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Ten important Porsche-related developments of the 2010s

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Article by Damon Lowney
Photos courtesy Porsche

Porsche entered new territory this past decade: It added two sedans — one electric — and a second SUV to its model lineup; won the World Endurance Championship and the 24 Hours of Le Mans three times in a row; was, for the first time since its founding, not an independent company; and much more. Read on to find out what we think are some of the most significant Porsche-related developments of the 2010s and why.


Porsche starts VW Group era

2012 was Porsche AG’s most consequential year in the past decade — arguably the past two decades — as it went from independent luxury vehicle powerhouse poised take over Volkswagen to luxury vehicle powerhouse owned by VW outright. VW bought 49.9% of Porsche in 2008, after Porsche racked up billions of dollars in debt after its failed takeover attempt of VW, and the remaining 50.1% of Porsche AG in mid 2012. Volkswagen Group added the Stuttgart-based automaker into the fold, joining Audi, Lamborghini, and Bentley, and it remained to be seen whether this would be good or bad for Porsche.

After eight years under VW’s stewardship, Porsche has done extremely well. It has benefitted from having access to other VW Group platforms for vehicles such as the best-selling Macan SUV (underpinned by the Audi Q5 chassis) and has contributed its own expertise with the likes of the MSB platform it developed for the second-generation Panamera sedan, which also is the basis for the Bentley Continental GT. The twin-turbo V8 Porsche developed for the Panamera Turbo is used in various high-end Bentleys and Audis, and the experience Porsche gained from its 919 Hybrid prototype race car program and the recently released Taycan EV will no doubt trickle down to other marques within VW as well as other Porsches. The economies of scale afforded by having a parent company such as VW no doubt helped Porsche thrive in the 2010s.

Sure, there have been hiccups in the past ten years, such as the short-sighted removal of a manual transmission option for the 911 GT3 and slow sales of Porsche’s entry level, mid-engined Boxster/Cayman sports cars, in part due to the switch from flat six to flat four. Yet Porsche has reported consistent growth every single year since 2010 and ended the decade with its best year ever. Along the way the company has brought to market sports car gems such as the 997 GT3 RS 4.0, 997 GT2 RS, a new generation of 911 (991), which itself saw the 991 GT2 RS; 991 GT3s (the most recent of which could be ordered with a manual transmission), a new 911 Speedster, and more, in part bankrolled by mass-market vehicles such as the Macan and Cayenne SUVs.


GT3 R Hybrid and Boxster E

Dr. Ferdinand Porsche’s first vehicle was electric, but other than that oddity and its gasoline-hybrid variation, for the rest of the 20th century all vehicles developed by the engineer or that bore his name solely used internal combustion engines that ran on gasoline or diesel. The company built its reputation on horizontally opposed air-cooled engines, starting with the Volkswagen-derived flat four in the 356 and then the bespoke flat six in the 1964 911. The air-cooled flat six stayed in production through the 1998 model year, after which Porsche came out with a new design that used coolant. It was quieter, more refined, more fuel efficient, and slightly more powerful than the last naturally aspirated air-cooled flat six, yet the engine lost much of the character so endeared by Porsche cognoscenti. Fortunately, the water-cooled flat six became more or less accepted over the years.

And then, after dabbling in hybridization in the late 2000s, and not long after the 918 concept was unveiled, Porsche started its current transformation from a brand focused on internal combustion to electrification. The automaker started testing a small fleet of electric Boxsters as well as a hybrid GT3 R race car. The Boxster E, as it was called, was Porsche’s first public attempt to understand the pros and cons of electric vehicles (EVs) as well as how they might fit into contemporary infrastructure and use scenarios. One version of the Boxster E had two electric motors, one on each axle, that made the two-seat roadster all-wheel drive, while another had rear-wheel drive with one electric motor. Both used a lithium-iron-phosphate battery mounted where the flat six previously was. The AWD model made 241 horsepower and 398 pound-feet of torque, while the RWD car made 121 hp and 199 lb-ft, though the range of 107 miles would have been unacceptable for a production car. Porsche had to start somewhere.

