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Do it now I'll do it later...
Tuesday 30th June 2009


PORSCHE PANAMERA DRIVEN

Ultimate performance limo, or total dog's dinner? Adam Towler gets behind the wheel of a car destined to divide opinions

The silence is not deafening, it’s just plain weird. Mere seconds ago we were carving up Bavarian autobahn air at an indicated 189mph, and now my co-driver and I sit here at a traffic light, silent and still. Only the gentle hum of the air conditioning is audible since the stop-start function killed the engine dead. Ahead, on the ‘screen, is a limey-black mask of carnage from the local insect population. It’s an awkward silence, only broken when I volunteer a “**** that was fast” as we sit, some distance apart, in this broad, pensioner-shoe-grey cabin of tangible integrity. And I’m still not sure whether I’m any closer to understanding this new Porsche. Or indeed, falling for it.

A Porsche in a fir-tree forest. Very German
A Porsche in a fir-tree forest. Very German
This is a new sub-niche, if you like, that picks up where the Maserati Quattroporte has already partially started. It will soon be filled by the emerging Aston Martin Rapide, potentially the Lamborghini Estoque in some form or another, and no doubt soon by every other premium manufacturer desperately searching for the niche du jour.

Recently, we covered the technical aspects of the Panamera in some depth on PH, and even got taken for a ride around Porsche’s Weissach proving ground in one. Now, it’s time to drive.

As you may remember, there are currently three Panamera models: the entry-level Panamera S, with rear-wheel drive and a naturally aspirated 4.8-litre V8 costing from £72,266; the £77,269 4S with the same mechanicals but – obviously – four-wheel drive plus a twin-clutch PDK ‘box as standard; and the (gulp) £95,298 Turbo, with a twin-turbo V8, four-wheel drive and standard PDK and air suspension - to name but a few goodies.

Beauty, eye, beholder etc...
Beauty, eye, beholder etc...
The concept is this: a strict four-seater, with room for four adults in complete comfort, housed within a low but enormously long and wide hatchback/coupe amalgamation able to combine the usually disparate elements of luxury and driver appeal through the sheer weight of stuff lurking in Porsche’s technology cupboard. The reality, for us, begins with the keys to a dark blue 4S.

I hate being told whether something creative is good or bad, so I usually just say beauty is in the eye of the beholder and leave it at that. However, it is simply impossible to do so with the Panamera because a), how it looks and b), because in this sub-niche, emotional appeal really, really does matter. It is a cornerstone of these cars that are trading a slice of practicality (one seat, a shade of refinement and some boot space over a Mercedes S-class, for example) for desirability – along with performance. When PH saw the Panamera in the metal for the first time at Weissach it was clear that in some colours at least, the shape worked better in three dimensions than it did on the page (admittedly that’s not saying much). That is still the case, because the Panamera is amazingly, staggeringly colour sensitive. But especially in a dark, drab colour (or gold) and on the smaller rims, most present – me included - found it completely bemusing. If the new Jaguar XJ looks as good as some insiders are claiming, and the Rapide is as elegant as we’d expect – not to mention the delights already on offer from the Quattroporte – this could be a really big problem for Porsche.

Saloon, hatch or fastback?...
Saloon, hatch or fastback?...
First impressions on the road are of genuinely good refinement – low wind and road noise and a ride, on these mainly smooth German roads at least, that’s surprisingly smooth and well insulated. It certainly picks up speed convincingly on the autobahn, all the time filling the cabin with a V8 intake note that’s as hard as granite and about as musical when two slabs of it are banged together.

What really stands out is the quality of the cabin – the detail design, the finishing of the materials and the way they are combined. Even if some of the wood trims aren’t to your taste, the way they’re used is impressive. Also, sitting low with the instrumentation and controls almost level in front of you feels extraordinary: there’s a button for everything, which is either overkill or a boon to haters of iDrive, MMI and all those other systems.

Eventually, the road turns sinuous and steep as we climb up into the mountains in this part of Southern Germany. It’s now that the Panamera must morph character and somehow deliver an engaging driving experience. It certainly delivers an admirable one, with quick and accurate steering – particularly off dead centre - and the (optional) air suspension keeping the body firmly in check. To ‘wake’ the car up I change out of normal mode and switch between ‘Sport’ and ‘Sport Plus’ modes; their make-up, a whole raft of changes to the electronic systems that could take up the rest of this story, will be familiar to anyone with experience of a Gen2 PDK 911.

...Answers on a postcard
...Answers on a postcard
Gearshifts quicken, suspensions firm up and soon it’s possible to push this limo hard – harder than seems logically possible. Naturally, there’s understeer initially, but with the roads slick following a rain shower, it’s surprisingly easy to feel the rear moving around through the tighter stuff. The trouble is, you really find yourself worrying about taking up so much road space, and the width is constantly on your mind, with regular sharp intakes of breath when a truck comes the other way.

Admirable then, but engaging? Perhaps not. With 395bhp hauling 1,860kg it’s rapid, but there’s the feeling that it’s more noise than stupendous acceleration – worrying when our test car costs nearly £90,000 with extras and with all those 500bhp+ sports saloons existing at up to thirty grand less. The PDK gearbox is generally impressive, but it occasionally gets caught out by rapid shifting near the red line; the gap between second and third gear seems a bit of a hollow and the user interface is still annoying (and back to front). And while you can’t really fault the way the major controls ultimately work, they seem to lack that special quality you’d associate with a Porsche. The steering is okay, but (particularly on those cars equipped with Servotronic steering - which we only found out about after the drive) it’s not especially communicative, while the brakes (carbon on this 4S) grab very quickly and then have quite a long pedal travel. That’s not very Porsche-like.


Later, we get to try a 2S and the Turbo. The 2S also has the PDK and air suspension options fitted, but has quite a different feel to the 4S. It’s more responsive (it is 90kg lighter) and the steering seems a touch cleaner too. On smaller wheels there’s more movement to the body, but if anything this makes it seem more engaging and I enjoy driving it more than our fully loaded 4S. A really basic 2S might be one of the best Panameras of all – a better blend of comfort, pace and price.

As for the Turbo, it’s something completely different again – as you’d hope at over £110,000 for ‘our’ car. If anything, it’s the version that best realises the original idea. It stampedes across country like a two-ton limo (and still a comfortable one) has no real right to do, and the combination of the 493bhp twin-turbo 4.8-litre V8 with the PDK gearbox and four-wheel drive makes for ridiculous acceleration: in launch mode it’ll do 0-

Beautiful build, but it's a bit of a button-fest
Beautiful build, but it's a bit of a button-fest
62mph in just four seconds dead. And it feels that fast. It’s also rock-solid as it closes in on its maximum velocity, and yet still refined enough that you could have a (nervy) conversation inside. But it’s just so big, that it may prove a real struggle to work it up to anything like its full potential in the UK and, although it’s fun to drive it fast, and often freakishly capable across country, I don’t necessarily find it fun to drive.

Which is why I’m sat at those traffic lights trying to work out how I feel about the Panamera after this initial acquaintance. It’s a complex car trying to perform to a complex (perhaps over-complex) brief, and one that deserves some serious seat time in the UK before any final judgements are made. But at any rate, however impressive it is, at some point you’ve got to park and climb out of it, at which point you re-enter the debate about how it looks, and that – coupled with the way it drives – has so far left me cold. That lack of passion, with that badge on the nose, is as surprising as it is disappointing.



 





 

 

Author: Adam Towler