The car world is changing at an unbelievably fast pace. You have to look no further than the launch of the Porsche Panamera S Hybrid in Austria and Germany for proof. During the pre-drive briefing I opened the press kit and was confronted with it immediately – “The most economical Porsche of all time,” the bold statement was. With a head still trying to remember economy figures of cars such as the 914 and 356, a few minutes later I was out on an “economy” run… in a Porsche… on beautifully twisty roads. You may think this is not that profound, but I promise you it is. In the life of a motoring journalist there are a few givens. For example, you are guaranteed to end up with a startlingly big collection of caps and pens. But just as sure is the fact that a Porsche launch involves thrilling video clips of iconic racing cars, a racing circuit of some kind and the presence of one Herr Rohrl. But now you have this enthusiast’s car brand with an arguably unrivalled history of building machines that can set your heart on fire, asking journalists to drive as economically as possible.

The hybrid powertrain
What followed was of course entirely predictable. About half of us took up the economy challenge and set off on the 90 km drive that took in a mixture of highway, twisty backroad, traffic and stuck-behind-VW Jetta conditions. The other half decided to drive like normal people.

At first I was most impressed with the 6,8 litres/100 km figure that I eventually achieved. It is a very good figure after all, and matched what the boss-man of the Panamera project managed. But it came with the type of concentration, mind-numbing boredom and pussy-footing that few Panamera drivers will have an appetite for. Far more impressive was the fact that the guys that drove normally (somewhat fast, to be honest) back to the hotel achieved a figure of 8,8 litres/100 km. That is very good and actually puts Porsche’s achievement with this car in far better context. So yes, the Panamera S Hybrid is indeed very economical, though as is the case with most hybrids, you'll have to concentrate hard to achieve the figures claimed by its maker.

The hybrid powertrain is, in typical individualistic Porsche fashion, different to anything else on the market, except for Porsche's own Cayenne hybrid. It is a full hybrid – meaning you can drive on electricity alone for about two kilometres – and sees a 245 kW supercharged 3,0 V6 engine mated with a 34 kW electric motor. The combined output is 279 kW at 5 500 r/min. More impressive is the torque. The engine delivers 440 N.m from 3 300 to 5 250 r/min, and the electric motor 300 N.m from zero to 1 150 r/min. Add the two together and you get a combined figure of 580 N.m at a startlingly low 1 000 r/min. That is 80 N.m more than the V8-engined Panamera. Drive goes to the rear wheels via Porsche’s excellent 8-speed automatic transmission.

Strong performance
The electric motor draws power from a 1,7 kWh Nickel-metal hydride battery pack situated below the boot floor. The hybrid bits add 180 kg to the overall package, and this obviously has an effect on performance. Still, zero to 100 km/h in six seconds flat is not to be sniffed at and the top speed of 270 km/h makes it the fastest production hybrid vehicle in the world. By comparison the Panamera S V8 sprints to 100 km/h in 5,4 seconds and has a 283 km/h top speed. But the Panamera S Hybrid hits back hard in terms of fuel consumption, being a good 3,5 litres/100 km or so less thirsty than the V8. That’s quite a big difference in consumption then, and not a huge difference in terms of performance. On the road, the Panamera S Hybrid actually feels even faster than figures suggest, the lack of any kind of lag at low-revs and the presence of a very stable torque curve resulting in it always packing a monster punch. It also sounds intriguing at low revs, like a horizontally-opposed engine, I think.

We’ll publish a full driving impression in an upcoming issue of CAR, but there are a few things I’d like to highlight here. Key to this hybrid’s ability to conserve fuel is its ability to “sail”. First introduced on the Cayenne Hybrid, “sailing” entails the car’s petrol engine actually being entirely switched off and decoupled from the drivetrain in certain conditions. For example, cruise at around 120 km/h, lift your foot off the throttle pedal and “sailing” mode will be activated provided there’s a slight downhill gradient and the car is travelling at a steady speed. With the petrol engine entirely decoupled, there is no engine braking due to engine drag and therefore no resistance coming from the engine. You can “sail” like this for speeds of up to 165 km/h, and for surprisingly long distances, I discovered.

Another interesting element of the Panamera package is its E-Power button. Provided there’s enough charge in the batteries and you’re not driving like a hooligan (or a motoring journo), E-Power extends the range that can be covered by driving on electricity alone. In this mode the accelerator characteristic is changed so that acceleration commands are implemented more moderately to prevent the automatic starting of the petrol engine, therefore saving more fuel.

Pure Panamera
Besides its trick drivetrain and a few badges the Panamera S Hybrid is hard to distinguish from its siblings. This is of course a good and a bad thing. From inside, it is one of the best cars on the planet – the facia design is exquisite, the comfort levels unexpected, the space good and the build quality impeccable. From outside, however, time has hardly resulted in the awkard looks growing on me. But then again design is subjective and the cars are certainly selling well, so each to their own, I guess.

The Panamera S Hybrid goes on sale in South Africa in September at a price of R1 114 000, only slightly more than a Panamera 4S V8. Standard equipment on the hybrid model includes adaptive air suspension with PASM. Although it is no secret that this hybrid model is aimed primarily at a market such as America where the double whammy of tax incentives and a desire to be seen as being "green"  are making cars such as the Panamera S Hybrid very attractive consumers, it will also be interesting to see what effect the Hybrid’s introduction will have on V8 sales in South Africa.It depends to a large extent on how ready local performance car and Porsche diehards are to accept change. The Panamera S Hybrid certainly goes a long way in making a change in mindset easier.
You can view a video of this vehicle here

Stay in touch by following me on Twitter (@HannesO_CARmag)