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First drive: Panamera sings Porsche hybrid hymn

Green Porsche: The barnstorming hybrid Panamera will arrive in local showrooms in August.

Porsche extends petrol-electric appeal with frugal Panamera S Hybrid super-sedan

18 May 2011

PORSCHE’S seemingly impossible 918 Spyder plug-in hybrid will be the ultimate expression of the German sportscar maker’s familiar ‘efficient performance’ mantra when it lands in the lucky hands of a select few in 2013.

Promising the diametrically opposed achievements of both top-echelon supercar acceleration (0-100km/h in just 3.2 seconds) and Toyota Prius-beating fuel economy (a staggering 3.0L/100km), the ultra-frugal hypercar will convey Porsche’s hybrid message louder and clearer than ever before.

Right here and now, however, the Panamera S Hybrid luxury liftback represents the most significant symbol of Porsche’s petrol-electric push, as well as its direct response to top-shelf hybrids limousines such as the established Lexus LS600hL and newer BMW 7 Series Active Hybrid, Mercedes-Benz S400 Hybrid and Audi A8 e-Tron.

The hybrid Panamera will join the sub-$245,000 LS-h in Australian showrooms in August with a pricetag of $298,300 – or $293,217 with optional low rolling resistance tyres, which reduces fuel consumption from 7.1 to 6.8L/100km and therefore saves buyers $5083 in luxury car tax (see separate story).

However, Porsche admits the primary target of its first hybrid car – and its second hybrid model after the Cayenne S Hybrid, with which it and the Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid (sold elsewhere) share its motor-assisted drivetrain – is North America, where more than a quarter of all Panamera S Hybrids built will be sold.

Together, the US (26 per cent), Germany (13 per cent) and Japan (11 per cent) are expected to account for half of all Panamera hybrid sales.

More significantly, while Porsche forecasts hybrid and plug-in vehicles to comprise 24 per cent of worldwide auto sales by 2020 – up from just two per cent last year – it concedes the hybrid will represent just 6.5 per cent of overall Panamera production.

25 center imageWhile the entry-level petrol V6 variant is expected to remain the Panamera best-seller globally, the hybrid will not replace the V8-powered version as the most popular Panamera model in Australia, where the $193,000-plus four-door was Porsche’s least popular model last year with 109 sales.

Porsche Cars Australia expects to sell up to 140 Panameras this year as the Hybrid and Diesel versions come on stream, but naturally that will still be well short of the $104,000-plus Cayenne, which found almost 600 local homes in 2010 to account for almost half of all Porsches sold Down Under.

Of course, the two models attract different customers but as with the Cayenne, petrol-electric Panamera customers are expected to be Porsche fans who are tech-savvy and/or environmentally conscious.

Sadly, however, hybrids have so far accounted for less than 10 per cent of Cayenne sales in Australia, so even if the hybrid lures a more sizeable 15 per cent of Panamera buyers as PCA hopes, less than 20 Panamera S Hybrids will be sold here a year.

That’s a shame, because after driving it in all manner of conditions at the global launch in Austria this week, the Panamera hybrid appears to be ideally suited to Australian conditions, with rapid 0-100km/h acceleration that’s within half a second or so of the $13,417-cheaper, V8-powered Panamera S and even quicker standing-start pace.

Most surprising is the instantaneous, neck-stretching throttle response that 580 of Sir Isaac Newton’s finest delivers from any road speed. On tap anywhere below 1150rpm, the electric motor’s 300Nm peak-torque boost effect is most impressive from standstill and at low engine speeds, where the Panamera hybrid lunges forward and feels easily quicker than the V8 off the line and to maybe 60km/h.

After that it relies more on the torque output of the supercharged direct-injection 3.0-litre Audi V6, which with 440Nm available between 3300 and 5250rpm is no slouch and can only be described as muscular in the much lighter S4 and S5 or even the much heavier Q7, in which it replaces a 4.2-litre V8.

