I arrived at Gräflicher Park Hotel in Bad Driburg, Germany, nearly a week into an extended trip that even I strain to call work. The woman at check-in tried not to notice I still smelled like race car exhaust and burnt tire; a few hours earlier, I was standing alongside the legendary Flugplatz section of the Nordschleife during the 24 Hours of Nurburgring watching the perfect precursor to this event. I'm about to drive Porsche's new GT3 RS, a car forged and honed in events like the legendary endurance race.
I wake up the following morning at 3 a.m.; I really don't need to be up this early, but back home in California, I would be cooking dinner right now. I'm also buzzing to have my first hands-on experience with what has the potential to be one of the best cars ever built. Until now, I have only seen the GT3 RS in photos, which rarely does a car of this ilk justice. After my typical German breakfast of cold cuts, strong coffee, and smooth-techno beats, I stumble outside to a selection of RSs sitting on the curb.
The most obvious feature of the new 991-based GT3 RS is the batwing-like air extractors carved into the widened front fenders. They are important in two ways: First and foremost, they allow the high-pressure air in the front wheelwells to be expelled out the top and rear of the front fenders, contributing 30 percent more downforce on the front axle. The second and nearly as important function of the vents is to give visual evidence of the spirit and mission of the street-legal track weapon.
The RS version of the GT3 is as polarizing as those big gills disrupting its flowing lines. I hear from enthusiasts that this car is all wrong. It should be the purist of the Porsches and as such should be equipped with a manual transmission, manual steering, and without any electronic aids like a torque-vectoring e-diff or rear-wheel steering. Sorry, guys, but you're wrong. This isn't that kind of car. Porsche just recently launched the back-to-basics Cayman GT4 to fill that niche. The GT3 and, more importantly the RS, is meant to be the closest thing you can get to a GT race car for the street. The pinnacle of performance achieved through technology and engineering. The GT3 RS sits atop a 911 pyramid whose base rests above 90 percent of the rest of the world's cars. If you think the base Carrera is great, you will struggle to find words worthy of the RS.
The changes to the RS can appear small on paper, but it's how they all gel together into a package that counts. To start, the body shares dimensions with the 911 Turbo. The rear is roughly an inch wider than a GT3 while the front is just over an inch and three-quarters wider, which is 28 mm and 45 mm for those metric-minded readers. The rear fenders also use the air inlets from the turbo, which instead of feeding intercoolers are now used for ram-air ducting to the engine's airbox.
At the front of the car, a larger splitter forces air over the car instead of under, while the taller rear wing is more efficient in the cleaner air. All the aero work on top of the car, along with a nearly flat-bottom produces 760 pounds of downforce at speed, which Porsche claims is 80 percent of what a Cup Car is capable of. Speaking of the body, even with the wider, more complex and aggressive panels, material selection has allowed the reduction of 22 pounds from the body alone. Starting at the top, the "double-bubble" roof is made from magnesium. The rigidness of the material allows for a significant savings over the more fashionable carbon fiber. The front fenders along with the front and rear decklids are molded from carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic while the doors are aluminum. The rear bumper is made from the traditional polyurethane but micro-balloons, small glass spheres are mixed in to decrease weight even further without loosing strength. Porsche has reduced the amount of noise insulation used in the body to save yet a few more pounds.
Inside, carbon-fiber seats from the 918 are supportive and again lightweight. In other markets, a Clubsport package is available with even lighter seats, a factory fitted rollbar, wiring for an electrical kill-switch, and a fire extinguisher. Lightweight options that are available in the U.S. include a $2,300 lithium-ion battery, and the radio and air conditioning can be deleted at no cost.
The interior also uses the mandatory pull-strap door release, whose operation might be my biggest complaint with the car. It is a small complaint, but you pull the strap away from you to open the door; obviously, the natural movement is to pull something toward you. Like I said, a small complaint. The RS also gets a smaller 360mm diameter steering wheel and the shifter pedals are said to have even shorter throw than the regular GT3.
