Forget Avatar. The best 3D thrill ride of 2010 is driving the new Porsche Panamera. No cinematic experience can come close to the feel of ripping over an open road in Porsche's newest creation, whether it be in the base rear-drive Panamera S or the all-wheel-drive 4S or Turbo.
I spent a couple dozen laps on Road America's challenging track in the new four-door luxury sedan, and I didn't need dorky spectacles to see that the Panamera is the most exciting example of Porsche genius since the 911 got blown.
Porsche introduced the Panamera to the world's auto writers at Road America, one of racing's most challenging road courses, to prove a point. The track's a hoot for the pros but is a brutal menace to the typical driver in a street car. Even racecars get eaten up by the high speeds, off-camber corners, blind crests and concrete walls, which suck up metal like giant magnets.
I'd already driven half a dozen production cars on Road America, and each time I came away feeling I'd been lucky to escape the near-death experience the pros call a "moment." Road America feasts first on the tires and brakes, chewing away rubber shoulders and scraping pads to the bone, and then gnaws its way into the bones of the car and slowly dismembers it, rivet by rivet. Racecars are made to survive this mauling; production cars are fast food.
Usually-the Panamera was just plain fast.
Porsche's most potent reach into a previously untapped market segment might be burdened by the size and shiny stuff that defines a luxury sedan, but the Panamera ate up Road America as if it craved the punishment. There is simply no other luxury sedan on earth that could have come close to catching it, and more than a few sports cars would have been left sucking on the Porsche's tailpipe.
Surprisingly for a company that makes the best brakes, the brakes on a couple of the cars overheated (none were the optional ceramics). I blamed the drivers, who likely clod-hopped the left pedal beyond endurance. I was in the backseat for one writer's "manly" session as he smoked the brakes, almost made me barf and disgusted our co-driver and instructor for the session, Porsche factory driver Patrick Long.
I ran several laps in each of the three Panamera models being offered the first model year - the S and 4S with a normally aspirated 400-hp V8, and the Turbo with a 500-hp twin-turbo V8 - and marveled at the synthesis of contrasting elements that makes the model such a distinctive car to drive. Porsche's double-clutch gearbox is a perfect fit for the big GT, and though some have complained about gear selection via thumb-actuated buttons on the steering wheel, I didn't think paddles would have made my laps any quicker. In fact, Long advised me just to leave the PDK in automatic sport mode and let its algorithms figure out the shifts. Worked for me.
Any nerves I might have felt from having a professional driver sitting alongside me were quickly dissipated by the Panamera's masterful dynamics. Speed and comfort have never been so deftly incorporated into a single automobile.
I then asked Long to attack Road America with all the skill and youthful exuberance he's so far shown in his short but noteworthy career. I figured he and the Porsche would be an impressive tandem, because I've known the brains who put these cars together for too long to expect anything less than brilliance, and I know Porsche Racing is disinclined to ask just any quick shoe to join the team. What I didn't expect was that a flying lap of Road America in a luxury sedan could feel so much like a spirited Sunday drive around beautiful country lanes. Long and I yakked the whole way around as if we were trundling through the Loire Valley in search of the next wine tasting instead of setting a time that plenty of racecars would envy. Only the lordly roar of the engine and the sloshing of my inner ear fluid told me Long was absolutely smoking it as we chatted about the joys of growing up in Southern California.
The Panamera's fresh synthesis of existing Porsche bits and pieces, along with more than a dash of completely new technology, make it stand out from the crowd like...well, like a certain rear-engine sports car did 50 years ago. Its looks are either a stylish homage to Porsche design history or a clunky refusal to break the mold, but there's no denying the Panamera's lineage. The roofline could be from no other manufacturer, the rounded rear quarters and large hatchback are reminiscent of the 928 (or maybe a Crossfire), and the front end is pure Porsche, with its rounded fenders embracing a steeply sloping hood, large intakes supplanting a conventional radiator grille, and oval headlamp clusters reclining behind body-conforming lenses.
The Panamera may weigh two tons and be longer than two Shaquille O'Neals laid head to toe, but that's what it takes to enter a new dimension of spaciousness and luxury. The four leather-clad buckets are supremely comfortable, even for big American butts, the rear hatch opens to reveal enough luggage space for a foursome on holiday, and scattered around the superbly tailored cabin are all the creature comforts demanded by the car's intense competitive environment. Most impressively, all this was accomplished without compromising the carved-from-a-block-of steel-feel of the smaller, faster Porsches.
Big and heavy is rendered moot, too, when powerful and lithe become the primary factors of the equation. Even when I was pulling up the hill toward Road America's front straight, both of the engines did well to hide the weight behind varied levels of effortless acceleration. And around the bends, the Panamera cut lines like German steel slicing through a Black Forest ham.
Not surprisingly, the Panamera Turbo was my favorite. The standard adaptive air suspension (an option on S and 4S models) was nothing less than remarkable, adjusting each corner as needed to keep the car's considerable heft within the parameters of complete control, and the 500 horses almost had me fooled into thinking I was driving a lightweight two-seater.
Best of all, my laps in the Turbo were the first time I'd ever had Road America for lunch.
2010 Porsche Panamera Turbo
4.8-liter V8, dohc, 32-valve, turbocharged
Seven-speed PDK automated manual
Peak Power: 500 hp @ 6500 rpm
Peak Torque: 516 lb-ft @ 2250 rpm
0-60 mph: 3.8 sec.
Top Speed: 188 mph