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Despite the fact that we’re apparently still in the midst of a global economic meltdown - are you as tired of this phrase as I am? - the introduction of a brand new executive sedan may just be the most important reveal of the 2009 automotive season.
Words and pictures by Mark Hacking, in Elmau, Germany
Let’s study the facts: Porsche has been building cars since 1939, many of them of the sort that get the blood percolating.
Its built a wide variety of sports cars of the front-, mid- and rear-engine variety, its built a four-wheel-drive sports car and used it to win the Paris-Dakar Rally, its even built an SUV, but Porsche has never built a production sedan, until now.
When the company introduced the Cayenne back in 2003, the business case was relatively straightforward: research indicated that Porsche customers were also buying luxury SUVs and it had none in its showrooms to offer.
So, to stem the tide of people venturing over to the BMW and Mercedes lots for their SUV fix, it produced an off-roader of its own.
It was a fantastic move. Around the world, sales for the Cayenne have been incredibly strong until the recent downturn; so strong, they helped bring Porsche unprecedented financial stability.
With the Panamera, you have to wonder if lightning will strike twice; now that Porsche has abandoned its status as a manufacturer devoted exclusively to sports cars, will it find an audience for another model that deviates from its initial raison d'être?
Let’s not beat around the bush and jump right to the conclusion; yes, the Panamera will find an audience, economy notwithstanding, for a very simple reason, if you’re in the market for an executive express or a gran turismo sedan (as they like to call it), the Porsche absolutely must be on your shopping list.
For the press event held in the Bavarian Alps, three versions of the Panamera were at my disposal: the rear-wheel drive Panamera S, the all-wheel drive Panamera 4S and the rear-wheel drive Panamera Turbo, all equipped with the PDK dual-clutch transmission.
Many markets will receive other versions of the new sedan, including a V6 model, rear-wheel-drive V8 paired with a six-speed manual transmission, and –eventually - a petrol-electric hybrid.
The drive route was brilliantly conceived. The Panamera is a big car - very big - and wider than the average executive sedan, so it’s not the perfect choice for Europe’s famed switchback turns or alpine passes.
But it is great for a selection of gently winding roads and quick blasts along the autobahn; for it’s here where the sheer genius of the car’s engineering comes into sharp focus.
Even though lightweight materials have been used throughout the build, the Panamera still tips the scales at between 1770kg, for the manual S, and 1970kg, for the Turbo. Given this weight, motivation was a key factor and, as expected, Porsche has answered the call with a pair of potent engines.
The Panamera S and 4S are powered by a 4.8-litre V8 that features direct fuel injection, four valves per cylinder, variable valve timing and a dry sump lubrication system. This powerplant generates 294kW and 499Nm of torque with a healthy band that stretches between 3500rpm and 5000rpm.
Meanwhile, the Panamera Turbo rings in with the same V8, aided and abetted by twin turbochargers. The net result is 373kW and 699Nm of torque, most of it in the useable range between 2250rpm and 4500rpm.
With the optional Sports Chrono Package, the Turbo gains an overboost capability that sees the engine generate 768Nm of torque for even sharper acceleration.
The Turbo, as well as the 4S, came equipped with this option, which also delivers quicker shifts and a launch control system for the PDK versions, an air suspension system that lowers the sedan by 25mm, active suspension for sharper handling, a less intrusive stability control system and a nifty stopwatch on the dashboard.
Given all this, it will be a wonder if anyone orders a Panamera without the Sports Chrono Package!
All versions of the Panamera feature a very interesting new engine management feature: automatic start/stop.
While this system has been available in hybrid cars for years now, and is responsible for a significant portion of fuel savings in those vehicles, this is the first application in a production luxury non-hybrid.
When the car is in normal mode, it automatically shuts down when the car is stopped and immediately fires up again as soon as the brake pedal is released.
Full credit to Porsche for setting the pace with the start/stop system, there's really no reason (except perhaps cost) why all cars aren't similarly equipped.
Of the three versions, I came away most impressed with the Panamera S because it seemed lighter on its feet and easier to plant when entering corners of all descriptions.
You could hardly call any of the iterations “flickable”, but the S came closest. Of course, the Turbo also impressed with its sheer brute force, nothing makes an impact quite like an additional 75kW.
The PDK proved to be up to the challenge of transmitting all that power to the wheels. Of all the current dual-clutch systems on the market, my money’s on the Porsche system for being the quickest and slickest of them all.
The visceral pleasure of a well-sorted manual transmission will never go out of style, but the PDK has a charm all its own, setting aside the shift buttons on the steering wheel.
Porsche continues to insist that these buttons are a better solution than the far more ubiquitous shift paddles that derived from motorsport. Last year, virtually every review of the Porsche 911 included a complaint about the buttons, which are far from intuitive to operate.
Interesting, then, that the rumour is that Porsche will offer shift paddles as an option for any Panamera equipped with the PDK, and suffice to say it’s a decision whose time has come!
Regarding the Panamera 4S, I was a bit under-whelmed and the culprit seems to have been the variable-assist power-steering (it was the only car of the three so fitted), which felt too light and not confidence-inspiring in the same way as the regular power steering.
The 4S also suffered from additional weight (compared to the S) and less power (versus the Turbo).
No doubt, the all-wheel-drive system would come in handy under more extreme driving conditions, but if you have a rear-wheel-drive car that can scream along a very damp autobahn at well north of 200km/h without moving a millimetre out of line, you have to wonder at exactly what speed you’d need to be going before the additional traction is required.
The Panamera boasts the lowest centre of gravity of any car in its class. When you pair this fact with aerodynamic trickery such as the adaptive rear spoiler (a four-way version for the Turbo) that deploys and adjusts its angle automatically depending on the speed traveled, you have a sedan that seems more suited to hurtling down the Bonneville Salt Flats than shuttling business executives in rush-hour traffic.
Still, if you are forced to do the latter, the Porsche is more than ready to answer the call. With an interior cabin treatment reminiscent of the Carrera GT, the Panamera is easily the most luxurious Porsche ever built.
The most unique aspect of the cabin is the centre console, which extends from front to back, creating separate “cocoons” for the driver and three passengers.
The console houses the vast majority of the controls, including the audio system switches, climate-control buttons, suspension and engine mapping switches, and gear selector.
Everything is very logically organised for easy access to the driver and the surfaces are finished with rich materials, and it’s all very well executed.
In terms of comfort, the Panamera also sets new standards for the company. The seats are a marvel and there’s an abundance of headroom and legroom for back-seat passengers, something that was a very clear objective when designing the sedan.
Not so long ago, it was clear that Porsche devoted the vast majority of the development effort to the mechanical aspects of its cars. With the Panamera, it’s equally clear that the company is now setting aside time for creature comforts as well.
By this point in the story, keen observers will note that I’ve left the most contentious topic for last, the exterior design.
Some have compared the Panamera to a squashed Cayenne, or a stretched 911. Others have complained that it’s just flat-out ugly. One thing’s for sure: It’s unlike anything else on the road today.
To these eyes, the design blends elements of the 911 and the Chevrolet Corvette at the front with the Jensen Interceptor at the back.
While I won’t go as far as saying the Panamera meets the average person’s concept of beautiful design, it is strikingly original and there’s a strong chance it may grow on you. In the final analysis though, looks are a secondary concern because this is very definitely a true Porsche.