How would Wilbur and Orville Wright have felt if they saw a Concorde take off just minutes after completing their maiden flight in 1903? I believe their emotions would probably have been similar to my reaction to the new Porsche Panamera at the foot of Germany’s highest mountain. The Panamera is best described as a four-door bullet train; it’s swift, stealthy, and devastatingly efficient. Opinions about the car’s exterior looks may be widely divergent, and questions about its right to exist abound, but know this, dear readers… Forget everything you thought you knew about super saloons.
“Meh”. That about summed up my first experience of the Panamera. Granted, its got plenty more in-the-metal presence than I ever expected. At almost five metres in length and two metres in breadth, the “Fourth Porsche” has an unmistakable oblong profile, complete with a Carrera GT-aping arrow head front, fat C-Pillars, seemingly endless squared-off shoulder lines and a fleshy rear that would not look out of place on an executive sport ‘wagon made in France. It doesn’t have the easy, sensual style of a Maserati or the sinister stance of a big daddy ‘Benz, and although it looks every bit a handsome coupé when viewed 45 degrees from the front or rear, anything near to a full profile or rear aspect is, if not ugly, certainly lacking a sense of occasion.
The leather-swathed interior garnered my instant appreciation, however. It has bank vault build quality and a sloping centre console devoid of irritating control knobs and joysticks. The blocky dashboard is wonderfully simple and has a chunky aluminium lining, metallic-pattern inserts and the transmission tunnel extends to the back, where the two passengers have individual climate control consoles, reasonable legroom (thanks to the slimmed front seatbacks) and even some space for you to stretch your neck.
The media group that attended the Panamera event this week drove to the launch venue in teeming rain and poor visibility. The 4S positively glided over the asphalt, and I was astonished by its impressive ride refinement and low NVH, especially considering the big, low-profile gumballs fitted to the model I drove first. It was the first time that I had helmed a two-ton V8-engined car fitted with a dual-clutch (PDK) ‘box, and the latter ‘box proved slick, responsive and obedient in its actions. A faint rumble from the torquey V8 wedged in the Panamera’s engine bay serenaded me throughout. At the day’s end, I regarded the newcomer an accomplished big saloon with grand tourer poise…
But I wanted, no, needed so much more from the Panamera. And thankfully, I got my satisfaction on the next day’s test drive… and from an unlikely candidate!
Whereas the awe-inspiring Turbo model, complete with its dynamic air suspension, ceramic brakes and tectonic-plate shifting grunt can honestly stake a claim for the title of World’s Greatest Performance Saloon or four-door supercar, it was the rear-wheel drive entry-level Panamera S (fitted with the PDK ‘box as standard or a six-speed manual gearbox as a no-cost option when it reaches South Africa) that really opened my eyes.
Conventional wisdom suggests a super saloon is usually either an ordinary executive- or grand saloon fitted with a potent engine and tweaked with suspension, steering and electronic modifications. There have been many fine examples of such machines – BMW M5, Audi RS6 and S8, various ‘Benz AMGs and the Maserati Quattroporte to name a few. The Panamera changes all that… it was designed from the floorplan up to deliver hyper performance and even its most modest offering, the S, moves the goalposts in terms of handling dynamics and on-road ability.
Even on the slimy rural roads of Southern Germany, which were never dry during the launch, the Panamera S showed little evidence of its 1 770-kilogram kerb weight. Equipped with a mercifully light clutch and snappy ‘shift, the Panamera S committed to corners with almost telepathic directness. On other powerful saloons, the crispness of turn in depends on braking just hard enough at the entry to a bend and then feeding in as much steering as one dares to avoid nose-heavy understeer and a subsequent sloppy, ponderous exit. But that’s where the big Porker comes into its own… The Panamera constantly communicates with its pilot with subtle feedback through the steering wheel and its suspension relays the car’s balance through the driver’s seat. There are other cars that have supreme dynamic ability and offer added driver involvement, but the “Panamera Experience” just seems more organic and altogether plugged-in.
At cruising speeds, the 294 kW Cayenne-derived 4,8-litre V8 is tractable and otherwise demure, although one can unleash a deeper whirr on acceleration and feral bruh-bruh-bruh on throttle pedal lift-off at the press of a button. Either the standard composite brakes or optional ceramic composite discs provide fade-free retardation in the twisties. What’s more, you can get back on the power nice and early thanks to the electronically-controlled rear differential lock and play around with the suspension settings (comfort, sport and sport-plus) to suit your driving style.
The Panamera is technically a hatchback and not a saloon, and one is reminded of that by an extended luggage cover that obscures the car’s luggage area. Having said that, the 445 dm3 capacity can be increased almost three-fold by flipping forward the rear seatbacks and unclipping the luggage cover crossbeam. So, if the mood grabs you to go shopping for boxes of laminate flooring, the Panamera could probably oblige.
I’ve had a hard time picking rivals for the Panamera. Porsche quotes the traditional grand saloon segment as the source of its new clientele, and it would be safe to assume performance SUV and grand tourer buyers could also be tempted. Can the Panamera succeed in the current climate? Indeed it can, although success may not come as quickly as it did for its similarly-freakish Cayenne sibling, which arrived in rosier times.
And who cares if the Panamera is not exactly an aesthetic masterpiece? It represents a momentous technical achievement for the Weissach-based company and establishes a new segment, soon to be joined by the Aston Martin Rapide. Let me put it this way: If I had to transport three passengers along a challenging piece of asphalt in the shortest possible time, I would prefer to be behind the wheel of a Panamera!