Imagine you are sitting in the center lane of the New Jersey Turnpike with a dead engine and your wife and kids on board. Now imagine that the car you are driving is worth $150,000. Such is life in the Porsche Panamera.
No, the company that currently sits atop the charts of the J.D. Power and Associates dependability survey hasn’t dropped the engineering ball on its first four-door sedan – which is, in fact, a five-door hatchback - but it did design the Panamera to shut itself down whenever it feels like it. The Germans, however, shouldn’t be blamed for stop-and-go Jersey Shore traffic.
You see, the Panamera is equipped with an idle-stop feature that activates when the car comes to rest, in an effort to conserve a few drops of fuel. It starts up again when you take your foot off the brake. Hybrid owners are already familiar with such systems, but the zaftig Porsche is the first conventional car to use the feature in the United States. You can disable it, but you might as well get used to it. In a few years a lot of cars will be doing the same thing, including the almost inevitable Panamera Hybrid.
In the meantime, you’ll have to settle for what is effectively the quickest car in the world that can carry four people comfortably – not exactly a bad consolation.
Of course, I’m referring to the top of the line Panamera Turbo, which is propelled by a 500 hp, twin-turbocharged 4.8-liter V8. Lesser models are available with a naturally aspirated 400 hp version of the same engine, and a V6 is on the way. But, since this is a coming out party, let’s focus our attention on the belle of the ball.
When you’re spending this kind of money on a car - $133,575 to start – the last thing you want to hear is that its looks will grow on you. But, trust me, they do. The Panamera isn’t particularly pretty, but it is striking. Long, wide, low and bulbous, its awkward presence is very much in the vein of an old Citroen. When a police car turns on its lights to pull into a trolley car lane just to sidle up next to you and say “I love that car!” you know you’re at the wheel of something special.
You’d never mistake it for anything but a Porsche, though, and that’s the point of it – not to alienate the faithful. If a mistake was made, it’s that the designers appear to have created a mash-up of the 911 and the dearly departed 928, rather than base the design on the more shapely Cayman. In any case, it’s no Cayenne.
No excuses are needed to describe the attractive interior. It has impeccable fit and finish, and an unmistakable Porsche family appearance, only from the next generation. The classic cluster of five round gauges remains, as does a flat-plane dashboard that eschews the popular dual-cockpit motif found in many slower cars. What's new is the button-laden center console.
Like the car’s exterior, its aesthetic is challenging at first, but only until you realize that it doesn’t actually house any more controls than most other cars. It just puts them in a different, arguably more ergonomic layout. Performance and climate systems are closest at hand, while the vertical section is left to the standard touch-screen infotainment screen and associated dials. Expect this to become the paradigm for future Porsches, unlike the area between the rear doors.
While the footprint of the Panamera verges on road hog territory, cabin space is only mid-size, but with ample legroom front and rear. Two seats and only two seats are found in back as is the fashion of the day. They can be ordered with power controls, but the ones in my test car were fixed. Nearly identical to the buckets up front, the pair definitely looks ready for business – both of the executive and tarmac-tearing kind. An optional refrigerator in the armrest between them serves to enhance the private jet ambiance. They also fold forward, which nearly triples the size of the 15-cubic foot cargo bay, because that’s what the Panamera was designed for: hauling.
The Turbo comes standard with all-wheel drive and is loaded with nearly all of Porsche’s performance goodies, including adjustable suspension and stability control systems, and a seven-speed dual clutch automatic transmission known as PDK, short, in German, for Porsche doppelkupplungsgetriebe, easily the best word ever to be associated with an automobile. Shell out an extra $2,280 for the Sport Chrono Package Plus and you not only get a nifty analog/digital stopwatch on the top of the dashboard, but also a launch control function for the PDK. Or maybe it’s the other way around.
Switch the Panamera to Sport Plus mode, which sharpens the action of the suspension, throttle and transmission; step hard on the brake to activate the launch control; floor the accelerator; wait for the revs to level out at around 4200 rpm; sidestep the brake and…wait.
It takes a blink and a half of an eye before anything happens, but then the car moves away so forcefully that anything not battened down in the cargo area slams into the back of the car – not because it slides rearward, but because the Panamera moves under it as if a magician pulled a cloth off of a dinner table, leaving all of the place settings and the centerpiece unmoved. It is at this point that you begin to stop caring about the terrible blind spot over your shoulder.
While the engine’s torque rating is an impressive 516 lb-ft, at moments like this an overboost function cranks up the turbo to eleven, pumping out 568 lb-ft for a short burst. This isn’t the kind of car you’re likely to see at a drag strip, unless you happened to be at Raceway Park in New Jersey when I stopped by. But the Panamera ran the quarter mile there in 12 seconds flat. That’s not just quick for a 4,343-pound vehicle – it’s two-seat, limited edition, much more expensive supercar quick - and it even manages to dodge the gas-guzzler tax with an EPA rating of 23 mpg highway.
Even without indulging in the joys of the launch control, your mind is blown and your grin stretched ear to ear with every stab at the fast pedal. Reaching most speed limits takes less than 4 seconds, and every sixteen-and-a-half foot gap in traffic is yours for the taking.
Turns are dealt with just as adeptly. Up to 9/10ths of its ability, the Panamera will lull you into forgetting that you are dragging a pair of cheap seats around with you. So sharp are its responses, so tenacious the grip that only when it reaches its ultimate limits, and all of that weight finally manifests itself as a suggestion of understeer, are you hit with the realization that you are driving a hulking four-door sedan. Even then, a bit of corrective steering, throttle or brakes – whatever you’re in the mood for – will put you back on track. It’s that well-balanced.
What it’s not, is cosseting.
If you’ve ever driven a 911, you’ve driven this car, or at least have an idea of what it’s like to drive this car. In other words, it’s not a sedan from the Mercedes-Benz AMG or BMW M catalog. Even with all of the electronic gizmos cranked as far toward Comfort as they will go, there’s always a familiar sternness to remind you that this is a sports car first, and something to carry three other people and some antiques around in second. The others all started life as taxis and were coaxed into becoming the brilliant vehicles they are. With the Panamera the process was reversed, though I doubt you’ll ever see even the six-cylinder version with a hack behind the wheel (unless it’s me).
The car that comes closest to the Panamera in price and purity of purpose is the Maserati Quattroporte, but it, too, feels soft and slow by comparison. Sure, its butt may not be as big, but, just like the rest, the sexy Italian merely provides a front row seat to the posteriors of all of the Panameras passing by in the left lane, so you might as well get used to the sight of it.
2010 Porsche Panamera Turbo
Base Price: $133,575
As Tested: $148,125
Type: four-passenger, front-engine, all-wheel-drive, five-door hatchback
Engine: 4.8-liter twin turbo V8
Power: 500 hp, 516 (568) lb-ft torque
MPG: 15 city/23 hwy