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Rumble Seat


PARIS--Sports car fans, tighten your bonnets and hold down your skirts. I have seen the future of going fast, and it kicks ass--as they say in the GOP, big time.

At 6 a.m. on the first morning of the Paris Auto Show two weeks ago, Porsche officials arranged a press conference in the auditorium of the Louvre, under the pyramid. Now, you would have to be a working member of the automotive "press"--a group notable primarily for its devotion to free food and commemorative clothing--to appreciate just how unreasonable a 6 a.m. call is. Most of these people don't leave the hospitality suite's open bar until 4 a.m.

Nonetheless, about 150 of the world's devoted scribes were there, in a driving rain, no less. Most of us expected an update on the Porsche Cayenne project, a lamentable SUV effort being launched with Volkswagen, due in 2002. Porsche-ophiles have bemoaned the Cayenne since it was announced on the very reasonable grounds that it is a stupid idea conceived by chimps. A Porsche SUV? The great sports car company, winner of more than a dozen Le Mans classics, is going to build some dumb quasi off-road truck? Why not go into the yard tractor business?

At the same time, these same Porsche purists were disgusted that the company withdrew from Le Mans competition after the 1998 1-2 win. Endurance racing has been the testbed and lifeblood of the Stuttgart-based company. Had Porsche lost its way?

The answer rolled down the rain-slicked Champs-Elysees before sunrise, catching the motoring press with their croissants hanging out of their gaping mouths.

It is the Carrera GT, a carbon-fiber chassis, mid-engine, 5.5-liter V10 producing 558 horsepower and 442 pounds-feet of torque, tipping the scales at 1250 kg, or 2750 pounds, for the math impaired. Oh ... my ... Gawd!

Profoundly low and achingly aggressive, the car is shaped like a speed-elongated ellipse, with a two-seat open cockpit and twin roll bars rising up from the mid-engine faring. Great dueling scars are cut into the body just aft of the doors, admitting air to the brakes and engines.

Provisionally, Porsche say the car will travel in excess of 205 mph and accelerate from 0-200 kph (124 mph) in fewer than 10 seconds. However, they swear the car will get faster and quicker before production.

Clearly, Porsche has not lost its way.

Moments after the car appeared through the Rue de Rivioli gate at the Louvre, the bulbs started going off, in cameras and in the cognoscenti's mind. The reason Porsche had dropped out of endurance racing was that this car was a domesticated version of the Le Mans Prototype (LMP) car that the company developed, but did not race. Since the only folks with the skills to develop the Carrera GT were on the race team, Porsche had to drop out. We were hasty to judge them. I for one apologize.

Also, it seems crystal-clear to me, Porsche has been sandbagging its critics. The Cayenne project is purely a cash source so that the company can pursue development of more exotic, more exquisite sports cars, and naturally, to fund future racing. Meanwhile, such tactical concessions as the Cayenne allow the company, one of the few remaining independent car firms, to maintain autonomy.

That makes me very happy.

A few more details on the Carrera GT: The body shape, vaguely reminiscent of the 718 RS Spyder in its profile and the cant of its windshield, is set off with brilliant optics: The headlights feature two reflective discs operating with bi-xenon gas discharge lights; neon tubes are used to form the side lights, the turn signals and the high-mounted brake light in the rear. The effect in the near-dark of the Louvre plaza: Starship Carrera.

In the rear, an integrated wing rests on curvaceous pillars. When the car's speed exceeds 62 mph, the wing deploys, creating substantial downforce to keep the rear end secure. To keep the front end down, the car's radiators are angled upwards, forcing the nose down ever harder as speeds increase. Meanwhile, the undertray of the car is flat, with a rear diffuser built into the rear, a la the Ferrari 360 Modena. Such flat-bottom design creates a suction effect under the car, drawing it to the pavement.

The motor is straight race, right out of the LMP program. All-alloy with Nikasil liners, the V10 (64-degree angle) sports four valves per cylinder (we can assume, though Porsche didn't say, that the valves would be VarioCam, or variable timing and lift, controlled), titanium conrods and dry sump lubrication. The transmission is Porsche-engineered six-speed sequential gearbox.

The motor is bolted to the back of the carbon tub (that's where the cockpit goes) and the motor/transmission assembly is a stressed member supporting the suspension. Like most full-race sports cars, the GT uses inboard, pushrod suspension front and rear.

Perhaps the most important single parameter of a racecar is its brakes, and the GT Porsche will field ceramic composition brakes, exactly like you would find in the pits in Le Mans (you can also order them on the 911 Turbo in a month or so). In addition to being 50 percent lighter than cast-iron brakes, these ceramic units dissipate heat quickly and last almost forever. Porsche will use 8-piston front calipers--a first in passenger cars--and 4-piston calipers in the rear.

The front wheels are 265/30 R19's and the rear are 335/30 R20's--in a word, huge, wrapped around forged magnesium rims. These wheels are some of the most beautiful, and I daresay expensive, wheels I've ever seen. Don't drag these on the curb.

So Porsche has built a Le Mans racer for Joe Sixpack, cardiac surgeon. The car will sell for around $350,000, you know--give or take floor mats. It's interesting to me that the super sports car is picking up globally, and Porsche swears it will make money off the Carrera GT (some companies take a loss on such cars, just to have the halo product). Let the good times roll.

It certainly was worth getting out of bed for.

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