Porsche's luxury tourer is refreshed, but Kevin Hackett feels like he's seen it before.
Road Test: 2014 Porsche Panamera S
Four years ago - to the very day - I was here. I was doing the exact same thing, in the exact same place, heading for the exact same hotel, in what appears to be the exact same car. I've experienced that feeling of unexplained familiarity before with new cars, but everything about the new Porsche Panamera international press launch seems to be geared up - for anyone other than journalists new to the game - to feel as a case of "same old, same old".
Your eyes do not deceive. This is, Porsche says, a new model, yet the Panamera's ungainly (I'm being extremely polite here) profile seems totally unchanged. There are blink-and-you'll-miss-them differences to the headlamps, the nose sections of the different models, the angle of the rear hatch, and the positioning of the rear number plate, but seriously, in four years this is the best Porsche's stylists could come up with? Just what is it that they do all day?
So those hoping for a styling direction change, in line with the company's recent Shooting Brake concept car, will be sorely disappointed. But what, if anything, has four years of development done for the rest of the car? For one thing, that time has seen a whole raft of model derivatives launched. Initially available as Turbo, 4S and S, there are now plug-in hybrids, diesels and extended wheelbase "Executive" editions developed for China in the line-up. And, quite unusually, Porsche has taken the step of launching all of them together this time, rather than drip-feeding them to us over the next couple of years.
Another thing that seems to have changed in the past four years is Porsche's marketing strategy with the Panamera. It used to be touted as a pure sports car that happened to have two extra doors, and I took exception to this. It never was a 911; it didn't need to be. Now, though, it's positioned simply as a luxury GT car, and that is something it always excelled at being.
First up for me is the crazy GTS - the "fun" Panamera. I do love this thing, at least from inside its Alcantara-clad cabin. It's lower and more focused than the others in the range, and its naturally aspirated V8 is a burbling, gurgling, spitting and yelling thing of absolute joy. After twisting its key, it's entirely obvious that this new one is no different from the last model.
The route from Munich Airport, where all the test cars are based, to the Schloss Elmau hotel in northern Bavaria, is frustratingly slow at times, because of intermittent torrential rain and heavy traffic. So my opportunities to stretch the legs of the GTS are somewhat limited, but it's certainly clear that, despite Porsche's efforts to reduce consumption (the new GTS drinks almost a litre less fuel in 100 kilometres than its forebear), this car is still a riot. Its deep bass baritone rumble is addictive, and power is up by 10 horsepower to 440hp. It feels sharp, goes like stink and seems, like most contemporary Porsches, to be built for indestructibility. I don't care that the blown V8 models are 17 kilometres per hour faster in a straight line and have 80hp more - this is the only Panamera that could claim to have an actual personality.
Out of the 10-model line-up, the following morning's dash back to the airport for me is in the rear-wheel drive Panamera S. And, apart from the ludicrous frugality of the plug-in hybrid (I didn't get to drive that but I will soon), the really big changes to the range relate to the S and 4S models. Out has gone the 4.8L V8; in its place a 3.0L V6 with two turbochargers that more than make up for its cylinder deficit. Power is up by 20hp (to 420hp), torque is up by 20Nm (to 520Nm), speed is up by 4kph (to 287kph), but fuel consumption is down by almost two litres per 100km, an 18 per cent improvement. It's quite a remarkable achievement for Porsche's engineers, who obviously have a harder taskmaster than the stylists.
Thankfully I'm on my own and much of the route back to Munich is made up of unrestricted autobahn. Where the roads are bone dry, I unleash the V6 by putting my foot flat on the accelerator, and am astounded by the car's ability to destroy the kilometres. As it charges on, its digital speedo adds numbers quicker than a machine gun discharges bullets, and it never feels anything other than totally secure and planted on the road's surface, even when it gets a bit inclement. Sitting at an indicated 280kph, it feels like there's way more than another 7kph in its repertoire, and I can honestly say that if I had to use any car to cross Europe on some emergency dash I'd choose this one. It's extraordinarily good to drive.
The new Panamera is, make no mistake, a deeply impressive car on a great many levels, and will no doubt continue to defy Porsche's sales predictions. I just hope that when an "all new" model emerges four years or so from now, it will have had some serious plastic surgery. Then I might grow to love it, rather than just respect it.
Base price Dh462,000
Engine 3.0L, twin-turbo V6
Transmission Seven-speed, dual-clutch DSG
Power 420hp @ 6,000rpm
Torque 520Nm @ 1,750rpm
Fuel economy 8.7L/100km
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