1400km in two days in a Porsche 964 Carrera 2 Tiptronic. Will a Ferrari fan learn to love the iconic Porsche or will the gearbox spoil the party?
Regular readers of Drive Cult will no doubt have noticed that most of our contributors are Porsche fans, and 911 fans in particular. I certainly count myself as a Porsche fan, but not necessarily one who worships at the altar of the rear-engined icon. Don’t get me wrong, I like them a lot, but not unreservedly. My one experience of driving a modern water-cooled 911 (a 997) left me deeply impressed but with little desire to actually own one. The car was extraordinarily competent but very clinical in how it went about things. I’ve also had a few short drives in some older air-cooled 911s which were much more enjoyable, but never long enough to make an informed decision about whether or not I would like one in my garage.
So, when I was asked if I could collect a 964 version of the 911 from Mougins in the South of France and bring it back to the UK, I jumped at the opportunity to get some serious miles behind the wheel. The plan was simple: catch the late Friday afternoon flight to Nice with my friend Mark Shannon, and bring the car back to the UK over the weekend. It is possible to do the whole drive in one day, but this makes for a very long day with little opportunity for breaks from driving and no chance to get off the autoroutes to check out the scenery. Instead, we planned to take two days to drive back to the UK, with an overnight stop in the town of Beaune.
The last weekend of November is not an ideal time to be driving across France. The Alps already had significant snowfall ruling out a run up the fabled Route Napoleon, forcing us to stick to the autoroutes. However, the weather forecast did indicate a run up Mont Ventoux might be possible, and since this was only a short detour from the autoroute, it wasn't much effort to check it out.
The car itself is a 1992 model left-hand drive 964. It was supplied new in Japan and has covered around 100,000km over its 21-year life. As a later car in the 964’s run, it sports the 17” Cup wheels rather than the 16” Design 90 wheels seen when the car was launched, and I have to say they really suit the car. Rather more significantly for the driving experience, however, is the Tiptronic automatic gearbox fitted to the car. The 964 was the first generation of 911 to come with the Tiptronic transmission and in this form it's a four-speed unit that doesn't feature the steering wheel-mounted buttons to change gear that later versions have.
We set out from Mougins at around 10:00am on Saturday after brimming the fuel tank with super unleaded. The weather was overcast, cold and very windy. We planned to share the driving and I took the first stint which would take us from Mougins to Mont Ventoux.
My first impressions of the 964 were that the steering was much heavier than expected at low speeds. The 964 was the first generation of 911 to have power steering so the heft came as something of a surprise, though the sports steering wheel with a slightly smaller diameter than standard might have contributed to this. Once up to speed though, it was easy to understand why the 911 is so famed for its steering feel. The car is wonderfully responsive to steering inputs and inspires a lot of confidence. Part of this is obviously due to the 911’s rear-engined configuration with relatively little weight over the front wheels, though one downside to this is the car is very susceptible to crosswinds, and as we tracked down the A8 autoroute towards Marseille the wind was becoming increasingly strong, necessitating constant steering corrections which became tiring after a while.
We left the autoroute just south of Mont Ventoux and followed some much twister country roads up to the mountain road. I used this opportunity to slip the Tiptronic 'box into manual mode. The shifts are straightforward - pull the lever back to downshift and push forward to upshift. However, racy as this sounds, the shifts are very slow with a noticeable gap between pulling the lever and the shift taking place. It's also a rather strange sensation to using the gear lever to change gear but with nothing for the left leg to do. With only four speeds where a manual 964 has five, the gears are quite widely spaced and the whole system clearly blunts the performance of the car. Indeed, a Tiptronic 964 is half a second slower to 60mph than a manual car. I’m probably being a little harsh on a system that was designed over twenty years ago when I’m far more used to twin clutch paddle-shifting systems in more modern cars, but the whole system seems ill-suited to what is a very much a sports car.
The road up Mont Ventoux is an exciting mix of sharp turns and short straights, for which the 964 is ideal. The excellent traction hauls the car out of the hairpins and the communicative steering makes it easy to place the car on the road. The sun had now broken through the gloom and there was a clear view of the mountain. As we climbed, the fields of vines at the base turned into pin trees and the green grass by the side of the road turned to snow. The road stayed clear until we got about halfway up the mountain at which point a veneer of slush on the carriageway prompted us to stop at a roadside café for a break and a driver change before heading back down the way we came.
I settled back into the passenger seat for the next leg which would take us from Mont Ventoux to just north of Lyon. In common with the other Porsches of the same era, the 964 has some of the best car seats I've sat in. They're incredibly comfortable for long journeys, the multi-way electric adjustment allows infinite tweaks to find the perfect position, and they're a big are part of what makes the 964 a very good GT car. The engine produces the right noises when you want it to but settles into a fairly unobtrusive hum on the autoroute. The car isn’t that commodious when it comes to storage space, though. Neither of our bags would fit into the front boot and we had to resort to putting them on the storage shelf created by lowering the back seats. While that’s no big deal in itself, I was reminded that my old Porsche 944S2 would have easily swallowed the bags in its boot and still kept the rear seats free.
