GT3 Diaries

April 2019: unlucky

My first car had a manual gearbox, though that was by accident. Like most of my peers, I learned how to drive in a car with an automatic, because the driving test is difficult enough (relatively speaking) without the additional headache of rowing the gears yourself. Because of this, I didn’t know how to drive a stick at all, and on paper it would seem not so wise to learn it on a brand new car my parents have so painstakingly saved up to buy for me.

That’s not to say I didn’t ever want a manual transmission car; as a car enthusiast I relish at the opportunity. I just figured that it would be best to wait until I’m able to buy a sports car with my own earned money, post college with a proper job. As an everyday runabout that’s sure to get its dings and abuse (an 18-year-old male’s first car, what can possibly not go wrong?), an automatic gearbox is the better choice.

Except there weren’t any on the dealer lot.

With a focus towards minimizing insurance cost, coupled with the purchase propensities of Asian families, I was to either buy a Toyota Corolla or a Honda Civic. Neither had any modicum of sporting intentions, so I chose the Corolla largely due to the influence of my dad’s trusty Toyota Previa van. On the day of purchase, the only ‘S’ trim Corolla available had the five-speed manual instead of the four-speed automatic. Part wanting to get the process over with quickly, and part not knowing a thing about leveraging the Internet to buy a car, the deal was done.

It took a few days to learn the mechanics of changing my own gears, and it wasn’t without a few instances of smelly clutch. I can still remember the anxiety from starting off at a stop in first gear, feeling the immense (self-realized) pressure from the queue of cars behind me to not stall.

Before long however I got the hang of things, and thanks to the manual gearbox, driving the Corolla became much more of a joy that it would been otherwise. My subsequent two cars – WRX STI and MX-5 – were both stick-shift, with the former not even available with an automatic. For a time, I was amongst the camp of petrol heads that would never dream of owning a car without a manual transmission.

What’s so special about the manual gearbox? For some it may be in the perfect execution of the three-pedal dance; for me it’s the total control I have over the engine. How high and how much it revs is entirely up to my hands and feet. I honestly don’t care for operating the clutch pedal - it’s but a necessary component to manual box’s function. What’s most important to me is the ability to select the gears as I desire, without the intrusion of computers.

The dual-clutch PDK gearbox in the 911 GT3 is just about perfect for me.

Indeed I’m not sure I would tick box for the manual if given the option – the PDK is that spectacular. Having driven thousands of laps on the Nurburgring in racing game simulators, I’m decently familiar with operating shift paddles behind the steering wheel and shifting without a clutch pedal. My only concern was whether or not the GT3 – or any automatic gearbox worthy of consideration – can replicate the near instantaneous shift speeds I get in those video games. If an auto box’ isn’t at the very least equal to the traditional manual in that measurement, it’s got no place in a sports car I’m buying.

My worries were utterly alleviated at the first instance I executed a 1 to 2 upshift at redline in the GT3. The gearbox snapped right into the next cog without a hint of hesitation, and the exhaust bellowed a satisfying ‘whomp’ to signal the changeover. With the PDK, there’s no discernible difference compared to the equivalent manual, save for not having to physically move my feet. Should I feel nostalgic about selecting gears with a central lever, there’s provisions for doing so (baffling that Porsche got rid of the PDK lever in the 992), in the correct orientation, too: pull for up, push for down.

Most critically, the PDK will never upshift without my command: the system has no qualms about letting the tach needle hit the rev-limiter continuously - should I so chose.

Downshifts happen at similarly rapid speeds, too, and the PDK has an added bonus of automatic rev-matching. As long as there’s enough RPM headroom, the transmission will answer a downshift request. Each throttle blip is precise and syncs the gearbox to the engine with zero drama. Shifting down for no concrete reason to hear the motor blip its way through the gears is slightly antisocial but extremely cheeky fun.

If there’s one thing I do miss from a true manual gearbox, it’s the ability to perform the rev-matching with the stab of my own right foot. There’s a certain magic to judging the amount of throttle needed correctly, though admittedly it’s not my strong suit, especially on heel-toe maneuvers. Honestly I never did get super proficient in that advance manual driving technique, having not started practicing until I bought the Miata only three years prior. There were many instances of either too many revs, which gets accompanied by a complaintive chirp from the rear tires, or too few revs, where the aural complaints would emanated from the engine instead.

