceleration 0-62mph: 3.1sec
Top speed 197mph
The all-rounder: 997 Turbo (2006-2012)
How frightening? Just enough to keep you enthralled from start to finish
Cost today £35,000-£95,000
All Turbos up until 2006 suffered from one of two problems. The early cars were all too wild and raw to make sense as ideal daily drivers while, post-1995, they gave up their hell-raising ways and came over all sensible, losing a lot of their original appeal on the way. The 997 is the car that finally struck the balance.
It had all the safety features of the 996 but came with a lot more power (473bhp), much quicker throttle response, a far cleverer four-wheel-drive system and a chassis set up as much to make the car handle well as ride comfortably. It might not be the most attractive-looking 911 but this was the first Turbo you could drive all week, enjoying the civility and comfort it had to offer, and then take to a track day at the weekend and near enough guarantee you’d be the quickest thing out there.
Prices start at almost double what you’d pay for the cheapest version of the 996 but here you get what you pay for.
Price £97,840 (2006)
Acceleration 0-62mph: 3.9sec
Top speed 192mph