Der Carrera GT

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It is only fitting that we first encountered the Carrera GT at a location previously unmarked on any map. The largest expanse of concrete in Europe—located about 85 kilometers from Berlin and now used by Michelin for tire testing—was a secret airbase of the former East Germany and, until reunification, was represented as a mere white spot in the forest. Even today, the Porsche Cayenne’s up-to-date navigation system went mute when we approached the perimeter of the abandoned airfield, dotted with empty concrete Quonsets once used to house MiG fighters. After a long drive across the endless landscape, we spied our mission’s target: four sinister Carrera GTs aligned in jetlike formation in front of a Quonset that had been smartly remodeled as a press center and restaurant, flying festive Porsche flags to celebrate a most auspicious takeoff.

 

Porsche’s Carrera GT was unveiled to the public at the Louvre as a concept vehicle in September 2000, having been conceived in total secrecy by a small team of designers far away from the factory’s home in Stuttgart. At

the company’s satellite studio in Huntington Beach, Calif., Harm Lagaay—chief designer at Porsche and the man responsible for the styling of the 996, the 993, and countless Porsches before them—led a skunk works project that, it was understood from the beginning, would become a real production car. The GT was to establish the ultimate technical and aesthetic standard for The Sportscar, devastating in its performance but uncompromising in comfort and practicality.

 

Porsche has broken this ground before; the glorious 917 was perhaps the most successful series of racecar ever, with a grand lineage that established competition supremacy and which was a test bed for future Porsche production cars. The 959, conceived initially as a twin-turbocharged, all-wheel-drive Gruppe B racer, became the world’s first supercar in its late 1980s incarnation. The sleek 911-derived shape concealed the most technically advanced automobile—by a decade—of its time.

 

Unlike the 959, Porsche’s new Carrera GT bears no resemblance to its predecessors. It eclipses every other contender as the world’s most super supercar, and the reason is obvious before one even turns the key: refinement. This car makes absolutely no compromise in creature comfort, ergonomics, aesthetics, and standard of finish. No other automobile capable of such speed and performance comes close to the GT in its obsessive resolution of the minutest detail. Lagaay explained that every fastener in the engine compartment, the directional orientation of each layer of carbon fiber, and the subtlest surface contours received the utmost consideration during the design process. And the car is stunningly beautiful, referring obliquely to the current 911 while breaking new ground with a clever roof, see-through rollover hoops, and a twin-humped, metal-mesh “negligee”—as Lagaay calls it—that allows the motor beneath to breathe. The car I drove was finished in a silver unique to the GT, which Lagaay opined to be the most flattering color for the car. He went on to explain that during the modeling process, silver foil is pressed over the clay to articulate light falling on the shapes—bones and fillets, or convex and concave contours—and because of its value and reflectivity, soft silver metallic brings out the best in his design.

Settle into the one-piece carbon fiber seat, and the dichotomy of comfortable racing ergonomics and rich terra-cotta leather upholstery is apparent. In fact, the entire cockpit is finished in a combination of leather, silver aluminum, and the most fastidious carbon fiber imaginable. The driving position is perfect Porsche, and because the GT uses the 911’s wheel and column assembly, Porschephiles will feel right at home. Visibility from the cab-forward cockpit, through the expansive windscreen and over the low front end, is unhindered, and the huge, Dumbolike side mirrors allow a broad survey of the rearward landscape, eliminating any trace of the claustrophobia that one feels in so many sports cars.

 

Turning the left-mounted ignition key, I hear the engine spring to life with a strange, un-Porschelike clattering. In fact, the only unsettling aspect of the GT is the sound produced when starting off from idle: a gravel-in-a-blender racket that abates at about 2,000 rpm. From there to the 8,400-rpm redline, pure music—not loud or obtrusive—emerges from the heart of the GT. Bystanders are treated to a racing engine’s crescendo as stirring as anything from south of the Alps.

Light weight is the underpinning of the GT’s design philosophy; the car tipping the scales at just 3,043 pounds unladen. When I remarked that Porsche built far lighter racers in the early days, I was reminded by Lagaay that a driver of the new GT—equipped with four air bags—will walk away from crashes that no driver of an earlier car would survive.

The Carrera GT was designed from the beginning as a top-off, open-air roadster. Integral roll bars ingeniously integrate rear windows while affording maximum protection. Wind noise with the roof halfs neatly stowed is minimal, and with the roof installed, the cabin is completely noise- and rattle-free. This car’s spoiler will soon raise to perform its aerodynamic duties. 

Complementing such light weight is rigidity. As the first production car in the world with a monocoque chassis and subframes made of beautifully finished carbon fiber–reinforced plastic (CFP), the Carrera GT achieves maximum stiffness. The structure is breathtaking, the automotive equivalent of a perfectly machined bridge in a fine watch complication, delighting any connoisseur who looks below the surface. Body panels are likewise composed of carbon fiber, including the removable roof structure made of two featherweight shells that stow away in the front luggage compartment. The GT is the stiffest Porsche ever, with handling dynamics borne out in a flex-, squeak-, and rattle-free ride. Ideal aerodynamics are only marginally compromised in deference to maximum downforce and stability, achieved by typical racecar underfloor geometry, including rear diffusers and airflow ducts. Still, a respectable Cd of 0.396 is maintained. Up top, an automatic rear wing entertains motorists fortunate enough to encounter—albeit briefly—the Carrera GT at speed. 

