If I could give the 2010 Porsche Panamera more than five stars, I would. Yes, I know it looks ungainly, and its four doors and up-front engine are big departures from Porsche tradition. But, much as I love traditional Porsche sports cars, the Panamera should be evaluated by different standards. It's primarily a luxury sedan, designed to compete with models such as the BMW (BMW:GR) 750i, Volkswagen's (VOW:GR) Audi A8, Daimler's (DAI) Mercedes S550, and the Maserati Quattroporte. Seen in that light, it's a great car.
The truth is, American luxury-car buyers don't want the stick shift, jittery steering, stiff suspension, and cramped, austere interiors that are traditional hallmarks of a Porsche. In this category, the top priorities usually are a comfortable ride, a spacious, well-appointed interior, plenty of luggage space, and a brand with cachet. The Panamera delivers all those qualities in spades.
However, a high-end luxury car should be capable of performing well on a racetrack, even if it never has to, and the Panamera delivers in that respect, too. If anything, it's sportier than the new BMW 750Li, which is saying something. One indication of the Panamera's capabilities: It's the only car in its class with an automatic rear spoiler (which deploys at 56 mph, and rakes sharply to keep the car stable at speeds over 127 mph). Top speed is 175 mph, rising to 188 for the Panamera Turbo.
So far, the Panamera has been a home run for Porsche. The company sold 3,410 units of the new sedan in its first six months on the market, making it the top-selling U.S. model. The Panamera had its best month yet in April, with 678 sold. That's around double the April U.S. sales of the Cayenne (326), the 911 (389), and the Boxster and Cayman combined (354). Porsche says the vast majority of Panamera buyers defect from other brands: The company estimates that only 10 percent to 15 percent trade up from another Porsche.
Starting price is $90,775 for the Panamera S, $94,775 for the all-wheel-drive 4S, and $133,375 for the Turbo. The V6-powered model will start at about $75,000, or around $80,000 with AWD. However, an extremely long list of pricey performance and comfort options on all versions of the Panamera can quickly jack up the price.
Like many Porsche lovers, I disliked the Panamera's looks the first time I saw it. Porsche designers had to create space for a full-size rear seat and trunk, while preserving a hint of traditional Porsche styling, and the result is a hatchback-style roofline and an ugly rear end. But spend a week with the car and it grows on you. It's like a cross between an old-fashioned saloon-style British touring car and a Porsche 911. The Panamera is so roomy and comfortable on the inside that it's hard not to start liking the outside, too.
The Panamera S, the model I test-drove, is powered by a 4.8-liter, 400-horsepower V8. In the Turbo, the horsepower rating rises to 500. A new entry-level Panamera powered by a 3.6-liter, 300-horsepower V6 is due out in June, and a hybrid is planned for sometime in calendar 2011.
Whether with V6 or V8 power, rear-wheel drive is standard, but all-wheel drive is available (the Turbo only comes with all-wheel drive). The only transmission offered is a seven-speed, double-clutch automatic with a manual shifting function.
The V8-powered Panamera is rated to get 16 mpg in the city and 24 on the highway (in 447 miles of largely highway driving, I got 22.9 mpg). The rating only goes down slightly for the Panamera Turbo (15/23). Mileage ratings haven't yet been announced for the V6 and hybrid models.
Behind the Wheel
I fell in love with the Panamera the first time I drove it—on the track at the Pocono Raceway with David Donohue, the professional race-car driver, riding shotgun. Donohue kept urging me to try the car's launch control feature, which allows the driver to rev the engine to near the redline, then let off the brake (in effect popping the clutch in a car with an automatic transmission). I finally agreed, against my better judgment because it was raining, and the car catapulted off the line with virtually no tire spin or fishtailing. Boy, was it fun.
The Panamera is quicker than it looks, especially considering that even the S weighs nearly 4,000 lb. (and the AWD and Turbo versions more). The S accelerates from zero to 60 in 5.2 seconds, about the same as the BMW 750i and Corvette Grand Sport. The time drops to 4.8 seconds with all-wheel drive and a mere four seconds with the turbocharged engine.
I didn't expect to like the Panamera as much in daily driving as I did. This car really grows on you. There are Comfort, Sport, and SportPlus settings that make the throttle response and suspension progressively sportier. At around 35 mph in Comfort, the system settles into fifth gear to save gasoline. Switch to Sport and the transmission instantly downshifts to fourth gear; put it in SportPlus and it downshifts again, to third. In Comfort mode you can cruise around town in, well, comfort. The ride is slightly stiffer than in other luxury cars but the suspension gobbles up bumps and potholes with aplomb. The cabin is much quieter than in other Porsches.
Purists won't like the fact that no manual transmission is offered on the Panamera in North America, but Porsche's new double-clutch automatic is nothing like automatic transmissions of yore. You can do the shifting yourself using steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters, but no human can match the lightning speed of the electronic shifts the system makes on its own. Even Donohue said he would probably opt for the automatic if he had the choice between it and a stick shift.
The Panamera's cabin is unusually sumptuous for a Porsche, with a variety of exquisite leathers and wood veneers to choose from. The rear seats are nearly identical to the form-fitted buckets up front. There's plenty of shoulder, hip, and leg space, even for passengers a bit over 6 feet tall. Luggage capacity is 15.7 cu. ft., rising to 44.6 cu. ft. with the rear seats folded down. There's a pass-through between the rear seats to accommodate skis and other long objects.
One obvious downside of the Panamera is that its maximum seating capacity is only four, one less than in most luxury sedans. Also, the Panamera has more buttons and controls than other German luxury cars and it will take a while to learn how to use them all.
Buy It or Bag It?
The Panamera S costs more than its main competitors, but not much. According to the Power Information Network (PIN), the S sells for an average of $102,392, vs. $95,050 for the BMW 750Li and $97,695 for the Mercedes S550.The average Panamera S buyer is only 52, the same age as for the BMW 750Li. That's young for such costly vehicles—five years younger than for the Mercedes S550, for instance, according to PIN.
Competing vehicles—notably the Maserati Quattroporte—are better-looking than the Panamera, and if you want a sedan geared more for luxury and comfort than for performance, the Mercedes S550 is probably a better choice. But shoppers who are looking for a liberal dose of speed and handling in their luxury car should test-drive the Panamera against the BMW 750i and the Audi A8. If you spend much time behind the Porsche's wheel, it may well win you over.
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