It feels somewhat ironic, writing a review of the Panamera Turbo for a site called “PorschePurist”. There’s nothing about this five-meter-long sedan that would appeal to most old-school Porsche enthusiast. It’s a front-engined, water-cooled, self-shifting four-door that weighs as much as four 909 Bergspyders stacked vertically. In the modern profit-seeking Porsche tradition, it is priced in the stratosphere and supplied with a depressing lack of standard equipment, though the options list is delightful and comprehensive. And while it looks vaguely like a bloated 996, it is far closer in concept and execution to a “Siebener” BMW than to any Porsche in history.
This past Tuesday, we traveled to Elkhart Lake, WI for limited track and street time in a pair of Panamera Turbos, as well as a few passenger laps in a Panamera 4S with noted Porsche factory racer Patrick Long. Around Road America, the Panameras are surprisingly content. The seven-speed PDK snaps off shifts with seamless vigor, the direct-injected engines are strong and willing, and the brakes hold up for several fast laps before beginning a predictable descent into heat-soaked madness. As one would expect from a modern Porsche product, the Panamera is idiot-proofed by a fundamentally sound weight balance and a flotilla of protective electronic systems. It’s possible to run deep into the “waffles” at Road America’s exit curbs under full throttle without exiting the track backwards; all-wheel-drive works with the latest PSM variant to straighten the car instantly.
Our laps are limited, both in speed and number, but it’s easy to see how the Panamera Turbo broke the eight-minute barrier around the ‘Ring. To some degree, it’s a true point-and-shoot car. Porsche worked hard to mimic the 911’s seating position, creating low-slung front seats and matching the hip point of its smaller cars, but no 911 has ever felt this mild or this composed. There’s virtually no challenge to extracting massive pace, and in this respect the Panamera is spiritually closer to Nissan’s GT-R than to any “race-bred” Porsche in history.
Out on the road, we are free to enjoy the outstanding interior and myriad of features. Clearly, Porsche took the well-justified criticisms of the Cayenne’s interior to heart; the Panamera meets or exceeds the standards of the German D-class competitors. Only the Bentley Flying Spur really has it whipped on interior quality and materials, and specifying a Spur to an equal level would likely cost more than fifty thousand dollars more. There’s two-tone leather and contrast stitching galore, and hardly a shiny piece of plastic to be found. A steeply-sloped center dash mimics the Vertu high-end cellphones so popular among wealthy Eurotrash, while the rear seats are individualized, spacious, and available with a full console’s worth of temperature, position, and audio controls. It’s very satisfying and, more than any other aspect of the vehicle, adequately conveys some justification for the staggering sticker prices.
The newest generation of PCM continues to lag behind Audi’s MMI and BMW’s iDrive in feature count and display quality, and if there is a disappointment to be had inside the Panamera it is the rather substandard nature of the electronics. Everybody else in the class does it better, and surely the same kind of buyer who chooses a Q7 over the Cayenne due to the convenience features might also prefer the less athletic A8 or S8 to a Panamera for similar reasons. Even Mercedes-Benz, which tortured its loyal customers with a couple generations’ worth of absolutely miserable COMAND systems, now offers a better navigation and audio system. The Panamera is full of small annoyances in this regard, from the unnecessary “tuning delay” in the XM system to the Byzantine complexity of destination selection in the nav.
Once again, Porsche has refused to acknowledge the simple superiority of wheel-mounted paddle shifters for manumatic shifting, and as a result Panamera drivers will be forced to memorize the operation of odd sliding selectors which look similar to the two other kinds of Porsche Tiptronic wheel controls but work completely differently. These are pushed forward or back with thumb or index finger. Under pressure or in a hectic track situation, the dexterity and particular hand position required verge on the impossible. [Editor's note: While not yet official, it is our belief that the Paddle Shifter option announced for the 2010 911 Turbo series will make its way downstream to all models in the very near future.]
It is generally acknowledged that the Porsche Boxster is, was, and probably always will be superior to the competing products from BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Try as they might, the other German manufacturers simply cannot create a car with the clarity of purpose and execution found in Porsche’s mid-engined roadster. There’s too much compromise, too much sedan DNA, too much uncertainty in the Z4 and SLK. The Panamera offers a counterpart to that situation. In attempting to infuse a luxury sedan with the spirit of a 911, Porsche has failed to hit all its luxury-sedan marks. The Panamera would be better with Audi’s MMI, a true torque-converter automatic, and a functioning trunk, but then it wouldn’t have the “Porsche DNA” so frequently discussed in the press briefing.
In the end, one will have to be a particular Porsche loyalist to purchase one. The driver merely looking for a best-in-class vehicle would be well-advised to choose an S-class Mercedes. If he has a Panamera Turbo’s worth of personal funding and wishes to buy an outstanding Porsche while simultaneously transporting his family, he might well be better-off purchasing a 911 GT3 and a pair of Greyhound passes.
Today's post was written by Jack Baruth. Jack is a former professional BMX racer who owns a 993, a 986S, and a forlorn 944. He has worked for a variety of car manufacturers in sales, finance, and manufacturing. Based in Powell, Ohio, Jack spend his weekends racing a Plymouth Neon and dreaming of a Daytona Prototype test day.