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High-output sportster for the strong-of-heart, not the weak-of-wallet
By Lawrence Ulrich, Money Magazine
LOS ANGELES (CNN/Money) - I love L.A. -- especially from behind the wheel of a Porsche.

The cars may hail from Stuttgart, but Porsche has made California its second Schloss for quite some time. Certainly, some of the marque's popularity there stems from people for whom Porsches are status symbol and power statement, a designer bauble to be worn like Gucci sunglasses.

How pathetic. Fortunately, the 911 Turbo coupe, especially with a stealthy surprise under its hood, reminds us that Porsches are about driving first, posing second. And that new-for-2003 surprise -- an optional X50 engine package inspired by the ultra-rare 911 GT2 -- makes this Porsche such a blur that no one could check out the driver, anyway.

If you're not familiar with the GT2, it's the fastest street-legal 911 in the car's 40-year history, capable of a 194 mph top speed. Only about 60 were sold in the U.S. last year, with about 140 coming in 2003. With its rear-drive layout, bone-hard suspension and lightweight ceramic composite brakes, it's geared more for the racetrack than the daily drive. It's highly visible, thanks to its breathtaking bodywork.

Did I mention it's ungodly expensive? $181,700 for that version.

Now, any six-figure supercar is a fantasy machine. People who can throw that much coin at a car are rarely looking for a bargain. But given the cockeyed standards of the super-rich, there's a lot to be said for the more modest 911 Turbo.

Still plenty of toy
That price starts at $116,200 for the 415-horsepower Turbo, and gets a boost from X50 Engine package, which gooses the twin turbochargers, intakes and exhaust to make 444 horsepower, just 12 fewer than the far pricier GT2. That added power also puts $17,880 onto the price tag, or about the price of a base Toyota Celica. (To look at it another way, the X50 package adds more than $600 for each of the additional 29 horsepower it delivers.) Add a graphite-gray leather interior and graphite floor mats to our Turbo, and it sneaks barely a Four Seasons-dinner past $140,000.
Back in the real world, a car like the Corvette Z06 delivers 405 horsepower and terrific all-around performance for about one-third the price of this Porsche. Cost comparisons like that prevent my conscience from granting a perfect "four-wheels" rating, despite the Turbo's drool-worthy looks and performance.
Still, considering the price and track-centric nature of the GT2, this special Turbo is probably a smarter choice for your average rock star or telecom CEO. They'll save 40 grand, go very nearly as fast, enjoy a liveable ride and all-wheel-drive and avoid undue attention from Johnny Law.

That's not to say anyone mistook the Turbo for anything less than a superstar, on roads from the Cleveland National Forest east of San Diego to the teeming freeways of L.A. A cluster of high-powered sportbikes buzzed alongside on a mountain two-laner near Palomar Observatory, flashing thumbs-up and looking for a race to interstellar speeds.

Now, no car can take on a modern motorcycle. But let's just say the Porsche impressed them as much as any four-wheeled vehicle could, and I didn't even have to shift much -- with 457 pound-feet of torque, the 911 Turbo marshals effortless speed even in 5th or 6th gear. From a standing start, this Turbo will hit 60 mph in less than 4 seconds. 100 mph arrives in about 8.5 seconds. The average car takes that long to reach 60.

Easy at speed
If an amateur driver ever wants to know what it feels like to go 150 -- or even 190 -- mph, this is the car to do it in. On a racetrack, of course. Triple-digit speeds elicit a gentle growl from the 3.6-liter six-cylinder, and a yawn from the 18-inch wheels and massive rear tires. The all-wheel-drive, ESP stability control and sticky tires offer incredible levels of control.

Take-offs are almost too drama-free; there's a brief moment of hesitation before the four wheels dig in and surge ahead with barely a bark. Steering is as precise as a surgical laser. Brakes are monumentally strong and fade-free, with four-piston calipers up front and enormous 13-inch rotors all around. The clutch, while heavy, doesn't become a Nautilus workout for your left thigh. Seats are firm and enveloping yet comfortable on extended drives. As fans know, the flat-six engine resides in back, leaving a small under-hood compartment for luggage, plus the small jump seat in the rear that's effectively a parcel shelf. A speed-sensitive spoiler rises from the rear deck as speeds rise above 75 mph.

The real challenge in driving the Turbo is keeping one eye on the road and one on the speedometer, which can reach go-directly-to-jail speeds before you're aware of it. That's especially true with the 911's tiny speedometer with its scrunched-together numerals, the most inexplicable feature of current Porsche models. Yes, there's a small digital speed display, and the larger central tachometer reading is more important to sports car drivers, but that doesn't mean you should have to squint to see how fast you're going.

Our test model was also plagued by a CD player that refused to play. A small matter, easily fixed, but annoying in such a pricey machine.

Of course, listening to Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass isn't the entertainment most owners will be looking for. Like the wild new 500-horsepower Dodge Viper, this very special 911 is all about extreme performance. Yet the cars couldn't be more different. The Viper is a WWF wrestler -- a hairy, volatile muscleman with a profane roar and body-slamming ride.

The 911 Turbo is a ballet dancer in comparison: Indisputably an athlete, but with litheness, precision and grace to spare.

Lawrence Ulrich writes about cars for Money Magazine. You can contact him at [email protected].
 

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