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STEVENSON, Wash. - A caravan of four exotic new sports coupes by Porsche, each driving nose-to-tail with the vehicle in front, chews up miles of rain-slick pavement draped over cliffs of the Columbia River Gorge.
The road rolls over rugged terrain, threading through clefts in rock, wrapping around fir-forested hillsides, dipping low in swings down to the broad river's bank. The ground-hugging coupes flex and flow with the route, melding into a continuous form of keenly sculptured metal and precisely honed machinery.
These are no ordinary drivers flying in formation ahead of this tester, who follows in fourth position. Each has earned his stripes as professional race driver for Porsche. Hurley Haywood, who has won 24-hour sieges at Le Mans and Daytona, steering countless souped-up Porsche racers, leads us. Immediately in front is Andy Pilgrim, the defending GT2-class champion for North America. Coupes in this caravan are not ordinary, either.
For this run, each amounts to an entirely new generation of Porsche's icon - the venerable 911. The 1999 edition marks the first new roof-to-belly design of 911 since its introduction in 1962 at the Frankfurt Auto Show. To the designers and engineers who worked on it, the version of the Porsche 911 used in this caravan is known by the numerical badge of 996.
Precise, impressive Porsche
It is, without question, the most precise and impressive Porsche ever to come from the Stuttgart crafter of precision German racing cars. Yet 996 is also a more easy-to-drive and forgiving car than any previous edition of the 911.
A cursory eyeball inspection of the sleek skin might provoke anyone familiar with the 911 format to wonder if anything has changed at all. After all, the figure of this new edition, while smoothly contoured to the point of sexiness, remains essentially true to the overall shape and appearance of any former 911.