The GT3 R Hybrid race car was another curious contraption, not because it was a hybrid but due to how its hybrid drive system worked. Instead of using a battery, it had a flywheel to store energy and power the two front electric motors. The flywheel was housed in a carbon-fiber box right next to the driver and spun up to 40,000 (!) rpm when storing energy. When the driver hit the brakes, the two electric motors used regenerative braking to spin up the flywheel. The driver could then call up the two 80-horsepower electric motors for 6-8 seconds of boost, which supplemented the 480-hp flat six. The GT3 R Hybrid competed in several races around the world in 2011 before it was retired — as well as the flywheel hybrid system. Just a few short years later, Porsche started racing its 919 Hybrid prototype, which used a similar boost strategy with a more conventional lithium-ion battery.


Classic Porsche values skyrocket

In 2010 I could find plenty of air-cooled 911s — mid-years to 911 SCs to Carreras to 964s — for $20,000 or less, and in retrospect I wish I had purchased one when I had the chance. By 2013, it was tough to find any air-cooled 911s for less than $20,000 and I was priced out of the market, possibly for good. The peak of the air-cooled 911 market in 2015-2016 saw some of the earliest 911s easily selling north of $100,000. The rise in air-cooled 911 prices also increased the value of other models, as well, such as the four-cylinder 912 and 914, and even the front-engined Porsches (924/928/944/968) recently have been trading hands at prices that make water-cooled 911s, Boxsters, and Caymans from the mid-2000s look like great deals. A $15,000 944 Turbo in 2010 is closer to $30,000 now, and most air-cooled 911s in decent condition trade north of $30,000 today even though the market has cooled a bit. A 2007 Cayman, though? Well, my recent purchase of one in good condition with 50,000 miles was a bit less than $15,000.


918 Spyder

The 2004-2006 Carrera GT supercar, with its race-derived 617-horsepower V10 and carbon-fiber monocoque, may be one of the best-loved Porsche supercars of all time, a pure, analog driving experience, but it was not as significant from a technological standpoint as the 918 Spyder that followed it 10 years later. 

Unlike the CGT, the 918 demonstrated loads of technology that is still trickling down to more plebian Porsche road cars today, such as its heavy use of touch screens and digital displays, rear-wheel steering, battery and electric motor tech, electric boost strategy, and more. One crucial thing it did have in common with the CGT was a motorsport-derived naturally aspirated engine, a 4.6-liter V8 that made 608 horsepower. Combined with two electric motors, one with 156 hp slotted between the engine and transmission, the other with 129 hp powering the front wheels, the 918 had a max output of 887 hp.

Though Ferrari’s LaFerrari and McLaren’s P1 supercars were direct competitors to the 918, their hybrid systems were not as robust, and the LaFerrari’s didn’t even allow electric-only mode — the electric motors in those cars were there to boost performance, not increase efficiency. The 918 could act like your parents’ Toyota Prius if needed, and then on the same day be capable of blasting around a track. With the 918, Porsche proved hybrids can be extremely fast yet also efficient, going a long way to change traditional enthusiasts’ perception of electrified performance.


919 Hybrid wins the World Endurance Championship and Le Mans three times in a row

Around the same time the 918 Spyder was released, Porsche had another hybrid that would add several endurance racing championships to its score card: the 919 Hybrid prototype race car. With a turbocharged V4 driving the rear wheels and an electric motor driving the fronts, the 919 was an impressive LMP1-class debut for the 2014 World Endurance Championship. The 919 won the 2015-2017 championships, as well as the 24 Hours of Le Mans three times during that period. The 919 cemented Porsche’s place in motorsport history with the most overall wins at Le Mans.


