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First drive: Porsche Panamera

2009-07-03 08:28

Egmont Sippel

Egmont Sippel was one of the lucky few to drive Porsche’s new luxury sports limousine, the provocatively named Panamera, at the car’s international launch in Germany.

Sometimes we don’t have a choice. Certain things are meant to be.

So, fifteen or twenty corners into the twisty bit of our test route, we switch traction control out. It’s time for some bare-back ridin’. From here on in, it will be me, my co-driver and the machine, sans electronically controlled safety nets.

Which is the way to go in Stuttgart missiles, you might argue: naked and unprotected. What’s better than playing with a Porsche’s tail, using throttle and opposite lock to control your own little mobile universe?

Except that in this case, we’re talking about the firm’s new million dollar baby, the Panamera.

It’s Porsche’s first four-door four-seater ever, at least in saloon form. It’s been in the making for half a decade, it’s brilliant and it will be very very expensive.

So, hanging the tail out on extremely narrow and twisty roads could be a little scary, especially as the tarmac in question happened to be sopping wet as well.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. The wet also serves to highlight the Panamera’s grip and tenacity; the big Porsche is behaving impeccably.

All-wheel drive and packaging

Okay, so we’re nailing the 4S model. The advantage is that this car splits drive to all four wheels. The full monty goes south whenever conditions allow, whilst up to 50% runs north in times of need.

That’s a big help, of course, on wet roads – just like Porsche’s peach of a seven-ratio double clutch gearbox, called PDK (with top-gear being an overdrive for better fuel consumption).

It’s not the same short stumpy version of the 'box used in 911, though.

No, the Panamera rides on a totally bespoke clean-sheet chassis design. Incorporating classic drive train architecture in a front-engined lay-out, the PDK box had to be longer and skinnier than the 911’s. In the process, it also shed 10 kg.

And rather than going the centre diff route (like other all-wheel driven vehicles) this new PDK further saves up on space and weight by utilising an electronically controlled multi-plate hang-on clutch at the back of the box, together with a brilliantly engineered set of two gears interlocking directly with each other – one off the clutch, the other onto the north-bound shaft – to send power upstream, to the front diff, which is integrated into the sump from whence drive-shafts feed directly into the wheels. No shafts, then, running below (or behind or in front of) the engine, which means that the block can be mounted as low as possible.

And take it from me: these interlocking gears referred to in the previous paragraph are true objects of art, each boasting teeth bevelled in two directions, cutting diagonally across the gear and rising at the same time across the width of the unit, to effect an off-set locking angle to let the north-bound shaft bypass the wide double-clutch packaging at the top end of the gearbox, whilst freeing up some more useful packaging space at the rear.

Packaging, then; as always on a Porsche, the Panamera’s is something to behold. Every little cavity is utilised to the full.

Exhausts, for example, run down the transmission tunnel, instead of underneath the car.

This drops the belly closer to the ground for a flatter vehicle posture and lower centre of gravity, enhancing handling.


At the same time, Porsche wanted the tunnel console to be tall and fat and bold in any case, to create that authentic sports car feel.

And not only for the driver, but for each of four individually entrenched seats, dropped deep into caged-off zones that feel as if they’ve been hand-built for royalty.

Just behold the perfectly scalloped inner door panels plus the flow and placement of handles and buttons, for instance. Or the beautiful design of those slimmed down sports buckets (with thicker and softer padding at the back, plus space-age headrests flowing upwards from seat shoulders). Hold the spiff steering wheel, experience the excellent climate control (fore and aft) or marvel anew at Porsche’s classic five-circle instrument binnacle (one of which is now handily used for a duplicate read-out of the centre console’s sat nav info).

Don’t stop there, though. Drop into a back seat and be surprised by how much glass the flat and oblong shape allows. And enjoy the cabin materials above all – from top-notch plastics and chrome plus aluminium to genuine wood, alcantara and double-stitched leather – as they contribute their bit to creating the perfect balance between comfort, functionality and sportiness.

Porsche has not been shy in creating this interior.

They have also not been afraid to challenge modern conventional wisdom.

Back to basics

Gone, therefore, is the iDrive-inspired obsession with computer-age menus and systems. Instead of a centrally located controller for getting into a maddening matrix of software surplus, just to change climate control or damper settings, Panamera simply offers a set of buttons plugged directly into the functions they perform.

Press “Sport” for sharper engine control, a more aggressive gearbox, more direct steering and harder damping. Done.

