Joy Luck Club [COTY2016] : Porsche 911 R Driven [review]

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Admission to the 911 R Club is by invitation only, and we’re glad to have scored a visitor’s pass for a day in our 2016 Cars of the Year feature

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If the ‘type 991’ 911 R is anything to go by, Porsche demonstrates it still has a finger on the pulse of what’s-hot. When you need to pander to the masses, the usual problem is brand or model dilution – if you don’t believe us, have a look around and compare the current iconic models of some brands against their predecessors and tell me they’ve stayed true to their roots.

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Porsche though, has so far been able to side-step this issue rather gracefully, because we can’t think of many brands that continue to maintain a model line-up in terms of both genre and depth, with a range that caters to the casual enthusiast and die-hard purist, as well as everyone else in-between. This means they have ‘limited editions’ to cater to different spectrums of its ownership demographic, with colour/equipment/trim specials at the one end, and the mythical road-legal unicorns at the top end, like the 911 R for instance.

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In recent times, from the 997 Sport Classic and Speedster to the GT3 RS 4.0 and now the 991 R, Porsche ‘special editions’ have proven to be something everybody wants to buy into, the chief reason being: Porsche still knows what it takes and how to snare the hearts of its core inner-circle cool kid collector/buyers, which then sets off a chain-reaction of desirability in the eco-system that trickles down to even the casual enthusiast Porsche owners and aspirants. Sure, the ‘practical’ models like the Macan, Cayenne and Panamera see the most volume shifted, but it is such Porsche Motorsport-fettled limited edition 911s like the 991 R or 997 RS 4.0 that ensure the brand retains its cool cachet.

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To our knowledge, out of the 991 units global tally for the 911 R, there are four in Singapore, with three road-registered at time of writing: two whites and a black, which is a special order colour. As a side-note, the standard colours for the 911 R are White and GT Silver, offered with Red or Green racing stripes, or none at all. As you can imagine, it’s not quite as rare as the 997 RS 4.0, but the R has nevertheless evoked plenty of buzz on the Internet, thanks to Porsche’s healthy social media engagements. The ‘911 R’ takes its moniker from the 1967 original that was used in rallying – in case you’re wondering, Porsche tells us the ‘R’ stands for Racing.

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As we would discover during the drive, the 911 R doesn’t only draw inspiration from its predecessor with its whimsical nostalgic styling and trim aesthetics, it is also imbibed with the sound and soulful driving feel that are reminiscent of older, air-cooled cars, which were a real joy to drive – if you’re looking for something angry-sounding and shouty, with an unyielding ride quality that many continue to mistakenly feel is necessary for sporty handling, then you might not appreciate something as holistic as the R. The R is one of those sartorial choices that will be recognised and appreciated only by the cognoscenti; non-believers will just think it’s a run-of-mill 911 with big red stripes…

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Despite its lofty perch in the current GT-model hierarchy (a moot point considering all 991 units are sold-out), it’s not about fast-faster-fastest or loud-louder-loudest, which is also why the R appeals to a small select few – some have had a long history with the brand since the air-cooled era, while others appreciate the discreet styling cues mated to a sublime back-to-basics driving package. In any case, even Porsche makes it very clear that the R isn’t about chasing the fastest lap times, but about the unadulterated thrill of driving. Unlike what some people think, the R is not just a GT3 with a RS engine sans wing; Porsche has taken all the ingredients and mixed it up to create a completely different package that is no less rewarding to drive than the other two.

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And what’s a special edition without bespoke trick parts? The GT3’s rear is as wide as things get, and there’s no fixed big-wing or racy looking addenda, just a purity of design and driven driving focus. Like the 997 Sport Classic, the 911 R indulges our nostalgic whimsy as we settle into the carbonfibre sports seats that feature a blend of houndstooth fabric and leather. For the added retro air, the numerals on the instruments and Sport Chrono stopwatch are finished in green. Elsewhere in the cabin are lashings of carbonfibre trim, which even extends to the gearknob.

