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NEW CAR REVIEW
Porsche Carrera 4, with proper tires, is the slickest SUV
  By John Gilbert, special to SNS Interactive

DULUTH, Minn. (SNS) – Four-wheel-drive is an impressive feature, even though sport-utility vehicles have faded in the face of $3 per gallon gasoline, and safety data regarding top-heavy and unwieldy handling vehicles.

But the ability to have all four wheels pulling you through foul weather is an unequivocal asset, whether for getting to work, to the Mall, to the hockey game, or on any other appointed rounds in the Upper Midwest, where – no matter what lifestyle options may be – winter is standard equipment

Isn’t there any alternative, something that could hit the highs without the lows, and soothe your midlife crisis blues at the same time? OK, it’s a loaded question, because the answer is sitting right here before us.

It’s a Porsche Carrera 4.

Call it the "Anti-SUV." A Carrera 4 means never having to think about top-heavy or unwieldy handling, and all-wheel drive gives it a distinct head start against the slipperiest of winter storms.

The Carrera is what we all used to call a 911, and 911 is still its official name. It’s that little, low-slung, teardrop-shaped bullet that is the closest thing in the automotive industry to being a real race car built to drive on the streets and highways of real life. It looks great, even if it doesn’t look much different from the 911 of another era, almost another lifetime.

At a glance, you could park any vintage Porsche 911 – say, a well-maintained 1975 model – across the street from a brand new 2006 Carrera, and many passers-by would think both of them are the new model.

Just like the old days, the new Carrera is absolutely uncompromising when it comes to driving performance, which includes handling and durability as well as top speed and acceleration.

Grudgingly, there are cupholders in the new car, but you don’t see fancy frills in place of pragmatic, hard-core driving assets. Gauges are big and bold, white on black, with a large tachometer dominant and the 200-mph speedometer smaller and over to the left. The tach is what matters, because if you go too fast you get a ticket, but if you over-rev the engine, dumbkopf, you could ruin it.

Porsches are costly, because such performance capabilities are expensive. A car like the yellow Carrera 4 I test drove for a week has a base price of $77,100, and you can add options to that, such as bi-Xenon headlights, that light up the road but have a sharp cutoff to keep the light low on the roadway.

Porsche buyers are about as uncompromising as the cars themselves, and so is the car’s performance.

Turn the key and the engine, a flat-opposed six-cylinder with 3.6 liters of displacement, doesn’t just murmur to life, it snarls – sort of what it must be like to awaken a slumbering bobcat.

Crack the throttle, and the snarling instantly transforms to a higher pitch, but it’s still a snarl. Provoke it with the gas pedal, and it snarls, but if you provoke it without care, it could turn on you with a sudden viciousness.

 

Seats are firmly bolstered and designed to cling to your body no matter how hard you push the Carrera 4 around the tightest turn. The shifter fits your hand, for short-throw gear changes that put you in charge of 325 horsepower, distributing that power through six gears with the deft moves of an orchestra-leader.

From the driver’s seat, you look down the steeply sloping nose and you see highway, and if you look straight ahead, you see the horizon. It is a horizon that both beckons more, and arrives sooner, than when you are behind the wheel of an ordinary car. The 325 horses peak at 6,800 RPMs, and 273 foot-pounds of torque reach their maximum at 4,250. Tests have shown 0-60 runs at between 4.5 and 4.8 seconds, with a top speed of about 175 miles per hour. See how long your horizon stays away at those speeds!

Porsches always have been about much more than speed, of course. The Porsche prototypes that used to dominate at places like LeMans run at top speeds of something beyond 200 mph, and they’d do it for hours on end at the 24-hour endurance classic.

As a small performance-oriented sports-car company in Germany, Porsche has always built fantastic race engines, and they always have either put those engines to work in production cars, or let the same technology trickle down to smaller production engines. In all-out racing, cars must go fast, but they must go fast for long stretches, and they also must be durable and fuel-efficient.

As the Carrera has evolved, so has Porsche, adding a lower-priced alternative, called the Boxster, and it came out with an SUV, called the Cayenne. If it seems out of character for the world’s most impressive sports car company to build an SUV, the Cayenne is an impressive performer as well, and it is a popular, high-profit vehicle that allows Porsche to make enough money to keep building fantastic sports cars.

