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If you presumed it impossible right now for Porsche to build a 911 with four doors, four seats, lavish luxury, inspired sports car handling and scintillating performance via cutting edge technologies that runs on the sniff of an oily rag, you’d be correct. But the 2017 Panamera 4 E-Hybrid, due to arrive in Oz in Q3 this year, takes a big lunge towards daylight at the exit point to a noble, if seemingly improbable, split-personality pipe dream.
The new plug-in hybrid certainly has the numbers to propel itself rapidly towards the luxo-sport, eco-performance nirvana it’s aimed towards. It does 0-100km/h in just 4.6 seconds, will hit 278km/h, yet promises a startling best-case 2.5L/100km fuel consumption figure, which is staggering for a car that, petrol and electric power combined, produces system total outputs of 340kW and 700Nm.
The dizzyingly complex technologies at play were the focal point of the recent international launch of the E-Hybrid in South Africa, where the sheer depth of detail required the breadth of a 50-page book. Charge times, for instance? That depends.
Porsche supplied a table of 20 possible charge time outcomes for Aussie cars and environment, ranging from just over six hours (230V/10amp household supply using the car’s standard 3.6kW onboard charger) to 1.9 hours (3-phase/400V/32amp with optional 7.2kW onboard charger). But if you’re in the US with 110V, say, it can take over 12 hours.
We’ve covered off its cleverdickery in a concise manner previously, and the tech probably deserves forensic explanation. But when I’m thrown the key and sent towards coastal and mountainous roads in and around Cape Town, I’m more interested in how the five-door hybrid goes than exhaustively studying the finer points of how it ticks. Besides, even driving the thing, activating the right modes at the right times to extract its eco-performance best, demands a level of user application and education.
One of the key difference between this car and its predecessor, the non-plug-in, last-gen S E-Hybrid, is that its 100kW/400Nm electric motor is available to enhance performance and drivability the instant the accelerator is used. This ‘strategy’, Porsche says, comes straight from its 918 Spyder hypercar, where petrol and electric power is more co-operated across a range of driving conditions, whether that’s a torque boost off idle or when overtaking, or when adding an extra 20km/h of velocity to help hit its 278km/h top speed.
It does, of course, offer the handy electric only drive, though it's not merely for low-speed around town stuff. Electric-only range is up to 50km/h, but it’ll remain electric-drive only at up to 140km/h. There’s enough torque on tap to easily handle the normal driving ebb and flow, transitioning between urban and country pace without requiring the 2.9-litre biturbo V6 to chime in with assistance. Few hybrids offer this level of electric-only flexibility.
Some effort has gone into engineering a ‘normal’ driving character for full electric drive, and creating a smooth transparency in trading motivation between petrol and electric. Gone is the old electro-hydraulic decoupler and eight-speed torque converter auto of old, replaced by an electric clutch-type system twinned with an eight-speed PDK dual-clutch transmission. Porsche has synthesised a quiet hum for the e-motor – it can be switched off – and because electric drive runs though the gearbox you get gear-changes in pure electric drive modes.
What seems like a trivial point of interest is in fact a crucially important one for hybrid advancement and appeal. As desirable as hybrid technology might be, be it conceptually or in practical benefits, the stumbling block for connecting with consumers and users is the lack of familiar driving experience.
Bar some occasional minor ‘thuds’ during low-speed driving – our test cars lacked final PDK production calibration – this powertrain is impressively ‘conventional’ in character: a big improvement on old and markedly more ‘natural’ than a good many other hybrids on sale. That it does so while bridging extremely disparate efficiency and performance goals, is quite remarkable.
If there’s an area not quite normal enough, it’s the customary hybrid bugbear that is braking. While not as conspicuously forceful as some hybrid systems on the market, the regenerative braking system does most of the deceleration up to about 0.3g. The system is twinned with massive six- and four-piston monobloc anchors capable of hauling nearly 2.2 tonnes of Porsche in a big hurry from autobahn speeds. In some driving situations, the blend of conventional and regenerative braking results in a feel that is 'bitey' and lacks genuine progression.
Getting the best from the five-door’s bipolar character demands, first and foremost, familiarity with its four hybrid-specific drive modes: Hybrid Auto leaves the car to its own devices to switch drive types automatically; E-Power is forced electric drive only; E-Hold conserves the current state of battery charge for later use; and E-Charge is V6 motivation only, and in a high-power mode, while specifically recharging the battery on the move.
Initially, choosing the ideal mode for the trip at hand is a bit of guesswork, but with some familiarisation, their respective purposes make sense.
At one point, attempting to judge how hard you could push in E-Power mode before the V6 would chime in with assistance, the car indicated an e-driven range of 26kms at around 20 kilometres to destination. Despite hills and highways to tackle, the Panamera made the remainder of the trip on battery power alone, yet still reading 24 kilometres of range after lucking into a few, long, regenerative down-hill runs.
