- The Washington Times - Friday, May 24, 2002

Automobiles and trucks fulfill so many needs and desires in the motoring population that it would be difficult to catalog them all. For the products of one small German manufacturer, however, it's an easy call.

The Porsche raison d'etre is pure high-performance driving pleasure and excitement. There's no practical consideration. Its cars have never offered comfort for more than two adults and a bit of their luggage, and they are by most lights horrendously expensive.

There may be some practicality attached to the upcoming Porsche Cayenne, which will be the company's first foray into the sport utility mosh pit.

But for now, what you get is sports cars.

Of these, the most enduring is the 911, now 37 years old but still youthful, if costly. For 2002, it embodies a continuing concept: A horizontally opposed rear engine in a coupe body with the same basic styling that it exhibited back in 1965.

There are variations, of course, with the two newest being the 911 Carrera 4S and the 911 Carrera Targa. The Targa used to be a sort of convertible with a roll bar; now it's basically the same as a regular 911 but with a bigger sunroof.

More interesting is the 4S, so named because it comes with all-wheel drive. It has quickly become the favorite among even many of the people who work for the company.

For one thing, it's attractive. The styling is borrowed from the superhot and more expensive 911 Turbo model, but without the air scoops that interrupt the curving lines. A retractable spoiler, which deploys at high speeds, hides in the rear deck over a horizontal red band that connects the taillights.

With 320 horsepower on tap from its new 3.6-liter engine, a skilled driver can catapult the 4S from zero to 60 miles an hour in about five seconds. Top speed is up in the 170s, but you wouldn't try that anywhere but on a racetrack.

The engine is a so-called boxer design, the type that has always been used in the 911 models. In a boxer, or horizontally opposed engine, the cylinders lie flat, feet-to-feet, on either side of the crankshaft. In the 4S, there are three on each side. In modern Porsches, the engines are liquid-cooled; back in the olden days, they were air-cooled.

It's worth noting that this basic boxer design is the same as in the engines of the old Volkswagen Beetle no surprise because the designer of both the VW and the original Porsche was a German engineer named Ferdinand Porsche.

Nowadays, the only other auto manufacturer committed to boxer engines is Subaru of Japan, which has both four- and six-cylinder versions in different models. BMW R-series motorcycle also use boxer engines.

Power in the Carrera 4S feeds to all four wheels through a six-speed manual transmission, like that on the test car, or a five-speed automatic with Porsche's manual-shift linkage, called Tiptronic. Though the latter finds favor with some customers, the six-speed is an article of faith for the aficionado. It is an absolutely remarkable transmission with one of the best shift linkages anywhere. Gear changes are instinctive and effortless, with great tactile sensations through the stick even when you're slam-shifting like a drag racer. The clutch engagement is smooth and progressive.

What distinguishes the 4S from its siblings in the Porsche stable is its handling feel. The power steering is weighted exactly right, so that it feels like a manual unit at high speeds, helping the driver maintain sharp control around curves.

In contrast, the basic Carrera and the Targa, which have rear-wheel drive, have a lighter feel. The 4S ride is choppy on rough surfaces, but not uncomfortable, a tribute both to the suspension and the supportive seats.

With the all-wheel drive, huge high-performance tires on wide wheels, the tight steering and a taut suspension system, the 4S can be whipped around tight corners at speeds that could not be imagined in lesser machinery.

But therein lies a frustration: Unfortunately, there are not many places available to drive a 4S anywhere near its potential. Ideally, you need an unpopulated area with a hilly, curving and deserted road. Or a road-racing track.

There are few negatives. One is the CD changer, which is inconveniently located under the hood in the front luggage compartment. An in-dash unit would be preferable.

No Porsche was ever intended for the poverty-stricken, and the Carrera 4S is no exception. Among Porsche models, it is the fourth-most expensive, with a base price of $80,965. The test car was a relatively unadorned version, with only a few options that brought its suggested delivered price up to $85,645.

But with Porsche having perhaps the longest and most expensive options list of any automobile in the world, most buyers will bump the price far over that.

And, with the factory's expectation of delivering only about 1,200 copies of the 4S during the 2002 model year, even those big-bucks buyers will likely have a long wait in line.


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