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First drive: Panamera worth the wait

Four with more: The four-door styling might still be controversial, but there are no compalint about the Porsche Panamera's abilities.

Porsche’s first four-door sedan rips the sports/luxury limo axis apart with aplomb

22 Jun 2009

By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS in GERMANY

AFTER decades of speculation, years of scoop photography, months of official pictures and weeks of waiting impatiently to drive the car in the wake of its flashy Shanghai debut, the moment of truth has at last arrived for the Porsche Panamera.

It’s been an extraordinary waiting game for millions of people wondering just how right – or otherwise – the Stuttgart firm has got it. The pressure on the Germans must be at fever pitch.

The Beatles never reunited, ABBA refuse to play together again, and nobody would possibly dare remake Citizen Kane ... so how can a mere automobile bear to stand such super-intensive scrutiny? It must be a double-edged sword for Porsche’s engineers to create the brand’s first ever four-door sedan, as well as the spiritual successor to its last front-engined and rear-wheel drive passenger car, the 928 of 1977 to 1995.

Especially, too, after Porsche already abandoned a previous attempt, the 989 of the early 1990s, in economic conditions that weren’t globally as bad as today.

25 center image Surely, then, the weight of the world’s expectation will crush the Panamera like a bug. After all, this is what ultimately suffocated the 928 while deifying the 911 – the very model that it was supposed to supplant.

But no, this time Porsche has seen the project through to the point where a Panamera-shaped key fob is handed over to us at the foot of the German Alps during the longest couple of days of the year.

Actually the northern summer solstice provided poetic justice in a way, maximising our daylight hours with the Panamera as surely as Porsche had kept us waiting 61 years for such a car.

However, no amount of sunlight can change how it looks in the flesh.

The Panamera sits crouching on the ground like a fat frog that is going to strike forward. Porsche assures us that time will reveal a prince of a car instead – a beauty to match the unmistakable presence that permeates from every angle in the flesh.

On reflection we admit to viewing the Panamera in a new light, because this car is absolutely gorgeous inside, and so utterly beguiling from behind the wheel.

Michael Mauer, head of exterior design, suggests that incredibly challenging packaging parameters ultimately determined the Panamera’s appearance and proportions.

He admitted that styling a sedan with back seats that could accommodate the 193cm frame of CEO Wiedeking while sitting upright with a clenched fist between head and roof lining, was challenging, particularly as the Porsche board insisted that the Panamera retain a semblance of the 911’s silhouette, raised front wings, low bonnet line and muscular rear haunches – all in a front engine vehicle, don’t forget.

Thus a car created from the inside out, with a real emphasis on rear-seat accommodation, is the outcome, and so that’s where we initially acquaint ourselves in the Panamera.

All class on the inside

Pulling open the hefty door (each supported by a strut as well as a hinge so it stays where you want it to), you notice that the aperture is larger than expected, a trick of varying roof and door radii.

But your posterior does plunge down into a dedicated bucket seat, so a level of physical dexterity is desirable, if not mandatory.

Once inside the rear, you notice that the glass area’s size strikes a reasonable balance between privacy and airiness.

There is also an abundance of generally quality materials that feel and smell expensive, from the roof lining to the leather upholstery and plastic door cappings.

However, in the pre-production vehicles we sampled, some of the more out-of-the-way trim in the lower regions did feel a little brittle, such as a ridiculously small ashtray and central cupholder area.

Each rear seat is split evenly, separated by an integrated centre section that folds down to provide an armrest as well as a storage facility. They’re firm but anatomically moulded, keeping you in place but not restricting your movement.

If the occupant in front does not move forward to increase rear legroom, you might still be satisfied with the amount of foot and knee space available, but longer journeys are better if the front seat is raised to allow for splaying feet.

As this is a wide car, nobody will complain about a lack of shoulder clearance, and for most folk the same is true for their scalps, although you do always feel cosy, if not actually hemmed in.

