Something New

Porsche’s latest four-door isn’t a dream, a prototype, or an SUV—it’s a low-slung, four-passenger production sedan. We head to Germany to find out how it drives.

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October 1, 2009

Let’s start off with the obvious: What we have here is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a pretty car. The Porsche Panamera is an imposing car, a car that demands your attention, a heap of impossibly clever engineering stuffed inside a long, low, and unorthodox shape. But it is not pretty.

Predictably, this is how its maker seems to want things. Stuttgart views its one and only four-door sedan in the cold, hard light of economic reality, a light untinted by romantic concepts like beauty. If the words of company executives are to be believed, Porsche sees its latest four-wheeled wunder as one of the key links in its production-car chain, a balls-to-the-wall gift to the world that will both please the purists and open new demographic doors.

As you might expect, the details are fascinating: Stuttgart expects to sell roughly 20,000 Panameras a year worldwide, a figure that, depending on who you talk to, is either wildly optimistic or suspiciously modest. 60,000 people in the U.S. have expressed interest in buying a Panamera. And in the words of Klaus Berning, a member of Porsche AG’s board of directors, Por­sche believes that the Panamera “closes the gap between the 911 and the Cayenne.”

That last statement may seem a tad arrogant — after all, far more than a couple of doors and a basic layout separate Porsche’s most iconic product from its most controversial one — but surprisingly, it’s not far from the truth. The Pana­mera’s stretched, arching shape incorporates a great deal of Cayenne and 911 design DNA, and the car’s styling details are an odd mix of traditional Porsche touches and nods to current luxury-car fads. Elegant fender humps and a tongue-shaped hood are paired with seemingly tacked-on fender vents and garish rear badging. The interior is a medley of cleverly used company hallmarks (the four seats that ape the 911’s moderately bolstered buckets), odd ergonomic choices (the seemingly endless array of buttons on the front console), and wonderfully crafted materials. In short, from a purely superficial standpoint, the Panamera looks like the love child of a Cayenne and a 911.

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Much of this effect is intentional. As Porsche designer Michael Mauer puts it, “designers love challenges, and the [Panamera’s] development goal was that the car be instantly recognizable as a Porsche.” Fittingly, Stuttgart officials make much of the fact that the Pana­mera’s five-door shape is “completely new,” a product of original thinking from one of the most focused marques on the planet, while simultaneously emphasizing the car’s inherent Porsche-ness. (An entire section of the press conference at the Panamera’s European launch was devoted to analyzing the car’s design and how it relates to that of earlier Por­sches.) Frankly, the juxtaposition of the two concepts seems a tad forced.

Nevertheless, if you believe the company line, Porsche’s direction has never been clearer. Nor has its typically Teu­tonic confidence. In referring to Stutt­gart’s products and business tactics, Berning once said that “anyone who [claims] the company is mediocre fails to appreciate reality.” Dr. Michael Steiner, the Panamera’s technical director, has stated that Porsche “doesn’t believe that the Panamera will out-sell the 911.” And Detlev von Platen, the CEO of PCNA, has stated that although Porsche’s U.S. sales have dropped 30 percent in the past year, the company is “cautiously optimistic” that the economy’s worst will be “over by fall.”

The Panamera’s success rides on that prediction. Porsche chose to launch the V8-powered Panamera S, Panamera 4S, and Panamera Turbo before the inevitable hybrid or V6 models, and the spec sheet for even the base Panamera S is a feast of expensive, luxury-market technology. A twin-clutch, seven-speed PDK manumatic, PASM electronically adjustable suspension, and a direct-injected, 4.8-liter, dual-overhead cam V8 are all standard, as are eight-piston (front) and four-piston (rear) aluminum monobloc calipers. The list of available options is a mile long, and it includes everything from PDCC active anti-roll bars and an electronically controlled rear differential lock to adaptive air suspension and a Burmester surround sound system. Not, in other words, the kind of stuff you sell to a world largely on the economic skids.

We’ve examined the Panamera’s technical details in these pages before (Excellence August, 2009), but it’s worth reviewing the basics: The 4.8-liter V8 found in the Panamera S, 4S, and Turbo is an evolved version of the one found in the current Cayenne, a lighter, stronger iteration of the same basic concept. Magnesium valve covers, lightweight cam adjusters, a lighter crankshaft, and lighter connecting rods help minimize weight, and a compact crankcase bedplate allows for a remarkably short oil pan (all Panamera V8s use an “integrated dry sump”). In the interest of a lower hood line and more efficient packaging, all-wheel-drive Panameras sport a front driveshaft that passes through the sump — a marked change from Cayenne practice, where the same shaft passes underneath the engine.

