"Blasphemy," Porsche purists cried when the Cayenne was first launched.
Porsche, after all, was a prestigious sports car maker. Releasing an SUV at a time when such vehicles were considered slow, lumbering, and, quite frankly, more frightening to drive at speed than exciting, seemed like suicide. Yet the Cayenne proved many naysayers wrong with sales figures through the roof and performance figures far beyond much of its competition.
Fast forward seven years to the launch of the Panamera and it's the same story all over again. This four-door, four-seater luxury saloon hopes to broaden the brand's reach and tap markets that would have gone to its competitors for a performance four-door.
The tagline reads "Zero Compromise", that is zero compromise to comfort, luggage space and practicality - something difficult to achieve considering the brand's predisposition to performance and the propensity to forego the former qualities in pursuit of said performance. Which is why Porsche held the Sport Driving Experience at Clark International Speedway last February 19 to allow clients to experience, first hand, just how this is achieved.
There, at the start of the main straight of the track, was an air conditioned tent that welcomed guests with food and refreshments from PGA Cars' Carrera Cafe. Two Panameras lay at the start of the straight, while one, with all options included, was displayed inside. Guests awaited their turn with the vehicle on track. Guided by the Ramirez's as instructors, cones were set-up to exhibit the car's safety and handling features, as well as teach them the racing lines on the track.
Yet before any driving was to take place, a bit of an introduction was in order. The car takes its name from the Carrera Panamericana, one that takes place on open roads in Mexico, held from 1950-55 and was considered one of the most dangerous rallies at the time. The event called for speed, reliability and adaptability from the vehicle as all kinds of road conditions could be expected.
It's quite appropriate considering the car that carries the name is equipped for all kinds of conditions. The Panamera seats four, not five, and for good reason. With performance and luxury being top priorities, the four-seater configuration allows it to pamper each passenger with their own climate zone, power adjustable seats, legroom and complement of airbags. The set-up also allows for superior bolstering for each when the car is driven with pace. The interior, looking and feeling every bit like a Vertu cellphone features an elevated center console and extravagant details will keep you ogling for hours. The rear luggage compartment was designed specifically to carry four suitcases from Porsche Design Driver's Selection. More room can be had by folding the rear seats down flat.
Key options make the car even more adaptable to either (performance or comfort) extreme. The adaptive air suspension, for example can adjust its height and damping at the flick of a switch. For those that choose for the Doppelkupplung or Double Clutch option, automatic gear shifts can be made with fuel efficiency or speed in mind. A new start-stop feature turns off the engine when idling in traffic and restarts it the moment you step on the throttle again. Finally, adaptive cruise control can maintain the car's speed on the highway and automatically brake if the vehicle in front does so as well. It will accelerate again once there is sufficient distance between the cars.
Then of course, there's the performance expected of a Porsche and, even here, the car delivers. Even with just a V6, there's up to 300hp provided. Power is routed through a six-speed auto to the rear wheels, rocketing it to 100 km/h in just 6.8 seconds. At speeds above 120 km/h, a concealed rear spoiler rises to provide even more downforce and grip. For those that love to drive, the Double Clutch and Active Suspension Management options become practically essential as they imbue the car with flick-of-a-switch Comfort, Sport, and Sport Plus settings. These two systems actively change the car's luxury biased attributes into a lower and stiffer ride height, more aggressive shifting and more direct throttle response.
Seeing all this information on a presentation hardly gives one an idea of what it really feels like. Taking the cue, Porsche staff began with the drive experience.
The main straight provided more than enough time and distance to accelerate to some 160 km/h, while a brake box set-up in the middle exhibited just how short a distance and little drama the vehicle needs to stop from such speed. Rounding the first turn at over 100 km/h showed that, even in "Comfort" mode, the car returned plenty of grip and confidence. Turning into the corkscrew, the vehicle's mass and size hardly seemed to be a factor as the tight angle could be taken on with speed and little body roll. Into the back stretch, an emergency lane change area showed that the safety systems were in good working order, taking care of all the complexities of handling while you simply focus on avoiding the obstacle. The rest of the course was a primer on the track, with cones positioned to guide the driver on the right braking areas, turn-in points and apexes. Of course, given the fact that we were driving on a smooth tarmac track, it was difficult to judge just how comfortable this car would be on real roads.
After everyone had made their rounds, the braking cones were removed allowing all to have another go at the track, this time in "Sport Plus" mode. If "Comfort" was impressive enough, "Sport Plus" only hammered home what the car was truly capable of. Steering response was more direct, the suspension was tauter and the throttle seemed more generous with power. Tires squealed as they pushed the nose into the apex of the corner, returning the sensation of oversteer that the "Comfort" mode masked so well.
At the end of the day, even the most jaded customer turned to converts, surprised at how a "Limo" (as the Ramirez's cheekily called it) could return such excitement. Yet the car's ability to turn in so sharply, shift without hesitation, whip its tail out just a bit without completely losing control, or brake in so short a distance felt as Porsche as a Carrera 4S. The only odd sensation was seating so low yet so far in front from the rear axles.
The event certainly proved that the Panamera is a performer, just as worthy of a Porsche badge as its two-door stable mates. It seems tailor made for events like these; driving out of the city in comfort and style and with a flick of a switch, the very car that brought you out here is the same one tearing up the asphalt. Few cars can manage such a transformation without compromising comfort or performance as little as the Panamera does.
The experience really begins to beg the question: "Is it really blasphemy?" Not at all. More like a showcase of Porsche's engineering genius and a car that could very well be a future classic.