Press “Sport Plus” for even sportier tuning on the engine and chassis, amongst others via an air suspension system that cuts the volume of the world’s first two-chamber spring from 2.2 to 1.1 litres of air whilst dropping the car’s belly by 25 mm. Done.

Press the suspension button only, to stiffen the car for better handling without changing ECU settings. Done.

Or lift the car’s belly by 20 mm above its normal posture, for nasty ramps and driveways. Done.

All of this, and more, in the name of what a sports car ought to be: quick and direct.

Those very same buttons are beautifully crafted, too – and extremely logically arranged in four easy-to-understand quadrants.

As centrepiece to a strikingly inviting cabin, Porsche could not have designed the transmission tunnel and its accoutrements any better.

Anything amiss, then?

Well, you still have to turn a key (in the shape of a Panamera!) to start the car.

And don’t look for self-closing doors. If you have grown too soft on a diet of modernity to close a door, you’re not fit to drive a Porsche in any case.


We’ve mentioned the brilliant engineering solution for splitting power upstream, to the front wheels.

That’s a world first.

We’ve also mentioned the air suspension’s double-chamber uni-springs. Other systems (like Merc’s) use two chambers as well, but the second one is located outside the main air spring unit.

That’s another world first for Panamera.

Here’s a third one: stop/start technology on a V8 with an automated gearbox. Up to now, it’s really been four-cylinder cars only that’ve been advantaged by an engine cutting itself when the car rolls to a standstill, and starting up again by itself, at pull-off.

Add to all of this a whole encyclopedia of classic Porsche engineering, and it’s easy to understand why we’re getting away with so much on wet twisty roads in the 4S.

There’s PTM (Porsche Traction Management), for instance, comprising of the hang-on clutch at the back of the PDK 'box regulating the fore-aft power split, plus ABD (automatic brake diff) and ASR (anti-slip regulation). In combination with PSM (Porsche Stability Management, which brakes selective wheels to restore stability), PTM ensures the best possible power distribution to each and every corner of the car, all of the time.

It’s a mouthful, okay.

But it’s just the beginning.

Here’s an extra: PDCC (Porsche Dynamic Chassis Control), which adds an active system to combat body roll in corners, as well as an electronically controlled rear differential lock to improve traction out of corners.

And it does so remarkably well, on both counts.

PDK control

Which brings us straight back to where we last sang the praises of the Panamera’s seven-speed PDK, which did its bit to help with car control on a wet surface.

On corner exits, see, the 'box was quick to stop the tail from spinning out by simply slipping into a higher gear at crucial moments.

Or that’s the way it seemed from inside the car, at least.

What happens in reality, is that PTM will instantaneously shift some drive forwards, whilst PSM utilises ABD, ASR and MSR (engine drag torque control) to first slow the agitated wheels, amongst other things, whereafter a suitably less provocative gear ratio will be engaged straight away.

It’s a very fast and complicated – yet marvellously elegant – initiation to a safety process that could, eventually, lead to a drastic cut in engine power or severe wheel retardation, all in aid of drivers running out of talent.

Finding a pattern in PDK’s hook-up points on down changes whilst decelerating hard into corners proved to be a bit more challenging, however.

Porsche brakes – especially the yellow-calipered ceramic ones – are mighty, of course. But performance can only be maximised with the help of engine braking as well. It’s part of the fun, in any case.

PDK, however, often resisted hooking a lower gear, even at 4000 r/min. For all its excellence in other applications – delivering instant and ultra-smooth cog swapping, up or down – PDK is still beaten by a manual in at least two ways: controlling the tempo of clutch and therefore power release, and slowing a car down against the gears.

That’s not even mentioning the pure joy of driver involvement.

And is it ever higher, than on a Porsche?

Feeling like a Porsche?

That was one of the crucial questions, then, for the Panamera to answer: does it feel, involve and drive like a Porsche?

Getting inside, the class and width of the dash – compared to 911’s tight and conservative little cabin – is immediately obvious.

That’s not to say the Panamera cabin ain’t sporty. The seating position, barely 30 mm higher than a 911’s, is noticeably low on the road. The dash is upright. And the rear window aperture seems even smaller than a 911’s, mostly because it is so much further away from the rear view mirror.

At just shy of five metres (of which nearly three fit between the axles), the Panamera is a much longer car than pictures suggest.

Town driving imposes this length, and especially 1.93 meters width, on lesser helmsmen. Weight, on the other hand, is not as much of an issue as bulk. Once on the open road it all disappears like mist to the sun, in any case.


