Andrew Frankel

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Puzzled by the Panamera

Even though we are just halfway through the year, I know already that I will not drive another car in the remaining months as perplexing as Porsche’s new Panamera.

At the most fundamental level, its very configuration is puzzling. It’s as if Porsche decided to break the habit of a lifetime and instead of producing a tightly-focused car to appeal to a specific sort of customer, it elected to include elements from such a disparate range of classes that it would cast its net over a sufficiently wide area to match its 20,000 per year volume aspiration. Say what you like about the Cayenne, but no one ever doubted what it was or whom it was for.

As I hope to explain, I doubt you’ll hear anyone saying that about the Panamera any time soon. This is a car that’s longer than a Toyota Land Cruiser, and by that I don’t mean the large Discovery-rivalling SUV, but the magnificent, V8-powered, full-fat XXL behemoth hailed by me on these pages as the world’s greatest known way of towing a race car and formerly known as the Amazon. Yet while the ’Cruiser seats seven people with space to spare, the Panamera will carry not five, but just four. Porsche then invites further befuddlement by citing the Mercedes S-Class limousine as a ‘key’ rival, while designing the Panamera not as an elegant saloon, but a hatchback with a boot barely bigger than that of the rather small A-Class.

It is also a distinctly unattractive car, more unfortunate in the flesh even than in a photo. It looks like Porsche came up with the basic structure of a large, four-door saloon and for its clothing took the body of that well-known compact coupé the 911, and by pulling and heaving, stretched it in a number of directions in which it did not care to go until at last it covered its modesty. We are sadly used to living in an era of unexceptional Porsche exterior design, but the Panamera represents a styling gaffe of original Cayenne proportion.

The interior, however, is exquisite and exquisitely comfortable too – as comfortable in its own skin as the exterior is awkward. You sit sports car low, with the control surfaces wrapped around you in what must be the most intimate driving environment of any four-door car on sale. It’s then you realise why there is no middle seat in the back: it’s not as Porsche claims ‘because no one wants to sit in the middle seat’, but because if they did they’d have a propshaft spearing their nether regions.

Instead each rear passenger is given more headroom than he or she can use and enough leg room for six footers to sit in tandem. More commonly, however, those rear seats will be occupied by children who will lose no time pointing out that there’s a sizeable design flaw in here too: because you sit so unusually low in the back rather than deliberately elevated into the ‘stadium’ position, your view ahead is dominated by the headrest of the seat in front. This error is compounded by the shallowness of the windscreen, which affords no view above the seat, so if you are to see where you’re going you have to list to the left or right. This is fine for a trip to the shops but likely to prove rather less popular on the long-distance tours for which the Panamera would appear to be made.

Given all this, there can be no finer testament to the talent of Porsche’s engineers than that they managed to take such unprepossessing raw material and create from it a car of genuine and manifest appeal.

The Panamera goes on sale in September and, when it does, you’ll be able to choose from one with a normally aspirated 4.8-litre V8 engine with either two- or four-wheel drive (priced at £72,266 and £77,269 respectively), or an all-wheel-drive, 500bhp Turbo model, yours for £95,298. Put another way, that’s around £20,000 more than it charges for Cayennes powered by the same engines.

But while the Cayenne is little more than a VW Touareg with a posh badge and a bit of get-up-and-go, the Panamera is unique, a car that breaks new ground in the way it provides comfort and refinement on the one hand and performance and handling on the other. So far ahead of its global release I was able only to try the basic Panamera S model, but despite all the glaring flaws in its design, I was enthralled by the way it drove.

The first thing you notice (at least in a car fitted with optional air springs) is the effortlessly absorbent nature of the suspension. Porsche reckons it rides like an S-Class which is perhaps pushing it a bit, but it’s close enough to make the fact that its handling is more 911 than Cayenne truly astonishing. Grip, poise, steering feel and agility – all the things you look
for from a sporting car – it has in abundance, yet it rides like a true luxury car too. It’s also graveyard-quiet inside, allowing you to appreciate its sumptuous cabin, excellent control layout and the superb comfort of its seats. The note of the V8 motor may be a bit anodyne in this application, but there’s no doubting the shove it provides, hitting 62mph from rest in 5.4sec, five dead if you choose four-wheel drive.

So you can perhaps see why the Panamera has me in a flat spin. To look at dispassionately, the case it makes for itself is so full of holes it might as well be a colander. And I wonder what effect long-term exposure to its looks will have: would it grow on you, would you at least get used to it, or would its weird proportions grate ever more, fundamentally compromising the ownership experience? And even if this were the case, over the months and years to come, would it not be more than offset by its genuinely inspired dynamic qualities?

After only half a day at the wheel, I cannot yet supply answers to these questions. All I do know is that however much I admire all that Porsche’s engineers have achieved with the Panamera, I spend at least as much time thinking about what it’s got wrong as what it does right. I expect it’s a personal thing and I imagine it’ll receive a rather more glowing reception in other quarters of the media, so let’s just call it a fine car for somebody else and leave it at that.

*****

New TT is fast, but not much fun

Just back from driving the latest product of Audi’s quattro GmbH sporting division at Zolder. In theory the £42,985 TT RS should be a thing of wonder, with its 333bhp, 2.5-litre straight-five motor, an engine note reminiscent of the last 20-valve Quattros and an appearance sufficiently pumped up to suggest no Porsche Cayman is safe.

In practice this is an exceptional engine in an unremarkable car. It’s delightfully quick, but beyond going in a straight line, there’s little to involve you in the driving experience by way of handling balance, steering feel or poise. It feels like a throwback to the dark days when quick Audis were about going fast and not about having fun.

Were it not for the RS name, I’d not be too bothered by this: no one bought a TT because they were into driving and there’s no reason why they should in future. But the moment it wheeled those badges out, Audi wrote a cheque this TT can’t cash, and anyone expecting it to carry on the work of the RS4 or R8 supercar will be disappointed. If, however, you just want a fast, great-sounding TT, proceed with my blessing.

As for Zolder, it’s hard to imagine it hosting the Belgian Grand Prix only 25 years ago. Blighted by chicanes introduced after Gilles Villeneuve’s fatal crash in 1982, it’s an interesting test of a car like the TT, but no place at all to deploy an F1 machine.

*****

BMW takes a wrong turn with the Z4

The BMW Z4 completes this month’s trio of faintly disappointing German sports cars, a genre for which I usually have a great deal of time. I always quite liked the old Z4, because while it never approached Boxster levels of dynamic proficiency, it was always fun to drive and I liked the looks. Now both of these qualities have been lost. The decision to turn its roof into a retractable hard top makes it look bulbous with the lid up and a little awkward when it is stowed, while the handling of the £37,065 so-called ‘sDrive 35i’ I drove was disappointing by the standards we have come to expect from BMW.

It feels as though tuned for the American boulevard rather than the British back road, and you don’t need long in this latter environment enjoying the company of its truly magnificent 306bhp straight-six motor before it starts to feel flustered. Traction is surprisingly poor given the softness of its suspension, the steering a touch numb, and there’s too much body movement on undulating roads. As a straightline two-seat cruiser, there is still much to recommend, but as an entertaining B-road bruiser, the Z4’s time appears to be over.

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