LOS ANGELES -- Many automotive journalists, when asked for their fantasy road test, would promptly reply, "A Porsche 911, up the California coast."
Although I've been doing this job for 20 years, until a few weeks ago I had never been fortunate enough to embrace this experience.
I have evaluated the various 911 iterations over the decades, and for a few years I owned a well worn 1987 Carrera coupe in Venetian blue. But this was my first chance to blast a shiny new 911 Carerra S up the Pacific Coast Highway and Highway 101 from L.A. to Paso Robles wine country.
After life with my 1987 Carrera, one word I never thought I would use to describe a 911 would be "practical." My stout old 911 had zero cargo room under the hood and provided the air conditioning equivalent to a Doberman panting on you. The clutch was grabby, the steering required muscles I never knew I had, and its interior noise levels were akin to a Turkish soccer stadium.
Nonetheless, there was a primal connection to a machine that is rarely felt in modern car production. I loved it.
Fast-forward to today, when the world is celebrating Porsche's 50 years of refining the classic 911 design. The engineers in Zuffenhausen have created some fantastic improvements to their iconic car.
Porsche has made the driving process easier, without losing that man-machine connection. As for surprise-and-delight items, the 2013 edition has a cargo storage bin in its front trunk that easily held two suitcases -- or two cases of wine and a small duffel. The climate control is the efficient equal of any full-sized luxury sedan. The navigation system is clinical and straightforward.
Perhaps most startling: After more than 770 miles of freeway and back roads driving, the 911 delivered 25 mpg. That's the same as I got from a dowdy Hyundai Elantra I tested a while back.
Normally I am a stick-shift purist when thinking of sports cars. But as Whole Earth Catalog author Stewart Brand once said, "Once a new technology rolls over you, if you're not part of the steamroller, you're part of the road." If automatic transmissions are good enough for Formula One race cars, so be it.
My 911 tester came with Porsche's tongue-twisting Doppelkupplung dual-clutch automatic, and it changed gears far more quickly and precisely than I ever could on my old Carrera.
Somewhere north of Cambria, the 911's guards red paint aflame in the coastal gloaming, I snapped out of a narrow cresting chicane, the 911's back end protesting the lateral forces. I quickly paddle-shifted down two gears and found myself nearly aloft with acceleration.
Frankly, I like the view from the steamroller.
Driving a gleaming new 911 tends to elicit polarizing reactions. Unlike a Ferrari or Lamborghini, which prompts an eye-popping stare akin to a UFO sighting, a Porsche 911 somehow remains in the psyche of the middle class as a visceral, attainable objective. Usually, there was respect and a faint glimmer of awe from fellow drivers. Folks check you out.
But for those people resigned to never acquiring Stuttgart's finest -- and I'm talking to you, Mister Eggplant Toyota Highlander driver near San Luis Obispo -- there was the occasional passive-aggressive crowding maneuver more often seen on the back-straight at Talladega.
Not that everything was flawless with the 911 experience. A wind-whistle from the driver's window crept in insistently above 65 mph. Twice I witnessed a worrying "Error: Engine Malfunction -- Fanner" message from the instrument panel (I shut off the engine, waited 30 seconds, restarted the car, and no more message).
And while the 911 could almost be a grand tourer -- what with the 4 inches more wheelbase than its predecessor -- none of it seemed to go into the back seat, which remains the abode of Longchamp bags and Parson Russell Terriers. Gentle conversation still is drowned by the Wagnerian road roar transmitted into the cabin by the 20-inch wheels.
And, of course, it wouldn't be a Porsche if it didn't have ridiculous markups for options, which took my tester's sticker price up to an eye-popping $145,045; a stock Carrera S is $96,400. Ceramic brakes, leather trim, sport exhaust and "chrono" packages all cost dearly, well into four figures apiece.
My favorite road-trip-for-four car remains a late-'90s BMW M5, with its lumpy cams and refined road manners. But if it's a mad-dash escape for two into the sunset, the 911 has my number.