x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

That certain something

Throughout its illustrious history, the Porsche 911 has been the standard in which sports cars are judged by, but seldom did it present the most impressive specification sheet.

The Panamera will appear bulbous to some and classically styled to others. Either way, Porsche is hoping the car attracts enough buyers to justify its target of selling 20,000 unit a year.
The Panamera will appear bulbous to some and classically styled to others. Either way, Porsche is hoping the car attracts enough buyers to justify its target of selling 20,000 unit a year.

MUNICH // Despite its reputation for unbridled sportiness, it's important to realise that Porsches, at least the street-going variants that most of us are familiar with, are neither the most powerful nor the fastest in their segment. Throughout its illustrious history, for instance, the 911 may have been the standard by which other sports cars were judged but seldom did it present the most impressive specification sheet.

Compare recent 911s - even the mighty GT2 - with Chrysler's Viper or even the Corvette and the Porsche will almost always have slightly less horsepower and probably accelerate a little less quickly. In fact, the top echelon of both those American pretenders can also generate more G-force, the almost universal objective measurement of cornering prowess. Yet, time and again, in comparisons by experts around the world, the 911 almost universally trumps its competition. How can this be? Slower in a straight line and slower through a corner does not sound like the attributes that make a winner.

Indeed, read road tests of past Porsches and you'll often find seemingly boring adjectives like "balanced" and "communicative" sprinkled throughout the prose. They are not to be dismissed. For while more dramatic adjectives may make for more stirring copy and better bench racing, seldom do they make for better sports cars. With apologies for all those who like their road tests more succinct, all of this is a long-winded way of saying that anyone thinking that Porsche's new Panamera will be the fastest four-door saloon that man has ever built will need to revise their expectations. Oh sure, the top-of-the-range Turbo version sports some 500 horsepower, but that number is topped by both the similarly priced Mercedes AMG CLS 63 as well as the stupidly expensive AMG S65, but also by the much cheaper, supercharged Cadillac CTS-V, not to mention the incredible Bentley Flying Spur Speed. And while an argument can surely be made that the Panamera is faster round a racetrack than either of the two Mercedes and the Bentley, the Cadillac will most assuredly race around the Nürburgring - now the ubiquitous standard for judging sports car performance - more quickly than the Panamera.

What the Panamera does bring to the table are intangibles, those attributes that neither telemetry nor stopwatch can measure. It's that indefinable quality that sees the suspension, steering and powertrain all work as a cohesive unit. Not that the Panamera isn't fast. Outfitted with its PDK seven-speed double clutch gearbox as well as the optional launch control system, the Panamera Turbo will launch its 1,970 kilograms to 100 kilometres per hour in just four seconds. Even the slowest of the new Porsche four-doors, the base Panamera S, gets there in a scant 5.4 seconds thanks to its 400hp variant of Porsche's normally-aspirated, DOHC V8; the all-wheel-drive 4S version goes one better, accomplishing the same task in just five seconds (both V6 and hybrid versions are planned for the future).

The surprise, though, in all of this is that the fastest (and most expensive) version is not the most satisfying, at least for those drivers for whom sporty motoring is more than just racing away from a traffic light. Bulging with 500 horsepower and a meaty 700 Nm of torque, the twin-turboed Panamera is very swift indeed. Slow-moving Fiats and Citroëns are dispensed with but a whiff of throttle, and even passing trucks up steep Alpine climbs seems effortless.

However, the downside of all that muscle is a rather abrupt throttle response. In flinging-through-switchbacks mode, getting just the right amount of power to control the arc of your exit requires a delicacy of foot beyond my leaden right limb. Impressive as its acceleration may be, its overenthusiastic throttle response makes it difficult to play silly buggers in such a large car. Much more satisfying is the naturally aspirated V8 of the S and 4S. What it lacks in horsepower (100) and Nm of torque (200), it more than makes up for in control. The response to throttle tip-in is perfectly linear - as opposed to the Turbo's seeming magnification of your request - so tossing what is admittedly a huge car through a serious of corners is far easier. And though it pales somewhat in drama compared with the Turbo, it's impossible to consider the base car as anything but fast. Slower, yes, but it's a much more pleasant overall package.

All this talk of tossing a 1,970kg luxury car about may sound like a lot of hooey, but to be sure, that sportiness is to be the Porsche's calling card. Much was made in Porsche's press briefing about the fact that the Panamera's driver sits virtually as low in the car as a 911 driver does. Indeed, Porsche took the trouble - and the considerable expense - of building an all-new platform for the Panamera's 20,000-unit production run because, search as it might, it couldn't find an existing platform in the Volkswagen empire that was low or wide enough.

Throw together Porsche's inherent chassis expertise, a rash of optional handling goodies that include an air suspension system (standard on the Turbo), adjustable shock damping and a PDDC Porsche Dynamic Chassis Control system with variable anti-roll bars, and it's amazing what you can accomplish in such a large car. Fully outfitted, roll is minimal and the steering communicative. Even tight Alpine hairpins are not beyond its purview. It may not offer Lotus-like maneuvrability, but compared to the large sedans it competes against, it's downright sprightly.

If you've pushed the right button, that is. For inside the Panamera, there is a plethora of buttons controlling everything from the suspension firmness and throttle response to the throatiness of the exhaust. I lost count after 30 for the centre console area alone. There's far more in the door handles and the roof for pedestrian things like the power mirrors and the sunroof. As involving as all these choice may be, I think Porsche may have overdone it a bit. Simplicity, at least for some, remains a virtue.

The rest of the cabin is very satisfying. The instrument panel is reminiscent of the 911's except that one gauge area is also used for a miniature navigation display in addition to the system's main LCD screen. The seats are similarly bolstered. Even the seat leather is remarkably similar, though the roof of the Panamera is clothed in some ultra-fine Alcantara hide. The dashboard's styling is of course different and quite pleasing to the eye. And, like most of its competition, you can get a world-class audio system for the Panamera, in this case a Burmester system that claims 1,000 watts of ear-splitting power as well as 16 speakers with 2,400 square centimetres of speaker membrane; that's German-speak for a "wall of sound".

But the real difference is that the Panamera is the first Porsche sports car with a real back seat. Indeed, four full-sized adults (the 911 only comes with rear buckets) can comfortably fit in the new Porsche, provided no one that can dunk a basketball sits in the rear (the sloping roofline does limit headroom). Nonetheless, the back seats are not an afterthought. Rear-seat passengers will find their own air conditioning controls, and the Panamera is at least as roomy as a standard wheelbase Jaguar XJ. Even the trunk is impressive, swallowing our three large suitcases, a computer bag and two motorcycle helmets easily. Yes, the Panamera is practical, the one exception being the poor visibility out of the rear hatch caused by its dramatic styling.

About said styling, much will be written. To be sure, there will be no shortage of controversy regarding the Panamera's shape. To some, it will simply be bulbous. Others will see ghosts of the Bugatti's classic Type 57 Atlantic in the rear besides the obvious homage to the 911 at the front. Personally, I only find it awkward from the side. From all other perspectives - especially the three-quarter views, both front and rear - it is unquestionably appealing, though I doubt my opinion will do much to quell the naysayers.

What might dampen demand is that the base S version starts at $89,900 in the US, while the Turbo starts at $132,600 - and that's without even looking at the 30 or so pages of options Porsche offers seriously. Porsche's ambitions of 20,000 units worldwide may indeed depend on a faster economic recovery than most economists are predicting. There is no timeline for bringing the Panamera here yet, and no UAE pricing has been set. motoring@thenational.ae