Cooler than a convertible

New Porsche 911 Targa is a bold interpretation of a dated concept

Convertibles were all the rage in the United States in the 1950s and early 1960s, until political activist Ralph Nader singled out topless cars as being grossly unsafe, especially when it came to rollovers.

Porsche was very concerned that convertibles could be banned in its biggest market as a result of Mr Nader's campaign. In fact, it was so concerned that Porsche designer and chief executive officer Ferry Porsche himself designed the solution to this problem in 1965 - the Targa top.

Porsche touted the Targa as a 911 with the best of both worlds - an open-top car with a hard safety structure in place.

And folks lapped it up. Quite soon after its launch, the Targa captured as much as 40 per cent of 911 sales. It has now settled to about 10 per cent.

This might partly have to do with the fact that Porsche ditched the quaint Targa style in 1996 for a panoramic sunroof option. And it has stuck to this sunroof variant through five generations of 911s.

It is not surprising then that the German luxury carmaker is now heralding the return of the original Targa style.

The new 911 Targa relies on a clever adaptation of the 911 Convertible's mechanism to recreate much of the original Targa's form and function. But unlike the fixed hoop design of the original, the new Targa's roof is completely stowed away.

Clever canopy aside, the Targa is mechanically familiar.

The base 911 Targa 4 gets a 350bhp 3.4-litre Boxer engine, while the Targa 4S gets a beefier 400bhp 3.8-litre power plant.

Both variants use the latest Haldex all-wheel-drive system. Together with Porsche Traction Management, it can transfer torque intelligently between axles to enhance handling.

Most of the cars will be equipped with dual- clutch automatic transmission, as well as a Sport Chrono package. This combination allows the Targa 4 and 4S to scamper to 100kmh in 4.8 and 4.4 seconds respectively. Interestingly, the seven-speed manual is still available.

The car's roof mechanism, especially the huge piece of curved glass at the back, makes the Targa marginally heavier than the convertible. Thus, it is a tenth of a second slower in the century sprint.

But on the road, the more powerful Targa 4S does not feel inferior. In fact, it feels almost as eager and prompt as the 911 Coupe, despite being 135kg heavier.

Of course, the sensation of speed and acceleration is enhanced by the car's raspy, crackling exhaust note - amplified by its open cabin.

Like all 911s, the new Targa is a slick speed machine. Even with the accelerator to the floor, its autobox performs seamlessly and flawlessly. It is simply the best example of a dual-clutch system.

The southern tip of Italy is not known for good roads. Even the highways are pretty unevenly paved. This would normally be punishing to open-top cars. But remarkably, the Targa's ride remains superb.

Despite its less rigid open-top structure, the car shrugs off the worst of bumps to deliver a very composed and impressive drive experience.

Credit also goes to its all-wheel-drive system, which is a real boon on poor surfaces. It gives the driver more confidence to press on than a rear-drive 911.

With today's technology, rollover protection of open-top cars is no longer an issue. Most of such cars are equipped with concealed rollover bars that pop up just behind the rear seat when the vehicle is in danger of flipping over.

But Porsche's Targa has never needed this contraption since its first iteration in 1965, thanks to its special structure.

In its latest form, the model is actually a hard-top convertible with a twist, allowing three body lines to co-exist in the 911 range.

Even though it may not be the top choice where sheer performance is concerned, its unrivalled cool factor makes it alluring.

The writer is a regular contributor to Torque, a motoring monthly published by SPH Magazines.