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Zone Rep Report June 2010

Sean CridlandIn the Zone by Sean Cridland

Depending on your view of what Porsche is and should be, this could be one of the most exciting times to be a Porsche enthusiast…or one of the worst. The technology improvements that Porsche has been introducing to its road and racing cars in the past few years are staggering, perhaps even more revolutionary that its development rate in the 1960s  and early 1970s. Gains in handling, power, usability,  fuel efficiency, and even ecological concerns have meant  that Porsche is almost unrecognizable from its incarnations of just twenty years ago.

I know for many of you that’s been a point of contention. Many Porsche enthusiasts are worried about how their favorite marque will be developing now that it’s part of the VW group of brands. But many people expressed dismay when Porsche went to water-cooled engines with the 911…but also before that with the 924, 944, 968, and 928 line of front-engined cars. And that’s not even mentioning the Cayenne and Panamera SUV and Sedans. But pushing technology and perception has always been a point of contention with Porsche fans. I’ve heard many “purists” say that Porsche should never have any car other than the air-cooled 911.

Others say that things went wrong after the 356. But perceptions change with every generation and every group of enthusiasts. It wasn’t that long ago that people were complaining about the Boxster as being a “watered down” 911. But look how popular the Boxster and Cayman lines have become. The one reviled 914 has taken on whole new aura in the 2000s, with many restored versions showing up at concours events and many 914s still doing very well at autocrosses.

There was a time when all-wheel drive was both revered of as futuristic (on the 959 and 953 supercar and rally car) and reviled as “un-pure” and over-civilized on the 964. But all-wheel drive is common and approciated on C4 and Turbo-models. The Cayenne, once reviled as the beginning of the end for Porsche is one of its best selling models and, especially during these difficult economic times, has helped keep Porsche afloat with its most steady sales. The acceptance of the Cayenne hit home for me at Parade this past year in Keystone. When I pulled up to the line at the autocross in San Diego I was the very first and only one of three to be on the wrong end of some woeful stares. But at Keystone, I was only one of 12 Cayennes of various levels of power and handling. There were even discussions of having multiple classes for Cayennes going into future Parade Rules.

Now comes the hybrid version of the Panamera and Cayenne and KERS competition GT3 and concept super-car 918. One can already hear the groans about impurity. But in my view, they’re all Porsches and are efforts by the world’s best car company to push the limits of technology in new areas in ways that no other car-company has. When the first hybrid Toyotas and Hondas and the first KERS F1 cars arrived on the scene, I regarded them in the same way that we now look at early Daimler and Ford cars compared to today’s models: the first in a long line of development that will see great leaps in efficiency and development. Who would have thought in 1890 that the automobile would become the powerful and sophisticated vehicle it has become. But it didn’t happen at once and it didn’t happen without someone attempting to push the envelope in the arenas of luxury, sophistication, and in competition. In all of these areas, Porsche has been a leader since its first car drove down the road from Gmund.

For Porsche to back away from any new technological concept would be a cop-out from its mission and reputation. More so, to not take on the challenge of leading in any kind of technological advancement would be a loss of its original intent and spirit. I, for one, am looking forward to the day when Porsche develops hybrid and KERS technology to the same level that it has with automatic transmissions (another topic of scorn in the not-so-distant past).  The Tiptronic was recognized as a great leap forward in automatics and the PDK is now looking to supplant manuals for those who consider performance more important than “traditional” aesthetics of shifting. When the GT3 R Hybrid (a KERS-assisted system) races at Nurburgring this spring, the world will be watching to see what kind of unfair advantage Porsche has found with the system.

The 918 is threatened to go into production soon because of the high amount of interest it has generated. It won’t be that long before other super-car manufacturers take up the challenge and start offering their own versions of high-performance hybrids and KERS-assisted vehicles both on the road and for the track, each with their own performance tweaks and the race will be on for the next generations of performance and efficiency gains.

The VW “takeover” is for some a tragedy, but remember that the current chair of the VW group, Ferdinand Piech is the same person who masterminded the 908 and the 917 cars which took Porsche from winning class victories to overall ones. If there’s anyone who is interested in keeping Porsche in the forefront of road- and racing-car design it is him. I believe that Porsche has a long  and prosperous future ahead of it and I’m very glad to be a member of the club of its biggest fan-base as it races into the future with new types of technology and performance gains.

Yet, like all of us, I still love its heritage and tradition. I think the two go hand in hand.

I hope to see you at one of the events.

Sean

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