In a first drive of the hybrid Porsche 918 Spyder, George Nell finds it a blueprint for supercars to come.
Porsche has made a genuinely exciting yet planet-friendly supercar
It's been two decades since the reunification of Germany but Leipzig, for all of its culture, vitality and commercial success, still bears testimony to the secret world of tradecraft inhabited by the fictional George Smiley and Stasi master spy, Marcus Wolf, who did it for real.
Indeed, a museum depicting the "work" of the once feared Stasi - the state security service of the former East Germany - is a stark reminder of the past. In its day, the Stasi was known as one of the most effective and repressive intelligence and secret police agencies in the world. Back then, even the shadows had teeth. Now, just down the road from the museum, in a lively boulevard overflowing with groovy young things, a busking three-piece band is cranking out a passable version of Hey Joe next to a billboard of Beyoncé advertising a swimwear brand.
We're in town to test - along with only 14 other reporters from around the world - the Porsche 918 Spyder, arguably the most groundbreaking machine yet from the automaker. Perhaps appropriately, we have to sign more documents of embargo and confidentiality over what we were about to see and experience seemingly than there are secret papers in the Stasi museum. Ironically, Porsche's factory, which has been a boon to the city, and the phenomenal proving ground that's part of the facility are on what was once a secret military installation. A number of concrete bunkers litter the off-road course - another stark reminder of what life was like behind the wrong side of the Berlin wall.
But the only foreboding felt by anyone here today has to do with the fact that we are the first journalists to get behind the wheel of a ballistic car that will be recorded as a trailblazer in the annals of motoring. The 918 Spyder is a particularly exotic supercar, with the LaFerrari and McLaren's P1 as the main competitors, and we've scored the chance to drive the prototype on a bleak, wet day in Leipzig. No pressure, then.
The finished product will be revealed this autumn at the Frankfurt Motor Show, and you can buy one in the Gulf next January if you have a spare Dh3.3million. "This prototype gives you a fair idea of what the car will be like," says the project chief, Frank-Stefan Walliser. "The benchmark for the 918 Spyder was actually the grand prix track in Abu Dhabi in the heat. Our target was to be able to handle Yas Marina Circuit.
"We initially revealed an intention to build a successor to the Carrera GT with a concept we showed at the Geneva Motor Show in 2010. But, with Porsche's change of top management at the time, a definitive decision to go ahead wasn't made until 2011. It is a clean-sheet project. The whole car has been developed from scratch."
The 918 Spyder is a "plug-in" hybrid with two electric motors alongside a V8 engine. The speed - and there's plenty to be had - is helped by using lightweight materials, and drivers get to choose between maximum efficiency and performance with the Spyder. This is a car that packs 887hp yet is as friendly to the planet as a Prius.
Being force-fed into cars like this is nothing new for a gentleman of height and girth. Refreshingly, once inside, there is ample headroom. The view from the cockpit is a treat, but to the rear it is still a bit awkward at this stage. But just slipping into those comfy buckets, even for a driver or passenger who walks on the wide side, makes you want to grab a helmet, rip around the Yas track and check out the effectiveness of that benchmarking.
There are five modes for three motors and that's really the core of this vehicle: the distribution of power among the units and how they work together. Porsche developers defined the five operating modes that can be activated by a "map switch" on the steering wheel as happens in motorsport vehicles. Even when you're in full flight, the switch couldn't be more user friendly. You turn the key and, when the vehicle is in "e-power", it's basically the calm before the storm. This is the default operating mode as long as the battery is sufficiently charged. Nudging the Spyder onto the track and taking it in e-power for half a lap, you're dealing with a quiet and sensible car. Yet, in pure electric mode, the Spyder accelerates from 0-to-100kph in less than seven seconds and can cover 30km on just electric power. In this mode, the combustion engine is only used when needed. Should the battery's charge drop below a set minimum value, the car automatically switches to hybrid.
Next comes efficient and comfortable "hybrid", followed by "sport hybrid", "race hybrid" and the lethal "hot lap". In hybrid mode the electric motors and combustion engine work alternately, focusing on efficiency and fuel consumption. In livelier situations, the combustion engine operates continuously and provides the main propulsion force, with the electric motors' support with boosting. This mode is all about performance and sport driving at real-deal speed.
Unlike the rest of the species, this Spyder isn't finished if you stamp it on the floor. When you hit the pedal hard, it's like being hit in the back by an NFL player. Race hybrid is for maximum performance and you make the combustion engine earn its keep, but there's nothing you can throw at it that the vehicle can't handle in spades. It also charges the battery when the driver isn't using the maximum output. And the gear-shifting programme of the dual-clutch PDK transmission is set up for even sportier driving, with the electric motors once again kicking in with extra boost. And if you've got that Yas urge, the hot lap button in the middle of the map switch releases the car's final reserves, with the battery pushed to its limits for a few fast laps. This mode uses all available energy in the battery.
Some here bemoan the lousy morning weather, but it's an opportunity to take the car out on a wet track and we learn the handling limits easily enough, as there is plenty of clear feedback from where the rubber meets the road. However, these parameters are expanded to the hilt when Walter Röhrl, the rallying hall-of-famer, takes us individually for a series of laps, which will no doubt remain a blur for some time. You certainly don't have to floor it to get performance. From the laps I've just driven in the rain on the wet surface, and then with Röhrl to get a pretty reasonable second opinion, the available grip is nothing short of astounding.
And as for the audio, let's hope if they ever put a stereo in this car, it cuts off when you get out of e-power, as it emits a gorgeous growl that makes Janis Joplin sound like Justin Bieber. This earthbound space shuttle uses 55 computer/controllers, a Linux operating system running HTML5 and complete Bluetooth/USB/internet app integration, but it doesn't offer AM radio as the antenna was considered too much trouble for the fading audience of today.
When you're cruising along in hybrid mode, you might think this car is extremely well-mannered. But appearances definitely deceive because, if you're good enough, you can do the 0-to-100kph sprint in three seconds or less and accelerate up to 325kph. But the hybrid technology sees the Spyder averaging a staggering 3.0L/100km when using both power sources. We're talking record-breaking emissions and fuel economy as low as a standard runabout. It's incredible stuff.
As fast as any car is, though, if its brakes let it down, there's little point in taking it on track. Thankfully, pulling the Spyder up in a hurry is more like hitting a wall, and it repeats this all day with no heat-oriented fade. Braking technology has advanced in leaps and bounds and this hybrid system ensures braking recuperation of up to 0.5g.
Voilà! The sun has broken through and we now have a dry track. The driving experience can be summed up as fast, furious, with precise performance and sharp handling. You can guide rather than steer. But whatever the conditions, the agility and manoeuvrability of the car are firmly to the fore, thanks in no small part to the 918's rear-axle steering.
Only 918 cars will be built (yes, it is a bit naff doing this) and deposits are already in for half of them. We're told that reports that all were pre-sold are incorrect and the number of cars booked for the Middle East hasn't been confirmed, although executives are at pains to stress the importance of the market.
When you try to boil down the standout features and innovations of the Spyder, it has to be the integration of all the control systems and the ease of use. We're not just talking about a green car here that you can go nuts in, rather a big chunk of the future of motoring. Porsche has learnt a lot about high-revving vehicles from the 918 Spyder and the wealth of knowledge from the project will go into future models across the spectrum. That means us mere mortals might get a chance to experience some of the magic on a daily basis.
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