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The weight-loss regime is pronounced but doesn’t border on the anorexic, since the R isn’t really intended to be a stripped-out racer (even if it is 50kg lighter than the 991.1 RS), but a driving instrument of intense pleasure. Front fenders and the luggage cover ‘bonnet’ are made of carbonfibre and the roof, magnesium, which also helps to lower the car’s centre of gravity; elsewhere, the rear side windows and rear windscreen are made of polycarbonate. The titanium exhaust has also been tuned to deliver a more natural, organic sound that makes the 991 RS sound like a raging beast, which almost brings to mind the iconic ‘Mezger’ motorsports engines found in the earlier RSes.

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The R starts-up with a sharp bark that quickly settles into a dulcet thrum. Compared to the notchy shifts on the 997 GT models, the R’s shifts are well-weighted and slick, with throws that are short and oh-so-right positive as you slide the shifter into position. In fact, the clutch pedal action is natural and not overly stiff, so the R can be daily-driven and isn’t a beast to manhandle around town either.

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You very quickly get into the R’s groove and it fits like a second skin, if only for a day. From power delivery to steering input, everything is natural and fluid; the R’s holistic package is almost Zen-like in execution and you never feel like you need to mentally and physically wrestle with the car to make meaningful progress.

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Compared to the cross-fit, mosh-pit mayhem that is flogging the 991 RS hard, the R is like a graceful ballerina as it piques and pirouettes into the corners of your favourite winding roads. And that’s as apt a description of the R as any, because like the lithe and beautiful ballerinas, the R may look pretty on the surface, but under its skin are strong muscles, powerful sinews and most importantly, an indomitable will in the tireless quest for a perfect performance.

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If the soundtrack of the RS is an intense mechanical cacophony of gnashing and grinding of teeth, the R is a melodic balm to soothe one’s jangled nerves – we wouldn’t go so far as to say it sounds like an air-cooled, but the R’s exhaust tuning comes very close to reimagining the song of its forefathers. The level of connection between the car, the driver and the road is extremely intimate; this isn’t some high-school casual hook-up fumble, so the room light is always on and there are no secrets from one another or awkward rustling-about in the dark.

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The Rear Axle Steer system that is standard on the 991 Turbo S and GT models is also present on the R, and allows for even more incisive cuts into the apex, since the system really helps the car turn-in without having to unsettle the car into a corner as you would on earlier 911s. There’s a lovely, almost dainty balance to the car that can be as playful and frisky as you like, with plenty of mechanical grip and a rather progressive rotation characteristics. However, what’s most poignant to the fans is how the R’s fun can be enjoyed at relatively lower speeds unlike the b@lls-out, heart-in-mouth thrills of the RS.

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Our day’s pass with the 911 R gave us a small peek into life with the car, but this was only the tiny tip of a very large iceberg. It was with some bitter-sweet regret that we handed back the key, because it isn’t often that you come into contact with such a mythical beast, much less drive it, and it only served to reinforce the point that Porsche is not just capable of creating some of the fastest and gnarliest A-to-B ‘racecars-for-the-road’, it also knows when and how to combine the best of both the old and the new for a heartwarming joy-of-machine driving experience. PHOTOS: ZOTIQ VISUALS

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('Porsche' bonnet emblem is a sticker to save weight! Now that's attention to detail...)

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Porsche 911 R
Engine: 3996cc, flat6
Power/rpm: 500bhp/8250rpm
Torque/rpm: 460Nm/6250rpm
Transmission: 6spd manual
0-100km/h: 3.8secs
Top speed: 323km/h
Fuel consumption: 13.3l/100km
CO2: 308g/km

This feature was first published in TopGear Singapore #59 (Feb'17)

David Khoo
Author: David Khoo
David is a big petrolhead who has been dabbling in the car trade since 2001 and currently oversees Top Gear Singapore. His stories often take an eclectic slant from the predictable, and he's able to craft a compelling read that lets you see the cars (often old!) in a new light.

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