5am, Monday 14 September, Kingston
Monday mornings aren't really my strongest suit, and times of the day beginning with a five are never a good time to be getting up anyway. Yet here I am outside my flat in suburban south-west London in the murky pre-dawn light, waiting for PH staffers Garlick and Stuart to pick me up.
Normally, the thought of spending my pre-coffee hours cooped up in a car with any one is not a prospect I relish, even if the company is in the form of such genial chaps as Garlick and Stuart. But this time is different. This time I am waiting for a Porsche Panamera to pick me up and whisk us away to the Frankfurt. And because this is PH (and we have all day to get to Germany) we've decided to take the scenic route, heading down through Northern France to Reims for a quick peek at the remains of the historic GP circuit. Next we'll spear off east through Champagne country, avoiding the autoroute, before getting back into multi-lane mode for the final Autobahn strop to Frankfurt.
Panam flight RV59 VUC makes a cheeky stop-off at Reims
With the prospect of doing all this in a 394bhp Porsche, it is therefore pretty safe to say that I am fairly excited.
Soon after five, the Panamera's distinctively Porsche face appears at the bottom of my street and the long, low shape rolls to a stop beside me. Even in the half light it manages to look like a classic Porsche coupe, and a four-door luxo-barge. At the same time. It's like the Magic Eye of cars.
Stuart has taken the wheel for the first stint, so I settle into the front passenger seat with Garlick riding in the back. The Panamera's coupe-saloon optical illusion continues inside. The slim-shouldered seats and cocooning effect of the high centre console that runs the length of the interior make for an intimate coupe-like feel, even though the reality is that there's actually plenty of room for four adults - even tall ones.
As we pull into Clacket Lane services for a fill-up in the gathering light I get my first proper daylight look at 'our' Panamera. I still can't call it pretty, but there's no doubt that it's imposing. The fussy alloy wheel design and blue paint with blue leather interior do it few favours, however. As Garlick puts it: "It's nicer to be inside looking out than to be outside looking at it."
Le Shuttle reveals the true size of the Panamera. Getting on has been an exercise in clenching certain muscles - squeezing past the narrow bits on the train where the toilets are sited has the parking sensors screaming for mercy.
It's only a half-hour trip across La Manche, but the Panam draws plenty of admirers. A French lady who works for Eurotunnel is utterly besotted with it, and reckons it looks like an old Aston from the rear. Just as impressed, although more quietly so, are a group of chaps in a V10 Touareg on their way for some cycling in Italy. Turns out one of them owns a 993, while another possesses the keys to a 997. The chap with the 997 also has a Hawker Hunter jet though, so it must be a bit difficult to get him genuinely impressed.
I take the wheel of the Panamera for the first time as we squeeze ourselves off the Eurotunnel. Apart from a frustrating road works diversion that has us initially heading east for Dunkerque instead of south on the A26, we're soon heading towards Reims on smooth, traffic-free autoroute.
The Panamera instantly feels at home on these roads. It's stable, surefooted and refined, and the excellent stereo easily drowns out any tyre or wind noise that there might be (though we do have to put up with Stuart's taste in music). It's a fast way of covering the miles, too. A power output of 394bhp and 368lb ft of torque aren't stellar outputs in an 1860kg machine, but the smooth, intuitive auto mode on the seven-speed PDK gearbox masks any torque deficiencies by always being in the right gear. In fact, the biggest problem is keeping the speed down to a licence-preserving pace...
We find the old Reims pit complex nestled along a straight piece of road just off the N31 dual carriageway west of Reims. Curiously, although the old paddock complex and start line grandstands seem close to collapse in parts - there hasn't been a GP here since 1966 and the circuit has been officially closed since 1972 - the empty, ghostly facades are coated with what seems to be a brand new lick of paint.
Helpfully, a chap in an RX-8 appears to explain (although he's really stopped to have a good nose around the Porsche). It seems that there's been a bit of a revival of the place in recent years, with an organisation called the ACG (Les Amis du Circuit de Gueux) helping to preserve the remaining circuit infrastructure and even putting on the odd classic event.
Having said goodbye to Monsieur RX-8, and with Stuart back at the wheel, I manage to get us lost in Reims, despite the excellent sat-nav (I'm trying to be too clever and take us in directions that the sat-nav doesn't agree with). Having discovered the Panamera's slightly lumpy low-speed ride we eventually find our way out of the city and on to the open rural roads that stretch across the battlefield areas of the Somme and Verdun.
