When Porsche decided to come out with a hatchback sedan, the Panamera, a few years ago, you heard of tremendous distress from supposed Porschefiles - you’d have thought Porsche was building an SUV. Oh, right, sorry….
I say “supposed” Porschefiles because if you know anything about the tradition of this brand it's always been directed at both form and function. Yes, a 911 Turbo has quite limited cargo space, but there’s still enough room in that car for a few overnight bags, a few bags of groceries: It’s still a daily driver if that’s what you want it to be. This cannot be said of some Porsche competition: Try squeezing more than a box of tissues into an Audi R8/R10 and you’ll be vetoed. You and your sweetie better Fedex your luggage in advance of that weekend getaway or you’ll be cruising there in your Benz instead.
Which has what to do with the sweet Panamera, exactly?
A great deal.
Since although it has slightly more cramped quarters than an S-Benz, 7 series BMW or Audi A8, the actual shape of the rear of the Panamera echoes 924/928 and even 356 Porsches, and as a hatch offers a more pragmatic take on the luxo-barge. Those rear seats flip down and forward (not so, if you instead buy one of the aforementioned trio of German sedans), making for more ready accommodation of skis or other knickknacks and, we might add, hatchbacks also make loading and unloading awkward and heavy items easier, so the fairer sex tends to dig hatchback designs (note: every SUV on earth is really a hatchback, since it doesn’t have a trunk).
Leaner, Meaner, Greener - Yes, Greener
So we’ve spent all that breath expounding on how pragmatic this Porsche is, but let’s say you don’t give a darn - you want the best $90,000 sports sedan in the big luxury car genre (and you like your luxury German made). Well the Panamera has two more feathers in its cap that the competition doesn’t feature. The 400hp V-8 S will chase down 60mph in under five seconds, yet still skirt the Fed’s gas guzzler tax, since it gets 16 city/24 highway (vs., for instance, BMW’s 750i 15/22 EPA rating). And your mileage may in fact be even better, since this Porsche, like several others coming, gets an auto start/stop feature (think hybrid cars as an example). However, the EPA didn’t factor in the start/stop feature in its tests, since Porsche, perhaps concerned about technophobic American customers, made the car’s default setting for start/stop to always begin in the “off” position; the driver has to turn the system on at the beginning of every journey. But if you commute in traffic it’s not only totally worth it, but completely seamless, just like it is in a Prius or other hybrids. (Note: The system “knows” when not to cut engine power as well, so if the A/C needs to operate, for instance, the engine won’t take a nap.)
The other reason this four-seat sedan is a little greener is that it’s relatively light, at 4,101 lbs., which is as much as 400 lbs. lighter than the competition. And its also wide, with a two-inch wider front track than that BMW, for example.
A wider, lighter car steers more immediately, and steering feel in the Panamera S is one of many handling highlights. Yes, it’s a wide car (76 inches; an inch wider than the 750i), and a wide car eats more pavement on its way through corners, but this Porsche is a full five inches shorter than that BMW, on a five-inch shorter wheelbase and in corners feels hunkered, and an active air suspension with controls ranging among comfort, sport, and sport plus (the latter also controls gear changes - more on that in a moment), allows the driver to effectively spike body roll on a whim. You could add yet more traction by getting your Panamera with all-wheel-drive, but unless you live with snow six months of the year we figure this car will be more fun in rear-drive guise, in part because part of the miracle of the Panamera is that a car with such presence can feel so quick on its feet.
Cornering grip, in a word, feels endless. You can out-drive the R-series rubber, but I had to push past triple-digits on a freeway onramp to effect drift. That’s supercar territory, but the joy here is that you needn’t push that hard to find the Panamera plenty entertaining.
The Go Button
Captaining the Panamera is at first an intimidating procedure. Look at all those buttons on the center console!
You really do feel like this might be a starship and not a car. And in some ways you will hit button overload the first time you drive the Panamera, especially if you elect to change gears of the 7-speed PDK transmission with the button shifters (paddles are an option - a wise selection, too) at 3 and 9 o’clock on the tiller. These push/pull buttons aren’t as intuitive as paddles, especially if your game is engine braking into a turn and maximal tug out. For this you either need a manual gearbox (no such option) or controls that easily let you know that the left lever is for downshifts, the right for up. Check that option box!
Otherwise, though, this transmission is glorious. It does several nice, Porsche-thoughtful tricks, too. In settings shy of sport plus, it starts the car in second gear, to save you tires, gas, and the jolt off the line of a very low first gear. But it also knows if you’re on a steep hill, and will give you that grab of a first-gear start if that’s the case. Also, if you’re in fast moving traffic and hunting for a lane change to weave ahead of a clot of slower cars you can tap into sport plus, upshift manually to the quietude of 7th gear, but as soon as you tromp on the throttle the gears will kick down instantly, and you’ll rocket ahead, upshifting through the near-7,000rpm rev limit back up from 3rd to (if you have the courage and cop-free sailing) 7th gear hurtling toward 150-plus mph.
A note: Due to a happy glitch in the delivery cycle of this car, we had one day of exposure to the 500hp Turbo Panamera as well. That car is extraordinary--it will pull to nearly 200mph, and to 60mph in something like 3.5 seconds. It’s a beast — but given how much good clean fun and better fuel economy you get from the normally aspirated V-8 Panamera (the Turbo gets 13 city/19 highway), it’s tough to argue that that car’s worth yet another $40,000.
That aforementioned busy cockpit from the driver’s perspective is serene for other passengers. The seating is 2+2, which makes shoulder room throughout feel airy, and rear seat passengers have an almost limousine style position in back—low and important and unseen by anyone else on the road.
And there’s enough to love about this car even if you’re not driving. There’s so much artistry in this Porsche: There are aluminum surrounds for the vents and meaty, aluminum controls throughout (vents; the latch that releases the rear seatbacks); even the seat cushions are architectural in a modish 2001: A Space Odyssey style—these cross-bolstered perches are minimal seaming even though they’re wonderfully supportive.
The driver, meanwhile, can control most important functions without bothering with too much hunting and pecking from that field of switches next to his right thigh. Five interlocking gauges nest under a hood in front of the steering wheel and one is an LCD screen that can toggle from navigation directions, to radio station selections, to status information on the vehicle and a steering wheel button lets the driver alter what he sees on that display as well as the functions (say zooming on the map) within that field. This beats having to gaze at the center console Nav screen to alter a radio station or check directions, because it’s less distracting; the driver might glance at his gauges several times a minute, and it’s more directly connected to a down-the-road view.
No car is perfect and the low, long hatchback body has its detractors. I’m not one of them. I had an exceptionally stylish, attractive woman in her S-Class do a full head-swivel whiplash turn when she saw the Porsche in the parking lot of a Target. She smiled at me. I smiled back. Then she stopped looking at me and looked at the car again. In the store she somehow found me, cornered me, and asked about a dozen questions—about the car. The rock on her finger told me she was well taken care of and apparently my getup in jeans and a t-shirt did nothing for my street cred.
Anyway, the point of all that was that I’ve heard from plenty of women how much they like the look of the Panamera, and I trust them to have better taste than men.
One thing about those women, and those men: outward vision from the Panamera isn’t stellar. The aft view is particularly poor, and you must order the $600 Park Assist system or risk more than one parking lot ding. Wise use of your mirrors is also a must.
So it’s not perfect, but the Panamera S is close, and more than perhaps any other Porsche we’ve driven we’d laud this car with providing the perfect blend of pragmatism, entertainment, and luxury. And that seems in ideal keeping with Porsche tradition.