I've never made my loathing of Porsche's Panamera a secret and the model's success has me absolutely baffled. It's a four-wheeled monkfish and proves - if the Cayenne SUV's sales figures ever needed explaining - that people will buy anything if there's a Porsche badge on the bonnet. Well engineered, yes, but seriously ugly to behold and totally lacking in the sporting DNA of the 911 that Porsche insisted was prevalent as soon as one got behind the wheel. While Aston Martin's drop-dead gorgeous Rapide (which actually does drive like a sports car) has floundered, barely managing to register 1,000 sales a year, the Panamera carbuncle has gone from strength to strength. There really is no justice in this world.
The Panamera does impress on other levels. It's well made, the interior is lovely and it's fast. But even the bonkers-quick Turbo S manages to feel detached, alienating its driver. It's never been a sports car - straight-line speed notwithstanding - and I've never found any of them remotely entertaining. But what's this? I'm halfway round a really fantastic bend, near where Dubai's Emirates Road joins the E11, and the smile that had been creeping upon my face has just turned into a maniacal cackle. I'm in a Panamera and I'm having a blast - wonders will never cease.
It's the new GTS and it's what the Panamera should have been all along: sharp, focused, playful and rollicking good fun. There are visual clues to its character but the GTS is more than simply a pimped 4S. There's much in the way of menacing black trim to the exterior and the cabin's mix of black Alcantara and leather with contrasting red stitching and red seat belts tells you this is not just a businessman's express. But the real advancements in Panamera entertainment are to be found underneath that challenging bodywork.
The wheels are fitted with 5mm spacers, giving it a harder stance, the suspension is 10mm lower than standard and it drops another 5mm when you activate Sport Plus mode. This helps give the car much more composure when tackling corners. There's a new intake system, a remapped ECU to liberate 400 more rpm (it now redlines at 7,100) and the 4.8L, normally aspirated V8,develops more power and torque than before. There's a new sports exhaust, too, the default setting of which is set to "on".
On paper these advancements don't add up to a great deal, but mix them all together and they transform it into what Porsche claimed the Panamera to be when it was first launched. It's a four-door 911, and I never thought I'd write those words.
In Sport Plus mode (which is what I find myself selecting every time I get into it), the GTS wails, roars, gurgles, coughs and splutters like there are a thousand fireworks going off in the exhaust, that big V8 up front doing a mighty fine impression of Detective Bullitt's Ford Mustang. It's given the previously sterile Panamera a voice that begs to be heard, and not once does it start to grate on the nerves, even on a long journey. Of course, if you want limousine-like serenity, you can switch off the noise but, really, when a car sounds this good, why would you want to?
It weighs no fewer than 1,920kg, so it's still a heavyweight bruiser, but it feels alive and kicking, ready to wag its tail in any corner before firing you down the next straight like you've been shot from a pistol. It'll hit 100kph from standstill in 4.5 seconds and keep on powering up to 290kph, which is fast enough for all but the criminally insane, and it still has the environmental conscience of its brethren, switching itself off when you pull up to the lights.
I didn't get to try the GTS out during the international press launch in Spain, but those that did were treated to some valuable time at my favourite racing circuit: Ascari. The journalists I know who tried it out said that, while no owner is likely to ever venture onto a track in a Panamera, the GTS was actually enormous fun for such a large and heavy car. I had my doubts, but now I'm convinced, and I find myself seeking out corners, roundabouts, any piece of tarmac that isn't straight. Because every time I power on through this car makes me laugh out loud; it's a hooligan and I don't want to hand back its silly key.
Would I spend my own money on one? No. Porsche has proved with the all-new Boxster and the upcoming 918 Spyder that it can design stunningly good-looking cars when it tries hard enough. Even the Cayenne has evolved over the past decade into a (quite) attractive thing. But the Panamera badly needs a makeover. Yes, I'm shallow, but this car still looks like Shrek on wheels - although I live in hope. If the advancements made under the skin of the GTS are anything to go by, maybe the Panamera will, in time, blossom into something I would be proud to say was mine.
Price, base / as tested Dh512,700 / Dh603,540
Engine 4.8L V8
Gearbox Seven-speed DSG
Power 430hp @ 6,700rpm
Torque 520Nm @ 3,500rpm
Fuel economy, combined 10.9L/100km