“This car has the genes of the 911,” offers Michael Steiner, the product line director for the Panamera, Porsche’s first-ever four-door. Technically a five-door hatchback, this so-called sedan is closely related to the Cayenne SUV, but the Turbo we’re driving through a set of switchbacks over the mountains near Cape Town in South Africa does a passable impression of a 911. We’re with Steiner and his test team as they carry out a 2800-mile final evaluation drive with a Panamera 4S and a Turbo, both of which have all-wheel drive.
The first four-door in the company’s 61-year history, the Panamera will come to the U.S. in two forms: the S model, powered by a 400-hp, 4.8-liter naturally aspirated V-8, with either rear- or all-wheel drive (4S), and an all-wheel-drive, twin-turbocharged V-8 version making 500 horses. Both models come with the PDK dual-clutch seven-speed transmission that was recently introduced in the 911. The S will start at $89,800, the 4S at $93,800, and a Turbo will set you back $132,600.
A 300-hp, 3.6-liter V-6 model will be available at a later date, as well as a hybrid that combines Audi’s supercharged 333-hp, 3.0-liter V-6 with a 51-hp electric motor for a maximum output of 374 horsepower.
Slipping into a Panamera is more like entering a 911 than a luxury sedan. The front seats are just 1.2 inches higher than in the 911 but lower than those of its competitors (BMW 7-series, Lexus LS460, Maserati Quattroporte, Mercedes S-class). The 911 look is clearly carried over in the instrument panel, with its array of five round dials; the center stack is also recognizable. The transmission tunnel, however, has a battery of switches and buttons that are more logical and less gimmicky than the rotary dials found in the BMW 7-series and Mercedes S-class.
A shock is the roominess of the back-seat area. Porsche boss Wendelin Wiedeking, a tall and substantial man, had barked about cramped headroom, so design chief Michael Mauer raised the roofline by 0.8 inch. Small as that sounds, it likely accounts for the awkward look to the Panamera’s rear quarters. It’s a wide car, at 76.0 inches, which adds to this feeling of spaciousness. Cargo room, too, is good: 16 cubic feet in the S model, 15 in the Turbo. With the rear seats folded down, all Panameras have 44 cubic feet of luggage space.
So, does the Panamera meet the challenge of driving like a true Porsche? Steiner says the company tried to keep down the weight, using aluminum for the hood, doors, and some suspension pieces, as well as employing some magnesium castings. Porsche claims the S weighs in just north of 3900 pounds, the Turbo at 4350.
That’s a lot lighter than the 4910 pounds of the last Mercedes S63 AMG we tested—however, the Benz is more than nine inches longer—so it’s no surprise that Porsche is claiming some impressive performance numbers. The regular S will reportedly rip to 60 mph in 5.2 seconds on its way to a top speed of 175 mph. The 4S shaves 0.4 second off that sprint, its top speed unchanged. The Turbo claim is for a top speed of 188 mph and a 0-to-60 time of 4.0 seconds—a substantial half-second faster than we managed in the S63 AMG.
Fast as it is, the Panamera is almost hushed as it goes about its business. But never fear: For customers who like thrilling sound effects to go with straight-line fury, Porsche has a way. There’s an exhaust button in the center console that activates a valve on each muffler, opening a bypass that produces a much more Porsche-like roar. In the audio department, the Turbo mostly generates a low-frequency buzz as it cruises along between 1200 and 2000 rpm. To get any aural feedback from the Turbo, you have to get into the throttle in a big way. The naturally aspirated engine sounds a lot more satisfying.
It’s no surprise that the Panamera is equipped with a complete collection of Porsche driving aids, including stability control (Porsche Stability Management, or PSM), an adjustable damping system (Porsche Active Suspension Management, or PASM), and an adaptive air suspension with an active anti-roll stability system (Porsche Dynamic Chassis Control, or PDCC), which is shared with the Cayenne sport-ute.
With the PASM system in Normal mode, the Panamera rides comfortably, although it’s firmer than an S-class Benz, yet softer than a Maserati Quattroporte Sport GTS. Switching into Sport mode, this Porsche’s chassis adds feedback, aided by nicely weighted steering that’s evocative of a 911’s, without ruining the ride.
Hard-core owners, however, will keep their Panamera Turbo in the Sport Plus. For one, it’s the only mode in which the Turbo steps off in first gear instead of second. This mode also holds the engine higher up in the rev range before gears are shifted in automatic mode, while in Sport and Normal modes, light-throttle upshifts happen before the tach needle hits 2000 rpm.
This Sport Plus mode clearly positions the Panamera to provide a genuine 911 experience without behaving as nervously as the short-wheelbase coupe. With a claimed 48/52 percent front-to-rear weight distribution, the handling balance is nicely neutral, and the car drives much smaller than its size suggests. Porsche’s Steiner says that if a driver switches off the stability-control system, the car will oversteer in a controllable manner. Ceramic-composite brake discs will be available with 19- and 20-inch wheels and tires—the base S rides on 245/50ZR-18 front and 275/45ZR-18 rear tires—but the standard brake setup, borrowed from the 911 Turbo, is powerful and responsive.
Just like serious sports cars, the Panamera is equipped with a launch-control system. All models also offer a Start/Stop system, which uses a conventional but higher-capacity starter motor. As soon as the Panamera comes to a stop, the system shuts off the engine, then restarts very softly when the driver lifts his foot off the brake. It’s an industry first for V-8 engines and automatic transmissions.
For high-speed stability, the Panamera Turbo is equipped with an active spoiler, called the “3D spoiler.” It pops up above 50 mph and remains in the so-called “eco position” up to 112 mph. Above that speed, the spoiler extends widthwise to reduce lift, “creating 61 pounds of downforce at 155 mph,” according to Steiner.
The 195.7-inch-long Panamera is a unique entry in the luxury-sedan market. It isn’t rough and ready like the beautiful Quattroporte, nor is it a techno-geek’s dream like the 7-series. And neither does it feel as vaultlike as an S-class Mercedes. But it may have enough 911 DNA to satisfy Porsche enthusiasts and people looking for something different in this market.