x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

The Porsche 918 Spyder is lean, green, mean and as fast as a Formula One car

Porsche’s mighty new 918 Spyder is mind-numbingly rapid – perhaps even F1 fast, writes David Booth.

The Porsche 918 Spyder uses an ingenious hybrid system to deliver horizon-blurring supercar performance that challenges the Bugatti Veyron, plus impressive fuel economy, across a range of selectable driving modes. Courtesy of Porsche
The Porsche 918 Spyder uses an ingenious hybrid system to deliver horizon-blurring supercar performance that challenges the Bugatti Veyron, plus impressive fuel economy, across a range of selectable driving modes. Courtesy of Porsche

The hardest-accelerating automobile I have ever tested was an Arrows Formula One racer, Damon Hill’s 1997 Arrows A18. Detuned, with an “everyday” Cosworth V8 filling in for the rare-as-hen’s-teeth Yamaha V10, it was nonetheless faster than any Ferrari that I have ever driven. Faster than a Bugatti Veyron – even the 1,200hp Grand Sport edition. Indeed, while it may have been a decade old when I got behind its carbon-fibred wheel, nothing that I have driven since, and certainly no production car, has come close to matching its ferocity. Every time that I hit the loud handle, I felt like I was caught in one of those cartoonish escape scenes from Road Runner.

But I think that Porsche’s new 918 Spyder might be just as fast.

Yes, a road car as fast as an F1 open-wheeler is impressive stuff, even if said racer was as unsuccessful as the Arrows (poor Hill recorded but one podium, the year after winning the drivers’ championship). That the road car is a four-wheel-drive, plug-in electric hybrid that purports to possess superior fuel efficiency (Porsche claims a thoroughly outlandish 3L/100km) just makes that claim all the more phantasmagorical.

For the record, the Weissach edition (41kg lighter and US$84,000 [Dh308,532] more expensive than the US$845,000 “basic” 918) accelerates to 100kph in 2.6 seconds, 200kph in 7.2 and 300kph in 19.9. That this last is not quite as fast as the Bugatti Grand Sport, as has been widely reported, matters not a whit because, behind the wheel, the 918 really is nothing short of cartoonishly quick.

Depending on which button you’ve pushed, there’s even varying degrees to the Porsche’s rapidity. In its pure Electric mode, for instance, the 918, accessing only the 129hp and 156hp electric motors on its front and rear axles (respectively), accelerates to 100kph in 6.2 seconds, meaning that it’s faster than the average sports saloon even before its 608hp, 4.6-litre, racing-inspired V8 has started internally combusting.

One notch up is the hybrid mode. Said 4.6L lights off and, depending on the speed and throttle application, the petrol engine may or may not add to the proceedings. Floor the throttle, for instance, and the big V8 will accelerate the 918 with more than enough urge to keep up with the 911 Turbo S that’s serving as our pace car around Valencia’s famed Ricardo Tormo Formula One racetrack. Indeed, on the gas in Hybrid mode, the 4.6L roars. But cruise at a steady speed and the petrol engine will flutter in and out of consciousness, the engine shutdown while coasting sometimes annoyingly abrupt.

Toggle it up to Sport and things start getting really dramatic, with the high-revving (9,150rpm) V8’s bark now a constant reminder of the evil that lurks within. What was but as quick as a sports saloon running on electricity alone now runs down that Turbo S with relative ease. It’s seriously quick, though not quite yet otherworldly.

That comes soon enough with one more toggle twist to the Race setting, which, through the miracle of combining lithium-ion, permanent magnets and high-compression pistons in just the right measure, now threatens to play bumper cars with our Turbo S pace car every time that the track straightens for more than a hundred metres. One second, you’re way behind the 911; the next, that 560hp Turbo S risks becoming an ornament on the 918’s bonnet.

What’s really scary, though, is that the 918 still has one more, freakishly fast mode to go. It’s called Hot Lap and, for this, one depresses a little rocket-launcher-like red button in the middle of the mode toggle and, in about the time it takes to circumnavigate Ricardo Tormo’s four kilometres at speed, the lithium-ion-cobalt battery dumps all of its 6.8 kilowatt-hours to those two electric motors. No holding back a few electrons in reserve, no worrying about range anxiety, no wondering where the next plug-in station may be; the big battery just fires out every bit of electricity at its disposal to the wheels in one glorious burst of excess horsepower. That’s when you decide that this thing might be as fast as an F1 car and ramming into the back of that 911 Turbo becomes a serious concern. I suppose that Ferrari’s 949hp hybrid, the LaFerrari, may prove slightly quicker when it’s finally released, but you might want to check if your ticker is up to the adrenalin rush.

Thankfully, the rest of the big Porsche is up to the task. The chassis, which is basically two huge pieces of carbon fibre bolted together by six 12-millimetre, high-strength steel bolts, offers the rigidity of Pre-Cambrian Shield granite. Coupled with adjustable Bilstein dampers and double wishbones (the rear with a fifth link), it means that there’s so little roll that one starts asking whether Porsche has sprung active suspension on us. The crowning glory, though, is that the 918 steers its rear wheels as well as its fronts. Indeed, according to Michael Holscher, the 918’s technical project manager, the three degrees that the rear wheels can also turn is worth up to five seconds per lap around the Nürburgring. In other words, that measly three degrees of rotation is the difference between the 918’s much-vaunted sub-seven-minute lap (6 minutes and 57 seconds, to be exact) around the Green Hell and just another – ho-hum – seven-and-something-minute circulation. Around Ricardo Tormo’s 14 turns, you’re always challenging the custom Lear seat’s side bolstering.

