Rear or Mid Engine? The eternal question.
By Edward Roose
There has always been this little debate among Porsche Peeps about what’s best, mid engine balance or rear engine grip. Funny thing is that this “eternal question” is only asked in the Porsche world. So do you prefer the Boxster/Cayman and other mid engined Porsches or the big daddy, the head honcho, the benchmark, the venerable the mighty 911 (in all it’s iterations) for stubborn rear engine fun and grip.
Yeh yeh we have all heard motoring journo’s and even Porsche aficionado’s who don’t own a 911 carry on that the engine is in the wrong place. But is it that simple? Can we get to the bottom of this with some firm answers? Probably not because each of us have an opinion and will most likely stick to it. I am not trying to change minds here but just attempting to shed some light on the issue.
From the very start the idea behind the 901 (911) was to have a rear low mounted boxer engine providing weight over the back axle thus giving more grip. However with this setup you also get less weight and less grip at the front giving way to understeer plus the tendency to oversteer at the drop of a hanky (read: lifting of a throttle).
It’s important to note though that sudden snap oversteer is essentially the "worst result" of rear engine engineering in it’s most early iteration. If we fast forward 55 years you can see that the current 911 range has amazing grip in spades and when driven correctly also has much less understeer. Its fast, stable, nimble and for the most part also light. It is the benchmark sports car right?
Having said that anyone who has driven a non PSM (Porsche Stability Management) equipped 911, even as late as the 996 C2 or Series 1 997 GT3 range will testify that you still can get that back end swinging around pretty quickly especially in the wet or if the driver was being a bit playful (stupid). I have a first hand account of this as I owned a 996C2 and ended up on the median strip once looking like an absolute goose and went sideways without warning on the track in my former 997.1 GT3.
Any PSM equipped 911 has the potential of actually making anyone look like a drift hero, especially if you have Sports Chrono. For those that don’t know the sports button re-maps the throttle response making it more edgy and backs off the PSM threshold. So when in the mood (like all the time) you can flick into the corner then catch the slide with opposite lock and power out into the straight. In most cases I have done this in my 911's equipped with PSM but when that warning light flickers it means the PSM is catching the slide, I guess without PSM I’d be in the bushes pulling branches out of the radiators and alloys. I admit it, I don’t have much talent in the sideways department.
So let’s do a rewind to 2008 while driving my very first Porsche, which was a lovely speed yellow manual Boxster S. I was at our local raceway approaching a fast downhill left hand corner with a little too much speed and bugger all talent. As I turned in the car suddenly snapped loose. Now this particular corner is very unforgiving the run-offs are hard gravel which means if you hit the gravel…..you will increase speed and hit the tyre barrier screaming, crying and yelling as you go.
Let’s pause for a moment and think about the implications of this! Travelling at around 125kph into a very difficult down hill corner when suddenly the rear of a NON PSM equipped Porsche being driven by someone who is rubbish when it comes to drifting has just lost grip and is heading for the gravel. For a split second I thought “oh shit I'm cooked” and so I started to whimper & pray.
What happened next? Well actually not that much. The car settled almost immediately and with very little fuss. Now I like to think the reason why I got out of that pickle was my great driving ability, but to be honest my talent bag has a bloody big hole in it. The real reason was the engineering coupled with the mid engine layout meant the car settled before I even had time to apply opposite lock and drive into a pile of old hard tractor tyres.
Actually when I wasn't trying to paint the crash barriers speed yellow, this 986 Boxster S was almost as quick around that track as most of the more modern 911's. It’s amazing to think that most of the 997's there that day which had more power & 8 years newer, in most cases struggled to put in a quicker lap. So is the mid engine layout better for the track? The sums seems to say yes, but what does the heart say? The head says more power is needed and move the engine forward a bit (like the new RSR haha).
So have we answered the rear v mid engine question yet? I think this question is like asking which is better, an ice cold Beer or a good glass or Red. Your trusty pair of Jeans or your best pair of Trousers? Your Raymond Weil Freelancer or your Timex Expedition? Watching telly with your wife or out with your mates at the pub? Really its all about what is best for that particular moment, that road, that track. I mean is one really "better" than the other or are they both good in certain situations? (OK, we'd all rather be at the pub)
In my humble opinion they are both best! I think that everyone needs a 911 and a Cayman/Boxster (etc) in their garage. Why? Because both of them are best and both can deliver all the thrills, spills and chills that Porsche have been engineering into every single vehicle since 1948. “Yes I honestly think everyone needs a 911 and a Cayman or Boxster in their garage”
So after being conciliatory what would I actually choose if I was using my money?
Well I love the way the Boxster would allow me to approach a corner at such a speed that it would cause the passenger to reach for the imaginary brake pedal. It’s a lot of fun seeing them press themselves back into the seat in anticipation of death in an “understeery fireball”. But if handled correctly the Boxster simply tracks around that corner and shoots you out into the straight with the speed and stability of a roller coaster. So there you have it…Mid engined is best, I prefer mid engine!
But then again I gotta say I love the way a 911 hunkers down when you apply the power just a little too early out of a corner. If you're in the right gear you can actually feel the rear tyres scrabbling for and acquiring grip as the car squats, leans, settles and shoots you into the next straight. All you need to do is make sure you set the 911 up correctly first before turn in, then get on the power and let the engineering cause you to giggle with delight as you fire out of the corner. Any 911 actually makes you a better driver. You need to always be thinking and it can take you a lifetime to work out how to drive them. So there you have it! My choice is rear engine, rear engine is best!
I’m just glad we are not throwing front engine transaxle Porsches into the fray, then I may actually be confused!