The suspension setup is very similar to the GT3. The biggest difference between them is the damper settings have increased slightly and Porsche is using monoball mounts on the front struts and rear shocks. The antiroll bars, ride height, and camber are all adjustable while damping rates are adaptive with PASM. The RS also uses active rear-wheel steering and an electronically locking differential to maximize grip.
The tire and wheel package is the largest ever on a 911. The fronts use a 265/35-20, while the rear uses a 325/30-21, which happens to be the same size as the rear of the 918. Although it may be the same size, it is a drastically different tire from the hybrid supercar. The construction of both tires contains pre-tensioned aramid bands that allow the control of the shape of the contact patch under load. Because of less mass, less torque, and different loading, the GT3 RS is easier on tires. The Michelin engineer on hand praised the rear wheel steering, camber curve tuning, and Porsche's ability to optimize suspension performance for decreased tire wear. Michelin was able to remove the stiffer shoulder compound normally found on the front tire as well, as the RS is able to optimize the use of the entire contact patch even during track driving. After a day of track abuse, the Michelins were worn, but wear was even and there was no chunking or blistering normally associated with hard track work.
Like the chassis, the drivetrain is an optimized revision of the GT3 unit and not a new design. Porsche has increased stroke of the almost comically over-square engine by 4 mm, bringing displacement from 3.8 to 4.0 liters. The RS engine redlines at 8,800 rpm, as opposed to the GT3's 9,000-rpm limit. You won't miss the extra 200 rpm, as you shift well before then anyway.
Like the GT3, the RS uses titanium connecting rods, but now has a racing derived V361 steel crankshaft. The high-purity alloy is melted and re-melted multiple times in a vacuum and tempered to optimize strength. It is the same technology used in the 919 Hybrid race car and F1 engines. The intake and exhaust systems have been redesigned to optimize flow and reduce restrictions. The rear muffler section is titanium and uses valved bypass sections to control both noise levels and backpressure. All of this adds up to 125 hp/ltr for a total of 500 hp.
The most controversial component in the drivetrain is certainly the PDK transmission. Personally, I can't imagine selling this car with anything but the most advanced transmission available. 911s would certainly be more "involving" if they were still on 16-inch wheels with 205mm-wide tires, but it doesn't mean they would be as good. The twin-clutch semi-automatic transmission fits the car's mission and personality. This iteration shifts gears in just 95 milliseconds. For perspective, the lightening-fast PDK in a Carrera S takes 120 milliseconds. Not only that, but shifts are smooth and more noticeable audibly than through the seat your pants. There is a sport button that makes the shifts more aggressive, but even the engineers and pro drivers at the event said they prefer the car in standard shift mode.
We started our day driving to the track on a mixture of Autobahn, city streets, and twisty back roads. My initial impression of the interior is—this is a 911 with better seats and a smaller steering wheel. There isn't any sign of compromise or inconvenience. It's comfortable and luxurious. I might even say perfectly normal. Even visibility is as good as a normal 911. Lifting that giant rear wing up into clean air has also moved it up and out of the driver's sight line out the back. The RS is louder than a standard GT3, but I never noticed it being "too loud," and this is from a guy who has recently come to the realization that I am too old for some aftermarket exhausts. At wide-open throttle, the intake howls through the fender intakes and the exhaust rips away behind you but isn't shaking your eardrums like its Italian competitors. At cruising speeds, the engine purrs away and has a raspy quality that reminds me of an air-cooled car with equal-length headers and an unbaffled muffler.
The suspension in normal mode is equally as amiable to sane driving. Most German roads are glass smooth, but I found some areas of broken and potholed pavement that in previous RS cars may have rattled a filling or two loose. This RS, however, is nearly as compliant as a Carrera S. Maybe the big Michelin sidewalls are doing double duty here, but I could easily live with this car on the daily commute.