Macan

When talking about the most significant developments at Porsche in the past 10 years, the Macan compact SUV must be mentioned. When it was introduced, it was the first Porsche to use a platform plucked out of the VW Group bin. The basis for the Macan is the Audi Q5, though Porsche made fairly major changes to ensure it outperformed the Audi and felt like a true Porsche, including staggering wheel width and giving the V6 models Porsche-designed engines. By all accounts, the Macan has been a success. It has remained the least-expensive as well as the best-selling Porsche since it was introduced in 2014 and is the type of vehicle that allows Porsche to dedicate money, research, and development to which it’s known best: sports cars.


All Porsches are now turbocharged except GT and “lifestyle” cars

Starting with the 2017 model year, Porsche needed to make the company’s whole lineup more powerful without sacrificing efficiency, so it replaced the naturally aspirated flat sixes found in the 911 Carrera and Boxster and Cayman with turbocharged mills. (The Cayenne, Macan, and Panamera already used turbocharged engines across the board.) The Carrera received a 3.0-liter twin-turbo flat six, while the Boxster and Cayman both received 2.0- and 2.5-liter turbocharged flat fours (and the 718 prefix, though the internal model designation is 982). It was controversial for Porsche to make this change to its sports cars because turbocharged engines are quieter and tend to not be as musical as their naturally aspirated counterparts, and in the case of the Cayman and Boxster, losing two cylinders in addition to turbocharging really changed the engine note — and not for the better in the eyes of many. Ironically, the top 911 was still called the 911 Turbo. On the plus side, Porsche’s latest turbocharged motors have gobs of low- and mid-range torque without 1980s levels of turbo lag. Of course, Porsche knows that its customers and fans have a love affair with naturally aspirated flat sixes, so it continues to make them for its GT line of cars as well as what Porsche is calling lifestyle cars, such as the 911 Speedster and the 718 Spyder.


Lifestyle Porsches

The 2010s was a decade of great experimentation at Porsche. It took away most of our naturally aspirated motors, absurdly offered the enthusiast-aimed GT3 without a manual transmission by arguing an automatic transmission is faster around a track, then gave us the manual-only limited-edition 911R; introduced the Cayman GT4 and two generations of Boxster Spyder (with a third Spyder coming in early 2020), and even produced its first fully electric car. A lot of change happened as the company tried to adapt to strict emissions regulations, which favored more efficient turbocharged engines and automatic transmissions, and in some cases fewer cylinders. As Porsche adapted, its dedication to enthusiasts who care for nothing more than a high-strung naturally aspirated flat six paired with a manual transmission seemed to waver. But after outcry about the automatic-only GT3, and likely in part due to the warm reception of the manual-only 911R, Porsche realized that many of its customers don’t care about setting the fastest lap time at a track day, they want to be involved in the drive to enjoy it. So Porsche brought back the manual transmission for the GT3 and even offered a Touring package that removed the fixed rear wing. More recently it sold the 911 Speedster paired with a manual and a 4.0-liter flat six, the first of what will be many “lifestyle” cars after Porsche made the announcement. Expect many more lifestyle cars in the years to come.


Taycan

Porsche’s first fully electric vehicle, the Taycan, is the biggest gamechanger at Porsche since the introduction of the 911 in 1964. Over the years the automaker has developed a reputation for building sports cars that reward drivers by engaging the senses. Many Porsche enthusiasts savor the sound of an engine and prefer to work three pedals and a gear lever. With no engine and just two pedals, the Taycan on paper sounds exactly the opposite of what enthusiasts have traditionally loved about Porsches. Making it was a risk the automaker had to take, as electric vehicles are the future of the auto industry as it grapples with emissions regulations and climate change. Fortunately, people who’ve driven the Taycan, including Porsche Panorama Editor Rob Sass, think it’s quite fun to drive, if not in the same way a GT3 is. And it’s fast, just as a Porsche should be.


China became Porsche's highest-volume market

In 2015, China usurped the US to become Porsche's largest single market. This means that Porsche will continue to pay more attention to the wants and needs of the Chinese market because that's where the money is, and that market, in turn, will have increasing influence with the automaker. It's interesting to note that Porsche's sedans and SUVs are more popular there than the sports cars, and electric vehicles are also more widely accepted.

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