A stone’s throw away from the perpetual snarl of L.A.’s 405 freeway is a 53-acre facility that stakes a German flag in the heart of SoCal’s car culture. Unlike the Prius-clogged interstate, the new Porsche Experience Center (PEC) liberates traffic-addled commuters, freeing them to fulfill their fantasies of unfettered, full-tilt driving.
The Carson, California, location is Porsche’s second North American Experience Center outside of their headquarters in Atlanta, making the U.S. the only nation in the world with two. Lucky us. The $60 million facility, whose sprawling property was built over a former golf course and landfill, offers fleets of Boxsters, Caymans, Cayennes, Panameras, Macans, and 911s that can be sampled on numerous driver-development courses. Also located on the property is a restoration facility, a gallery of racecars, and a surprisingly quality restaurant named after Porsche’s most fearsome racer, the 917. Oh, and of course there’s a gift shop — you know, for well-heeled, adult-sized kids.
Porsche’s driving courses are creatively structured, encompassing everything from the basics of manual transmission driving ($665 for 1.5 hours) to an opportunity to compare mid and rear-engined cars ($625 for 1.5 hours), Turbo vs GT3 911s ($950 for 1.5 hours), and on and off-roading in a Cayenne ($440 for 1.5 hours).
In the name of science, I sampled each of the PEC’s eight handling courses using the full spectrum of P-cars. While the off-road section showcased the Macan’s ability to traverse obstacles (including a giant teeter-totter), climb a steep grade, and control its descent speed using the car’s electronics, we had to go slow. To speed it up, I was unleashed on the road course in a 420 horsepower 911 Carrera S, Porsche’s pre-eminent, rear-engine sports car. The course echoes famed corners from circuits like Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca’s corkscrew (which, curiously, is run uphill, not downhill as in the original). Also emulated is the Nürburgring’s banked carousel, which is setup following an acceleration straight where drivers can sample the car’s launch control system. Designed to catapult the car from a standstill as quickly as possible, launch control sinks your heart to your ankles as the car speeds to 100 mph in just a few seconds.
While the road course can help you finesse and modulate your braking, accelerating, and cornering skills, the PEC’s low friction sections breaks down the fine art of car control in an arguably more effective way. Consider the friction circle, a wetted-down, donut-shaped stretch of tarmac that enables you to experience traction loss in slow motion. Losing control enables drivers to better comprehend how a car’s balance and grip levels relate to each other. A polished concrete handling course challenges drivers to maintain control of their cars while sliding sideways, and the so-called ice hill combines a wet, super-slick surface with a steep 7 percent decline and a turn. And finally, the pièce de résistance: a slippery, soaked straightaway includes an easter egg to shock all but the most zen-like drivers, what the Porsche team calls a kick plate. This hydraulically controlled road surface suddenly jerks to the right or left with the sole intention of throwing your car out of control. Try to overthink it and pre-plan, and there’s a good chance you’ll over-correct and spin down the water-slicked surface. Stay in the moment and let your instincts and reflexes prevail, and you just might countersteer your way out of the mess.
Few performance cars can be pushed to the hilt in a city like Los Angeles. Without the freewheeling pleasures of the autobahn, how can a conscientious driver discover what their car can do without receiving a stream of speeding tickets? With a weapon as potent and refined as a modern Porsche, there is perhaps no greater automotive luxury than knowing what to do when things go sideways.