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Driving in the Porsche World Roadshow at Sonoma Raceway

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Article and photos by Tex Otto

Some days are just better than others, and the opportunity to drive new Porsches on a race track would rank pretty high on any car enthusiast’s list. The Porsche World Roadshow was on its last stop two weeks ago at Sonoma Raceway, after touring locations throughout the US since July. Located just north of San Francisco in wine country, the raceway’s challenging full road-course track and parking lot autocross provided a lot of insight into the driving potential of Porsche’s most popular models — and, of course, entertainment.

After an orientation meeting where we learned our well-qualified driving instructors are part of Porsche’s Sport Driving School, we were off. Each day, the roadshow attracts about 60 participants who compare the handling and performance of several variants in Porsche’s model lineup. We tackled the full road course in the Cayman S and GTS and the 911 Carrera S and GTS. Drives in the Panamera S and GTS were confined to the autocross course.

The autocross was an opportunity to experience the responsiveness of the four-door Panameras. We got two laps: an initial drive in the S as an orientation lap followed by a timed lap in a blue GTS. With instructors riding shotgun to aid in our navigation of the twisty cones, the lowest time would receive a prize. To save the course workers undue work, we were advised to not hit the cones — and that a puppy was underneath each one. (*No puppies were harmed or placed under cones at any Porsche World Roadshow.)

By the way it looks, the Panamera does not lend itself to a svelte, agile performer, but after a couple of laps around the cones, I think everyone was convinced that it drove much smaller than it looks. The GTS’ sport exhaust appropriately blatt and burbled its 440 horsepower off of the large grandstands, where NASCAR fans root for their favorite V8 sedans racing around one of few road courses in the series. Both Panameras were competent on the course, but the GTS felt more agile and responsive than the S when driven spiritedly.

To conclude the autocross portion, we got a hot lap with an instructor in the hot rod GTS. In the hands of a talented driver, the 4,250-pound-plus sedan dances through the tight course with utmost composure and very impressive handling. They’d sell a ton of them if that demonstration were on the dealer test drive.

We then headed over to the road course’s pit lane where a lineup of Caymans and 911s awaited. A lead-follow format allowed everyone to have a lap behind the wheel in each model. My buddy and I strategically selected the front-of-the-line Cayman S so our final — and we hoped most enthusiastic — drive would be in the final car: the 911 Carrera GTS.

After listening to safety precautions and donning a supplied helmet, we all got a lap behind the wheel and then switched to the next Porsche for another round. Walkie-talkies in each car allowed the lead instructor to communicate and inform us of the track line and other timely instructions.

Sonoma Raceway is such a fantastic road course, with dramatic elevation changes, blind corners, and technical details. Right after pulling out of the pits, you make an arching left turn to the first apex then sweep to the right for an uphill climb to Turn 2. Turns 3 and 3a are exciting as you can’t see how far to the left you can track out in anticipation for the next corner. With each succeeding lap and car, we were led at a quicker pace and had some very fun times. We got a taste of the track to whet our appetite for more.

With back-to-back comparisons, each model’s distinguishing nuances could be noted, such as how the Cayman S handles extremely well, but isn’t quite as crisp in responsiveness as the more sport-oriented GTS version. It’s the same story for the S and GTS Carreras. From the exhaust note to the tighter suspension to the lower stance — plus a few more horsepower — the GTS models look and feel sportier. But for those who desire more of a grand tourer, the more compliant S models might be the better choice for you. 

The most dramatic differences between the 911s and Caymans, as anticipated, were their handling characteristics. The preference of Cayman’s mid-engined balance vs. the 911’s rear-engined power was for everyone to decide from the perspective of a driver and passenger. Around this undulating road course, I preferred the more powerful 911 Carrera GTS and its ability to carry more speed between the corners.

The chance to drive them back-to-back offered a unique opportunity to experience them all without the pressure or obligation of a sales pitch. Plus not many dealerships have a two-mile test track behind the service department.

The grand finale was a full-course hot lap by the instructors in the 520-hp Panamera Turbo with launch control, adaptive air suspension, and ceramic composite brakes. Each of these features were fully exploited to the delight of a car full of giddy passengers and recorded by a 360° camera to relive on a screen.

So if the point of the Porsche World Roadshow is to get all types of drivers behind the wheel of their cars and think about Porsches with a smile on their face, I think they were successful on all accounts. 

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