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1990s Battle: Ferrari 512TR vs. Porsche 911 Turbo

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author photo by Doug DeMuro February 2017

I went in thinking I would prefer the Porsche. I generally like Porsches, because they're subtle, and understated, and they don't like to be the center of attention, just like me. I wear old t-shirts. Porsches are for people who wear old t-shirts. Ferraris are for people who wear form-fitting silk shirts with dragons on them.

So I drove the Porsche, and I loved it. Of course I loved it. I generally love older Porsches, and I had driven this particular model of Porsche before, and it was just as good as I remembered. Next up, I would drive the Ferrari. I knew I would enjoy it, sort of, and then I'd film a scene where I tell people that the Ferrari is cool and all, but it's also annoying for about 47,000 reasons, so I personally prefer the Porsche.

Then I drove the Ferrari. The Ferrari is cool and all. It's also annoying for about 47,000 reasons. But I'm not so sure I prefer the Porsche.

And suddenly I knew what it must've felt like, back in the mid-1990s, to be a newly rich investment banker, trying to decide which one he should pick for the 6-car garage in his mansion on Long Island's North Shore. A Ferrari 512TR? Or a Porsche 911 Turbo? The decision has been eating away at me since I drove the two cars, and it must've been eating away at him, too. The only difference being that I can't really afford either of them.

Which brings us right back to how this got started. I was recently contacted by a dealership in the New York area called Legend Auto Group, which has a truly amazing inventory of old Porsches and other unique sports cars and exotics. They offered me the chance to drive some of their inventory, which resulted in the most extreme decision paralysis I've ever encountered. Seriously, look at their inventory. How do you choose?

Ultimately, I decided on a 1990s battle: I would pit their 1996 Porsche 911 Turbo against their 1993 Ferrari 512TR, and I would decide which 1990s exotic is the better car -- 20 years after everyone else already made the decision.

So I started with the 911 Turbo. Folks, I spent 40 minutes with this thing, and I truly couldn't find a weird quirk anywhere. Modern Porsches have some odd quirks -- just because they're so loaded with technology that some of it has to be a little strange. But not the 1990s model (dubbed, in Porsche enthusiast circles, the "993"). This car has precisely what you need, exactly where you'd expect to find it, labeled precisely how you'd think it should be. No car is more precise than a Porsche 993 Turbo: It has literally no excess. There are only six buttons in the center control stack. The driver's armrest doubles as a storage pocket.

It's, uh, a different story with the 512TR. With the 512TR, if you can think it, Ferrari has made it weird. Every button is illogically placed, differently sized, and cryptically labeled. When you push one climate-control button down, another one pops up, like a whack-a-mole game. The exterior door handles are hidden, reverse gear is where you'd expect first to be, there's no radio, and the hood and trunk releases display only the Ferrari logo and nothing else. It's almost as if the person designing this car wanted you to laugh as you looked around the interior.

So I took the Porsche out on the road, and I loved it. I can't say enough good things about the 993 Turbo. It's easy to drive, in the sense that the gear lever is wonderfully precise, and the clutch is shockingly light and intuitive. Handling is crisp and perfect. The car feels so wonderfully well built, even 20 years later; the door latch and handle sound is as close to music as you'll ever get from ... shutting something. The car is perfectly sized, in a way that modern giganto-911s simply aren't. And power is just immense. I told a lot of people I was doing this comparison, and they all said something like, "Oh I bet those cars are slow by modern standards." They aren't. Or, at least, the Porsche isn't. What about the Ferrari?

So I put away the Porsche, and I sort of viewed the 512TR as a burden, because I've driven the 512TR's predecessor, the Testarossa, and I know how difficult they are. Namely, there's no power steering, so you're truly fighting with the steering wheel at low speeds. The clutch is monstrously heavy; almost laughably so, like it wasn't designed for human legs. And the exterior is massively huge, which is especially challenging because the car a) is fitted with tremendously small mirrors, and b) is wider in the back than in the front. This means that clearing something in front doesn't always mean you'll clear it in back, which is an enjoyable little game to play when you're driving a $200,000 supercar.

And, indeed, these things were true of the 512TR. It was awful.

But I also discovered something else I hadn't noticed during my brief drive of a Testarossa many years ago. This thing is FUN.

The 512TR uses a 420-horsepower flat V12, and it's mounted directly behind your head. It absolutely screams. I can't ever recall hearing any engine in my entire life that goaded me to push it harder, and harder, and faster, and faster, and more, and more, until I realized I was truly driving this thing how it was intended to be driven -- and I was loving it. The power steering lightens up at higher speeds, and you forget about the clutch when you're winding up the symphony behind you at 7,000 rpm. Most importantly, the handling is amazing: It feels like a Lotus Elise, and not even a bigger Lotus Elise, but just a Lotus Elise. No power steering means no vagueness, and no uncertainty, and no lightness; the 512TR's steering wheel was like a direct link to its wheels. Never in my life have I ever driven a car whose character changed so dramatically by simply going faster.

I started off my review of the 512TR complaining. I finished it laughing, and giggling, and grinning from ear to ear, cognizant of the fact that I had just driven the single largest go-kart ever made. I was also limping with my left leg.

More importantly, I was no longer so sure of my choice. The 911 Turbo is something you can drive every single day, and something that'll thrill you when you do it. But it won't even come close to providing the same experience as the 512TR. You can't drive the 512TR every day; you wouldn't want to. But you can drive it once a week, or once a month, to really get your blood pumping. And I can't believe I'm going to say it, but I think if I were making this choice between the daily-drivable Porsche and the once-every-so-often 512TR, I'd rather have that occasional thrill.

Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.

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1990s Battle: Ferrari 512TR vs. Porsche 911 Turbo - Autotrader