Less relevant to Australia is the 270km/h top speed, which is only marginally short of the V8 Panamera’s and, says Porsche, makes the petrol-electric version the world’s fastest hybrid.

Even at a corpulent 1980kg, the motor-assisted Panamera pulls like a train, but never felt tailier than the rear-drive Panamera S on icy alpine roads, despite the fitment of less grippy fuel-saving Michelin tyres on all the cars we drove.

The rear-mounted battery pack probably helps here, but there’s no escaping the extra 250kg the hybrid has stacked on over the most basic Panamera petrol V6, making it feel heavier in corners, slower to change direction and harder to place precisely on the road.

That said, bodyroll remains well in check, the highly effective adjustable damping system sharpens cornering stability markedly without ruining the high-quality ride and we’d defy anyone to find fault with Porsche’s first motor-driven steering system – one of the best electric steering set-ups we’ve sampled.

Like the brakes, which are also boosted by the high-voltage battery pack, the steering may not ultimately feel as natural or intimate as the conventional hydraulic systems in other Panameras, but you’d have to back-to-back them to find out.

Next biggest surprise was the refinement and packaging of the hybrid’s additional electrics. Moving off into traffic in almost complete silence in full-electric (or ‘e-Power’) mode is not as daunting as you’d think, given the Panamera’s plush cabin is already so well isolated that if not for the tacho needle or hybrid power graphic in the instrument panel telling you what’s happening, you would never know when the engine fires itself up.

Completely unlike other hybrids we’ve driven with continuously variable transmissions, the faint whirring of the Panamera’s electric motor rises and falls as it drives through the same eight speed automatic gearbox ratios as the V6, providing yet another aspect of familiarity.

Then, when the blown V6 cuts in, the Panamera reverts back to being a conventional car – albeit a luxury four-seat lift-back that offers all the refinement you’d expect at this level.

The only minor blight was a pronounced transmission thud we heard on at least three occasions, when the transmission downshifted and the engine restarted simultaneously, but it goes without saying the overall refinement and cohesiveness of this $300,000 hybrid is like nothing any Toyota Prius or Lexus CT200h driver has experienced.

Another point of difference is ‘sailing’ mode, in which the S Hybrid drives at a constant speed under electric power alone with the engine decoupled on downhill gradients and, for a while at least, even along flat road stretches.

The EV-only mode is just as impressive, especially at city speeds where, if driven sensibly and with enough anticipation for traffic lights and other bottlenecks, it can offer amazing engine-free driving capability, demonstrating just how seldom internal combustion engine power is actually required, even in a relatively quiet European city such Salzburg.

We took 2.5 hours to cover the first day’s 125km ‘economy run’ over a variety of alpine, freeway, city and secondary roads, recording 6.7L/100km without holding anyone else up or turning off the air-conditioning, bettering Porsche’s official combined figure by a tenth but falling short of the figure set by someone perhaps not quite as courteous in an earlier group.

The second day’s 125km free-for-all took in even more mountain passes on a mainly B-road drive through Austrian and German villages spanning another 125km, during which we tested the limits of the latest Panamera but still returned 8.5L/100km, which outstanding for a Commodore-size two-tonne grand tourer and little more than half we last recorded in the Panamera V8.

Apart from slightly duller handling due to its extra weight, the loss of side compartments within its boot and the lack of a German V8 burble, the price for all this efficient performance amounts to less than $13,500 over the Panamera S.

Yet the Panamera Diesel should deliver even better real-world economy and emit only a few more grams of CO2 without being quite as quick but costing almost $100,000 less.

And therein lies the problem for Porsche’s petrol-electric Panamera, which like the Prius may appeal only to people who are prepared to pay a premium to be green – and to be seen to be green – and, in this case, those that want to reduce their emissions without sacrificing performance.

How many of those customers actually exist is as yet unknown, but the Panamera S Hybrid is far too great a technological triumph to amount to nothing more than a perfunctory petrol-electric pin-up for Porsche.

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