As I write this, I’m eagerly anticipating the moment I can get my hands on Brandon Sanderson’s new work, Oathbringer. It’s the third book in The Stormlight Archive, his epic fantasy series taking place on the Cosmere (the collective universe where many of his works take place) world of Roshar. Looking to my left, I can easily pick out my favorite book, the second Stormlight Archive book, Words of Radiance. My eyes fall on it so easily because it, a) happens to be at eye-level; and, b) it’s gosh-darn thick.
The hardcover copy of Words of Radiance is 1088 pages long. Sanderson originally wanted to call it The Book of Endless Pages as a joke and reference to an in-universe text, but his editor shot it down for being a little too on the nose. It is quite literally the biggest book Tor could physically bind. This makes it quite an inconvenience when traveling.
That’s why, after a few years of stubbornly holding out, I got a Kindle Paperwhite. Enough space for my personal library and more, in a space no bigger than a manga volume. From a practical perspective, it’s perfect for my needs. And yet, I still prefer buying physical books. I’m literally running out of both space on my shelves for books, and potential spaces to put new shelves. First World problems for days, here.
I’m not alone in this. Last year, the New York Times reported that the majority of American adults still prefer physical books to digital or audio ones. In fact, over the past few years, the percentage of ebook readers has remained relatively steady, while the number of physical readers has actually slightly increased. Right now, Porsche is observing a similar situation.
Porsche made the closest thing to a brand-new, classic 911, the 911 R, but in hilariously low numbers, and were absolutely gobsmacked over the subsequent stratospherically stupid price-inflation. Realizing that *gasp* a good chunk of their customers want to actually feel something when they drive besides a minor annoyance at the proletariat driving their Camrys and Accords, they added a stick-shift as a no-cost option to the ultimate non-Turbo 911, the GT3. They’ve also now made a 911 R that people who don’t own a fleet of private jets can afford: the Carrera T.
In other words, Porsche had been selling Kindles, and when they came out with a rare leather-bound tome, they were on the back foot.
While the 3-pedal love may’ve caught Porsche by surprise, the company is now ready and willing to give customers what they want (and cash in on a great business opportunity). It’s also not surprising, considering what a certain Bavarian car company experienced in the past, that the States are responsible for the lion’s share of the manual orders.
But the question on my mind isn’t how the stick-shift love came back to Porsche, it’s why. Why would it take seeing a 911 R going for half a million dollars for Porsche to realize that, hey, people want to feel an emotional connection to their cars, and actually want a stripped-down sports car that doesn’t also have a roll cage installed?
It’s happened before that Porsche almost lost the enthusiast plot. Many are now familiar with the story of how dearly departed Porsche CEO Peter Schutz saved the 911 with nothing but a permanent marker. The thought of Porsche without the 911 is just...wrong. It’d be like trying to imagine Chicago without the
Cloud Gate Bean, or Led Zeppelin without “Stairway to Heaven”. How could it have gotten to this point?
Mr. Schutz, in his May 2013 contributing article to Road & Track, brought up that by the time he’d started at Porsche, the 911 was in a sales slump. There was also a general perception that the car had gotten too expensive, especially for the perceived quality. German management thought it an ’outdated concept,’ too tricky to drive for most consumers.
To turn it around, Schutz decided that from now on, technology would be Porsche’s heart, and high performance their ride-or-die creed. History shows what happened after Porsche decided to git gud: seven straight years of Le Mans victories, and one of the most important supercars of them all, the 959.
Fast-forward to today, and Porsche is killing it with the performance game. Still dominating Le Mans, the PDK gearbox, the 918; Porsche can win, they have the technology. The previous-gen GT3, current GT2 RS, and future GT3 RS being PDK-only: it’s all about the lap times and shift efficiency, baby.
Porsche, it turns out, have been following Schutz’ maxim all this time. It’s we, the consumers and dreamers, who’ve changed.
In the recent Head 2 Head, Motor Trend’s Jonny Lieberman and Jethro Bovingdon test the 2018 BMW M4 CS and the 2018 911 GTS on the Autobahn, the Nurburgring, and an Austrian mountain pass. During their Green Hell run, the two can’t stop heaping praise on the 911. After about 6 minutes of gushing on a level that would cause the average YouTube viewer to accuse them of being corporate sell-outs, Jonny makes an interesting point.
The 991-gen GTS is, to paraphrase His Lieberman-ness, not a ‘traditional’ 911. It doesn’t have the bad characteristics that have traditionally accompanied rear-engined cars. Jethro asks a follow-up question, “If you erase all the foibles of rear-engine behavior, do you erase some of the character as well?”
Jonny answers that if the GTS was a bad car, that lack of character would be a knock. But the car they’re driving is so good, so exciting, that the lack of ‘traditional’ bad manners isn’t as much of a heartbreak. Bear in mind, the GTS is basically the Greatest Hits of Options for the current 911, so no wonder the boys like it so much. But if Porsche really is all about using technology to further performance, then the lack of lift-off oversteer is another example of the company’s commitment to their mission.
