Forget the default-choice Italians, says Alistair Clements, the Porsche 911 3.2 Carrera is the supercar you can use and afford.
It’s all very well being a superhero. In fact, it must be pretty useful when a railway bridge collapses just as the evening express steams in, or if a stray nuclear missile is four seconds away from hitting Washington and causing the outbreak of WW3. But the fame and notoriety – not to mention the constant battle with evil geniuses – must be a pain in the arse when you’re trying to buy bread, milk and a Sunday paper. No wonder they need an alter ego.
It’s the same story with supercars: brilliant when the rev counter and speedometer needles are doing a synchronised swim towards the top of the dial, but in a stop-start cross-town commute, most of us would rather be in a Micra. In a Countach or Testarossa, the constant need to check the temperature, wear a knee-brace to operate the clutch, fabricate Blue Peter periscopes from toilet rolls in order to see out, and to phone a friend to help with the steering when you want to park, makes town use a nightmare. And although a little bit of attention is always nice, in a multi-vowelled exotic there’s no escaping it – you’ll always be the loudest car in the car park, both aurally and visually.
Fortunately, there is one supercar that does Clark Kent as well as it does Superman. The Porsche 911 Carrera 3.2 is just as comfortable commuting to the Daily Planet as it is lapping the Nordschleife, doing a convincing impression of Stefan Roser’s cult classic Faszination Auf Dem Nürburgring. And a good one can be yours for as little as £15,000. What’s that I heard you say Mr Antiporsche? “Supercars must have their engines in the middle.” So it’s not a supercar then? Oh really? Try nailing a Carrera 3.2 along a favourite road – one with a few tricky camber changes, crests and dips, hairpins and sweepers – and then see if you can berate Weissach’s rear-engined masterpiece with a clear conscience.
You see, having that wondrous flat-six stuffed into the posterior doesn’t destroy the handling. For a start, its 58% rearward weight bias is no worse than that of a number of mid-engined handling benchmarks and better than many – Elise, anyone? – and the hammerhead effect of heavy tail overtaking lightweight nose is only likely to appear if you treat the pedal box like a punch bag on a slippery bend. Not only that, but positioning the engine directly over the driven wheels gives the 911 epic traction – both off the line and out of corners. Even with the optional limited-slip diff, you won’t be doing any tyre-smoking burn-outs or TVR-style opposite-lock heroics – instead, the real pleasure comes from exploring its precision and poise.
With clear skies above and dry tarmac below, it’s deeply impressive as the fat, low-profile tyres – a whopping 225mm wide on this late model – and relatively supple torsion-bar springing combine to make the 911 feel exceptionally surefooted. Unlike a lot of so-called supercars, which are nigh-on unusable in the real world, the 911 is amazingly unintimidating too, its tiny – at least in supercar terms – 5ft 5in width making it easy to thread along narrow, twisty lanes.
Turn in and there’s the traditional 911 bob as the nose feels unnervingly light and you sense the weight behind you, but those bug-eyes turn into the apex eagerly and there’s loads of bite from the front end. And then it just grips. And grips, with an attitude of mild understeer that can be neutralised with a squeeze of throttle. For the first few miles of familiarisation the steering seems less communicative than the chatterbox early 911s, a bit heavy when manoeuvring and over-damped within inner-city speed limits. But leave the metropolis, find a fast third-gear bend and the sensations come flooding back, filling the small leather rim with every nuance of the surface below, and the tyres’ grip on it.
It’s as if the parameters have shifted in line with the step-change in performance. Because the 1983 launch of the Carrera 3.2 was a watershed moment for the normally aspirated 911, marking its transition from sophisticated sports car into junior supercar. Under the skin, the chassis and steering were refined but the headline change over the outgoing SC was the strengthened and enlarged all-alloy, dry-sump type 930/20 flat-six. The 95mm bore was retained, but the stroke was increased by 4mm to 74.4, raising capacity from 2994 to 3164cc, and the Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection was controlled by a new Bosch Digital Motor Electronics ECU. The result was a less-than-startling extra 27bhp, taking the headline figure to 231bhp, but that’s a healthy 73bhp per litre – not bad for an engine that remained relatively simple, with the traditional two valves per cylinder and a single cam for each bank of three cylinders. Motor matched its own road-test figures for the 911 turbo to 60mph – hit in a spectacular 5.3 secs – and found the cheaper car lagging only just over a second behind at 100mph. It also romped past the psychologically crucial 150mph barrier that had remained out of reach to the SC. All of which means that, unlike so many ageing four-wheeled legends these days, the Carrera won’t be shamed by an off-the-shelf hot hatch.
Figures aside, it remains one of the great engines. After 20 years in production it had matured, but only to fill in the gaps in its repertoire – namely the lack of torque in earlier, smaller-capacity incarnations. Not a criticism you can level at the 3.2: it’ll quite happily amble along at 1500rpm in top, and if you short-shift it’s a relaxing companion – once you get used to the trademark floor-hinged pedals. But let the tacho needle creep past 4000rpm and that old urgency returns, willing you to push to the 6300rpm redline and beyond, when the flat-six flutter that so dominated the cabins of formative 911s finally breaks the shackles of sound-deadening and starts to sing. If your budget can stretch to it, the ’87-on Getrag G50 gearbox with hydraulic clutch is a must. It could never be called slick, but shift quality is revolutionised with a new strength and positivity. Which means you can bang it intuitively across the gate with confidence, and without the need for constant glances at the shift pattern to combat the long-linkage vagueness of the type 915 it replaced.
