Automorbit, Cars – Nobody is perfect, especially me. An odd way to begin a car review, sure, but hear me out: A couple of months ago I wrote up a list of The Best 991-Gen Porsche 911s I’ve ever driven. Sitting in fifth place on that list is the Porsche 911 Speedster. Fifth out of 12 is fine, but I want to state right here, right now, that I made a mistake.
See, back in December I got to drive this very same Guards Red Speedster up in Sonoma County. Thing is, I drove it the same day that I drove the 1953 Porsche America Roadster, and that little white bathtub of a sports car shattered my brain. I couldn’t even process the new Speedster. I knew the final iteration of Porsche’s 991 platform was good, superlative even, but any impression I had of it was cudgeled away by the America Roadster. Yes, I made a mistake. I’m a big guy, and I admit it. I gave a short shrift to the 2019 Porsche 911 Speedster. It should have been second place on my list, if not first. Not kidding. Keep reading.
What Makes a Speedster?
For those of you who want all the facts, my colleague, and MotorTrend’s technical guru, Frank Markus wrote an excellent First Drive story about the Speedster, which gets deep into both the nitty and the gritty.
For my version of things, know that the Speedster features the third iteration of the all-singing, all-dancing 4.0-liter flat-six that we first sampled in the 991.2 GT3. You’ll remember that engine was slightly goosed for GT3 RS duty (horsepower went from 493 to 514), and here on the Speedster it’s been revised again to make 502 horsepower and 346 lb-ft of torque. How? Individual throttle bodies, 25 percent higher fuel injection pressure, and a 22-pound lighter exhaust system. We’re still not certain if this exact engine will be showing up in the 992 GT3, but if it isn’t, that means that Porsche engineered a special engine for only 1,948 cars worldwide. (Even though it was a year late, the Speedster was developed to celebrate the brand’s 70th birthday.) Perhaps that’s a big part of why each Speedster costs $275,750 before a single option is selected. And if you’re like most Speedster owners, you’ll be going for options.
Contrary to what you might have heard at the local car show, the Speedster isn’t just a GT3 with the top lopped off. In fact, the body begins life as a Carrera 4S Cabriolet. Then it’s massively stiffened, the windshield is lowered by 50mm, and a manual folding top is located beneath a 22-pound carbon-fiber lid. All Speedsters are six-speed manuals (that’s the good 911 manual transmission, not the meh seven-speed) and all come standard with carbon-fiber buckets, though you can opt for 18-way adjustables. I vote to stick with the buckets. To save your lower back a bit, the racing Bilstein dampers have been tuned for maximum comfort, even in Sport mode. Be honest, you’re not tracking it. If you did, Porsche says it’ll hit 60 mph in 3.8 seconds and a top speed of 192 mph—both of which are likely conservative. All that said—and I’ve poured over the press release, Frank’s review, other written Speedster accounts—and found that no one is willing to say just how much magic Porsche stuffed into this car.
What’s It Like to Drive?
Depends where. World class canyon road? Literally incredible. My dropping jaw bruised my sternum as I took my first flat-out corner. Other cars just don’t go around bends as well, full stop. The Speedster attacks turns with the same confidence and stability that most cars tackle straights. As if it was first engineered with the steering wheel turned. The car felt at home on a tire-screeching, ultra-tight, increasing radius, double black diamond of a corner. As if it were built for that moment. There are moments in my improbable, enviable car writing career I’ll never forget. Driving the one millionth Land Rover Discovery onto Red Square leaps to mind, as does hitting Spa, the Nürburging, and 201 miles per hour on the Autobahn in a 28-hour period, as well as competing in the Mille Miglia for four days inside a 1956 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL. Add that first corner in this Speedster to that list. Like seriously, it was that memorable. Were subsequent corners as sweet? Almost, but the shock of that first real turn is still hanging on me like a fog.
I’ve had countless discussions/arguments about the 991 R, the ultimate expression of the 991.1 range of 911s. I’ve driven it, loved it (lightweight flywheel for the win!), and while it’s wonderful, I always say the R is the ultimate 911 for the street. Whereas the 991.2 GT3 with a manual is the ultimate all around 911. It just is. I’m able to say that because I was lucky enough to drive a 911 R back-to-back with a GT3. No such luck with the Speedster, but I’m going to state for the record that the 911 R has been knocked from its top street-911 perch. The Speedster’s the better street car, if not the best 911 ever built. Whoa, hold on a second partner? Didn’t I drive this exact car and largely dismiss it in favor of a 70 hp anachronism? Yes. Two excuses. The first one is that I drove both cars on a tight, single lane road at a winery that was ideal for the America Roadster, but way too small for the Speedster. Two, no one’s perfect. Especially me.
The quickest, fastest car I’ve ever driven? Hardly. When I’m running Angeles Crest, there are a few spots where I know it’s safe to glance down and check my speed. The Speedster was perhaps 20 mph slower than some of the big dog cars I’ve been running up there recently (Porsche Turbos and leather-wrapped McLarens, for instance). Did I care? Not in the slightest because I was enjoying myself more in the Speedster. Before you go thinking I’m one of those “it’s better to drive a slow car fast” weirdos (I’m firmly in the “fast car fast” camp), the Speedster was moving at license-shredding speeds. Remember, no turbos and it “only” makes 502 horsepower.
