BY ANDY ENRIGHT
It's a little odd to think that a good quantity of classic Porsches are soft tops whereas these days a 911 with a fabric roof is seen by some purists as decidedly infra dignitatem. Let the elitists mutter. Any 911 is enormous fun and the dynamic sacrifices made in bringing the Cabriolet models to market are a good deal smaller than many of the naysayers realise. Besides, anything that gets you a bit closer to that intoxicatingly breathy engine note has to be a good thing. Right?
Models Covered: (2 dr convertible 3.6, 3.8 petrol [Carrera, Carrera S, Carrera 4, Carrera 4S, Turbo])
It's easy to forget that Porsche has a long and illustrious history with topless cars but the 911 seems to have been unfairly exempted from that lineage. You'd have thought that a bloodline going back over quarter of a century would cut the 911 Cabriolet a little slack but there are still many who think a topless 911 is a 911 that's been butchered. Thing is, these folks tend not to have driven the latest 911 drop tops. In its current 997 guise, the Cabriolet models are simply excellent and lose vanishingly tiny quantities of dynamic purity to their hard top siblings. To put this car into perspective, we first need to wind the clock back to 1997 and the introduction of water rather than air cooling. The model that ushered this change in was the 996 generation (latter day Porsche models having a three number 'code' to denote their model type. For example an early Boxster is a 986, a late one a 987 in Porsche speak). The '996' marked a shift in Porsche's development of the 911 range. The 996 also did enormously well for Porsche and survived fully seven years before the model we examine here, the 997, was launched. Where the 996 was revolutionary, the 997 is more an evolutionary finessing of the 996 theme, tidying up the styling, imbuing the car with a higher quality, more technologically dense feel and adding even more exciting models to the mix. The Cabriolet models debuted in December 2004, with both two and four-wheel drive variants in both standard guise and more powerful S trim. A six speed manual gearbox was offered as standard with the later option of a Tiptronic S auto transmission. The range was augmented in summer 2007 with the addition of the Turbo Cabriolet. In mid-2008, Porsche announced a revised range featuring their new Direct Fuel Injection (DFI) engine. Buyers could also specify the revolutionary PDK semi-automatic gearbox, offering manual pleasure with automatic convenience. There were also a series of very subtle styling changes. These included larger rear view mirrors, newly-designed 18-inch and 19-inch wheels and new lights featuring LED technology.
What You Get
The 997 Cabriolet's hood system is a good deal slicker than the old 996 soft top, featuring as it does an improved folding mechanism. A button can open or close the roof in twenty seconds, the hood now folding into the roof compartment with the heated glass rear window facing upwards for added protection. One of the best parts about the hood is that it can be raised or lowered at speeds up to 31mph which means that should the traffic lights change while you're half way through raising or lowering, you won't need to wait with a queue of laughing/swearing drivers behind you. Improved guide ducts above the doors direct rainwater into a specially developed channel in the windscreen pillar and an improved wind deflector reduces buffeting in the cabin while cruising. In order to ensure torsional rigidity, soft-top conversions need a degree of additional reinforcement and this often adds to the weight to such a degree that performance is blunted. No such issues with the latest 911 Cabriolet. It tips the scales at a mere 85kg more than its hard top sibling. Even accounting for all the strengthening and electric motors for the roof, that's less than the weight of an average chap. 911 purists will be glad to see a return to the 993-style round headlamps, the so-called 'runny-egg' smeared on lamps of the 996 being consigned to history. The wheelarches are pumped up to accept the Carrera's 18-inch wheels and the 19-inch wheels of the Carrera S giving this 911 a voluptuous coke-bottle profile. The wheelbase of the car remains unchanged at 2350mm but it's slightly shorter and a few centimetres wider. The easiest way to tell the two models apart is that the Carrera has a pair of oval tailpipes whereas the S model sports a quad set of exhausts. That and the badge on the back.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
Porsche claims to have solved the cylinder liner problem that sporadically afflicted the 996 and has also made changes to the design of the big ends and Variocam system - other potential fault points. No significant faults have yet to develop with the 997 but it's worth seeking out a Porsche Approved car as even apparently trivial faults can be very expensive to rectify without warranty protection. The 19-inch alloys fitted to the 997 Carrera S are very prone to kerbing damage so check these over individually. Check the bodywork, especially the bonnet, as this can easily be damaged by owners slamming them onto protruding items in the front boot. 997s are very colour sensitive and white and black cars are currently in vogue with the ubiquitous silver now starting to fall from favour. The hood mechanisms tend to be a lot more reliable than rival folding hard top systems although it's worth checking for vandal damage or discolouration from bird lime which can affect darker hoods.
(Estimated prices, based on a 2005 Carrera S) Consumables for a 911 are almost laughably cheap. You'll pay £15 for an air filter, £4 for each spark plug, £10 for an oil filter, £16 for a alternator chain, and £15 for a fuel filter. Offset these costs by running any 911 exclusively on synthetic oil. Other parts are rather pricier. You'll need to put by £300 for a replacement tinted windscreen, £450 for a clutch kit and do try not to damage your xenon headlights as Porsche will charge you £556 each for replacements.
On the Road
Under that sleek bodywork comes a bigger, punchier engine than the 996 predecessor. It's still a flat six and it's still hung out at the back but Carrera 4 buyers will get a 321bhp 3.6-litre powerplant while Carrera 4S customers will be treated to a 350bhp 3.8-litre unit. It's a naming convention that mirrors the Boxster and Cayenne ranges and is easy to comprehend. All the cars feature a drag coefficient of just 0.29, ranking them at the top of their respective market segments. One feature unique to the Cabriolet is the rear spoiler that extends an additional 20 millimetres further than the Coupe's appendage. Porsche's aerodynamicists discovered that the Cabriolet's marginally different shape caused changes in the way it cleaved the air and made small adjustments to the front and rear downforce levels. Bar perhaps that intoxicatingly breathy engine note, Porsche steering and brakes do more than anything else to differentiate the marque in terms of sheer excellence. Down the years, 911s have always had a linear steering rack that delighted in the amount of feedback it supplied to the driver. The 997 departs from this system and adopts a variable ratio set-up that gets quicker the further the wheel is turned. Getting rid of the old 17-inch wheels also allows Porsche to fit bigger and better brakes to the 997. The S gets brakes similar to those fitted to the 996 Turbo and the truly well heeled can even opt for ceramic discs. The straight-line performance of the 997 Cabriolet is only a smidgeon off that of the Coupe. The top speeds of the Carrera and Carrera S Cabriolets are exactly the same as the Coupe variants at 177 and 182mph respectively. The Carrera will accelerate to 60mph in 5.2 seconds while the same benchmark will detain the Carrera S for just 4.9 seconds. There's very little penalty in terms of performance or fuel economy when you opt for the Carrera 4 or 4S four-wheel drive models. The Turbo is sickeningly rapid. Just 3.8 seconds is all that's required for the standard 0-60mph sprint and the Tiptronic auto version is even quicker, shaving a tenth off that time. Stopping the clock just 0.1 seconds later than the Coupe version the small penalty for a 70kg weight disadvantage. Overtaking? Well only 3.8 seconds are required for the most powerful series-built 911 model of all time to accelerate from 50-75mph in fifth gear.
The Porsche 997 Cabriolet is as good as open-topped sportsters get without blowing ridiculous money. Once the poor relation of the 911 range, anyone who knows their onions will be able to tell you that the modern 911 Cabriolet has really come into its own.