Cradled in the CFP module frame is the mid-mounted engine and transverse transmission. The four-cam, four-valve-per-cylinder V-10 is directly descended from Porsche’s 5.5-liter Le Mans–bred powerplant. This normally aspirated engine, increased in displacement to 5.7 liters, develops 612 hp at 8,000 rpm, and 435 ft lbs of torque at 5,750 rpm. Of light alloy construction, the engine weighs just 472 pounds dry, with internals streamlined to generate minimal rotation forces. An ultra-low center of gravity—the crankshaft sits less than 4 inches from the car’s underfloor—is achieved by the world’s first ceramic composite clutch, which is less than 7 inches in diameter and has a mass weight 10 times lower than a conventional unit. Take-up is easy, abetted by a set of flat, floor-hinged metal pedals large enough for Frankenstein’s monster. The laminated birch-wood shift knob—only a 6-speed manual transmission is available—is mounted high on the narrow console à la early Alfa Romeo, and falls to hand in a most natural way. Gear changes are quick and comfortable, encouraging a real shifting sleight of hand.

 

Suspension front and rear is pure racecar—unlike Porsche’s typical McPherson spring struts—using a double-track control arm with a spring/damper unit operated by pushrods. Antiroll bars are fitted at both ends, and a self-locking differential prevents wheel spin at the rear. At your fingertips, power-assisted steering is responsive and provides plenty of feedback.

The ABS-equipped brakes are an even larger version of the ceramic composite system introduced on the 2001 GT2. The PCCB brakes, which Porsche identifies by painting the six-piston calipers yellow, are half the weight of those with iron rotors, stop quicker, and last far longer.

I asked Lagaay about the elegant wheels designed expressly for the GT. The one-piece magnesium rims are forged, not cast, and employ a race-style center-lock nut instead of Porsche’s five traditional lugs. He explained that the design is a clear reference to the classic five-spoke Fuchs rim that Porsche introduced in 1967, one of the most recognizable and brilliant wheel designs of all time. 

Tires are something special, and have been developed by Michelin specifically for the GT. Their huge size—265/35 ZR19 front and 335/30 ZR20 rear—lets them grip like limpets while inflated to relatively low pressures for a soft, comfortable ride. A Michelin man explained that the tires are composed of different compounds on the outside and inside, allowing for even higher speeds and longer wear than other compounds.

What really brings out the best in the Carrera GT is a quick wallop on the right pedal. Acceleration to 60 mph takes less than 3.9 seconds, and top track speed is 205 mph, confirmed when I rode with the GT’s affable and ever-patient development driver, World Rally Champion Walter Röhrl. But the motor is as flexible as it is fast, and one run from near-standstill to top speed was achieved in sixth gear alone, demonstrating the GT to be an extremely tractable supercar. On another circuit of the test track, Röhrl aptly demonstrated the efficacy of Porsche’s Traction Control with a flawless and precise lap, placing the GT within inches of bump strips and cones while driving near his limit. Röhrl’s absolute mastery of the GT—and the laws of physics—was confirmed when he blithely punched off the Traction Control button. The car became an animal, and while he was able to negotiate the same course with impressive accuracy, a lesser driver would have put the car into a barrier or worse. I’m always amused to hear those—even capable weekend racers—who claim that electronic “nannies” take the fun out of driving and aren’t meant for serious drivers. Perhaps they miss the screeching and smoke, but to eschew these benefits while driving on public roads is irresponsible and insane.

I was able to enjoy the Porsche on some lightly traveled roads around Gross Dölln, the quaint town adjacent to our once-secret airbase. Blasting about the countryside, it was quick work to overtake the odd transporter and small sedan, but even supercars are reduced to mule cart status when waddling through tiny villages at 50 kph, respectful of the inhabitants’ quiet ways. The quaint buildings are little changed from the time shortly after World War II, and the environment really is a time machine that transports you back 50 years, a contrast all the more apparent by the state-of-the-art audacity of this particular Porsche.

The business end of the beast, and a view—with raised spoiler—that will become familiar to the GT’s challengers. Rear diffusor and airflow ducts do their job to maintain maximum downforce, and a fully covered underfloor provides additional ground suction effects. 

The GT is as easy to drive—maybe easier—as any Porsche, the car I’ve long held to be the archetypal daily driver sports car. The only difference is a performance envelope that exceeds the limits of even the 911 Turbo. Smooth and linear, the V-10 belies its prodigious power, possibly because it eschews forced induction and is not a torque monster. But do not mistake civility for weakness; this car is a rocket ship with racecar prowess.

With Porsche no longer involved in factory-sponsored racing efforts, the GT could be considered penance for the absence of a 2003 Porsche on the racetrack, according to Herbert Ampferer, head of Porsche Motorsports worldwide. Porsche builds its cars to drive 365 days a year, and in Ampferer’s view, the supercar had to be not only suitable for everyday use but also easier to drive than a 911.

About 1,500 Carrera GTs will be manufactured on a special assembly line in Porsche’s Leipzig plant, home to Cayenne construction. Ampferer was quick to point out that the GT was conceived from the start as a viable business model, not just a halo car to highlight Porsche technology. Its development and manufacture would not be offset by adding to the price of 911, Boxster, and Cayenne models, thus making loyal customers bear the burden. The GT is a “worldwide” design, so the entire production run is essentially identical, save for details such as front bumper–mounted turn indicators, and a reverse light at the rear of U.S. cars replacing the European fog light.

According to Bob Carlson, motoring press manager of Porsche Cars North America, more than one-third but less than one-half of the production is earmarked for the United States, and approximately 500 orders for the $440,000 car have been placed thus far. Some quick math suggests that serious customers should ante up as soon as they have finished this article. Those seeking extra fun should consider the Porsche in the December 2003  issue’s Ultimate Gift Guide

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