As impressive as the 918’s cut-and-thrust ability may be, however, it pales with its ability to scrub off speed. Like all hybrids, the 918 uses regenerative braking to recharge its battery. According to some reports, this results in some vagueness to the brake pedal, with the reverse polarity of the electric motors not generating the feedback that a good old hydraulic system might.

I experienced none of this on the racetrack. Indeed, I found both power – thank you carbon ceramic discs and six-piston callipers – and feel. Holscher says that the hybrid Porsche incorporates a unique system that ingeniously melds electrical and hydraulic braking together simultaneously – it’s more than up to the challenge. Techno-trickery aside, all that I know is that I was consistently outbraking Matthias Hoffsuemmer, a former endurance racer who was driving the pace car, into corners and it had far less to do with talent than it did with the incredible brakes, a low centre of gravity and the huge (365/35ZR20 front and 325/30ZR21 rear) Michelin Sport Cup 2 tyres’ limpet-like grip. Every lap was one huge, heart-in-the-mouth moment accelerating up Ricardo Tormo’s kilometre-long back straight and then a whole bunch of little ones every time that we braked for a corner.

The icing on the cake is that the 918 is also much easier on the nerves than Stuttgart’s previous attempt at supercardom, the Carrera GT. That car lacked a modern electronic stability system, nor did it feature all-wheel-drive (the 918’s front electric motor, controlled by an engine-management computer, works as a de facto all-wheel-drive system). Compared with the GT, which spent far too much time sideways, the 918 is a piece of cake to drive fast, with the AWD system pulling as well as pushing and the electronic stability nanny ensuring that the front and rear wheels stay more or less in-line. Even the electric power-steering offers all of the precision of the hydraulic variety. Where the Carrera GT was the most difficult supercar that I have ever driven, the 918 is one of the more user-friendly.

A few imperfections do arise, however, when you take the 918 out of its preferred racetrack milieu and try to do something normal with it – say, commuting. In Electric mode, that aforementioned brake vaguery does rear its ugly head. Not so much spongy as springy, it feels like Porsche tried to imbue some “feedback” into the electric brakes, but instead of emulating a hydraulic system, it feels like artificial springs are pushing back on your foot. The sensation disappears the faster you drive and the more aggressive the driving mode selected, but at creeping speeds, they are just plain weird.

As well, the motor that sounds so sonorous on the racetrack merely drones on the highway. The exhaust outlets are right behind your ears and, with the targa roof removed, it sounds as if those internal combustions are being piped directly into your auditory canal. At high speeds, the engine may sing a delightful tune, but cruising at a steady buck-twenty, you’ll wish that someone would turn down the music.

Lastly, there’s the question of how frugal something as powerful as the 918 can really be. On the one hand, it’s a petrol/electric hybrid with all the expectations of frugality that plug-ins promise. On the other, it’s an 887hp supercar. Which of those diametrically opposed extremes will hold sway?

It depends on the situation. The 3L/100km claim is simply fantasy, but we did see 7L on one highway outing in Hybrid mode. In the city, though, 18L was more the norm, unless we had sufficient juice to run on electrically only, which, if our experience is anything to judge by, the 918 can do for about 20 or 25km.

Overall, that’s a long way from those claims, but impressive nonetheless, considering the performance. After all, how many supercars capable of almost 350kph do you know that can manage seven litres on the highway?

The 918 Spyder could have been faster

Yes, you read that right. The fastest production Porsche in history, a car that hits 100kph in 2.6 seconds and tops out at 345kph, could have been, had its engineers made a few compromises, even more rapid. Porsche chose to not take advantage of every ounce of speed that it could squeeze out of the carbon-fibred, hybrid supercar. There’s even, as one would expect, logical reasoning behind the decision.

Much has been made in the motoring press that, while the 918 is quicker to 265kph than Bugatti’s all-conquering Veyron Grand Sport, it lags above that speed.

The explanation for this deficiency is that one of the 918’s two hybrid electric motors – the front 129hp unit – is directly geared to the front tyres, and by the time that 265kph is showing, the little permanent magnet motor is already spinning at its 16,000rpm maximum. Above 265kph, Porsche expediently disconnects the front electric motor, lowering the 918’s 887hp peak to somewhere around 760hp. Hence, the 918’s acceleration is comparatively slow above 265kph, if one can even remotely imagine that 19.9 seconds to 300kph can somehow be deemed anything other than stupefyingly fast.

Porsche could have added a two-speed gearbox to the front motor, the second cog allowing the front electric motor to function past 265kph, thus erasing that high-speed acceleration disadvantage to the Bugatti, says Fabian Grill, the 918’s electronics and hybrid expert.

But, says Grill, that extra gear would have added 8kg to the 918’s all-up weight, an expansion that Porsche was unwilling to accommodate. As Grill points out, just the 41kg that the Weissach edition reduces (3.5kg alone by eschewing paint) compared to the regular Spyder is worth three seconds per lap at the Nürburgring and, ultimately, it was determined that saving those 8kg was of greater importance than any theoretical gain in top speed. It might have been faster in a straight line, says Grill, but slower round corners.

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