Driving Porsche's most perfect, most elusive 911

You're in the Matrix now

Why a sports car? Why drop upwards of $200,000 on a vehicle whose primary goal is unremitting speed? A car that runs on old-fashioned gasoline and is a chore to drive around town?

Because of this particular moment, on a racetrack, as you shear through the wind, riding the narrowest of edges between total control and a massive accident. You are driving Porsche’s most extreme 911, the GT3 RS. It feels like it’s on its tippy toes, rubber barely touching tarmac, and you’re not driving so much as slaloming through the turns like an expert skier.

If you’re incredibly lucky, for a lap, maybe two, physics and engineering and your skills will find a perfect harmony. The road talks to you through the steering wheel and the G-forces button you into the Alcantara-coated seat. Your conscious mind is turned off, your perfectly fluid actions are happening automatically and without thought.

You are in the Matrix.

This is The Harper Spin, a weekly column from seasoned auto critic Jason H. Harper. He’s raced at Le Mans, crushed a car in a 50-ton tank, and now, he’s bringing his unique style to The Verge.

911 GT3 RS

You could spend a lifetime chasing a high like that. And drivers do, buying car after exotic car, chasing the high-velocity dragon.

The answer to that chase is, simply, the all-new Porsche 911 GT3 RS. There is no other modern car as likely to lend those transcendent moments to a reasonably skilled driver. Which is exactly why a certain kind of driver will happily drop $176,000-plus on one.

The GT3 RS is the most extreme 911 that Porsche sells that is still street legal. Its racing bonafides translate to a certain level of ridiculousness on the street — namely the enormous fixed rear wing, incredibly wide hips, and tires big enough to fit a Caterpillar tractor. It looks like you’re vying for a bit part in a Fast & Furious sequel. And the limited color palette veers toward "boy racer": the two available "hero" colors are a garish purple and that lava orange. (The latter which I quite like.)

But it isn’t the aggressive appearance that makes the GT3 RS special; it’s the insane attention to engineering. The coupe is an almost magical fusion of analog and digital. It uses a range of weight-saving and aerodynamic tricks learned from Porsche’s long racing heritage, and marries them to new-age engineering not allowed in racing, like dynamic engine mounts and rear-wheel steering.

The 911 GT3 RS is brutal and yet precise. So ugly as to be elegant. It is absolutely the 911 that I most want.

911 GT3 RS

The 911 had its 50th birthday in 2013. Can you think of a single durable good sold in 1963 that still resembles the same product today? The 911 was initially designed by Ferdinand A. Porsche, the grandson of the founder, and the car’s shape and peculiar engineering is essentially the same.

The flat-six engine is in the rear — like its humble cousin, the original VW Bug. It makes little engineering sense. It’s akin to placing all of the weight of a butcher’s knife in the handle and still expecting it to make precise, decisive cuts. The balance is all hinky.

Porsche tried to kill the 911 in the late 1970s with the front-engine 928. (Engineers must have been blue in the face, employing Germanic logic. A front engine is, clearly, better and smarter, yes?) The 911’s zealots rebelled, and instead the car methodically evolved generation after generation. And that brings us to the current generation, known as the 991 platform. (All brand-new 911s, a sort of "991.5," will now come with turbocharged engines, a major and rather unfortunate departure.)

911 GT3 RS

The beauty of the modern 911 range is that the essential form is the same, but the actual model you choose can deliver a very different experience. The no-frills 911 Carrera, with 370 hp, is the cheapest one you can buy for about $90,000. (Not exactly chump change.) Opening your wallet ever wider, you can work up to more potent models until you hit a point of divergence, either going the route of the Turbo / Turbo S, or the way of the GT3 / GT3 RS. Both the 520-horsepower Turbo and 560-hp Turbo S promise intestine-twisting straight-line speed but with easy everyday motoring. They are the quintessential valet machines.

You wouldn’t allow a valet inside your GT3. Both the GT3 and GT3 RS are meant for the track rats, those who aspire for speed through corners, not straight lines. (Top speed on the GT3 RS is 193 mph versus the Turbo S’s 197 mph.) The RS designation means more 25 more horsepower over the regular GT3, less weight, and an even less forgiving chassis.

The last generation GT3 RS has become legendary. It was the final 911 built on the great 997 platform, and it got an uprated, naturally aspirated 4.0-liter engine versus the regular 3.8-liter power plant. And it only came as a manual. I was one of the lucky few who drove it, spending an entire week inside one in Los Angeles. I was uncouth enough to drive it to the launch of the then-vaunted Fisker Karma plug-in hybrid sports car. My fellow auto journalists were uncouth enough to take photos of it while ignoring the Fisker. Henrik Fisker, the founder of the company, was not pleased, and I was asked to move the car to another parking lot. (Perhaps it was a sign that the Karma was doomed to fail. It did.)

911 GT3 RS

I remember a hard, fast dive-bomb down one of LA’s storied back canyons, a vertiginous route which is also a one-way street. I used both sides of the road, dancing next to high cliffs, and the car was perfect. The GT3 RS 4.0 was so utterly in balance that it felt almost, well, spiritual. When I reached the bottom of the canyon, which empties onto Pacific Coast Highway, I stopped and actually wished for a cigarette. Little wonder that I, like so many others, have such high expectations for the new generation GT3 RS.