Aiding this impression are the narrow ‘tombstone’ style front buckets that look like they’re out of a 911 GT3. From behind they seem a little incongruous for such a sedan, and their hard plastic shell backing is out of step with the otherwise lush cabin presentation.

Actually, devising the most beautiful cabin in the world was a top priority for a car that must face the Maserati Quattroporte, Audi A8, BMW 7 Series and Mercedes-Benz S-class, and the Panamera comes close to fulfilling Porsche’s objectives.

With inspiration from the Carrera GT as well as the 928, a front-to-rear console, set higher than you might imagine, infuses the Panamera with a level of originality, identity, freshness and even futurism that eludes the exterior styling.

It serves as the comfort control centre for each Panamera occupant, with many of the front switches and buttons mimicked out back.

All passengers enjoy two face-level vents (although the rears are set low enough for knee caps to feel like ice caps), operated via a beautifully presented and weighted set of buttons laid out in symmetrical formation. They’re a joy to behold and brilliant to use, grouped together according to function.

But it is the front occupants that still fair best in this Porsche.

In the pilot’s seat

As we mentioned, the dashboard is a masterpiece, melding traditional brand instrumentation (set out across five dials in the 911 sense, housing digital readouts among the predominant analogue gauges) and modern electronic media interactivity, dominated by the centrally sited display screen for the satellite navigation, audio switches and front climate controls.

The driver will not forget that he/she is in a Porsche, since the environment is sport/luxury. The driving position is faultless, underlined by a fabulous steering wheel that tilts and telescopes and fantastically comfy and supportive electric seats that can adjust 14 ways, the switchgear placement exemplary, and – unlike in the rear – there are no obvious cheapo areas to mar the quality feel.

Incredible attention to detail pervades the Porsche sedan, from the chrome highlights surrounding the appealingly oversized front air vents, to the leather stitched dash top. And though we broke part of a rear cupholder assembly, our test cars proved to be free of squeaks and rattles.

It’s also deceptively quiet at speed, even at well over 200km/h on the smooth German and Austrian rural roads and autobahns we drove across. Mind you, every Panamera we drove was fitted with the double-glazing window option that helps keep the keep the elements and noise at bay.

So, as a quiet, comfortable and refined luxury car, the Porsche feels like a tank. Memories of pre-1990s bulletproof Mercedes cabins came flooding back. Space is at a premium compared to the S-class set, but the engineers did not set out to create a roomy super-sedan.

Of course, this is hammered home by the fact that the Panamera is a sort of overgrown hot hatch.

The tailgate is large though not cavernous, there is a fat sill to negotiate luggage over, the load area – while flat and wide – is fairly shallow so the 445-litre capacity is not brilliant, and the acute rake of the rear does reversing vision no favours. The rear camera fitted to our test cars was absolutely essential.

However, the rear seats’ ability to fold down flat means the Panamera transcends into crossover territory with 1263 litres.

But this is Porsche’s first sedan, so for many buyers the 4.806 litres of V8 engine capacity is probably of far more interest.

Around half of all Panamera sales will go to the ‘base’ S, and this is the only rear-wheel-drive model that will be offered in Australia initially from October.

A V8 to the max

Derived from the Cayenne SUV but boasting about 40 per cent different components, this naturally aspirated 294kW/500Nm V8 does a sterling job hauling the 1800kg Panamera S along.

Mated to Porsche’s superb new seven-speed PDK double-clutch sequential manual ‘auto’ gearbox (the standard no-cost option six-speed manual was unavailable for us to sample), this ‘entry level’ sedan will blitz past 100km/h from zero in 5.4 seconds, before hitting its 283km/h V-max.

We saw 264km/h easily, with the sedan feeling solid as a rock as it quickly clambered up to these heights. Thankfully the Porsche’s brakes are up to the task of washing off speed quickly and with no fuss.

On the other hand, because the Panamera is built and insulated like a vault, the S performance never feels explosive. Yet, as those acceleration figures reveal, there is a strong and linear power delivery right throughout the rev range.

