Each week our team of experienced senior road testers pick out a new model from the world of innovative, premium and performance badges, and put it through its paces.
What else can you say about the Porsche 911? It is perhaps the original sportscar –definitely, the only rear-engined one left– and has transcended beyond motoring-star status to a genuine cultural icon. Ask people who don't know anything about cars to name a sportscar and the likelihood is they'll come out with "911" pretty much straight away.
But the car we're driving isn't just a 911, indeed it's managed to rack up so many letters after those legendary numbers it could easily be mistaken for a part number.This is a 911 Targa 4 GTS. The word Targa was coined by Porsche for the original 1966 car and Porsche AG still hold the trademark for the name to this day. They weren't the first to use a removable panel instead of a full convertible but were the first to call it a Targa-top. But what caused them to make a convertible that isn't a convertible in the first place? The answer lies in US regulations. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Department of Transport in the States banned convertibles due to fears of overturning crashes killing too many people. Since car manufacturers always find a new way round, they began to make cars with a removable panel in front of a solid roll hoop, and thus the Targa-top was born. The Porsche 911 Targa has been with us ever since, eventually spawning a moving glass panel as well as the standard central panel and then spawning this, the 4 GTS. The 4 stands for four-wheel-drive, and the GTS means that this is the car that Porsche wanted the Targa to be. Consider it Porsche speccing one of their own cars the way they would if they were buying.
The 911 design hasn't changed much over the years, there's no real debate over that, besides an ill-fated move to different lights with the 996 (cruelly nicknamed the "fried egg" by some). Porsche knows not to fiddle too much with a winning design. It's the little things that have changed over the years. The headlights are now more oval-shaped than round, and feature four pinprick lights in a square (aping the design of the 919 racer). At the back, the full-width rear lighting that left us with the still much-loved 993 has returned, and it looks great on our black car, with black wheels. That ballooning glass canopy at the back brings light into the cabin and hides the more volumous rear, which the mechanics of the Targa-top require. Inside it is true Porsche: pretty minimalist, but still beautifully designed. The dials are traditionally analogue, and the red leather is toned down rather than shouty, suiting it rather than overpowering the driver. That Targa-top is a work of mastery, folding away into a seemingly magic abyss in the rear and completely unnoticeable from the inside when it's up. You absolutely would not know this car had a removable roof, there is that little extra wind noise.
All 911 Targas now come with power sent to every wheel as standard, which may not appeal to purists, and from a design point of view means it's wide. We're not talking wide in an "oh my god how will I get through this village" sense, we mean wide in the sense of flared arches, muscular shoulders and lines that add something extra to that unmistakable 911 silhouette. Oh, and it's got center-lock wheels. What's not to love about that?
The 911 is one of those great triumphs of engineering; it always has been. Why anyone would continue to sling the engine out beyond the rear wheels is beyond most, but Porsche continue to not only make it work but make it work better with every new 911. The Targa 4 GTS comes with the traditional flat-six motor – this time in turbocharged, 3.0-litre, 450bhp, 356lb ft form. That's an extra 20bhp over the standard Targa. The power is needed, as the extra gear that comes with the Targa-top is heavy. It means the Targa can heave itself to 62mph in just 4.1 seconds, and then on to 191mph if you find a straight of Autobahn long enough.
There's no denying this is a heavier car than most 911s – you can feel the weight transfer as you drive down a flowing Sussex road. But that is not something to put you off: in a very German way, the Targa just gathers everything up, deals with it and gets on with the matter of hustling you along as fast as you are brave enough to go. In the end, it's not a car you are going to throw everything at, but if you wanted en-pointe performance, why would you buy the one with the top cut out?
It has four-wheel-drive so you can expect a whiff of understeer if you push it too hard through the twisty bits, but that also provides a bit of security that many will probably appreciate. The steering is weighty in your hands and you feel connected to what's going on, as you expect from a Porsche.
There's something about the Targa that you just cannot deny. If you want a Porsche for pure performance you're never going to buy a Targa. But if you want to be able to feel the wind in your hair, the Targa is the one that allows that and keeps the lines of the 911. Then again, if you want something that looks like a 911, the normal convertible can seem a little too much like a 911 that's had an axe taken to it. And if you are looking for pure handling, the four-wheel-drive may put you off, but why buy a Targa if you want pure handling? What the Targa can do when it's missing such a large part of its structure is pure majesty. And to be honest, we'd think it almost worth it just to marvel at what must be one of the finest bits of engineering on the planet – and that's just the roof...