At Home on the Track
Bilster Berg Drive Resort is one of the toughest tracks I've ever driven and not the first place I'd choose to drive a fast car for the first time. Blind corners, big elevation changes, and a few hidden tricks make this challenging in any car. In a fast, edgy, rear-engine, expensive car, it's a recipe that will make an insurance agent cry.
Porsche kept the instruction brief and the warnings stern before hitting the track. First impressions involve the car shrinking as you go faster and becoming even more responsive. On the road, the RS feels big, mostly because it is. The steering feels a little slow on tight, twisting roads but makes more sense on track. Suddenly, turn-in isn't slow, it's smooth, accurate, and measured. I'm not jerking the car into the turn, but flowing. The way it unwinds, an often-overlooked characteristic, is fantastic. I don't drive to the exit of the turn; the car naturally ends up there. The brakes are perfectly responsive and the pedal resistance builds fast, meaning brake modulation comes from pressure and not just travel. The car is still big compared to past 911s, but it's so easy to place because you never feel like you have to give yourself a big margin of error.
There are only a few spots on the track that are fast enough to feel any downforce, but the RS has so much mechanical grip, it feels like that wing works at 15 mph. It seems like I've been driving a lot of 500hp cars recently. Some put down power better than others, but none of them match the RS. The car is dead-neutral the first half of the turn, which normally results in big exit oversteer in powerful cars. It turns in and rotates like a mid-engine car. Too much brake will get understeer; a clumsy yank will get understeer. Trail-braking and a quick twist of the wheel will allow you to move the back around. The computer will even allow a pretty decent amount of slip, if it thinks you meant to do it. Jumping on the throttle mid-corner will hang the rear end out, again, even with the electronic safety net—as long as you don't scare it.
Perhaps the biggest difference between this RS and previous generations is the amount of confidence it inspires. You aren't concerned with getting near the limits. That isn't to say this car isn't challenging. After a day at the track, I felt like I was driving it respectably, but nowhere near its maximum potential. The RS will take you countless laps to master, but it isn't like a Viper that fights you. It also isn't like a GTR that says, "Oh, you screwed up. Here, let me just fix that for you." It feels like race car but doesn't punish you for not being a race car driver.
There are countless people who fantasize about driving a race car on the street. There are as many tuners who will take your perfectly good car and give you all the compromises of the race car with a sliver of the performance. Porsche has delivered the exact opposite with the GT3 RS. The RS sits higher and has more tire sidewall than a standard GT3, the exact opposite of the tuner playbook. It gives you all the best sensations of the race car experience with none of the compromises. It is hard to call this the best 911 ever. I don't think you can realistically compare this to a car from 40 or more years ago. I can, however, sleep easy saying this is the best 911 of this century.
The GT3 RS you see above is one of the first Porsche press cars anyone outside the company was allowed to touch. If we're keeping score, I was one of the first five Americans to drive the GT3 RS, but who's counting. On the left is a standard GT3, a privately owned car that happens to be the daily driver of Porsche Works Driver, Le Mans, Sebring, Daytona, Spa, and various other race champion Jorg Bergmeister. I asked for a photo to compare the two cars, and Jorg's car was the only one available at the track.
His RS is on order and will look remarkably similar to the one you see here. Why silver? "Well, I've had a lot of good luck racing in silver cars. It always seems to be fast for me. Also, I live in a small village and I want something not so bright and more understated." So the big rear wing and big fender vents are understated in the right color? "This is what I tell myself."
The RS is $45,500 dearer than a run-of-the-mill GT3. What you get for the money and value proposition is something you have to decide for yourself. In my opinion, this is the 911 to buy if you can play in this market. It falls in between the Turbo and Turbo S in terms of price but is immeasurably more enjoyable than either. Both if you want. In Jorg's opinion, "It isn't just faster, it's better. That's why you build something like this."