Still not convinced? Then find a strip of – deristricted, obviously, and preferably pock-marked back-road and give that masterful engine its head. Unless you’re willing to ignore the calming hand of mechanical sympathy and drop the clutch at 5000rpm-plus then off-the-line pace won’t be scintillating, but past the legal limit things start to get deeply impressive. The ton, 110mph, 120mph, 130mph – all pass under the needle’s inexorable climb and it’s still pulling confidently. But far more striking than outright pace is the stability – no doubt aided by the front and rear spoilers that came with Sport trim. The twin-tube dampers and thick torsion bars at each corner simply soak up everything the road throws at them, keeping the bodyshell – and its occupants – remarkably composed, so that the only way to gauge your pace is ever-increasing wind and tyre roar.
Touch the middle pedal and you’ll discover the depth of this car’s engineering integrity: few braking systems are so perfectly weighted, so easy to modulate, with mighty power yet remarkable resistance to grab or fade. With the end result that the Carrera covers ground – twisty or straight, bumpy or smooth – at an astounding rate, without ever really feeling stretched. Yes, the 3.2 might have lost a touch of the heart-to-heart conversation that was struck up between driver and car in earlier incarnations, but no 911 before the Carrera inspired such trust between man and machine when the numbers really start to get impressive. Come to mention it, few have bettered that relationship since: the arrival of the 964, the 3.2’s replacement, in 1989 signalled the onset of the more anaesthatised 911 experience, with power-assisted steering, four-wheel drive and ever-increasing electrickery.
Try hard and it’s just physical enough to make you feel as if you’re getting a proper supercar experience – but without the need to carry a jump-pack. In fact, 911 ownership manages to skirt around much of the drama and most of the hissy fits that seem to be the supercar norm. Buy a good one, keep it serviced properly and you’ll find that it’ll start first turn more often than not, the Bosch fuel injection settling it to a docile tickover even when cold. All the controls – even electric ones – work with monotonous precision, the doors shut with solidity that would give a VW development engineer sleepless nights, and everything you touch in the unremittingly black cabin feels as if it was machined from aluminium billet – even if at times it’s as if you’ve dived into a plastic sea. Yep, inside and out, the Carrera 3.2 is very much a child of the ’80s.
Just look at it. This isn’t the same little sports car that blew everything away in ’64 – but then it’s capable of a whole lot more. Yet a part of its appeal is that its soul remains the same: try to ignore the extra matt-black and body-coloured trim, forget the rear wing and shoebox-sized wing mirrors, squint a bit and you’ll see that the same delicate profile and exquisite proportions remain beneath the ’80s addenda. Which means that you get the same compromises – or, if you’re a Porschephile, advantages – within. The driving position will feel bizarre for any former Ferrari owner: there’s headroom for a start, and you can see out of the back, but the upright – dare I say Beetle-esque? – stance behind the vertical, fixed wheel doesn’t hint at the drama to come as effectively as the reclined cocoon of a Lamborghini.
Then look over your shoulder – there’s an extra pair of chairs there and, yes, you really can get kids in them. Porsche even produced a bespoke baby seat. Leave the children behind, fold those back seats flat and there’s 175 litres (6cu ft) of storage space – that’s if the substantial 130-litre (4½cu ft) luggage bay in the nose isn’t enough. To put that into perspective, you should be able to enjoy a two-up blast to Cannes for the film festival, without feeling short on luggage, and still have room for a few cases of Château Margaux from the hypermarché on the way back.
The damper sophistication that makes the Carrera so stable at speed is equally rewarding around town or on a scarred country lane – it’s firm, but your spine is isolated from jarring ruts and speed-humps. And remember that less lively steering? You’ll be glad of the reduced kick-back when you hold that wheel-rim day in, day out.So it’s the perfect supercar? For me, not quite – or at least not this one. Many would argue that Guards Red or Grand Prix White with Sports pack is the ideal spec for reviving their ’80s yuppie fantasies, but I like my alter egos to be a bit more subtle: it’s no good being Clark Kent if you still wear your red underpants outside your trousers. No, ‘my’ Carrera 3.2 would be a muted metallic hue, in standard – wing-free – coupé form, perhaps even on standard ‘telephone dial’ alloys with half-leather trim. The perfect supercar? Maybe, and the fact that you could buy one – with a little bit of belt-tightening, a few compromises and a not-impossible monthly repayment – makes it all the more desirable.
Sold/number built 1983-’89/74,026 (plus 341 Club Sports and 2274 Speedsters)Construction galvanised all-steel monocoqueEngine rear-mounted, air-cooled, all-alloy, sohc-per-bank 3164cc flat-six, with Bosch L-Jetronic electronic fuel injectionMax power 231bhp @ 5900rpmMax torque 209lb ft @ 4800rpmTransmission type 915 (G50 from 1987) five-speed manual, driving rear wheelsSuspension: front MacPherson struts, longitudinal torsion bars rear semi-trailing arms, transverse torsion bars; twin-tube telescopic dampers and anti-roll bar f/r Steering ZF rack and pinion Brakes ventilated discs, 11in (282.5mm) front, 11½in (290mm) rear, with servoLength 14ft 1in (4291mm) Width 5ft 5in (1652mm) Height 4ft 4in (1320mm)Wheelbase 7ft 5½in (2272mm)Track: front 4ft 6in (1372mm) rear 4ft 6¼in (1380mm) Weight 2557lb (1160kg)0-60mph 5.3 secs 0-100mph 13.6 secsTop speed 158mph Mpg 16-25Price new £21,464 (1984)
This article originally appeared in the January 2008 issue of Classic & Sports Car magazine, which retains the copyright to all words and images. Click here to see our terms and conditions.
Words: Alastair Clements; pictures: Tony Baker