There are more powerful Porsches than the Carrera, such as the turbocharged version, and the new exorbitantly priced Porsche GT, and all 911s or Carreras share the familiar rear-engine, rear-wheel drive attitude that made Porsche famous. But the mainstream vehicle in the line is the Carrera.

  Porsche lovers, of course, notice quickly whether the little script name plate on the rear flank says "Carrera" or "Carrera 4" – and it is the Carrera 4 that is my recommended solution for midlilfe crises, having a chunk of disposable income, or having a friendly banker with a liberal liking for your spending intentions.

Because the Porsche Carrera 4 is an all-wheel-drive Porsche, meaning all four wheels whirl into action whenever you move it.

That should mean improved traction in Great White North wintertime, but the low-profile and high-performance tires that come mounted on those big alloy wheels look better suited for wet or dry pavement than for ice and snow.

That was where my biggest surprise came. I was in Minneapolis when a couple of inches of snow hit. Gingerly, I crept onto a residential side street and feathered the throttle, and the Carrera 4 stuck very well. Surprisingly well. So surprising that my son, Jack, got out and looked closely. To our amazement, those thin little bands of rubber wrapped around those huge 18-inch wheels, which were 8 inches wide up front and 11 inches wide at the rear, were Nokian WR tires.

As a long-time advocate of the Finnish Nokian tires, because they are constructed of a tread compound that stick like glue, and maintains its flexibility in the cold – to also stick almost like glue in freezing weather – I was both surprised and impressed. Forget the gingerly driving, I went back at it with nice-weather verve, and found the Carrera 4 churned through any amount of snow, handled well on varying degrees of iciness, and turned the dry-weather demon of a car into a foul-weather pleasure to drive.

Later in the week I drove the car up I35 to Duluth and the North Shore of Lake Superior, where the beast was right at home in the mid-January chill.

Normal high-performance tires would spin wildly on ice, but the Nokians give even the snarling Porsche Carrera 4 the best of SUV-like tendencies. There are some other good all-season/winter tires out now.

I recently was impressed with a set of Michelin Pilot all-season tires, in stark contrast to the regular high-performance Pilots, which are only worth using in winter if you have them siped. But if the premier winter/all-season tires are still the Finnish-made Nokians, I had never seen a factory car with Nokians mounted, which tells more about Porsche’s great attention to detail.

The latest Carrera restyling is subtle, but effective. The flared rear fenders are flared 1.73 inches more than its predecessor, allowing those wider, 18 by 11 inch rear wheels and tires to fit handsomely.

With an overall length of 175.63 inches, on a 92.52-inch wheelbase, the 3,157-pound Carrera 4 carries a wind-cheating 0.30 coefficient of drag. Fuel economy is 18/26 by EPA estimate for city/highway driving, and I got 23 miles per gallon on a combined city and freeway tankful.

Automatic Slip Regulation (ASR) joins Porsche’s Stability Management system to keep you headed the right direction, and the MacPherson strut front suspension and multilink rear, with their springs and stabilizer bars, give the Carrera 4 its legendary flat-attitude handling, even if you exercise the razor-sharp steering.

If there is a drawback to a Carrera 4, it is the cruel joke of a rear seat, which is only good for the tiniest of occupants, and the luggage space. However, the luggage space is larger than anticipated, because, of course, it is not in the rear, where the engine is mounted, but under the front bonnet, where a deceptively deep cubicle can take a couple of decent size suitcases.

Ordinarily, I would say that foul-weather grip might be another weakness, but the Nokian WRs took care of that.

So the only drawback to winter driving is the morality of allowing such a beautiful car to become covered with the glop of salty residue slush and snow that are prevalent in winter.

But if you can afford a Carrera, it might be a greater crime to leave it parked during the winter months.

Now you don’t need to worry about that.

And besides, car-wash owners also have to make a living.

 

 

 

Editor's note: John Gilbert writes weekly auto reviews. He can be reached at cars@jwgilbert.com.