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The 500-bhp, 516-lb-ft Panamera Turbo boasts the same basic engine as its more prosaic (400 bhp/369 lb-ft) S and 4S brethren. Displacement, bore, and stroke are unchanged, and with the sole exception of a dual-length intake manifold — present on the S/4S, absent on the Turbo — and a pair of turbo­chargers, the Panamera’s two V8s could be twins. The Cayenne’s tubular steel exhaust manifolds are missing, having been replaced by a pair of integrated, cast-iron manifolds that incorporate the “hot” half of each turbocharger housing.

The Panamera’s front and rear suspension design is somewhat predictable; a double-wishbone front axle is paired with a multilink rear, with both front and rear systems being housed in removable subframes. The S and 4S models are equipped as standard with steel coil springs and Porsche Active Suspension Management, which offers three damper settings. The Panamera Turbo boasts a version of Por­sche’s adaptive air suspension system, which can adjust ride height across a 45-mm range.

Eighteen-inch wheels are standard on both the S and 4S, with 19-inch units being fitted as standard to the Turbo. (20-inch wheels are available as an option on all Panameras.) Braking is accomplished by the aforementioned aluminum monobloc calipers and cast-iron rotors. The Turbo is fitted with larger brakes than the S and 4S, but a PCCB carbon-ceramic setup is available on all three models at additional cost.

Porsche chose to host the Panamera media drive at the stately Schloss Elmau castle near Garmisch-Parten­kirchen, in southern Bavaria, but our trip began on the outskirts of Munich, a few hours away. And even in seen-it-all southern Germany, a parked Panamera draws a lot of attention. Pedestrians stumble off of sidewalks, bus drivers do double-takes, and small children point from the inside of passing cars. For all the attention, you’d think that we were about to tool down the autobahn in the Space Shuttle.

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Nevertheless, the technology-meets-astonishing-size-meets-spacecraft image is an appropriate one. If the Panamera looks ungainly and stilted in photographs, like a gorilla in an undersized, three-piece suit, then the effect is only amplified in person — the car appears far larger than it really is, a slightly awkward shape crafted with purpose, not aesthetics, at the fore.

At first glance, any number of styling details put you off: the overly heavy rear; the 911-mimicking nose; the awkward, bulging, roofline. The Panamera’s bodywork is seemingly consumed with cross purposes — it has the nose-heavy heft and presence that a front-engine sedan requires, and yet it also possesses the rear-biased proportions of a modern 911. The net effect is an odd, distinctly un-Porsche sense of largesse.

Happily, the interior is exactly the opposite. In traditional Stuttgart fashion, the Panamera’s insides offer not the slightest bit of wasted space, and apart from a slightly old-school console — the area surrounding the shift lever, with its million-and-one buttons, looks about as modern as the keypad on a Motorola StarTac — everything is contemporary, stylish, and incredibly well-made. The interior reeks of research and emotion, of intelligent thinking and obsessive attention to detail. Everything from the carpet to the headliner feels like the product of a small, dedicated team of engineers, as if someone handed five Weissachians the inside of a Bentley Continental and said, “Make this, but do it at half the price.”

The most interesting thing about the Panamera’s interior, however, is how much like a cockpit it feels, regardless of where you’re sitting. The rear seats boast substantial bolstering and tall headrests, and the chunky, full-length center console gives both front and rear passengers the feeling that they’re riding in something special. As you’d expect, given the car’s roofline, rear headroom is nothing short of stratospheric. You could cram an NBA star into the back seat, strap him down, and he’d still have room to wear a hat. A big hat.

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Of course, none of this would matter if the Panamera drove like a Ford Pinto. Thankfully, it doesn’t. Our journey out of Munich began behind the wheel of a Panamera Turbo; within a few minutes of leaving Porsche’s car park, we were on the autobahn heading south. A few minutes after that, we entered a derestricted zone and sent the large, central tach needle spinning.

Let’s get the negatives out of the way first: The steering is a bit overboosted and numb at low speed. PDK is probably the single best twin-clutch gearbox on the market, but it’s no substitute for a good manual ’box and a clutch pedal. The Sport Plus damper setting produces a choppy, fidgety ride on anything other than glassy pavement. Engine and induction noise is a bit too subdued for our tastes; unless you have the windows down and the stereo off, you can barely hear the drivetrain. And the Turbo/4S all-wheel-drive system occasionally binds and clunks at low speed, but only if you crank in significant steering angle.