Porsche quotes a figure of 5.7 seconds for 0-60km/h in E-Mode, though not to 100km/h. There’s much relativity to that number except to illustrate that E-Power is tailored for lower-speed urban driving, and indeed from 60km/h and on towards the mode’s 140km/h limit its urgency drops off. Frankly, this mode is at its best where most buyers are going to want to use it most.
According to engineers, it’s almost impossible to deplete the battery unless you subject the Panamera to extended high-speed runs on the autobahn or on a racetrack. In Sport mode, with the V6 always operational, the system always maintains some charge for momentary ‘e-boosting’, as Porsche calls it.
And it is nigh on impossible to detect when the electro-boost clocks on for duty by the seat of your pants. Its linearity has much to do with all 700Nm available in a broad window from just 1100rpm through to 4500rpm of engine speed, thanks to the electric motor doing the heavily lifting down low, and the self-shifting PDK seems to always pluck the best of eight forward ratios.
The all-new VAG-developed 2.9-litre biturbo V6 is closely related to the 3.0-litre units recently debuted on some Audi ranges (the single-turbocharged S4, for instance), and Porsche has coaxed a lot of rich and roarty character from it, if at times synthetically.
Once the e-motor weighs in, the whole system's shove is quite V8 like, if assertive rather than manic. In Sport, despite the car’s two-plus-tonne weight, the throttle response is sharp and the PDK upshifts crisply and smoothly. In short, it manages the tricky balance of sportiness and quiet, luxurious refinement fairly convincingly.
Sport Plus might seem incongruous in a car that wears its eco-sensibilities conspicuously, with bright green highlights on its brakes and badging. But, when asked, it does flex its muscles a little harder and heightens its responses further, if more for the benefit of character rather than sheer pace.
It’s in this mode there’s something of a jumbo, four-door 911 vibe about the experience, if in planted and predictable high-speed grand touring manner rather than one genuinely oozing sporty dynamism. Whether it’s the low-slung driving position, the engine's ‘blurts’ on up and downshifting, or how it plants itself rock solid on the road, there’s ample feel-good vibe once you up the pace.
The grip from the humongous (275mm front/315mm rear) 21-inch Pirellis and Sport Plus’s effect on firming up the active air suspension imparts a level of accuracy most welcome in a left-hook German car hooking along twisty South African roads where, like in Oz, you drive to the left of the road. Especially given its plus-five-metre length and near two-metre width. It punts along at rate of knots, but I’d be lying if I said I could feel the effect of the all-wheel-drive’s Porsche Traction Management from behind the wheel.
Ride quality isn’t stellar. While the wheel size doesn’t help (19s are standard in some markets) the adaptive air suspension's softest setting can be a little terse and thumpy. Perhaps this is by design, an attempt to impart a few extra degrees of subliminal sportiness, or a necessity to dial in adequate body control to an undeniably heavy unit. Tyre noise, too, is noticeable, as is prominent wind noise around the wing mirrors once speed climb beyond triple figures.
On balance, the E-Hybrid is a quite comfortable and luxurious cruiser as a default. All of the positives we found with the second-generation Panamera at its launch in August last year ring true with this hybrid version. The vastly more handsome, 911-esque exterior styling is a great leap forward, too. And the cleaner, simplified and inspired interior design and makes current the 911 two steps behind the times.
The four-seater format, while not the most practical packaging solution, offers absolute five-star accommodation in the second row, though the rib-hugging front seats could be a little more relaxed in shape to aid long-haul comfort.
For style points and pure upmarket presence, new Panamera really hits the bullseye. You sit so low and the bonnet is so long that it is tricky to judge the nose – hooray for parking sensors – and the small rear door apertures smack of a body shape driven more by form than function. Which is fine. Want more practicality and functionality? Or need a properly family hauler? Get a Cayenne.
Does the hybrid treatment adversely impact the new Panamera experience? Practicably, you have to look hard to spot compromise. Boot space is reduced marginally – it’s a serviceable if hardly spacious 405L with the second row in play, 1215L with the split-fold rear seat backs folded (not very) flat – though the floor height and basic boot dimensions are the same.
Is it the pick of the range? It’s doubtful. Porsche freely admits that the last-gen Panamera S E-Hybrid was there for a statement rather than sales, and while this new-gen, plug-in, all-wheel-drive evolution is much more convincing in marrying performance and efficiency, and blending comfort and sportiness, the hybrid concept sit much closer to the Panamera range’s fringes than its centre.
But priced at $242,600 before on roads and options, it's priced in at the lower half of the gen-two Panamera’s six-strong range, and over $60k more affordable than a Panamera 4S. This might well lure buyers keen on Porsche’s updated luxury grand tourer to perhaps opt for petrol-electric plug-in hybrid power.