I know, I know: this isn’t the most imaginative choice of annual automotive highlight. In many ways, it’s arguable that it shouldn’t even be allowed, what with the 992-generation 911 being well over a year old now. However, the bit of it that is new – a seven-speed manual gearbox – transforms the very good into the flippin’ fabulous.
It really is amazing what the addition of a DIY gearbox can do to the character of a car. In PDK automatic guise, the 911 Carrera S is an incredibly polished piece of kit with a sublime chassis, but there’s always a sense that it’s in control of proceedings as much as you are. That’s not the case with the three-pedal car, which forces you to be completely engaged from the moment you prod the starter button. Whether you’re pottering or pressing on, this 911 is a total immersion driving device.
The stubby leather-topped lever that sprouts from the centre console has a grittily mechanical short throw that’s as amenable to lazy, slow changes as it is to an arm-pumping maximum-attack action. Either way, you’ll find yourself swapping cogs just for the hell of it. A rev-match system helps with the silky-smooth changes, but with such perfectly placed pedals, you’ll want to heel and toe your way to the perfect downshift.
Then there’s the way the gearbox encourages you to maximise that gloriously flexible flat six, which, with 444bhp, will leave you questioning how much faster you’d ever really need to go. You can short-shift to your heart’s content, letting the lag-free elastic energy pull high gears from low speeds. Or alternatively, you can hold onto a gear until the exhaust note turns from hollow bark to scintillating howl and the needle on the rev counter kisses the limiter at a heady 7500rpm.
Yet it’s the relative purity of this car I like. Not only is it 35kg lighter than the PDK model and features a mechanical limited-slip differential in place of an electronic item, but its unadorned body also looks like a 911’s should. Yes, it’s a little wider than the base Carrera, but it’s still more compact than most and there’s none of the wild aero and extra vents of the peacocking Turbos and GTs.
And while its grip and composure are mightily impressive, the limits are not so sky high that you can’t exploit the car’s unique rear-engined balance on the road. We’re not talking outlandish angles of attack, just an ability to operate in that sweet spot between slip and grip at speeds that are the right side of anti-social. This is not a machine that only comes alive with a committed track attack.
If there’s a cherry on top of the Carrera S cake, it’s that for the 95% of the time you just want to get from A to B, it slips effortlessly into your life. My kids fit in the back seats, there’s space for luggage in the deep front boot and the ride and refinement are no worse than most compact execs’. This is a car you would, and should, use every day – and it’s why it’s my (not) automatic choice for 2020’s top spot.