Thursday 3rd September 2009


PORSCHE PANAMERA: OUR FIRST UK DRIVE

PH takes to the (British) roads in the new super-saloon from Stuttgart

New Panamera Turbo is on sale this month
New Panamera Turbo is on sale this month
Is it just me, or does the Porsche Panamera look like a machine that needs to be handled with a bit of respect, especially in its most muscular Turbo guise?

It could be that humpy 911-esque backside, subliminally suggestive of an engine at the wrong end and the possibility of lurid oversteer moments. Maybe it's the generally aggressive demeanour of a car with such muscular haunches, big alloys, exposed calipers and that classic Porsche front styling graphic. Maybe it just makes me feel that way just because it is a Porsche with a turbocharger... Whatever the reason, I really wasn't expecting the driving experience to be quite so - well, relaxed and serene.

911 design cues in a 5 metre 4-seater
911 design cues in a 5 metre 4-seater
A full-on, fevered, and possibly slightly mad experience was what I had been anticipating from this big brute of a four-seater with a 500bhp V8 up-front and seven-speed double-clutch gearbox mounted in the rear axle. Instead of which, the Panamera offers the docile good manners of a luxury limousine, unless and until you decide to 'unleash the beast' that lurks beneath that iconically styled bonnet.

Having driven the full set of Panamera launch models this week at Porsche's Silverstone Experience Centre, and for a short time on the roads thereabouts, my initial feeling is that this car offers the same terrific duality that Jaguar has engineered into its XFR. The Panamera is a truly 'everyday' machine in the literal sense of the word because, in spite of its phenomenal capacity for going fast, it demands little from a driver who is not in the mood for exploring that potential.

The Turbo costs nearly £100K
The Turbo costs nearly £100K
In fact, quite the opposite is true, because instead of demanding commitment, the Panamera is happy to indulge your complete disengagement. Sometimes comfort, refinement, and easy manners are what's required after a hard day property developing (or whatever it is that earns a chap a spare £70-100k these days), and the Panamera feels like it will whisk you discreetly and comfortably along the outside lane of the motorway all day, will take you and three chums to the golf course, and your wife and kids to the farmhouse in Tuscany.

Or you could use it to scare the bejesus out of them instead because, to be fair, the Panamera Turbo goes and handles like no Two-ton Tessie has a right to. Experiencing the performance from the back seats can sometimes verge on the surreal.

The interior oozes driver appeal
The interior oozes driver appeal
There's no real mystery to the 'go', with a 4,806cc V8 set well back under the aluminium bonnet. Derived from the Cayenne unit, it features aluminium block and heads, four overhead camshafts, variable intake valve stroke and timing, direct fuel injection and twin turbos. It delivers 500bhp at 6000rpm and 567lb ft from 2250rpm to 4500rpm with overboost in the Sports Plus Mode. If you use the (fully warranted) launch control on the PDK gearbox, it will catapult you straight into the next dimension. Or at least to 62mph in four seconds dead and onto a maximum of 188mph which, for an almost five-metre projectile weighing a stonking 1970kgs, is quite a thing to experience. The normally aspirated two-wheel-drive Panamera S has 400bhp, weighs 1770kgs with the basic six-speed manual 'box, and takes 5.6 seconds to reach 62mph with a 175mph maximum. The also normally aspirated Panamera 4S splits the difference with a 5.0-second 0-62mph sprint - an advantage presumably down to better traction off the line, and the shift speed of its standard PDK 'box.

'Classic' Porsche instrumentation
'Classic' Porsche instrumentation
Keeping the whole plot pointing in the right direction is another matter entirely, and to that end a vast array of technology has been deployed. But there's a more fundamental explanation as to why this giant limousine handles like a sports car, and that's because it's lower (at 1418mm), wider (at 1931mm) and has shorter overhangs than anything else - currently - in its class.

The resultant low centre of gravity has been achieved by one significant compromise, namely the inability to carry a third passenger in the rear. Instead of a rear bench mounted above the transmission tunnel, the Panamera has two rear seats nestled low to the ground either side of the tunnel - which also explains the amazingly good rear head room in that coupe-like body. The seats, like those in front, are not the expansive arm chairs you'll find in a traditional sporty limo, but they are comfortable and supportive and suit the Panamera's dynamic character well.

Porsche prefers switches to 'menus'
Porsche prefers switches to 'menus'
Climb into the driving seat, and the amount of adjustability is immediately apparent. I'm nearly six-and-a-half feet tall and I had room to spare. That aside, the driving position feels a bit like that in the 911, with the familiar five-pod binnacle and Porsche's always centrally mounted rev-counter. In a car that's supposed to double as a relaxed cruiser I think I'd be sacrilegious and swap the speedo into the largest middle unit. Ideally, I'd like to see a Head Up Display, because in a car like this it's not always easy to know how fast you're travelling, officer. Presumably the bulkhead architecture won't allow it.

