Why would a renowned sports car maker like Porsche want to produce a four-door sports coupé? For the same reason it builds the highly successful Cayenne SUV: more market share, more volume and, ultimately, more profit. But does the four-door Panamera make sports car sense?
Well, yes and no. But before we sample the latest hot metal from the Porsche foundry first hand, let’s embark on a short history lesson.
The notion of a four-door performance car from Porsche is nothing new. Way back in 1988, the then much smaller specialist sports car maker from Zuffenhausen started investigating the viability of a four-door performance car.
At the time, Porsche’s front-engined 928 and 944 cars were selling well, and the rear-engined, rear-wheel drive 911 seemed doomed. For the Porsche family, a four-door flagship was the obvious next step – a car that, ultimately, would replace the ailing 911.
Now here’s the interesting part. The man in charge of the four-door project, known as the 989, was a certain Ulrich Bez, a charismatic engineer with an appetite for speed, performance and motorsport. Some of Porsche’s greatest cars, including the immortal 993-generation 911, were developed under his auspices.
But the 989 would not be one of his successes. The 989 looked like a stretched, four-door 911, and was powered by a 220kW, liquid-cooled V8. By 1992, four years after development started, it was very close to production, when the plug was pulled.
A slump in 928 sales, and a general decline in economic conditions, were blamed for the decision. The big winner was the 911, which became central to Porsche’s future plans, and continues as the brand’s icon to this day.
Ulrich Bez would ultimately head up Aston Martin, revitalising the ailing British brand – and recently launching a four-door performance coupé called the Rapide. Wonder where that idea came from …
And Porsche? Well, it did break out of the sports-car mould, after all – but chose the burgeoning sports utility vehicle arena as its battleground. Launched in 2002, the Cayenne was greeted with derision by purists, but embraced by the posh crowd, ensuring instant sales success and greatly enhancing the brand’s profitability.
Eight years later, Porsche has finally entered the four-door performance segment. The Panamera is not a revitalised 989. But it does have a big, 4,8-litre V8, installed into a long and prowling nose, and in the case of the 4S version we’re about to drive, powering all four wheels.
The shape is, well, controversial. There are enough visual pointers to confirm the Panamera’s Porsche citizenship, but that doesn’t make it a pretty car. Imposing is a better description.
The four doors demand an extended wheelbase, while the low-slung stance is pure performance coupé. Those muscular haunches are pure 911, but the bulk and presence of the Panamera are almost brutal – it’s a car spoiling for a fight.
And yes, the competition has every reason to be intimidated. The Panamera is a serious piece of automotive kit, wielding a combination of heritage, technology, exclusivity and integrity very few, if any, of its rivals can muster.
Not that there are too many rivals. The upcoming Aston Martin Rapide is one. AMG-tweaked performance versions of the Mercedes-Benz CLS four-door coupé is another. And then there’s the quirky Maserati Quattroporte Sport GT S.
But the Panamera will also aim its considerable firing power at the broader luxury market, populated by meeker, but still rapid and high-tech machinery such as the BMW 7-Series, AMG/Merc’s S-class and a future Audi S8.
And let’s not forget that there is an entire generation of wealthy sports car buyers that would perhaps enjoy the space, luxury and ease of use epitomised by the Panamera, while still enjoying the brand’s obvious cachet and dynamic credentials.
So, here we are, at the foot of a twisting, turning, serpentine 40km route that leads to and from a peaceful haven called Kaapschehoop, in the Mpumalanga mountains near Nelspruit. The Panamera’s V8 is ticking over expectantly, and the road ahead is devoid of traffic. Time to give it stick.
The low roofline defines an even lower seating position, so that the first impressions behind the thick-rimmed, Porsche-crested steering wheel are pure sports car – and pure Porsche. The same goes for the traditional five-dial instrument layout, dominated by a large rev counter and the bolstered bucket seats.
But that battery of switchgear on both sides of the high, dividing centre console is more Star Trek than sports car. There’s a touch-screen display, too, with more buttons directly below it. Best you peruse their features and functions before you get going, because at cruise missile speeds, you don’t want to be fiddling with anything except the steering wheel.
And yes, the aura of luxury is tangible – you can smell the hand-stitched hide, feel the cool, hard metal of the door handles (no plastic here!). There’s a heft and weight to the controls that exudes heirloom quality.
Under the bonnet of this Panamera 4S is a 4,806cc V8, with twin camshafts per bank and direct injection, pumping out a not-too-shabby 294kW of muscle at 6,500rpm. The torque peak is a meaty 500Nm, maintained between 3,500rpm and 5,000rpm.
