2018 Porsche 911 GT3 Test Drive Review: Has The Manual Had Its Day?

Test Drive

Is the 911 GT3 and the manual transmission the perfect combination?

If I stick to the script for Porsche GT3 reviews it should be hard to find anything negative to say about it. But let’s try! I’m going to put it out there and say the much-hyped stickshift option for the second-generation 991 GT3 isn’t the right transmission for this car. Indulge me. When the 991 GT3 launched as PDK-only many were left cold. But Porsche fronted it out by saying it was appropriate to the motorsport DNA and symbolic of the ‘chase every tenth’ mentality of the department that built it.

Trouble is not everyone who buys a GT3 is chasing every tenth. And a number of them wanted the option to change gear themselves. The R answered the call. But the hype immediately priced it out of the market and the age of the manual GT3 seemed over. I was among those protesting. I love the fact older, stick-only GT3s are difficult to drive. It’s a poser filter, if you will. But then I drove the PDK GT3 and had to admit, yes, the transmission really suited the car. And in a world of paddleshifted race cars it would be a bit odd for a Porsche Motorsport product to come with an H-pattern and a clutch pedal. But with this second-gen, 500-hp, 4.0-liter GT3 that’s exactly what we have. A modern, track-biased sports car. With a stickshift.

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Things move fast and climbing aboard a Euro-spec GT3 with its Clubsport package to find a manual gearbox just seems a bit wrong. Porsche UK seemingly agreed and wanted to change its press car order for a manual GT3 into a Touring. But even they would have lost their build slot for doing so. Manual with the wing it was then. And the slightly odd combination that results in. Adjust the mirrors in such a way you can’t see it and it feels less mismatched. Because as a driving machine this is one wonderful piece of kit. The six-speed transmission developed for the R and hence offered exclusively on the GT3 delivers on the demand for a stick option too, the two thirds of American customers who’ve opted for it rewarded with one of the great manual transmissions.

The stumpy little lever slots around its gate with tiny hand movements. The bite of the clutch is judged just-so and demands incredibly precise throttle inputs to drive smoothly. A fraction too light on the pedal and you’ll stall. A touch too heavy and you’ll fry the clutch. Once under way your early attempts to rev-match inevitably end with nasty jolts or flares of revs that broadcast your lack of talent to anyone in earshot. Software offers a face-saving cheat with auto rev matching. But no true purist would accept such electronic flattery, and so you battle on without. It's worth it. And having total control over that magnificent engine is such a buzz.

This may be the last naturally-aspirated GT3. If that’s the case it’s some last hurrah for the atmospheric Porsche boxer six. With the extra capacity there are no flat spots. It’ll pull hard from 2,000 rpm in a way no 911 has before. And from here to 9,000 rpm is your playground. The high-pitched shriek of the new mechanical valvetrain in the final 1,000 rpm is just insane too, this final lunge for the ‘9’ on the rev counter unleashing fury not seen in any 991 before, R included. That the upshift requires more than just a tap of a paddle just makes it so much more exciting and immersive too, the gearing perfectly placed to drop you right back into the mayhem at the exciting end of the powerband.

Opportunities to do this on the road are few and far between though, such are the speeds you’ll be going at this point. Hell, even on an average-sized circuit you’ll struggle to get near the upper reaches of the GT3’s performance. The fastest part of the track I tested it on tickling the top end of fourth at around 140 mph but running out of straight with another two gears to go. Like a wild animal trapped in a small cage the GT3 is always fighting, always just that little bit too much for wherever you happen to be driving it and always, always a thrill. There are other purist details in this car that appeal. Unlike the PDK the manual GT3 has a ‘proper’ limited-slip differential and not the fully active one.

OK, the latter has a much wider operating range, negates the disadvantages of a mechanical diff and is fully integrated into the stability control and other systems. But it’s another layer of electronic filtration between input at the throttle pedal and output at the tires. Better still you save a little over 30 pounds from a crucial area of the car by ditching the PDK and its additional hardware, plus the mechanical losses of driving the hydraulic system to operate it. It’s just a little faster at the top end as a result. These are tiny, tiny points. But the kind of things that matter in a car as sharp as this. The PDK GT3 will always be faster against the clock.

But driving the manual at a similar pace is just such a rewarding experience, especially around a track where you can play with its wonderfully transparent limits, hold a gear through and out of a corner to fully exploit the epic reach of the motor and tread the fine line between grip and slip with pin-point accuracy. The steering may be electrically assisted and there may be gizmos like rear-axle steering to contrive a sense of old-school 911 agility in the bigger, longer-wheelbase 991. Purists might not like the idea of such ‘electronic’ interference but the GT3’s masterstroke is making it all feel so natural. The steering has a perfect weight to it and the front axle bites harder than any previous version.

Meaning you can still sense through your fingertips when you’re on the limit and the car is going to push on. At this point a fractional lift of the throttle is enough to tuck the nose back in before getting hard back on the power and letting the rear wheels finish the job. Choice is yours whether this is a neat and neutral four-wheel drift or a wilder, more extravagant blaze of tire smoke and corrective lock. But the balance of steering and throttle response is so instantaneous and instinctive you don’t need god-like skills to play with it. As you can probably tell I love this car with a passion. And I love the combination of a hard-edged, naturally aspirated engine and a manual gearbox.

The more so for the fact so few manufacturers still offer this combination and this may well be the last time we have both in a 911. For all that, I’m conflicted about the combination of a cage, aero, Cup 2s and a manual in this day and age, much as I was when I drove the Aston Martin Vantage GT8. If you’re going to go full ‘because racecar’ these days I think paddles need to be part of the package, that or an aero delete option as Aston Martin offered in that instance. In the GT3 there’s a similar solution. And that’s the Touring package. Same car. No wing. All the frenzied pace but with a strong visual statement you’re in it for the sensations and experience as much as the lap time.

That’s a subtle but important distinction and one I think Porsche should have made absolutely clear to everyone by keeping the GT3 PDK only. And reserving the manual for the Touring, thereby offering a face-saving solution for the apparent back-track from the controversy of no manual first time round. That, I think, is the only possible criticism. Beyond that I’m sticking by the script.

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