Does what it says on the can...
Does what it says on the can...
Firing up the V8 is an experience that will bring a smile to any owner's face, as the engine starts with a whooffly growl that settles instantly into a subdued idle. On the road, even when cruising at relatively high speeds the engine is barely intrusive, although the cleverly engineered acoustics do come into play when you want to exercise the car. Under load, the engine emits an aggressive growl with an unusually mechanical edge that is a terrific accompaniment to a more sporting drive.

And sporting the Panamera can certainly be, in spite of its great girth and mass. With advanced electronic systems managing traction issues, damping, body roll, ride height and rear torque split, the Panamera Turbo (and lesser models if optionally specced) uses all the tricks in the book to sustain vastly silly speeds across the countryside.

Bi-turbo, 4.8-litre, 500bhp V8
Bi-turbo, 4.8-litre, 500bhp V8
The 2wd Panamera S rides well on steel springs with variable dampers, but the Turbo comes standard with an adaptive air suspension set-up. While cruising it offers a level of comfort and refinement over British roads that isn't far off what you'd hope for in, say, a BMW 7-series, but show it a few twisty bits and it's in a league of its own - all but eliminating body roll and providing a show of agility and poise that would be startling in a car of this size, were it not for the Porsche badges on the nose and tail.

The steering is well weighted and, while the feel is as nothing compared with a 911's, it turns in very cleanly, allowing confident and neat positioning of the car through extremely fast corners. The brakes - particularly on the ceramic disc-equipped Turbo - are predictably inspiring, too.

All seats narrow-ish but supportive
All seats narrow-ish but supportive
Clearly all three models have the potential for extremely rapid cross-country times. Having said that, the Turbo's extra 100-odd bhp makes all the difference to the absolute feel of the performance - lifting the Panamera from indecently-quick to 'oh-my-gawd'-fast.

With so much grip and traction on offer it would be difficult to really explore the limits of performance on the road, so Porsche let us loose on the short handling circuit at the Porsche Driving Experience Centre, Silverstone. After a few sighting laps, it quickly became evident that the Panamera's balance and poise on the road hides no nasty surprises.

With the traction control working, there's a tendency toward mild understeer as the nose washes out gently in fast corners, although the ECU does allow a rewarding few degrees of 'waggle room' at the rear of the car if you like to bang the power on early, or lift-off aggressively into corners. With the traction control switched off and 500bhp on tap, the potential for lurid drifting is obvious, but it's always progressive and never snappy - a feeling enhanced on the Centre's low friction surfaces where mechanically induced oversteer skids (from a kick plate on the track) can be deftly gathered in.

Ceramic stoppers
Ceramic stoppers
So the Panamera is a pussy-cat or a lion, depending on your mood, which seems to me the ideal combination of attributes for a sporting saloon. There are downsides of course, the major one being that vast width which, as well as making life awkward down country lanes and narrow city streets, makes reverse parking a bit of a challenge. (While over-the-shoulder and forward visibility are both good, you can't see much out of the back window, and the car could really do with a reversing camera/monitor instead of its proximity sensors.)

Then there are the prices. £72,266 for the Panamera S rising to £95,298 for the Turbo may not sound too extreme, but that's before any options have been added - and as an example the specced up S we drove on the press launch came in at nearly the price of a Turbo once the PDK box, adaptive suspension, 19ins alloys and various other goodies had been added. But hey, if you can afford it, why not?

Cooling vents in the wings
Cooling vents in the wings
And then there's the way the Panamera looks. Before driving the car, I couldn't decide whether I liked the styling or not. From some angles it looks great, and from others I'm not so sure. Even more confusingly, while I'm pretty convinced it's an unusually colour-sensitive shape, I now can't make up my mind whether it looks better in light or darker tones... either way, there's definitely something 'unusual' about a limo that looks like a 911, but perhaps it's just unfamiliarity.

What I am confident of though, is this: if you have an ounce of enthusiasm for fast cars and performance, you'll quickly overcome anyreservations you might have about the styling once you're behind the wheel. The Panamera is simply too good to be dismissed with cheap jibes about its appearance, and I think the buyers who have pre-ordered almost half the first year's UK production will be well rewarded for their leap of faith.

Plenty of room for two here
Plenty of room for two here
Large boot is versatile, despite high sill
Large boot is versatile, despite high sill
Turbo has an active spoiler (see right)
Turbo has an active spoiler (see right)

The Panamera range - Official UK specifications:
(Source: Porsche press release)

Author: Chris-R