That’s it. Everything else is…well, everything else is fantastic.

Sound like hyperbole? It’s not. The Panamera Turbo is an astoundingly competent car, a silent cocoon of speed that launches itself from horizon to horizon with a happy mix of raw drama and stealthy composure. The steering weights up and comes alive at speed, and while it’s not as feelsome as the rack in a 911, it’s nevertheless far better than it has any right to be. Full-throttle starts on slippery surfaces produce a mildly violent launch, the power being shuttled back and forth between the front and rear axles (nominal torque split is a staggering 97-percent rear bias, but up to 100 percent of drive torque can be shuttled to either axle); there’s a bit of wheel hop, a little bit of tail-wagging, and then you’re simply gone. And below 150 mph on smooth pavement, you can safely tool down the road with little more than a pinky on the steering wheel.

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The Turbo’s engine, however, is the biggest charmer — it’s smooth and un­obtrusive at low speed, yet it also offers seamless torque almost anywhere in the rev range. Turbo lag is present but minimal, and triple-digit thrust is simply epic. Regardless of which shift mode you choose, the Panamera’s PDK calibration is essentially spot-on, grabbing the right gear at the right time with minimal delay.

The Panamera 4S and S are essentially the same experience, minus a bit of curb weight (the Turbo weighs 4,344 pounds; the 4S, 4,101; the S, 3,969) and with a small amount of added steering feel. All three cars boast quick turn-in, monstrous rear grip, and a danceable, tossable feel that belies their size. Pre­dictably, the S’s steering feel is the best of the lot, its chassis the most nimble and responsive. Regardless of which model you choose, braking ability is fantastic, with the standard iron-rotor brakes hauling the car down repeatedly from absurd speeds with excellent retardation, progressive ABS intervention, and a rock-solid pedal. The $8,840 PCCB option is, as you’d expect, mind-blowingly, impossibly capable, and perhaps the best set of luxury-sedan brakes currently on the market.

Unfortunately, and especially when driven back-to-back with the Turbo, the S and 4S are mildly disappointing when it comes to straight-line speed. Both cars boast respectable 0-62 mph times — 5.4 seconds for the S, 5.0 for the 4S — but neither one feels as fast as it is. The naturally aspirated eight sounds throatier and more burbly than its forced-induction sibling, and it revs a bit freer, but it’s saddled with too much weight to provide impressive acceleration.

For all intents and purposes, the Pana­mera competes in a model niche that barely exists. Consider the facts: The base Panamera S costs $89,800 and produces 400 bhp. The 4S? $93,800 and 400 bhp, but you get all-wheel-drive. The range-topper, the Panamera Turbo, costs $132,600, produces 500 bhp, and also offers four driven wheels. And no matter what anyone says, none of them have any real competition.

Porsche sees the Panamera’s opposition as the usual suspects: Mercedes-Benz’s AMG sedans, the BMW M5, the Audi A6/S6/A8/S8, and the Maserati Quattroporte. This is all well and good, but quite frankly — and we say this having tens of thousands of combined miles in each of the models mentioned above — none of them even come close. The AMG offerings? They’re either far less refined or far too refined, and most of them don’t qualify as truly sporting cars, focusing too little on driver feedback. The Audis? Wonderful cars, all, but somewhat lacking in build quality and steering feel, and their cabins are too isolated. The Quattroporte? The naturally aspirated Panamera S and 4S may not sound as good, but they’re more involving to drive. And the M5, while a worthy effort, simply comes across as a wonderful engine in a staid, complex shell.

That, then, is the point. With the Pana­mera, Porsche may not have designed and built a perfect car, but it did do something that none of its competition could do: build, in the best sense of the phrase, a luxury-oriented, four-door sports car. That car may not be perfect — and indeed, from a standpoint of driver involvement and styling, the Panamera is still in need of a bit of fine-tuning — but it’s nevertheless worthy of the badge on its hood. And that, pretty car or not, is all that matters.

Also from Issue 177

  • 996 GT3 vs. 997 GT3
  • Early short-stroke 911 shootout
  • Mille Miglia with Gijs van Lennep
  • Rare 964 Turbo S2 Driven
  • 930-powered 356
  • Interview: Paul Ritchie of PMNA
  • Market Update: 911 Turbo
  • Porsche Icon: 911 GT1-98
  • $0.79 911 Foggy Headlight Fix
  • Project 914 3.6: Details, and First Drive
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