I’m glad there’s now a computer to do it for me.

Sacrilege to say for a “proper” car enthusiast? Perhaps; but times are changing, and technology have surpassed.

The modern automatic gearbox, in the guise of super slick dual-clutch units like the PDK, is truly the best of both worlds. It suits my preference of manual shifting with automatic clutch work superbly, and when I’m stuck in traffic, flicking the selector to ‘D’ and letting the gearbox completely do all the work is quite sublime.

I think the traditional manual still has its place: in a hot hatch, for example, the stick is still the gearbox of choice. However, in a sports car with the stature and spec-sheet of a 911 GT3, dual-clutch transmissions are the best partner. I’m perfectly content to never own another manual gearbox car again, and if that means handing in my car enthusiasts credentials, then so be it.

That said, never again is very far aways yet; it’s difficult to be definite about the future. I’ve only had the GT3 for three months, and the PDK box’ is not without its quirks. In its base automatic mode, Porsche has programmed the transmission logic severely towards economy, which explains how the GT3 manages to garner its 15/20 EPA numbers. The PDK will shift to the highest possible gear as soon as possible; excellent for slow, around town driving, but wholly inadequate for more spirited drives. Push the throttle flat to the floor, and the PDK will hesitate for a noticeable moment, as if questioning whether you’re sure you want all of the available power right now, before then dropping down a few cogs to provide the shove. Even so, the transmission will upshift again way before the redline.

There is a sport button for the PDK, which alters the shift logic to its spiciest. Problem is, PDK Sport swings the pendulum too far towards the other side of the spectrum, and I find it too extreme for public roads. Porsche’s literature states that PDK Sport should really only be used on a racing track. With the mode turned on, the gearbox will hold a lower gear commensurate with vehicle speed, even when the foot is taken off the accelerator, and it refuses to downshift unless in a braking situation; good, useful programming on a track, but for a mountain road its more frustration than thrills.

Obviously, the mode of choice for the PDK is full manual, but often times I do wish there was an automatic mode somewhere in between the save-as-much-fuel-as-possible standard and the bat-shit crazy sport setting.

Lastly, due to innate physical limitations, the PDK can at times be slow to shift. The speed of a dual-clutch system stems from the predictive quality of the secondary clutch: it’s already in the gear the computers thinks you’ll request for next. But, because it’s only capable of choosing one side of the up/down binary, there are times where the car guesses your intentions incorrectly. If I am currently in third gear, and the PDK thinks I want fourth gear next, but instead I flick the down paddle for second: the extra time it takes for the transmission to disengage fourth and jump to second produces a perceivable lag. This limitation is not the greatest of bother, though PDK is so incredibly fast most of the time that when it does arise it can be jarring.

No such limitations in a manual gearbox, of course; it can go up and down and skip cogs whichever way the driver wants, and it’ll shift as fast as the driver can coordinate its hands and feet. The dual-clutch automatic gearbox isn’t everything a manual can be, but for my purposes, Porsche’s PDK is everything I ever need from a transmission.

There isn’t much to report from the third month of GT3 ownership: mileage is down considerably due to other areas of my life encroaching on weekend driving time, even though the seasonal rain has largely subsided, which is a shame. Nevertheless, I’m simply happy there wasn’t any unforeseen incidents with the car – like the nail in the tire from last month – to divert my focus from simply driving.

The month wasn’t without drama, unluckily: on a rainy Sunday drive with some fellow enthusiasts out in the East Bay, the largest (relative) rock I’ve ever seen flicked off from a car in front right onto the upper portion of the GT3’s bonnet. A damper on what was otherwise fantastic proceedings, the errand debris left two unsightly gashes. Had I’ve been traveling a few miles per hour faster, the rock would’ve hit the windshield instead, which while not entirely ideal, would’ve been far easier and less expensive to repair than a painted body panel (GEICO insurance offers free glass replacement).

Such is the consequences of actually putting miles on a car, rather than parking it semi permanently in storage.

