Sports car traditionalist blends some big numbers with genuine opulence
by Andrew Frankel
As we know, Porsche is a company that doesn’t like to mess with a winning formula. Forget its decision to replace normally aspirated six-cylinder engines with fours in the Cayman and Boxster, for that was forced upon it. Look how its other cars have evolved over the years and you’ll see that sticking to what’s known to work is a mantra that’s served Stuttgart brilliantly. Like nature, Porsche has always favoured the evolutionary approach.
So why this, a very different all-new Panamera? Why not a car visually almost indistinguishable from its predecessor with its hardware nicely upgraded but still tuned to do precisely the same job better than ever? Simply, and at least by big Porsche standards, the Panamera has been its least successful car. Indeed Porsche sold more SUVs last year alone than it has sold Panameras in the whole six years it has been on sale.
I was never quite sure what the problem was, save the car’s obvious ugliness, and that never stopped Porsche selling early Cayennes. But look at what Porsche has changed on the new car, which is essentially everything, and you’ll be left in no doubt at all what things Porsche felt needed fixing and, more importantly, the new direction in which it felt it needed to head.
The car is much better looking; if not yet quite a thing of beauty then at least no longer something to give the children nightmares. Inside it is now genuinely spacious, not simply by sleek four-door coupé standards, but those of genuine luxury saloons. I’m 6ft 4in tall and four of me could travel together for as long as it took to get bored of our own company. Then again, the car is enormous: wider than a 7-series BMW and not much shorter.
It sits on an all-new platform, and while motoring hacks are fond of banging on about such things to the general befuddlement and disinterest of many readers, this one matters because next year Bentley will use it for its entire future generation of Continental GTs.
Every engine is new and, in the annoying vogue of these times, they’re being launched from the top down, with the 4-litre V8 Turbo and Diesel S models coming first, with the smaller V6 diesel and plug-in hybrid model that the vast majority will buy following on behind.
The V8 diesel is the one I want to drive most because the old car’s bonnet line precluded the fitment of an eight-cylinder oil-burner and, with 416bhp and 627lb ft of torque, this new one is easily the most potent diesel-powered car in the world. But it’s the 542bhp Turbo flagship that’s now sitting outside Munich airport.
The interior is beautiful: simple, modern, airy and even quite easy to understand, despite the fiendish complexities of its operations. Switchgear has been all but eradicated, replaced by touch-sensitive areas of the piano-black dash: it looks and works beautifully in this immaculately prepared car, but I wonder how it might appear once covered in fingerprints after a few thousand miles on the road. Certainly it provides one more area of an already huge car that most owners will feel the need to keep clean. All information arrives via TFT screens, save the rev-counter that survives in its central position as the car’s only analogue dial. A cheesy olde-worlde gimmick in an otherwise state-of-the-art interior? Possibly, but I rather liked it.
The new engine is more powerful but less characterful than the last. Its manners are impeccable, its thrust undeniable. Yet hermetically sealed inside the Panamera’s new shell, even this Turbo doesn’t feel as potent as the figures suggest; it’s only when you see how rapidly the numbers on the dial change from the legal to the licence- and then liberty-losing that you realise just how fast this thing is. I usually have little time for those who complain about getting caught because they simply didn’t realise how quickly they were travelling, but this Panamera is so good at removing you from the sensation of speed that I expect it’s going to be something of a problem.
So while you’re out there failing to notice how fast you’re going, the reasons why are equally hard to miss: this is the quietest, most comfortable Porsche I have driven. Compare it to an S-class Mercedes by all means or a Bentley, but not a Porsche. On standard air springs it glides around the place like a limousine, offering only the distant roar of immense tyres on coarse surfaces for company.
All of which is fine as far as it goes. But by now you would be forgiven for wondering what, save sheer speed, has been left of Porsche’s identity on the car? To find the answer to that, you need to find a few corners.
Then you will realise very quickly just how far and fast it distances itself from the traditional luxury car narrative it has so far seemed to espouse. The Panamera corners flat and, for a car of its size, weight and aspirations, phenomenally fast. It is poised, accurate and, in all objective senses, incredibly effective. But something is missing. True, you don’t expect a car of these dimensions and this heft to handle like a Cayman, but I had hoped it might prove at least as involving as an old Panamera. But it’s not: there’s little or no steering feel, little or no impression that it has anything other than benevolent indifference to being driven this way. It will do it, it will look after you and forgive any mistakes you might make; just don’t expect it to do so with a smile on its face. It’s impressive, it’s effective, it’s even admirable. But enjoyable? Once you’ve come to terms with the sheer grip on offer, not so much.
Whether this constitutes any kind of failing depends on your perspective. If you’re me and believe the first duty of all Porsches is to provide a landmark driving experience, you may see this as a sizeable missed opportunity. If, on the other hand, you’re the kind of person with both the means and motivation to spend a six-figure sum on a new luxury Porsche I expect it will not trouble you at all, not least because you’ll probably have a hot Cayman tucked away at the back of the garage as well. These are people who want the image of driving a Porsche but not the inconveniences, and to them its comparative absence of driver involvement on twisting country lanes will be of no consequence at all.
Think of the Panamera as Porsche once more broadening its portfolio. While the outgoing car tried to be a 911 for people who’d drive a 911 every day if they could, the new Panamera is Porsche’s first attempt at true opulence, a luxury car first and a traditional Porsche a very distant second. And whether you like it or not, in that regard even the Turbo can only be seen as a success.