Road test: Porsche Panamera 4 E-Hybrid & 4S Diesel

Don't be fooled by appearances. These two Stuttgart newcomers are remarkably different beneath the skin

Chances to compare old- and new-school thinking on an otherwise reasonably even playing field do not come along that often in this business. But anyone pondering the relative merits of new-fangled hybrid power versus conventional diesel would do well to look at the lessons provided by these two new Porsche Panameras. No, they don’t translate directly to all parts and price points of the market, but the general thrust of the arguments for and against are broadly reliable.

So in one corner with have the new hybrid, or Panamera 4 E-Hybrid to give it its full name. It uses a 322bhp twin-turbo 2.9-litre V6 coupled with a new electric motor to provide a total of 456bhp that is distributed to all four wheels. The Panamera 4S Diesel has a 4-litre twin-turbo V8, but without hybrid assistance can muster ‘only’ 422bhp. What’s more you can plug the hybrid into the mains and waft around on a wave of electrons for about 30 miles at up to 87mph, and you can count on the Government to look very favourably upon it as a taxable benefit, as will as Mayor Khan should you be tempted to drive into London. Best of all, and in an attempt to spread the word wider than the previous Panamera hybrid managed, Porsche has actually cut its price from £88,967 to £79,715, despite the fact that you’re also buying a brand-new car on a fresh platform that’s better in almost every regard than the one it replaces. The 4S Diesel costs £91,788, more money for less power and higher running costs.

So it’s looking like something of a slam-dunk for the new world. And if all you did was drive your Panamera hybrid on electric power, you might conclude that was indeed the case. Despite sharing the name and something of the look of the previous Panamera, the new car is actually highly altered and is designed to do a very different job: it’s no exaggeration to call it Porsche’s first true luxury car. And nothing plays quite so well to this narrative as swishing about borne only by a silent stream of volts. Also, the new electric motor has both meaningful power and torque and, as a result (and at least while battery power remains), the Hybrid will actually provide all the performance most people would choose to use most of the time.

In this mode of travel the only real downside is the feel of the fly-by-wire brake pedal as it decides when to use the electric motor to slow the car and when to activate the enormous discs. It’s not ideal but you get used to it.

It takes longer to acclimatise to what happens when the V6 motor chimes in – and during a reasonably long drive in South Africa, I never did. As you will know Porsche has produced some great six-cylinder engines and still does, but this is not one of them. It’s too noisy and too coarse and unsuited to the hitherto svelte nature of the Panamera. Impressive performance figures are there to be taken, but you need to work the engine harder than I cared to make it achieve them.

And there’s another problem. The elephant under the bonnet – almost literally – is the car’s weight. At 2245kg it weighs not only 320kg more than the Panamera 4 with the same engine minus hybrid, but more even than a long-wheelbase Mercedes-Benz S600 6-litre V12 limousine. And despite the best efforts of Porsche’s chassis engineers, you can never escape that sense of excessive mass. It compromises the car’s handling and combines with the unlovely engine to kill any chance of the car being actively fun to drive.

The contrast to the V8 diesel Panamera could not be more stark. It might have eight cylinders instead of six, but it is still 120kg lighter than the hybrid. It also has a torque advantage of more than 20 per cent, delivered at even fewer revs. And there’s no nasty brake pedal nor any awkward transition from electric to petrol power, just one velvet wallop from idle.

Make no mistake, this car has one of the great powertrains, as suited to its role in life as a four-cam V12 in a Ferrari Daytona or a Cosworth BDA in an Escort rally car. No, it’s not silent like the hybrid when powered only by electrics, but no one will resent the distant thunder of the V8, or its ability to accelerate like a supercar with scarcely a rev on the tachometer. Which is why it feels by far the faster of the two, regardless of what the figures say.

And because it brakes and accelerates more consistently than the hybrid, the whole driving experience flows more readily. It’s an easier car to handle, more fluent on the limit and more engaging too. Better, in other words.

Here then are two Porsches, similar in appearance and (on paper) performance, but utterly different in character and approach. And I get why some will still go for the hybrid: for a certain kind of user the maths will likely prove compelling. But if that’s not you, find the extra and buy this diesel: it’s not just a far better car, but a much better Porsche. To me such things still matter, and I hope they always will.