MOTOR MOUTH: Like skiing a black run

MOTOR MOUTH: Like skiing a black run - Porsche has come a long way since the Konstruk-tionsburo fur Motoren- Fahrzeug-Luftfahrzeug und Wasserfahrzeugbau consultancy was established in Stuttgart in the days when Hitler had not yet determined his ultimate career path. A vehicle manufacturer in its own right since 1949, Porsche has evolved from a single-product company to a marketing-driven supplier of the most consistently admired fast cars aimed at the most capricious consumer group: the rich, spoilt and image-conscious.

by Stephen Bayley, an author and design consultant
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Porsche has come a long way since the Konstruk-tionsburo fur Motoren- Fahrzeug-Luftfahrzeug und Wasserfahrzeugbau consultancy was established in Stuttgart in the days when Hitler had not yet determined his ultimate career path. A vehicle manufacturer in its own right since 1949, Porsche has evolved from a single-product company to a marketing-driven supplier of the most consistently admired fast cars aimed at the most capricious consumer group: the rich, spoilt and image-conscious.

This is an interesting business transition. That first Porsche was a technical exercise of uncompromised simplicity with not a little whiff of yodelling, brightly scrubbed, bare-kneed Hitler Youth about it: an austere, geometric body covered the most elegantly rudimentary mechanicals. Not a beautiful thing but a thrillingly impressive one, the ur-Porsche established the company philosophy of purist, rear-engined sportscars dedicated to the enjoyment of driving.

And, significantly, whenever Porsche has deviated from this philosophy - as it did with the front-engined luxury cruisers in the early '80s, the firm's fortunes have wobbled. But now Porsche is back on track, concentrating on cars that are obvious descendants of the spindly little roadster wheeled out of a shed in Gmund all those years ago.

Porsche is, perhaps, the smallest real car manufacturer in the world, and one of the most profitable. Concentrating on the rich, spoilt and image-conscious brings huge margins. After all, why be as large as Ford if you lose billions a year?

The Carrera 4S is one of the latest of many mutations of what was officially known as the Porsche 966, although with charming illogicality, even the factory still calls it a 911 (after the 1963 car that consolidated the company's reputation). They did consumer research after the Twin Towers atrocity and found that, even in the US, when attached to a Porsche, the words 'nine eleven' still have favourable associations.

The first generation of the current car looked a bit anaemic: over-bodied, under-tyred, clearly aimed at sensitive customers who might have found an authentic Porsche a bit harsh and difficult. The market issued a quick corrective, and over the past four or five years they have powerfully engorged in various ways what was a slightly bloodless thing at birth.

The Carrera 4S bulges with sinister presence and has a collection of articulate orifices whose variety suggest a commitment somewhere in Porsche's Entwicklungszentrum to the study of precisely how holes convey meaning. Did they look at wild animals or guns? I do not know, but the meaning conveyed here is the triple distillation of menace.

When I got home, my daughter said two things. The first was (with distaste) 'I heard you coming' (it is true that I had been blipping the throttle), and the second was 'I hope you're not going to take me to school in that'. The disdain of very cool teenies for cars like the Carrera 4S reveals an essential commercial truth: Porsche exercises its appeal most strongly to men of a certain age.

When this man of a certain age drives a Porsche, a transformation overcomes him. There is an impressive gravitas about the car that means you conduct it, fast as it is, with gentleness and decorum and care. But there is something about the frantic urgency of the gorgeous engine, the military hardness of the suspension, the pitiless severity of the brakes, the gland-popping noise (a hard-edged, feral howl), the sense of overwhelming power and potential that mean even low-speed urban manoeuvres are conducted in a busy blur of noise and nervous adjustments.

It is not a relaxing car, but it's a satisfying one. It makes you sweat, in all sorts of ways. Even parking gives you a delicious balance between exhaustion and exhilaration, rather like skiing a black run.

There's nothing more exciting to drive than a Porsche Carrera 4S. Nor can there be anything more likely to annoy people. Living with the leers and the envious looks of the rest of the traffic is hard work. But at least it gets you back into touch with life and its sensations, which is what a 'sports' car should be about. In fact, I'd say this car is like sex, wonderful and disturbing. Step out of a Carrera 4S and you mutter: 'Post coitum omnes animal tristum est.'

Porsche Carrera 4S from pounds 63,450.

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