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Porsche's Atlanta Experience Center reopens — find out what's changed as we compare Taycan Turbo, 911 Turbo

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Article by Tom Neel
Photos by Linda Neel

It’s May 19. I’ve just been told to turn left into the parking garage which sits below the headquarters of Porsche Cars North America (PCNA) and the Porsche Experience Center (PEC) in Atlanta, Georgia. In doing so, my wife Linda and I have our temperatures taken via forehead thermometer and are given masks. Failing this test would have had us immediately exiting the premises and that would have been that. Such is the new life we live while dealing with the covid-19 pandemic.

The virus has disrupted our lives, and as we come back to any level of normalcy it will dictate policies put in place to keep us all safe. PEC is no different, other than it is both overseen by decisions at the state Governor’s office and I suppose that of Germany’s as well. Which by the way has received some worldwide praise for its handling of covid-19.

Since Werks Reunion Amelia Island back in early March, which was held just before most states started issuing stay-at-home orders, businesses including PCNA, PEC, Porsche AG, and PCA headquarters have all closed their doors. Porsche dealerships had brought their operations to all but a trickle. This was new territory, just as hitting the reset button is today. But bringing life back slowly is inevitable, and as one who has a lot of experience with this Experience Center, I extended an offer to be the first out when its doors opened back up to the public. The PEC staff knows me well, and because they were implementing new procedures for the first time on May 19, I thought I might be a good candidate to offer feedback. You see, in the past, the PEC coaches have always accompanied their guests and taught from the passenger seat. Now coaches are adopting the lead-follow program long used at the Porsche Track Experience Birmingham, at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama, in which coaches will now drive an identical Porsche in front of students, instructing via radio.

Above, from left: PCNA President and CEO Klaus Zellmer, author Tom Neel and his wife Linda.

Having been coached both ways I can share that there are obvious differences, yet one is not better than the other. They both offer an exciting way to experience a Porsche. New procedures are often this way. Not bad, just different — a fresh invitation to learn new things. This is certainly the case here.

Porsche Cars North America President and CEO Klaus Zellmer was kind enough to stop by and say hello. He shared this was his first time back in ten weeks as he too stayed at home during this time. “We are family — always proud to personally meet Porsche fans and friends. This time it was even more special as Linda and you were the first customers at our Porsche Experience Center ATL after our shut-down due to Covid-19,” he said. Thank you, Klaus, it was our pleasure!

The Porsches de jour of our travels will be the 991.2 version of the 911 Turbo — the 992-generation Turbo is yet to arrive — versus the Taycan Turbo. My extensive experience driving Porsche models here gave me a solid baseline to compare the automaker's flagship sports car, the 911 Turbo, against its first electric vehicle, the Taycan Turbo, which I have driven on the street. 

First let’s get the official specifications out of the way. 911 Turbo: 3,516 pounds, 540 horsepower, 0-60 miles per hour in 2.9 seconds. Taycan Turbo: 5,132 pounds, 616 horsepower (or 670 hp strictly during launch control), 0-60 mph in 3.0 seconds. But I’m not one to care much about the specs; as you can see, despite these cars’ vast differences, their on-paper performances are pretty close. I’m much more of a feel fanatic — trust me: the Taycan's 1,620-pound-heavier weight is not an issue when tossed around a track!

Above: The coach gives instructions outside the car in the prep area.

Brian Cunningham, PEC’s Chief Instructor since its inception more than five years ago, was my instructor for the day. Keeping a safe distance and muffling through our masks, we converse as to how our time together will go. Soon after, we hop into two 911 Turbos, he in red and me in white, and head out onto an empty PEC 1.6-mile circuit. His radio communication is steady and constant as we build speed. I am not keeping my distance, as he has asked me to remain glued to his tail. Because of the yardages of looming Armco barriers that tightly surround the perimeter of the track, it’s more like the Monaco GP course than the country road it was intended to mimic. But I remain in tow while also keeping my eyes up well past him. Let’s just say, chasing is easy, but braking requires focus. The test facility PEC Atlanta is not designed to exploit top speeds. Rather it is a place to understand the full footing of all Porsche models. While surpassing 100 mph is possible, most who visit here will not achieve this. Not that it’s needed to truly have a much better understanding of Porsche and its cars.

Above: New lead-follow instruction at the Porsche Experience Center.

As with all current 911s, the last-gen Turbo is refined to the point of feeling nowhere near close to a decade old. This session will refamiliarize me with the old Turbo so I have point of comparison when I drive the new 911 Turbo. It will also give me a clear-as-day impression of driving an internal combustion engine (ICE) Porsche immediately before hopping into the electric Taycan. For this the 911 performs admirably, warms the ear with engine sounds, and offers me a good mental place to draw from moving forward. The engine makes its biggest impressions in the slalom, where throttle is constantly modulated, and standing starts, when the flat six is zinging off its rev limiter, the car trying to find grip through its Keds. It is a beautiful thing to feel.

