Weighing just over 2,200 pounds, the 597 is some 440 pounds heavier than a 356. It manages a maximum speed of around 60 mph, but gets noisy by the time you get up there. On motorways, a cruising speed of no more than 50–55 mph is best. Most of the noise comes from the 597’s chunky tires, as its engine isn’t as raw as you might expect.
The 597 comes with a five-speed manual gearbox, which is easy to operate. This, too, feels very Beetle-like, but it comes with shift-on-the-fly convenience for the AWD. On normal roads, the transmission sends most of the power to the rear wheels, but an automatic locking differential allows power to be transferred to the front differential through an automatic coupling. When the going gets tough there’s an extra-low gear, but it’s best engaged while creeping.
I do just that when we reach the woods, and it works beautifully. The drive shaft rubs against the steel tunnel when you shift into reverse, but Schmidt says that it’s not a problem. Slowly but surely, we approach sandy bars and the little Porsche creeps up them with insect-like ease. When we later try to do the same in a Cayenne, the heavy SUV’s wider wheels dig themselves in immediately. For off-roading, the plainer Porsche definitely beats its plush successor.
With its clever four-wheel-drive system and excellent off-road capabilities, the 597 went into the Bundeswehr’s test program looking good. But it had a strong disadvantage, too: It was expensive. Borgward came with its square and simple Goliath Type 31 while Auto Union brought its LKW, which would later be known as the Munga. Despite the Porsche’s great performances, the Bundeswehr opted for Auto Union’s two-stroke Munga due to its relative simplicity and far lower cost. It reportedly cost one third the price of Porsche’s 597 while offering at least two thirds of its performance.
Ferry must have been frustrated with this, having spent 1.8 million marks to develop his armed all-rounder. But he had a backup plan: Offer the 597 to the civilian market. At this point, the car was renamed the Jagdwagen, with Germany’s landed gentry as the obvious target. A more refined design was contemplated but never brought to reality. So apart from its paint colors, the Jagdwagen did not differ from the military 597.
The problem was that, unlike today, there wasn’t much of a customer base to advertise the car to. Predictably, there were few takers. Jagdwagen production came to a close in 1958, after only 71 units had been built. There were still hopes for an updated version in five different body styles, but this never happened. Porsche would not put another 4×4 vehicle into production until 2002, at a time when the market looked — and turned out to be — ready to receive it.