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We drive a 2020 Porsche 911 Carrera S: Does a stick shift make it better?

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Article and photos by Damon Lowney

Traditionally Porsche has always released a new 911 with a manual transmission — the automatic, if available, was always an option. When the 992 Carrera S was announced, the option to row your own was conspicuously missing, with only a mention of an eight-speed PDK automatic. Surely Porsche wouldn’t deprive its manual-crazed customers of their preferred transmission, would it? Fortunately, the automaker didn’t do such a thing and we ended up with the car you see here, a Carrera S with a seven-speed manual.

After lowering myself into the driver’s seat for the first time, I immediately adjust the seat to the perfect driving position. In other 992s we’ve driven recently, our right hand had no business using the tiny center-console gear selector after shifting into Drive, but the seven-speed manual is in the perfect spot on the rising center console, a short swipe away from the steering wheel. Ironically, moving the cupholder(s) from the dashboard on the passenger side, hardly an ideal place, to the center console behind the shifter make it a prime location for drinks to get knocked by one’s elbow when shifting. 

Hand on the shifter, there’s a hint of 944 as I jiggle it side to side and slot it into first gear; in other words, a barely noticeable rubbery-ness to the otherwise mechanically pleasing shift action that wasn’t apparent in previous Carreras, and definitely not in a GT3 (or my own 987, for that matter). Perhaps this is what happens when adapting a PDK transmission for manual duty. But I’m nitpicking here, because it felt equally good cracking off shifts at full throttle as it did when smoothing them out noodling around town. The car works with you on downshifts as well, with a sharp throttle and well-spaced pedals for heel-and-toe action. If you prefer, the car will even rev-match downshifts for you.

We received this Carrera S immediately after driving a Carrera 4S Cabriolet (with PDK) for a week, and the drop-top provided an interesting point of comparison, in large part because it had fewer performance-oriented options. The Cab had Sport Chrono and rear-wheel steering, but no sport exhaust or sport suspension. The PDK did its darndest to mimic a traditional automatic and succeeded. The coupe, however, came with all four of the aforementioned performance options. The moment we pulled out of the parking lot it was apparent that this Carrera S had an edgy character with stiffer suspension lowered 10 millimeters compared to a car without sport suspension — a relaxed cruiser it was not, relatively speaking. That was the C4S’s specialty.

In the several hours I drove the Carrera S, there was not much cruising as I became ever more addicted to perfecting full-throttle 1-2 shifts from stoplights as I headed to the nearest back road. Working the clutch and shifter in these instances proved them to be intuitive, with a short learning curve. The noises of the 443-horsepower twin-turbo flat six egged me on as well, though I wouldn’t call this engine musical in the vein of a GT3’s or one of Porsche’s smaller, naturally aspirated flat sixes of yore. Instead, what tingles the spine is the combination of the engine note, a gruff sound that grows to a staccato roar as revs rise — accentuated in this case by the sport exhaust — and all the hissing and whooshing of the turbocharging system. Even with just rear-wheel drive to handle the power and 390 pound-feet of torque, in a straight line on a dry day, you’d be hard-pressed to break traction. In the turns, it’s a different story.

Probing the limits on a 270° constant-radius onramp is where I learned that a rear-wheel drive 992 offers more adjustability than its all-wheel-drive siblings. A 992 Turbo S I recently drove on the same curl of pavement felt totally locked down in spite of having nearly 200 horsepower more. It tucked the nose off the throttle and gained speed without drama as I squeezed the throttle ever further, the all-wheel drive pulling the front end with no hint of understeer or oversteer. In the Carrera S, the nose was just as pointy off throttle, the rear a bit loose, but as I eased onto the gas and started to track out of the turn, there it was: gentle understeer. It gave me a feeling that the car wouldn’t do everything for me, unlike the Turbo S, which did everything with such precision that some of the fun was sapped away.

On a tight, local back road, the Carrera S was a blast to drive, with brakes that didn’t fade and neutral handling just under the limit. I kept the sport suspension in the softer setting to absorb impacts from manhole covers and heaves in the road, but really, I don’t see the need to use the harder setting on anything but the smoothest roads and race tracks.

Back in 2010 I drove a 911 Turbo for the first time, a brand-new 997 model with the PDK transmission. I feel that car and nearly every turbocharged Porsche 911 I’ve driven since are best at pointing and shooting down twisty roads, the wave of power shoving me in the back like a slingshot. Inviting the driver to explore nuanced handling characteristics has not been their forte — that’s what Porsche’s naturally aspirated models do best. But this Carrera allows one to bend it around a curve and then power on to the next one, the torque and power building as the turbos start dumping compressed air into combustions chambers, the revs climbing with just a hint of turbo lag. It’s a blend of modern Turbo and recently deceased naturally aspirated Carrera.

Additionally, 443 horsepower is more than enough to have fun, yet not so bonkers that more than a second and a half at full throttle could unquestionably land a driver in jail. It’s for this reason that the Carrera S is the sweet spot for enthusiasts in the 911 range, especially with a manual transmission.

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