What Makes it so Magic?
The 991 Speedster is a feast of a car. A special—and exclusive—meal with several courses, and it takes time to discover all of them. The engine is as close to a sacred object as exists in 2020. And, it’s tied to perhaps the best transmission that’s ever been. One could (correctly) argue that the Ferrari 812 Superfast’s V-12 is a finer engine, but as good as that Italian dual-clutch transmission is, it ain’t as satisfying as this engine and this stick. That mix of sound, of quick, lag-free revs, the deep reserves of power, that surprising well of torque, all of it stirred by your right wrist and left foot. We’re talking about a perfect pairing—a harmony. Chocolate and peanut butter/Krug and caviar.
Then there’s that magic rear end. I don’t know how, or why, or even what, but I do know that I’ve simply never experienced a car with such a settled butt. Like other modern 911s, the Speedster is less tail-happy (prone to oversteer) than the old days. However, the 991.2 GT3 manuals brought some rear end swagger back (mostly due to the mechanical locking diff, as opposed to the PDK’s electro-hydraulic locker), and the Speedster just improves upon where that car left off. The rear of this thing skis, it shakes its hips, it grooves, it’s a skilled tango partner—I’m going to run out of cheesy metaphors, but I hope you smell what I’m cooking. The Speedster just charmed me in a way that I wasn’t expecting. Wizardry, you might call it, and having the roof down only added to the alchemy.
It Can Calm Down
Here’s where the Speedster outshines not only the 911 R, but every other high-performance 911 I’ve ever driven. My buddy Jeff has a Speedster, and a hangar full of other Porsches, including a 911 R. He knows what he’s saying, and he asserts that the Speedster is the perfect California car. I took “my” Speedster to hang with Jeff’s Oak Green example at the car dork hotspot Malibu Country Mart. While drinking coffee and (shockingly) talking about Porsches, Jeff says, “Is that another Speedster?” I turn and look and see a silver 911 with no top parked on the far side of the two Speedsters. I tell Jeff the odds of that are zero—Porsche only built 1,948 of these things—but Jeff’s already on his feet and walking over to the new arrival. As it turns out, yup it’s another 991 Speedster. I guess these things happen in Malibu. Oak Green, Guards Red, and GT Silver—a nice Christmas palette, but somehow not at all.
Time to go home, and Jeff and I head out over Malibu Canyon Road. We got stuck behind a Cadillac Escalade EXT (the pickup truck) hauling a huge chunk of a huge pipe. When the Caddy finally pulled into a turnout the other four cars in front of us didn’t bother speeding up. We’re talking 34 mph in a 45-mph zone. Put another way, much, much slower than Jeff and I would be going. Normally in that situation, I’d get very upset. Sports cars infused with supercar characteristics need to be pounded on, especially when on twisting canyon roads. I got stuck behind a F-150 doing 37 mph on Topanga Canyon in a Porsche GT4, and my moods were flipping back and forth from suicidal to homicidal. That hot rod Cayman ceases to have a point if it’s just creeping along.
Thing is, in the Speedster, I was at peace. The weather was bang-on perfect, 75 degrees and sunny with just a mild breeze. My roof was down (as always), and I found myself simply enjoying the sights and scents of an arroyo I’ve been racing through for most of my life. I noticed a pocket canyon with sharply folded rock walls that nearly touched. Again, I’ve driven on this road countless times for 4 1/2 decades, and I’d never seen that before. I was, in a word, content. Had I been in almost any other car from Porsche’s famed GT division, I would have been miserable. This is just another angle that makes the Speedster such an intriguing, beguiling, fascinating masterpiece.
So, there you have it. Porsche, and specifically the virtuoso car builders in Weissach, have done the seemingly impossible. The Speedster is a true dual-threat sports car that offers supercar humbling driving thrills as well as the ability to simply kick its feet up, relax, and enjoy a nice drive. That combo is the crazy part, the hard part, the tricky part, the magic part that makes the Speedster so very, incredibly special. I’m a bit humbled that it took me two goes to realize this, and I’m smart enough to realize that I’m more than lucky to get two bites at the apple. Like I said up top, nobody’s perfect. Some cars, however, they come real close.
A Note About the Photos
Due to the long running MotorTrend tradition of “Because We Can,” I decided to shoot the red Porsche Speedster at my friend Jeff Cherun’s “Hotel Porsche,” an airplane hangar where he keeps his impressive and growing collection of Stuttgart’s finest. Jeff also happens to own the gorgeous (and previously mentioned) Oak Green Metallic Speedster with the Cohiba leather interior. I also asked noted Porsche collector and former Seinfeld writer Spike Feresten to bring out his 1958 Porsche 356A Speedster. Mostly because it’s such a pretty car, but also because I wanted to visually show where the new Speedster came from. Why Porsche chops the windshield, why the bustled top, and things like that. Hope you like ’em!