But there might be some dissenting opinions. In the Three Lap Review of the manual-equipped 911 GT3, Road & Track’s Travis Okulski and Sam Smith keep rhapsodizing about The Noise of the GT3, and how amazing it is to be able to make it as often as they wish. They acknowledge how cliche it is to rave about the feeling of being in charge of a car like that, but they don’t care that it’s cliche. They just know it’s more fun and feels faster; that’s enough for them. It’s for these same reasons why the US market is leading the #SaveTheManuals charge: the manual is more involving for enthusiasts, and there’s a lot of us over here.
And Sam Smith distinctly says that, as the last naturally-aspirated car in the Porsche lineup, the GT3 is the only remaining tie to “what made the 911 great to begin with.” He and Travis then discuss how the pre-facelift 991 GT3, the 2014 model year, didn’t sell as well as Porsche would’ve thought. In fact, the previous-gen GT3's values went up, primarily because the traditional customer wanted a GT3 with a clutch. That, and the ridiculous behavior of 911 R shillers, is why the new GT3 Touring package exists.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting a 911 that’s as technically brilliant, while still viscerally exciting, as Porsche can make. That’s what makes the 911 GTS so amazing. But, as Mr. Smith says, if there aren’t any slow sports cars anymore, than what separates one model from another? At some point, the small slivers between lap times become immaterial, dependent more on chance than skill or mechanical capability. So if we stop chasing those last few fractions of a second, what’s left?
The experience. The wail of an engine, the conversation through the steering wheel, the tactile satisfaction of a well-executed shift. Once any car can go 150 mph reliably on a race track, the truly great cars are those that remain just as exhilarating when you’re doing 35 mph on the way to IKEA. And as both Travis and Sam bring up, the same kind of technology that lets a car do the former, can also let it do the latter. All it takes is the right know-how.
And Porsche has it. The GT3 has rear-axle steering, the six-speed developed for the R (shorter ratios, better acceleration, fuel efficiency be damned), standard dynamic engine mounts, and a sh*t-ton of carbon fiber. It bobs and weaves like a classic 911, the kind we’re always being urged to try and buy. Glory, glory, hallelujah.
The issue isn’t that Porsche lacks the tech. It’s, as Jack Baruth explains, that Porsche has been hitting the marketing opium-pipe a bit too much, and there’s a lot of “brand image” smoke in the air.
Doug Demuro hits on this point in his Ferrari 512TR vs Porsche 911 Turbo video. The car he’s driving, a 993 Turbo, wasn’t trying to be a luxury car, or a status symbol. Porsche wanted to build the perfect sports car, and they succeeded. Doug brings up how close the seats in the 993 are, how much closer he is to the ground and the windshield. True, a significant portion of this is due to safety regulations. But how much of it is due to what customers demanded?
Newer clientele knew the 911 was expensive, so they bought it to show off. And I bet more than a few weren’t convinced its intangibles were worth it. And thus began the era of specifying the color of the air-vents leather surround.
However, the bottomless joke generator that is the Porsche options pricing isn’t the be-all and end-all of Porsche. Luxury and driving satisfaction can co-exist; just because the manual GT3 exists doesn’t mean the GTS is somehow invalidated. It’s the Kindle and physical book debate all over again.
The customers for whom Porsche made the manual-equipped GT3 are truly enthusiasts. We enthusiasts do not place convenience high on our list of priorities. Data point of one, some of the recent trips in my NB:
We are prepared to sacrifice for our passion, for what we enjoy. Porsche has learned that it cannot negate that. God, that sounds an awful lot like nerd culture.
The GT3 is supposed to be the distillation of the 911 ethos of driver involvement. The PDK just doesn’t evoke that same sensation. The GT3 is supposed to make you sweat, the same way a thick book is meant to make you smile as it swallows shelf space. You feel a sense of deep satisfaction when you close the cover of an enormous tome with a gentle thump. You can’t get that with a Kindle. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for the Kindle in a bibliophile’s home.
Sometimes you can’t take all your books with you. Sometimes you don’t have the space to put them all. It’s never been easy, being an author, but publishing for the Kindle is a great way to get started. Just because someone wants a GTS doesn’t mean Porsche is wrong to offer one. The GTS is all the best the Carrera has to offer—and it’s all in the name of improved driving performance. That doesn’t seem anti-Porsche to me.
When I first started writing this, I knew I’d have to compare the varying trim levels of the 911, and the model’s history as a whole. What I hadn’t intended was how much I’d understand Porsche’s trajectory.
I wondered why it took such a drastic observation for Porsche to change its course so quickly. But I think I get it now. Trying to stay true to an ethos can lead you down bizarre paths, even ones that seem to go in the opposite direction that you want to go. This whole thing with the manual transmission may just be a repeat of what happened with the Cayenne, or the 996. Porsche listened to the industry and what a significant portion of its customers were telling them, and made the necessary changes to stay relevant. The GT3, as the ultimate 911, the pinnacle of technology-driven performance—of course it should have a PDK. No wonder it took the 911 R price-gouging to set the record straight.
But Porsche have listened. BMW’s been listening, too. The report of the book’s death have been exaggerated. You can enjoy the weight of pages and a tablet’s thinness equally. There’s room for both on the shelf.