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Manual Belabored

From day one in 1948, when the pudgy, pioneering Type 356 emerged from Gmünd, Austria, through all the variations of the undying 911 up until the 2013 911 Turbo S model, Porsche has sold its sports cars with at least the option of a grip-and-shove manual transmission. The 911 GT3, which was introduced in 1999, was an especially strong argument for heel-and-toeing, double-clutching, and the fancy footwork of three-pedal motoring.

But the 2014 GT3, which went on sale at the end of last year with a base price of about $130,400, is not available with a manual transmission. And an automatic Porsche—wailed a small yet noisy band of diehards and bloggers—is motoring heresy.

Andreas Preuninger, the head of Porsche’s GT series production, wore a light, weary smile as he addressed the issue last fall in Germany, during the car’s media launch. He has been explaining his decision to go full automatic since the GT3 was unveiled at the 2013 Geneva International Motor Show. “What I don’t get,” he said, “is that these are people who don’t own the car, have never driven it, but have told us that we have misrepresented it as a Porsche because it doesn’t have a manual transmission.”

What this fifth-generation GT3 does have—in addition to a new 3.8-liter flat-6 boxer engine that produces 475 hp—is a 7-speed, dual-clutch PDK (Porsche Doppelkupplung) transmission. And while there is no clutch pedal for the dual-clutch PDK,  paddle shifters mounted to the steering wheel and a center-console gear shift both operate the sequential gearbox. That said, the PDK does include the dreaded full-automatic mode. 

“A manual just is not the way to be fast,” Preuninger said. And because the GT3 is intended for high-performance driving—according to Porsche, 80 percent of GT3 owners spend track time in it—the goal was to make the car as fast as possible. “Before you judge it,” he said, repeating what he has been telling critics since the car’s introduction, “experience it, understand it. Then if you don’t like the car, get angry.”

Thus the conversation ended and the driving began, on back roads and twisty two-laners across southern Germany and the Swabian Jura. Forget the silliness over an automatic transmission; a short time into the drive, this new, wider, longer, lower, and much bolder GT3 quickly presented cause for a more sophisticated debate about robotics taking over the driving experience. Is this a plus or minus for the marque’s image? Let’s call it progress. The GT3 remains edgy enough to demand the full attention of any enthusiast, but it will wag a finger at serious transgressions and keep the driver safe.

The GT3’s mechanical miracles are abundant. Porsche has upgraded the steering to an electromechanical system that is deft and a new apogee of point-and-punch direction changing. It also is the perfect companion to fully automatic and speed-sensitive rear-wheel steering. When the car is traveling slower than 30 mph, the rear wheels turn in opposition to the front wheels. At speeds faster than 50 mph, all wheels turn in the same direction. The system reduces the steering radius by as much as 1.5 degrees.

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Preuninger did not want to contaminate the racing integrity of the GT3 with “hundreds of millions of buttons and switches,” so the car contains relatively few. One switch elevates the ride height to avoid scraping the car’s snout or underside on steep driveways. Another sets the GT3 into race mode, which reduces shift times to the Le Mans territory of 100 milliseconds. And another relaxes the traction threshold to the point of allowing tail wag before electronics intervene and correct the situation. Porsche also has equipped the GT3 with an electronic differential that can dispense 100 percent of the engine’s power to either rear wheel if needed.

The GT3’s engine is absolutely new, with a new crankshaft, lighter titanium connecting rods gudgeon-pinned to aluminum pistons, and an improved direct-fuel-injection system. The engine performs best at an astounding 9,000 rpm. Propelled by 324 ft lbs of torque, the GT3 can accelerate from zero to 60 mph in 3.3 seconds.

And what about the PDK transmission? Oppositionists may not want to hear this, but it performs beautifully, maybe even magnificently. Most of today’s automatic transmissions operate smoothly and close to intuitively; there is no slop and only minimal hesitation between shifts. Porsche’s PDK, however, is practically telepathic. It seems to know precisely when to change gears: never in a corner or when the car’s weight is moving, and always with imperceptible shifts and a talent for holding power in place during dicey passes.

When the GT3 is on the move, traveling flat out on short straights and then dumping power for tight corners, the car is a velvet demon. Hold the revs until the redline, downshift with the left paddle, flick it one more cog, and the reward is a crisp whap! accompanied by a surge of negative g-force. Sweepers are to beg for, because the rear-wheel steering and electronic differential seem to double the car’s standard stick and stability.

The GT3 will entice enthusiasts to drive faster than they ever have. With increased pace comes decreased reaction time, but a transmission shifting quicker than the human hand can prevent costly shunts and embarrassing off-track excursions.

One early critic of the new GT3 wrote that a Porsche with a crash gearbox first convinced him to enter the realm of manual motoring, and that a GT3 with an automatic will make him leave it. If that is so, well then, auf wiedersehen mein freund. 

 

Porsche, www.porsche.com

 

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