Friday, June 6, 2014

2013 Porsche Panamera S

Let's get it out of the way: I am a total Porsche-phile. It was not always the case as growing up I often dismissed the 911 for its odd looks and physics defying positioning of the engine in the rear. However, after the first time I drove one, I was hooked. Despite having had the opportunity to drive an awful lot of different kinds of cars, including a number of exotics, Porsches still strike me as some of the best driving cars for the money. You can read me gush all kinds of praise on the Porsche Boxster's driving dynamics after spending some time with it last year. Therefore, when the opportunity comes up to go and give a new Porsche a flogging, I was not about to say no, even if it is one of the least attractive cars that Porsche currently makes.

The Panamera is Porsche's foray into producing a car that allows Porsche owners to take more than one adult friend along for the ride when they decide to take the scenic route to the casino for the bachelor party. In an effort to keep the family look, Porsche decided to stretch the general shape of the 911 and add a pair of doors. In their infinite wisdom, they also decided that the engine would reside up front and would be a V-configuration instead of the signature horizontally opposed layout. On whole, the look can be called distinctly Panamera, which is not necessarily a good thing, unfortunately. However, throw in the right color scheme and the right set of wheels and the Panamera manages not to look too horribly ungainly and even imposing from certain angles.

One area that Porsche's of the past have always struggled with is the interior. Material quality was inconsistent throughout the cabin and ergonomics often took a backseat to everything else. However, the latest generation of Porsche interiors has improved dramatically and the Panamera's interior is no exception. Even without any ridiculously expensive packages included, the Panamera offers up a relatively user-friendly, if slightly button-happy, interior that is generally well screwed together and made from decent quality materials. It is no Aston Martin or Bentley, but neither is it a Mitsubishi Mirage. Best of all, there are four, albeit only four, seats that can actually fit adults for long drives and there is sufficient room for everyone to be comfortable. That sloping rear hatch opens to reveal a rather sizable rear cargo space, making it is actually kind of practical. It is a bit snug and the entire cabin feels quote cozy.

Twist the key and the Panamera's V8 roars to life. Now, I inquired as to why Porsche has chosen to continue their tradition of a twist key on the left side of the steering wheel and was told that the action of twisting the key to start the car is a part of the entire tactile experience of driving a perfomance car. Given that, while many competitors have switched to push-button start, Ferrari continues to uphold the tradition of actual keys, I can accept this explanation.

With all of the settings tuned first for comfort, I set out onto the road. In Comfort mode, the car is soft enough to drive around town without it being jarring, even over the broken pavement that passes for roads here in the New England. Ratchet things up a notch by putting the car into Sport and the throttle response sharpens, the steering firms up, and the dampers get just a little less cushy. Tap the Sport button once more and everything is in Sport+, providing full sharp on everything. Luckily, with the right options selected, if you find the dampening of the suspension too tight for your taste, you can always adjust that separately and still get the throttle response, faster shifting, and tight steering without sacrificing the ride comfort.

I, of course, chose to leave it in Sport+ mode and just let the car do what it was made for. The steering is nicely weighted, though it does not provide nearly the same level of feel as I am used to in Porsches. Chalk that up to the longer wheelbase and the move to electronic power steering. Throttle response is plenty linear and the car leaves the line with precision every time, but the big V8 somehow feels flat and lacks the kind of urgency that makes Porsche's flat-six motors so beloved. This lack of urgency results in the sensation that the car is somehow not nearly as powerful as its numbers would suggest. Combine that with an exhaust note that is missing the distinctive howl that comes from cars like the 911 and Cayman and it becomes pretty clear that the Panamera is very much lacking the auditory punch of its smaller siblings. In many ways, this car would benefit significantly from the addition of one of Porsche's flat-six cylinder motors or, better yet, the specially tuned 4.0L flat-six that currently only sees use in the limited production 911 GT3 RS 4.0. Anything to give the engine and exhaust note more character would be welcome and the restoration of a proper 6-speed manual certainly would not hurt either. The PDK transmission is decent, but is still too slow to react to calls for a downshift, even in Sport+ mode, and still feels rather unrefined in start/stop and low speed situations, especially when the engine auto start/stop function is in use.

Despite this, the car is still impressive when it comes to handling. At parking lot speeds, it can feel a bit ponderous as it is a truly large car, but once the speed starts to pick up, the car seems to shrink in around the driver and becomes much more natural to drive quickly. Grip from the massive tires is exceptional and the car corners flatly in even the most extreme of corners. Unfortunately, one thing that even the best suspension tuning in the world cannot seem to hide on this car is just how heavy it is. There is a lot of weight to throw around and something about how it is distributed in the body makes the car feel like it needs to go to great effort to shift that weight around. Understandably, this is a big four-seat four-door sedan and I should not expect it to perform like a small sports car, but given Porsche's reputation, I cannot help but crave a little more enjoyment from the driving experience.

At the end of the day, this is the Panamera's ultimate downfall. It is just not Porsche enough to be taken as a serious Porsche. The engine lacks character and the exhaust sound fails to send my pulse racing when I hear it. The handling is compromised by the weight and saps much of the enjoyment out of the drive. The interior, while better, is not nearly as nice a place to be as that of the Mercedes CLS63 or E63. The overall design lacks the stunning looks of the BMW 6-series Gran Coupe. It also lacks the technological wizardry and uniquely EV drivetrain of the Tesla Model S. The Panamera S is simply missing some of that magic that has made Porsche such a hallowed brand among driving enthusiasts. That is not to say it is not a great car for the right person, perhaps someone who is less concerned about the enjoyment of the drive and is looking more for a status symbol. To be fair, the foundation is there to make the Panamera a truly fantastic car. Someone at Porsche just needs to take a step back and remember to focus on adding in the right dose of magic.