Optional speed-sensitive Servotronic is pleasantly light in assisting the Panamera’s slightly tighter than 14:1 steering ratio when turning sharply, at low speeds. Out in the open, it firms up properly to compliment the variable ratio rack-and-pinion’s relaxed straight-ahead, at 17:1, in safe-guarding high speed inputs.

Here’s the thing about the Panamera, though: in sharper corners, there might be a slight tendency to oversteer, at least when pushing the rear-wheel driven S-model to its limits.

Yet, at high speeds, the car is as quiet and stable as you’ll ever experience. We hit the 280 km/h speed limiter on an unrestricted stretch of autobahn whilst chatting away quite normally, without raising voices at all, even to a back seat passenger.

Double window glazing undoubtedly contributed to the Panamera’s serenity. In fact, for true luxury car refinement at high speeds, engineers have factored out the brawny exhaust throb so noticeable under acceleration.

Yet, we couldn’t help but feel that it was the car’s design, engineering and build integrity that were fundamental to the supreme limousine experience at a very cool and totally unflustered 280 km/h.

On a wet road, take note – with nothing except visibility remotely hinting at a reason to slow down.

Engines, weight and performance

That little burst happened to be in the 4.8-litre twin-turboed version of the Panamera.

Now, Porsche has taken great care to engineer unnecessary fat out of their very first limousine, resulting in a body-in-white manufactured from 25% light alloys (aluminium, magnesium, composites and plastics) and 75% steel (deep-drawn, super high-strength micro-alloy, polyphase and boron). The front sub-frame, and most of the suspension components, is aluminium. So’s the hood, fenders, doors and rear lid, whilst window frames and radiator mounts are from magnesium.

All of this results in the entry-level rear-wheel driven S-model with a six-speed manual 'box weighing in at a mere 1 770 kg. PDK adds an extra 30 kg, the 4S’s extra drive-train components up the ante to 1 860 kg, and the Turbo pulls 1 970 kg.

Yet, 368 kW and 700 Nm are good enough to blast the latter past 100 km/h in a frighteningly quick 4.2 secs, before V-max tops out at 303 km/h.

With 294 kW and 500 Nm at its disposal, the normally-aspirated version of the same V8 is a bit more modest, taking 5.4 and 5.0 secs respectively to launch the S and 4S to 100 km/h (the manual-S doing it in 5.6 secs). Top speeds are 283 and 282 km/h for the two PDK cars (with the manual slightly faster at 285 km/h).

Pick of the bunch

The point being?

That the Turbo is devastatingly fast. That the 4S is indecently fast. And that the manual-S – snipping 200 kg out of the Turbo’s mass, with a continental price advantage of 40 000 euro – is the pick of the bunch.

It’s simply a great box, the manual. The clutch is smooth, light and easily modulated whilst the throw is pleasantly solid and mechanical, clicking positively from one ratio to the next.

Best of all is that the manual outperforms PDK in terms of engine braking into corners.

Being the lightest Panamera, the entry level S also shrinks earlier – and more than the others – as speeds pick up, to the point where it’s easy to believe that you’re flicking and flinging a 911 around.

Dynamics for such a big car are not outstanding. They are astounding.

So is performance. And so is refinement.


A grand tourer then, the Panamera? Yes, a 100 litre tank would have you believe that a combination of direct fuel injection, PDK and stop/start technology will yield more than enough distance per tank.

Porsche has the average full-cycle figure for the four models at around 12 l/100 km, which translates to more than 800 km per tank, open road driving included, leaving lots of grand touring to be done.

At the very least then, the Panamera is a great GT.

A luxury saloon? Certainly. There are four seats offering first class style and comfort, and reasonable luggage space to boot.

And a real sports car? Well, almost. Absolutely almost. The big new Porsche handles like something half its size. All the performance boxes are ticked: power, grip, torque, traction…

Plus steering, which is perhaps the best news of all. It’s not as sharp nor as edgy as a 911’s, of course not.

Yet the hydraulically assisted system nevertheless covers all the bases. It is quick and accurate enough, with an easy feel in the dead-ahead, backed up by great weighting on turn-in.

It should, after all, be a bit more relaxed and muted than a sports car’s. And it is.

It’s perfect, in fact.

Just like the car. Apart from disappointingly bland and conservative exterior styling, the Panamera is a magnificent effort and a monumental achievement.

Some things are just meant to be.

Egmont Sippel is Rapport and Beeld’s Motoring Editor, and SA Motoring Journalist of the Year 2008.


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