I understand this fully well, of course, but man does something like that still hurts. Fortunately, the GT3 came with paint protection film on the entire front end (thank you, first owner), and to my utter surprise, the film took the entire brunt of the impact. After cutting off the scorched portions, the paint underneath remains intact. It didn’t prevent the rock from leaving two tiny dents on the panel, though, but the damage is practically unnoticeable unless the location is indicated and you look super closely.

The vastly obsessive compulsive younger version of myself would pay to get that fixed for sure; current me is happy to let the slight blemish stay as is. Paint protection film is a sort of double-edged sword: while it can prevent a surprising amount of carnage, if you ever need to do a repair, the film has to be replaced as well, adding to the total cost.  

Anyways, other than the relative calamity of that stray piece of rock, the day of driving in the East Bay was the first time I attempted in earnest to explore the GT3’s limits, and great those limits are indeed. The long and winding Mines Road in Livermore served as the proving ground for car exploitation, and after two hours of heavy concentration – and sweat - hustling the car through the numerous twists and elevations, I can only report back there’s still much to learn.

The GT3’s capabilities are well known, but after having driven it in spirited fashion, I found it not to be the most inviting machine. It doesn’t cut the driver any slack: I never achieved complete confidence in understanding exactly what the car is going to do in a particular situation. Knowing the GT3 requires a prolonged exercise of teasing out its capabilities, little by little. There’s zero predictive feedback on whether an extra increment is possible: the car is either able to make that corner at that speed, or it can’t; finding out requires a slight leap of faith. 

It’s all a bit cold and clinical, fitting of the car’s German roots. The steering is sharp and precise, the suspension soaks up bumps with ease, and the mechanical grip is tremendous; the GT3 is supremely effective, if just lacking in that additional feel of reassurance transmitted to the hands and posterior. Part of this is no doubt due to the tremendously high ceiling of the GT3’s limits, and my utter unfamiliarity with piloting a car of its caliber. Accessing those limits is proving to be more challenging that I had expected. Turns out not any idiot can get in a GT3 and within a few hours able to extract close to its maximum.

Not this idiot, anyways.

Driving the GT3 in anger and getting the systems up to commensurate temperatures reveals an issue of sorts that’s rather unique to the 911’s rear-engine layout: the front trunk gets mighty toasty. In a “normal” car, the trunk is located at the rear, far away from the heat of the engine compartment. The 911 reverses this configuration, except for one key component: the radiators. In order to feed them the freshest and coldest of air possible, the heat exchangers of a 911 remains nestled behind the front bumper – directly forward of the front trunk. The stagnant heat gets radiated into that cavity, and whatever items you’ve got in there will receive a decent roasting. It’s not severe enough to damage my camera gear, though I wouldn’t want to transport ice cream in the front trunk after a run to the store.

Put it behind the front seats; there’s a considerable amount of space back there where in a regular 911 would be rear seats. What’s left behind in a GT3 are the platforms that serve fantastically as parcel shelves.

Expenses in April got ballooned by the payment for the annual vehicle registration. Sadly (for my bank account) though not unexpectedly, the GT3’s fees are quite substantial. Registration cost decreases with each successive year of ownership, but when the starting point is the ~$144,000 purchase price of the car when new, five years on the DMV fees are still into the four figures. Needless to say, as with any monetary concerns with this car (just wait until I take the car in for servicing!), it’s the highest I’ve ever had to pay by a good margin.

Fuel costs were largely the same this month even with the fewer miles thanks to the substantial increase in petrol prices in California. 91 octane has been hovering in the mid 4 dollars in the past few weeks, and filling up the GT3’s extended-range tank (23 gallons) in one go is getting dangerously close to the century mark.

The month of May is looking to be difficult for putting on miles: I have social functions to attend to the next three weekends, the third of which I’m skipping town entirely. I’m beginning to understand how people with weekend-only cars struggle to accumulate miles on them, as increasingly my other areas of life knocks off some of the precedence away from driving the GT3. It’s natural, isn’t it? The newness and excitement have certainly worn off since January, and these days it’s simply living with the car as it is.

Is the infatuation over? Hardly: getting back into the cockpit every time is still super special, and after parking, I continue to take an inordinate amount of time staring at the car before moving on.

Until next time.


Date acquired: January 2019
Total mileage: 26,161
Mileage this month: 601
Costs this month: $1608.18
MPG this month: 14.76 mpg