The switches on the steering wheel spokes confirm that the V8’s urge is harnessed by Porsche’s PDK dual-clutch gearbox, which delivers its motive wares to all four wheels.
Big 19-inch spoked alloy wheels and fat Michelin rubber are suspended from all-aluminium dual wishbones up front and a fancy multilink arrangement at the rear, while massive, ventilated disc brakes promise vital stopping power.
With 1,860kg to propel, even the big V8 can’t escape the effects of initial inertia. But throttle response is instant, and the Panamera gets off the mark with almost disdainful alacrity. We’re driving the Porsche in Sport Plus manual mode, so cog swaps are instant and almost percussive.
And yes, progress is rapid and relentless. In the first three gears, the rev counter needle sweeps around the dial so quickly that you’re almost caught out by the rev limiter. And the speedometer keeps on piling the numbers. The first corner arrives in a blur.
Don’t expect the nimble road manners and the trigger-hair finesse of a 911 GT3, but the Panamera turns in with meaty resolve and surprising poise. Mechanical grip is phenomenal and the chassis composure eradicates any form of body roll as the G-forces load up.
Whatever you do, don’t look at the speedo – you’ll be going a lot quicker than you think. Rather concentrate on the ribbon of tar rapidly unwinding ahead.
Porsche claims a 0-100km/h sprint time of five seconds dead, while 0-160km/h is despatched in 11,5 sec. A top speed of 282km/h seems more than feasible, while covering a standing-start kilometre requires a mere 24 seconds. No argument – these figures emphatically confirm the Panamera’s athletic prowess.
As the pass heads up into the hills towards Kaapschehoop, the lefts and rights provide an intoxicating rhythm of twists and turns that show off the Panamera’s dynamic prowess. In sport mode, the suspension is communicative as only a sports car chassis can be, allowing a thrilling dialogue between car and driver.
And yet, the cabin has all the quiet, businesslike decorum of a command centre. The engine’s wail is muted, the air-con keeps the ambient temperatures pleasantly cool, and there’s some classical tune burbling from the multispeaker Burmester sound system.
You can time your progress on the Sport Chrono package’s analogue stop watch, monitor vital engine and vehicle statistics on the relevant displays and adjust chassis and vehicle management parameters to suit mood and ability.
Kaapschehoop’s quaint houses, all cottage pane windows and coloured roofs, appear as we crest a rise, and we slow right down, in case the town’s famous wild horses are trotting around – but the place looks fast asleep.
Then it’s the plunge back down towards the N4, with the up run’s tight corners replaced by fast, open sweeps, with the odd undulation tightening corner thrown in to keep you on your toes. This is what the Panamera likes best. It feels more aircraft than car as we fly down the pass.
At high speeds like this, the weight transfer is obvious, and under braking, you realise just how much metal is being retarded. But the Panamera remains supremely unruffled, always flattering the driver and graciously smoothing over any small driver mistakes.
Of course, owners of the Panamera won’t exercise their steeds to this extent – at least not all the time. Which means the Porsche also needs to fulfil the more prosaic role of luxury car. And it does so with convincing ease.
Set the suspension to comfort mode, switch the gearbox to automatic, define a destination on the satellite navigation system, dial in a suitable velocity for the cruise control and the Panamera does the rest. Even the long and boring haul up the N4 towards the Big Smoke becomes more tolerable.
A perfect time, then, to mull over the essence of the Panamera. Is this big, imposing machine really worthy of the Porsche ethos? Or is it simply a ruthlessly competent, but ultimately soulless luxury cruiser on steroids?
Frankly, that’s what I expected when I first settled in behind the wheel of the Porsche. But the curves and corners of the Kaapschehoop route have persuaded me otherwise. The Panamera is every high-tech inch an authentic Porsche.
No, it’s not a four-door 911. But it isn’t just another luxury limousine either. Instead it is the ultimate crossover, delivering luxury, technology and performance in equal measures. Vitally it feels like a real Porsche, despite its bulk, its mass and its four doors.
For purists, the 911 will remain the quintessential expression of the Porsche art. But the Panamera offers those intimidated by the 911’s sports car persona, and don’t need the Cayenne’s SUV space and presence, a sophisticated, multifaceted and ultimately rewarding alternative.
By Deon Schoeman
See the Porsche Panamera 4S in action on RPM TV on Wednesday 31 March 1t 20h30 on SuperSport. More transmission times can be found on the RPM TV website.
Porsche Panamera 4S
4 806 cc V8, DOHC per bank, direct injection
Seven-speed PDK dual-clutch
294 kW @ 6 500 rpm
500 Nm @ 3 500 rpm
11,1 l/100 km (combined cycle)
Carbon dioxide emissions
R1 065 000 before options