Above: On the test track, lead-follow exercises are the new normal. In one of the PEC's many modules, such as the skid pad above, coaches observe from afar.

This brings me to the Taycan Turbo. I must say that past both having four wheels, four seats, all-wheel drive, rear-wheel steering, and somewhat limited trunk space, I feel a direct comparison does an injustice to the Taycan. This is where I part ways with other things you may have read about this car. Too often the Taycan is compared as a choice against something else, instead of choosing it along with something else. A Porschephile point I’ll close with in a moment. 

After the 911 Turbo session ended and a short break, Brian and I head out in two all black Taycans, and I feel as though I’m part of some futuristic Secret Service Detail on the way to something very important. Just leaving the parking area feels unfamiliar. No engine barks to life. All is quiet in here. The Taycan’s brow-less instrument panel feels both familiar and fresh. Engaging drive is the one tiny thing I will criticize, as the small toggle switch sits out of sight behind the right side of the steering wheel and requires a hunt.

Having driven a Taycan Turbo S on the street, I found I really didn’t get it as much as I did here at speed. You may not think it, but you lose some of the benefits of its outstanding abilities if you don’t drive the Taycan differently than any of its ICE counterparts. On track in Normal Mode, the Taycan glides along. You feel a bit of body roll, but the low center of gravity and EV powertrain make it drive unlike any normal car with a soft set-up. Click its steering wheel mounted dial into Sport and the roll dissipates thanks to stiffened shocks and active anti-roll bars. The chassis becomes more direct as do the motors’ responsiveness. As speed rises, switching to Sport Plus firms things up even more, making it possible to feel and hear some front end push in technical, quick changes of direction. It’s all predictable and fun and unnoticeable in fast sweepers, where the Taycan’s grounded weight feels unique. A satisfying, yet artificial sound also kicks in, adding to the sonic blur you are now experiencing. On the street I didn’t care so much for it, but here it is purposeful.

Brake feel is unique, as well, and therefore new Taycan drivers may need to adjust their braking technique. Some may complain about the brakes not feeling progressive. True, you do push through the pedal more than with normal brakes, but it's not actually the brake calipers and rotors that slow the Taycan most of the time. Instead the electric motors are the main source of deceleration. After I complimented the brakes and their superb ability to be feathered, especially during trail-braking, Brian shared that the motors do about 80% of braking, with the huge calipers clamping down on the rotors only during hard braking maneuvers. Think of it as a form of engine braking working individually at each axle. As a competent left-foot-braker I can see an enjoyment advantage of the Taycan’s sophisticated braking system. Those who come off the throttle and brake with their right foot may find themselves pushing through the top third of the pedal’s travel, losing a sense of immediacy electric cars are known for. I can assure you, things are happening, just differently.

Just as the brakes are unique, so is that instant torque. Mashing the throttle is a useful smile inducer. The worst kind of throttle for me is one that behaves like an on-off switch, and this is certainly not that. Instead it reads and delivers your input perfectly. But your input requires a more finessed approach than that of any ICE propelled car. Just as turbos have characteristic lag elements, any ICE engine will feel as if it has lag by comparison to the Taycan’s enthusiastic throttle. On tracks or roads where inclines come into play, the Taycan’s chew becomes a bite! There is no come on baby let’s get up and go. It’s just gone. The Taycan’s ability to rapidly gather up and dispense with a few hundred feet of asphalt is mind boggling. Because of this and its brakes, to reap its rewards is to drive it differently than anything with a firing order. As Brian puts it, the Taycan (on track) likes you to be using one pedal or the other all the time.

This brings me to the obvious. The ever-talked-about launch control. The 911 Turbo and Taycan Turbo are both blistering quick on take-offs. Both easily sit in that sub-3.0-second category, according to independent magazine tests, a sensation that makes you feel like a grounded astronaut en route. But here folks is the difference between the two. While the 911 is trying to find traction, build torque and horsepower, it is relatively slow compared to the manic, instantaneous nature of the Taycan, which makes all of its power and torque right now! Even if they hit 60 mph at the same time, the Taycan is going more quickly for the first three car lengths or so. It’s also moving close to a ton more weight. The affect is feeling the 911’s launch through the seat of your pants versus the Taycan gripping your core as your brain bounces off the back of your skull. The two just could not be more different in the way they accelerate. 

After a short feedback session, Brian and I say goodbye until next time. As always, I leave PEC with a smile, but perhaps this time more so than others. I’m feeling some sense of normalcy within the setting of my experience and it feels good. Covid-19 has challenged our lives in so many ways. But as the world and our country take each step towards reopening, it’s nice to know that the good people at PEC have done so thoughtfully while offering you the exciting experience your visit deserves.

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