Just north of Lyon and with the fuel light well and truly on we stopped to fill up. The trip indicated we had covered around 500km, an impressive distance on one tank for a performance car. Back behind the wheel for the last stint of the day, the light had begun to fade and it had also started to rain. Ergonomics were never a strong point for air-cooled 911s and by the time it had reached the 964 evolution they can only be described as a mess. Light and heater switches are hidden behind the steering wheel and the wash wipe is activated by a switch on the dash instead of on the stalk like the rest of the wiper functions. It’s all very confusing when driving at night in what was still a fairly unfamiliar car. The biggest annoyance, though, was the positioning of the trip computer controls. They're mounted on a stalk just below the indicator stalk and both Mark and I found ourselves flicking this stalk rather than the intended indicator on countless occasions.
It was around 5.30pm when we rolled into Beaune. We didn’t have a hotel booked but I reasoned that it wouldn't be a problem to find one in what is a popular town for tourists in the summer. What I hadn’t counted on was a rather confusing one way system that seemed to force us into any direction other than the one we wanted to go. The centre of the town features pavé streets but the 964 rode over these with no real issues. Eventually we found a nice bed and breakfast, which had comfortable rooms and was very reasonably priced compared to hotel prices in England! Heading into town on foot the day was completed with steak frites washed down with some excellent local red wine.
The next morning we headed out after breakfast. Rather than head up through Paris we tracked to the north-east and followed the autoroutes past Dijon and on towards Reims. The roads were exceptionally quiet and we made very good time. We were booked on a Eurotunnel crossing at 5:00pm, so with plenty of spare time on our hands we made the almost obligatory stop at the Reims-Gueux circuit even though I had been there only a few weeks before. By pure coincidence there was a small group of French Porsche enthusiasts at the circuit with another 964 (a Carrera 4), a Carrera 3.2 and a Boxster. Through a combination of their excellent English and my poor French we were able to a have a short conversation about the cars.
After this we headed into Gueux but unfortunately discovered that the Garage du Circuit and the café we used on the Journées d’Automne were closed. Instead we headed into Reims for our second and final fuel stop of the trip. I got back behind the wheel for the leg from Reims up to the Eurotunnel. As it was in the Daytona a few weeks before, this section of road was smooth but very dull and barely relieved by the sight of a dangerously overloaded Mercedes C Class on the autoroute.
I was quite glad for this stint to be over as we rolled into the Eurotunnel terminal. The queues were not as bad as my previous visit but for the first time on the trip I was glad of the Tiptronic gearbox as we crept along between the French and UK border controls.
Once we were back on British soi, Mark took the wheel for the final leg back home. The M20 motorway has a rather unpleasant road surface and the Bridgestone tyres on the 964 produced a really unpleasant level of tyre roar, something we hadn't noticed on the entire trip across France.
The tripometer showed we had covered 1400km when we rolled into my drive at home. As I sat in the passenger seat for the those last kilometres I was trying to pull together my thoughts on the 964. Other than the short run up Mont Ventoux we had little opportunity to check out its sporting credentials, and to be honest I suspect even if we had, we would have preferred to be driving a manual version. The slow-witted Tiptronic gearbox ruins the car for me, and if I was to buy one it would have to be a manual.
That being said, the Tiptronic 'box does work when you use the car as a GT car, and in this role the car acquitted itself very well. The comfortable seats, unobtrusive engine, and compliant ride meant we were able to complete the journey without feeling physically wrecked at the end of the weekend. I was left wondering if the front-engined Porsches of the same era (with the same fantastic seats) would have done an equally good job of delivering the occupants, though, and with more storage space for a weekend away, too.
So, evem after 1400km the questions I asked at the start of this article remain unanswered for the most part. I know I don’t want a Tiptronic 911, but I still need to put some decent miles in a manual car to form a definitive conclusion on whether I want an air-cooled manual 911.
The 964 has remained in my garage for a couple of weeks while the Daytona is away having its winter overhaul (more about that in a few weeks' time). During this time I’ve taken the Porsche out for a couple of short runs to keep all the fluids moving, and on these trips I’ve finally begun to bond with the 911. The steering really is a delight and is by far the best thing about the car. The ride on the UK’s potholed roads is probably no worse than my BMW 120d M Sport daily driver (again more on this on Drive Cult in the near future), and the car is the perfect size for our narrow side roads. The Tiptronic 'box is fine if you just want to potter around but still takes away a lot of the involvement. What I do know is that I have to drive a manual one sooner rather than later!
Photos by Mark Shannon.