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Crowning Achievement

<< Back to Robb Report, Robb Report October 2014

Capped with a high-tech top, Porsche’s new Targa recaptures the look and spirit of the original.

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The automobile roof with removable or retractable panels has taken various forms, gone by different names, and given a dual personality to the cars that it covers. These vehicles are neither convertibles nor coupes but a little bit of both, and they have ranged from the slight and short-lived Smart Roadster of 2003 to the almighty and still current Bugatti Veyron Grand Sport. 

The roof was a T-top on the 1968 Corvette and a surrey on the 1961 Triumph TR4. A series of partially alfresco Ferraris and the 1970 Lamborghini Diablo had targa tops, but it was four years earlier, in 1966, that Porsche introduced the term Targa—with a capital T and a trademark—as the name of a 911 variant that featured a removable roof section and a full-width, stainless-steel roll bar. Porsche took the name from the Targa Florio, the Sicilian race that a Porsche had won in 1963, ’64, and ’66. 

This design concept resumes with the new Porsche 911 Targa 4 and 4S, the latest variants in the current 911 lineup. Their roof looks like the original Targa’s, but it is windproof and waterproof, keeps the air-conditioning inside the car, and operates automatically. 

Raising and retracting the fabric-covered magnesium panel is an idiot-proof one-button operation that takes 19 seconds, just fast enough to beat the arrival of raindrops. Though the roof is easy to operate, its blueprint, with so many struts, flaps, catches, and springs that move up, back, and forward, evokes a Rube Goldberg cartoon. 

While most automatic hard tops can be lowered or raised when the car is in motion, the Targa 4’s operates only when the car is at a standstill. This limitation is caused in part by the movements that the roof and rear-window structure perform when doing their dance. The window, under which the roof is stored, tilts so far back to make room for the roof that it covers a portion of the brake lights and can obscure the driver’s rear view, creating a safety issue. Like the original Targa, the new one is basically a partially decapitated 911 with a wide brushed-stainless-steel B-pillar that extends over the top of the car as a roll bar. Of course, the design has evolved. The rear window on the early Targas was made of plastic and was prone to becoming opaque and developing cracks and creases that would distort the driver’s rear view and degrade the car’s appearance. The window and its canvas surrounds also tended to sag, giving a swayback look to the 911’s dorsal line. The Targa was in production for only two years before Porsche developed a wraparound glass rear window that preserved the 911 silhouette.   

Initially, the roof panel was composed of vinyl cloth stretched across an aluminum frame. It was held to the car by two latches at the top of the windshield and a pair of pegs that mated with holes in the roll bar. It was not unusual for these early roofs to break from their moorings and float across the freeway.

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In 1996, Porsche introduced the first of three generations of Targas with a retractable glass roof—instead of a removable fabric-covered panel—and no roll bar. Production on the glass-roofed Targas ended in 2011, when Porsche introduced the first variants of the current generation of the 911. The top was essentially an enormous sunroof that could slide under the rear window, opening the cabin to fresh air and the sounds of nature and, occasionally, pursuing sirens. The sliding-glass feature necessitated fixed frames for the door windows. This design element detracted from the look of the cars and diminished the sensation of open-air motoring that drivers could experience with the earlier Targas and with conventional convertibles. As a result, perhaps, Targa sales fell from their peak of 40 percent of 911 purchases to less than 7 percent, while sales of Porsche’s convertibles rose. 

“There were some changes with the 911 at the end of 2011,” explained Hermann-Josef Stappen, the head of Porsche’s technical-communications department. “We had a completely new body of aluminum and steel, mixed materials that allowed us a new roof. We had a coupe and a coupe with a sliding roof, so we decided to go with a Targa because it was such a great car. It was the appearance with the old car—the lines, the roll bar as part of the design—so we wanted it back.”

With a wide B-pillar straddling its midsection and a fabric-over-magnesium demi-roof, the Targa 4 recaptures the look of the original model, but the aforementioned automation spares owners the moderately heavy lifting that was required to remove and collapse the roof and store it in the trunk. As Stappen noted, “Everything opens and closes at the touch of a button.” Anything less, he added, would have been “old–fashioned, and today’s owners don’t like manual operation.”

As with the 911 Carrera 4 on which it is based, the new Targa comes standard with all-wheel drive. The base Targa 4 has a 3.4-liter flat 6 that produces 350 hp, and the Targa 4S is powered by a 400 hp 3.8-liter version of the engine. Both variants can be equipped with a 7-speed manual or a dreamy PDK dual-clutch automatic. The Targa 4S’s mightier engine adds nearly $15,000 to the Targa 4’s base price of just under $103,000. 

The roof’s workings add weight to the Targa: It is 88 pounds heavier than the 911 cabriolet and 242 pounds heavier than the 911 coupe. Nevertheless, the Targa 4S can post a zero-to-60-mph time of 4.2 seconds; the Targa 4’s time is 4.8 seconds (when equipped with the PDK transmission). Top speeds are 175 mph for the Targa 4 and 183 mph for the more muscular car (with the manual transmission). 

An early-summer drive in a Targa 4S around Stuttgart, Germany, and on the surrounding autobahns showcased the car’s needle-point steering and the smooth eagerness of its drivetrain. The Porsche Traction Management system automatically monitored the car’s balance and steering angle and directed power to the wheels accordingly, making the Targa 4S an exemplar of handling.  

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The interior, with its leather and metal accents, is elegant, and the ride, even in Sport mode, is as comfortable as a cushion. The car’s navigation-information system may be more helpful than any human copilot. The voice commands are logical, the visuals leave no room for error, and the points-of-interest prompts are so comprehensive that they could direct you to the nearest restroom.

When the top is stowed, a narrow yet effective deflector mounted on the windshield frame mitigates the wind hazard to hats and hair, even if the car is traveling at autobahn speeds around 100 mph. Acoustics, however, are less immune to the effects of wind and speed. During the test-drive, conversations were possible at regular highway speeds, but the wind noise reached just the right volume to drown out the Oktoberklub folk rock on the radio and the commands from that otherwise superb navigation system.     

When presented with this quibble, Stappen thought for a while before responding. “Well,” he said, “I guess you can’t take a shower without getting wet.”  

Porsche, www.porsche.com

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