These roads, particularly the D931 between Reims and Suippes, are wide, straight and fantastically well sighted, and we fairly rocket through the French countryside. It's fantastic, although the war cemeteries that pepper the route are a sobering reminder of this area's bloody history.
As we get closer to Verdun the country gets hillier, and the road (now the D603) turns twisty - long sweeping curves that rise and fall with the countryside. This is proper Panamera territory. After a quick lunch stop in a small town called Sainte Menehould, where the local restaurant's speciality was pig's trotter (we avoided that, choosing instead the somewhat safer sandwich option) I've managed to wangle the driving seat again, and I'm thanking my lucky stars.
Stuart and Garlick are fairly desperate for a 'comfort break' and I keep promising them I'll pull over at the first available opportunity, but I'm really enjoying myself far too much. The Panam feels great on these roads. The gearbox keeps the V8 singing in its sweet spot, and the wide roads allow me to really explore the Porsche's chassis. Which is a thing of loveliness. It's a big car, but it feels stable, agile and involving. There's a surprising amount of movement around there rear, as the heavy Panamera settles on its tyres and suspension, but it actually works in the car's favour, making it feel like a giant hot hatch at times.
After Verdun, we rejoin the motorway for the last stretch before the German border and the enticing prospect of derestricted autobahn.
Unfortunately a combination of heavy traffic, bad weather and a plague of road works are preventing any possibility of trying for the Panamera's 176mph maximum speed as we slog toward Frankfurt. In fact, Garlick managed to sneak in the highest top speed of the outbound journey (a very naughty and brief indicated 154mph in France).
Regular contra-flows do, however, give us another insight into just how wide the Panamera is; at more than one point we have to squeeze past artics with our left wheels almost kissing the metal barriers and our right door mirror perilously close to lorry tyre.
We arrive at the hotel quite thirsty for a beer, but while the other two head straight to the bar I'm left with the short straw of parking the car. Hidden ticket machines and an incredibly tight down-ramp making using the underground car park an exercise in Crystal Maze-style frustration.
The Return Journey
After mopping up the remaining Frankfurt show news bites, we retrieve the Panamera from the labyrinthine underground car park and head west, this time following the most direct nav-advised route through Germany, Holland, Belgium and the northern tip of France.
Stuart had to jet back to Blighty for important publishing-type meetings and so has swapped places with PH Editor Chris-R for the return trip. Chris couldn't be with us on the outbound leg due to a severe case of 'having to drive a Ferrari 599 to Scotland' (which you'll be able to read about on PH soon), so is keen to take the wheel.
But, with the promise that he can drive a double stint immediately after, I sneak into the driving seat first, largely because I know we'll be straight onto derestricted autobahn without the threat of rain hanging over us. The traffic is still heavy, but there are fewer road works on the way out and, after a rapidly driven turbodiesel A6 Avant finally moves over for us, I briefly see an indicated 158mph - we've finally beaten the Vmax previously set in France - before we have to brake to avoid ploughing into the back of a black Mercedes.
Chris takes the helm after a quick petrol stop (the second and final one of the entire trip) and a sausage-tastic lunch.
4pm-6pm Holland and Belgium
We make good progress until we leave Germany and hit some nasty traffic jams around Gent and Brussels.
The near-stationary traffic does remind us just how much attention this car gets, though. Almost every motorist on the road has a good gawp, and many take a camera-phone snap. A few almost drive into the car in front because of their enthusiasm for the big Porsche.
8.30pm (BST), Kingston
Paul has just dropped me off. It's weird to think that we only left Frankfurt half a day ago. Such is the mile-munching prowess of the Panamera that our continental trek has been so effortless, despite the Dutch/Belgian traffic problems.
The Panamera really has been a superb companion for the PH trip to Frankfurt. It's been fast, fun, refined and even relatively frugal, managing an average of 22.8mpg over almost 1300 miles of exceedingly lead-footed driving and only using a tank and a half of fuel.
It's also clear that the public loves it - Garlick took it through a hand car wash en route to the last Sunday Service, and the chaps cleaned it for half price just for the opportunity to get a close-up look at it.
There's only one question: would a Jaguar XFR have done it better?