First drive: 2015 Porsche 911 Targa

BARI, ITALY — Theoretically, a Targa should be the perfect Porsche. Combine the open air motoring of the open-top 911 Cabriolet with most of the chassis rigidity of the similarly designated Coupe (the reason for this distinction is that lopping the roof off a car, like chopping the tip from a soft-boiled egg, dramatically reduces its inherent strength) and one should have the ultimate example of Porsche performance and luxury.

Of course, theoretically, we should have been able to find Malaysian flight MH370 within hours, democratic elections (how do you spell corruption in French?) would always result in political leadership we are proud of, and a morning hair of the dog cures even hair-splitting hangovers. Real life, where metal meets road and sometimes wind, rain and snow, is a harsher judge. If you want a quick lesson in the chasm that sometimes separates the abstract from the literal, ask the owner of a 1996 993-era 911 Targa if his roof leaks in the rain. Or squeaks over bumps. Or whistles at high speed. Or…well you get the idea.

Nonetheless, that elusive combination of Coupe-like performance with Convertible-like ambiance is still the promise of this, the seventh-generation of 911 Targas. And it’s not a promise without substantial allure. Historically, Targas have made up some 13% of all the 911s sold (853,000 and counting), and in some generations, more than double that.

The Targa's interior remains essentially identical to other current 911s.

The Targa’s interior remains essentially identical to other current 911s.
Handout, Porsche

The question, then, is whether the 2015 version of the Targa can marry these seemingly disparate goals or, if you really desire open air motoring, should you just opt for the Cabrio?

For the most part, it does. In some cases — particularly in the area of styling — it far exceed expectations. Nonetheless, anyone looking for coupe-like performance sans toit may be expecting a little too much.

The number works like this. A current 911 Coupe has a torsional rigidity of 30,000 Newton-metres per degree of body twist (essentially the amount of force applied that will twist the 911′s body by one degree). The Targa, at 13,200 N-m/degree has slightly less than half of that. Those disappointed by that figure should note, however, that the Cabrio takes but 12,000 N-m to get a degree out of square.

The counter-argument — and it’s a good one — is that the Targa is stiff enough. Unlike past Targas (and Cabrios), cowl shake — parts of the chassis getting out of synch with one another over bumps so that one notices vibration in the instrument cowl — is kept to a minimum. Even over bumpy roads, said flexing of chassis is never bothersome. Push really hard and, eventually, you will sense a deficit in “connectedness” compared with the Coupe. However, the Targa’s performance — at least anywhere other than the confines of a high-speed racetrack — will not be limited by its lack of a fully formed roof, its trademark metal-coloured roof rail acting as body stiffener as well as rollbar.

Indeed, though the Targa (like the Cabriolet) has slightly softer suspension than the Coupe (to minimize the impact of bumps to the somewhat limper body), it has a special shock absorber with built-in rebound spring that limits that deficit in spring stiffness. In effect, over small bumps, the dampers initially react the same as the Cabriolet’s, but as suspension travel increases, it firms up to almost Coupe-like stiffness. In other words, when the corners get hot and heavy, the Targa’s handling is more Coupe than Cabriolet.

Neither is the 911′s legendary steering diminished by its roof minimization (or the fact that the steering is electrically boosted). Believe it or not — since Italy is the land of wayward motoring and the curved road — we didn’t get all that much chance to sample its handling delights. Nonetheless, the communication, the feedback that the sporting driver demands, is all there. All in all, the Targa is a fine handling machine, any deficit to the 911 Coupe requiring a very quick turn around on a racetrack to be noticeable.

It’s also (semi) practical. For instance, Targas will only come to Canada in torque-vectoring, all-wheel-drive guises — the 350 horsepower, 3.4-litre Targa 4 and the 400-hp, 3.8L 4S — and, for once, the retractable hardtop stowaway roof is not a hindrance to cargo capacity. That is, of course, because a 911 doesn’t use its rear hatch for cargo. Nonetheless, it is impressive that Porsche was able to carve out enough space to stow the magnesium and fabric top above the boxer engine. It is worth noting that said mechanical stowing, unlike some modern convertibles, requires being at a standstill, the retracting arms not strong enough to do so during, say, a 40 kilometre an hour wind blast. Besides making the system compact enough to fit above the engine, Porsche says the more compact system also kept the price down to below the Cabrio: $115,900 for the Targa 4 and $132,600 for the 4S.

The new 911 Targa succeeds for the most part in combining Coupe-like performance with Convertible-like ambiance.

The new 911 Targa succeeds for the most part in combining Coupe-like performance with Convertible-like ambiance.
Porsche, Handout

As for the actual performance, what can I say? It’s a Porsche 911, albeit with 90 extra kilograms to drag around. We only drove the 400-hp 4S model and, performance wise, it felt identical to every 911 Porsche I have tested. The engine sounds sweet, revs with enthusiasm and is never once uncivil. If you’ve driven a modern 911, you’ll be quite familiar with feel and sound; if not, rest assured that it is deserving of the legend that surrounds the boxer six. For the record, both versions accelerate to 100 km/h in less than 5.2 seconds (4.8 for the 4S) for the manual-transmission versions. Both iterations are available with said seven-speed manual as well as the optional PDK dual-clutch transmission, the quicker-shifting manumatic good for about a 0.2-second edge in acceleration (0.4 if you opt for the Sport Chrono option).

I’ll not spend too much time on the Targa’s interior as it remains essentially identical to other current 911s. The only item I will point out — other than reminding one and all that Porsche cabins have improved significantly over the last few years — is that the company’s navigation system is still a little wonky. Tricky intersections — i.e. those that are more acute than the standard 90-degree square — can be confusing.

I will, however, make comment on an attribute I seldom touch on; styling. The Targa’s styling, in a word, is exquisite, melding the original’s classic roof rail with the whale tail of a modern Carrera 4. Said rail (with three gills and a Targa badge, just like the 1965 original), the rear curved rear window (made of two pieces of semi-tempered glass with a thin heating element sandwiched in between) and the fabric-covered top add just the right amount of retrospective to an otherwise thoroughly modern sports car. It also, according to unanimous contention amongst the assembled auto scribes, looks equally good top up or down.

Indeed, it is these looks that would make me choose the Targa were I shopping for a 911. The practicality of all-wheel-drive, the open-air motoring of a Cabriolet and most of the performance of a 4S is a combination I would find very difficult to resist. Too bad they don’t make a Turbo version.

2015 Porsche 911 Targa 4S

2015 Porsche 911 Targa 4S

Origin of the Targa

Porsche initially unveiled its first Targa — named after the famed Targa Florio race — at the 1965 Frankfurt motor show, but it wasn’t until 1967 that it actually got the green light and hit the market. Its original raison d’etre was that Porsche was unwilling to sacrifice the chassis rigidity that a period convertible usually entailed. Nor, however, was it willing to give up the 17% of sports car market share that “open tops” then commanded. Thus did the Targa’s “half-open” design originate. Porsche did away with the traditional Targa roof bar with 1996′s 911 and its panoramic glass roof. Besides the issues noted earlier, the 993 edition Targa’s styling left much to be desired and the sliding roof reduced rear visibility when stowed. Porsche’s decision to return to the classic format was a wise one.

About David Booth