Porsche’s engineering department went balls-out with this one. At an auto show prior to the car’s release, I spent an hour talking with its chief engineer, Andreas Preuninger, whose fervor for details was nearly messianic. He waxed on about the magnesium sheet metal roof (I didn’t know there was such a thing), which ensures that the car’s highest point is as light as possible. He explained that the engine crankshaft was derived from a special "pure" steel that is incredibly strong and resilient and also used on the 919 prototype racecar. The rear window is made of polycarbonate, not glass, also for weight savings. In all, the curb weight is 3,131 pounds, some 22 pounds lighter than the already light GT3.

When I reached the bottom of the canyon, I stopped and actually wished for a cigarette

The suspension is familiar sports-car stuff — independent MacPherson-style struts up front and multi-link in the rear. But it’s coupled with the New World. There’s rear-wheel steering, for a shorter turning radius at parking-lot speeds, and more stability while turning at high velocities. The four-wheel steering works in conjunction with the Porsche’s brake-based torque vectoring system. The Michelin Cup tires are staggered (21 in rear, and 20 in front), and they are wider than offered on any other 911, for larger contact points. The promised result for all of this is sharper turn-in at even higher speeds.

The car is not available with a manual this time around. Like Ferrari and Lamborghini, who no longer offer any vehicle with a stick, Porsche now also maintains that its fastest cars should not be hampered by inefficient and slower technologies. So the stick on the GT3 is a thing of the past. The good news is that the seven-speed PDK transmission is the best automated double-clutch in the business.

So too will this be the final GT3 with a naturally breathing engine. The 4.0-liter flat-six makes 500 hp and runs up to a raucous 8,800 rpm. Torque is 338 pound-feet of torque at 6,250 rpm. In other words, the meat of the power comes into the high revs, and the sound behind your head becomes ever more alive as you hold onto the gears.

911 GT3 RS

This is one of the best parts of any 911, but even more so with this particular model. The noise of the engine, its anima, issues from behind your head. Every time you stamp on the accelerator, the GT3’s theme song erupts from behind your noggin, a wailing mantra from the flat-six engine. Screaming, stereophonic delight.

But the thing that sets the car further apart than any other road-going 911 is the keen attention to aerodynamics. The most obvious element is that big rear wing — but check out the deep slatted vents running along the top of the front fenders. They look like a killer design detail, but they allow air to vent out of the wheel arch, which helps to keep the front end from getting light by the force of the air beneath it.

Porsche says that at a speed of 186 mph, this 911 has more than 770 pounds of downforce. That’s something like three sumo wrestlers sitting on top of the car, keeping it planted on the road. Otherwise it might lift in the air, like a Porsche-crested 747.

911 GT3 RS

The funny thing about the list of specifications and all the weight savings and the nifty electronic wizardry: you don’t want to think about any of it when you’re on a racetrack. You want to feel connected to the car, have it respond telepathically as you streak through corners. If the car forces you to mull over the effects of the four-wheel steering or those adaptive engine mounts, you’re in trouble.

I test drove the RS at a remote track in Germany called Bilster Berg. The 2.6-mile road course is a loopty-loop carnival ride that follows the hills and dales of a former British ammunition depot. I’d driven it before — in a Porsche 911 Turbo S, in fact, and found it to be one of the most demanding and demented private tracks I’ve ever experienced. You carry extreme speeds around corners and suffer through a series of severe drops and off-camber turns that will show off weaknesses in even great sports cars.

I dropped into the seat of the GT3 RS following behind a professional Porsche driver, and immediately put in a stupidly fast series of laps. Fast enough that I didn’t have the sense to be fazed by the speeds until I got out of the car, plastered in sweat. I usually like to work up to speeds, like a runner finding his pace. But this was something else entirely. The pro driver met my eyes and he grinned. "Yes, it’s that good," he said.

From there, I pushed harder. Each series of laps got better as I adapted to the car, beginning to trust the grip of the huge tires, the stopping power of the brakes and the downforce that allowed me to carry ever more speed around corners.

911 GT3 RS

It was near the end of the day, and the end of our time at the track, and I asked — no, pleaded, for one more set of laps. Just me and the pro. He nodded his head and we jumped in our two cars.

And so, for three perfect laps, I drove in the Matrix. All that engineering translated, in the end, to one thing: a car that barely seemed to touch the road, that allowed the back end to slide through corners just so, that tore through space and air. All that technology evaporated, working silently in the background, and allowed me to simply be.

Those Matrix laps have messed with my head ever since

Those Matrix laps have messed with my head ever since. As soon as I exited the car, future nostalgia was already kicking in. I knew I was unlikely to ever get to drive one again. Worldwide production is limited, and the run is already sold out.

A source told me that the cars had been selling well over $100,000 their list price, and the select owners of the Porsche 918, the futuristic $845,000 hybrid supercar, were squabbling over them.

It’s safe to assume prices will only rise once they go on the secondary market. And in my experience, it’s totally and utterly worth it.