The PDK’s slick gear changes further add to this speed deception, since they are almost imperceptibly seamless in most circumstances and respond instantaneously to the driver’s demand.

The transmission allows for manual selection via either the satisfyingly solid-feeling floor lever or the oddly unintuitive toggle paddles on the steering wheel spokes.

On the subject of steering, the Panamera S helm is incredibly delicate in feedback and superbly well judged for handling response, making this sedan incredibly satisfying to thread through your favourite set of corners.

In fact, as there is no power to corrupt steering feel, we felt that the base S was the purest Panamera in terms of roadholding response and feedback, as well as one of the most enjoyable sports sedans we have ever driven.

Porsche’s PSM stability and traction control devices compensate for the lack of all-wheel drive security in the Panamera 4S and range-topping Turbo, by intervening gently and intelligently over the wet conditions we encountered. In the ESP-higher-threshold Sport mode the driver can have a lot more tail-out fun without fear of electronic meddling or loss of control.

The extra security of a 4WD system with the ability to send up to 100 per cent of torque to either end of the Panamera sets the otherwise mechanically identical 4S model apart.

But there is about 60kg more weight on board, with much of it in the front half of the car, so the crisp steering feedback and sharp response of the S model is scaled back a tad – although the differences are mostly discernable after a back-to-back drive.

With three adjustable damper settings available, we found the Panamera’s ride to be revelatory in Comfort mode it lived up to its name, while the levels of absorbency available in the tautly controlled Sport setting did not deteriorate badly anyway.

The Panamera has also been devised not to be as profligate as many top-end luxury sedans have been in the past, and the idle-stop technology – a first in the Porsche’s class – is a forward step in reducing consumption and emissions. It operates unobtrusively in most conditions, although on a couple of occasions a hurried prod of the pedal was met with a jerky jump back into life.

Jumping to warp speed is the 368kW/700Nm 4.8-litre V8 Panamera Turbo’s raison d’être, upping the top speed to 303km/h while returning sensational acceleration times for a sedan – 4.2-second 0-100km/h, 9.0-second 0-160km/h, and 13.9-s 0-200km/h.

Renowned Porsche driver Walter Rohl recently raced a Panamera Turbo around the Nürburgring’s Nordschleife circuit 20 seconds quicker than he could manage in an Audi RS6 and 24-second faster than he could in the BMW M5.

Air suspension on the level

Beyond the naturally aspirated models’ double-wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension system are self-levelling air suspension and active anti-roll bars, providing higher thresholds of comfort and control at the supercar speeds the Turbo is capable of.

However, while this Panamera is considerably faster than its siblings (especially when you need to accelerate from, say, 160km/h to 260km/h as quickly as possible), the Turbo is significantly heavier and a little less lithe.

Nevertheless, few sedans on the planet can point and squirt with such devastating response while providing the same level of luxury and accommodation, and for many then the Turbo will be the Panamera to have.

Not for us, though, even when we were able to legally almost triple Australia’s freeway speed limits in Germany, because the base model S is such a complete and capable package in the first place.

Whether you think the Panamera represents good value for money or not largely depends on your perception of the brand, and there are an awful lot of optional items that many competitors include as standard equipment.

The company’s first four-door sedan exceeds our expectations in virtually every key department, and shines particularly brightly for performance efficiency, driving pleasure, interior presentation and ride comfort.

Porsche believes it will have no problem finding 20,000 buyers every year worldwide, stating that there are many Mercedes, BMW and Audi buyers bored with the same old choices.

We agree that there will be many newcomers to the marque as a result of what we rate – on European roads – as one of the greatest grand touring sedans even made. Rivals as disparate as the Bentley Continental GT and Maserati Gran Turismo are in Porsche’s crosshairs, and they should be concerned.

Now the countdown is on again, this time for our first Panamera drive on Australian soil.

As Porsche diehards have been waiting since 1948, what are 100 days, 2400 hours, 144,000 minutes or 8,640,000 seconds anyway!

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