Full Disclosure: Until just recently, I'd never driven a Porsche. It wasn't as if I'd earned some black mark from the German sportscar maker – I've spent the better part my a career pontificating on the virtues of the plucky 914 and more than a few synapses thinking about scoring seat time in cars like the Boxster Spyder, Cayman R and, if I were feeling really indulgent, the 911 GT2 RS. Hell, after learning of the automaker's prowess in the Transsyberia Rally, I even became a stout defender of the Cayenne SUV's right to exist.
At some point, I began wearing the fact that I'd never saddled up with any of Porsche's products as a badge of absurd honor. It was simply impressive that I'd managed to survive nearly half a decade as an auto-scribe without so much as a brush with Stuttgart's finest.
Those days are officially over.
I've wrapped up a week with the 2011 Porsche Panamera – the newest model to rankle the chains of the brand's purists. As it turns out, the sprawling five-door is the perfect ambassador for an automaker that values handling and driver engagement above all else.
It's been two years since Porsche unleashed its grand tourer on the world, and in that time, the model has established itself as a sales winner. In fact, through May of this year, the Panamera line has established itself as the second-best selling vehicle in the Porsche stable behind the high-riding Cayenne, beating out the prolific 911 brood. Through the first five months of this year, the five-door has edged its two-door forefather by 206 units. Those figures would seem to oppose all of the critics who derided the Panamera as ugly when it debuted.
It's true that it's almost impossible to capture the Panamera's presence with a camera. Viewing the sheetmetal through the tinge of a computer screen or the murky filter of a dealer brochure simply doesn't match meeting it in the flesh. It's easy to underestimate the sheer size of the Panamera until you're staring at your own reflection in the glossy paint. At 195.7 inches long, the Porsche is less than an inch shorter from stem to stern than the equivalent BMW 5 Series Gran Turismo, but it's 1.2 inches wider and a whopping 5.6-inches shorter from tarmac to roof.
The result is a bruiser that seems impossibly long, low and wide. In a world where every other vehicle can't seem to help but cash in on the tall-riding crossover craze, the Panamera draws stares and arches eyebrows in bulk. The vehicle's modern Porsche face is flanked by lunging fenders and a beautifully contoured hood. LED daytime running lights are camped out low in the fascia and serve as appropriate jewelry to an otherwise traditional appearance. Even the A-pillar seems to stick to proportions handed down from one Porsche designer to the next since the time of Ferdinand himself.
But whereas the roof of the 911 begins its tuck to the rear bumper at the B-pillar, the silhouette of the Panamera hangs around a bit longer to provide as much rear headroom as possible. A bold fender vent sets the tone for upper and lower creases along the vehicle's doors, and our tester came equipped with a set of 18x8-inch split-spoke wheels up front and 18x9-inch rollers out back. The vehicle's width is probably most apparent from the rear, where a set of wide haunches and a sloping hatch are accented by large LED taillamps.
Keen eyes will note a few differences between our V6-powered tester and V8 models. The chrome window surrounds of higher trims has been replaced by matte black detailing along the vehicle's sides. The rear valance also boasts dual oval exhaust tips instead of the quartet of smaller oval tips of V8 models, and black brake calipers with Porsche script are standard equipment on the entry-level six-cylinder.
Even if you aren't convinced that the exterior of the Panamera is fit to wear the family crest, you'll be happy to know that the cabin is nothing short of excellent, no matter where you're sitting. Sliding into the perforated leather seats is like pulling on a pair of high-dollar jeans. Everything fits just as it should, and details like excellent metal and leather work on the PDK shifter, door levers and wheel-mounted transmission paddles reinforce that you're piloting something special.
The five stacked pod gauges of the instrument cluster serve up a wealth of information with a large tachometer claiming the center spot. The vehicle's speedometer, oil temperature, oil pressure, coolant temperature and fuel gauges are all featured as well, as is a configurable pod that can display entertainment or navigation information on a small color LCD screen. I'm a huge fan of the fact that the Panamera still delivers actual mechanical gauges for pertinent vehicle systems instead of relying on an array of idiot lights. I'm not exactly sure how many buyers will keep one eye on the vehicle's various temperatures, but I appreciate the sentiment none the less.
If you find yourself increasingly infuriated by the growing number of touchscreen-based interface systems on luxury vehicles, I'm happy to report that the Panamera relies on good old-fashioned buttons to get much of its work done. While there is a large color LCD touchscreen mounted in the center of the dash to handle nav and entertainment duties, most of the vehicle's controls can be operated by a smattering of toggles and buttons. Altering the climate control is as simple as dropping a hand from the steering wheel to flip through various fan speeds and air temperatures thanks to a button module mounted on the high center stack. Additionally, Sport and traction control buttons are easily accessible – perfect for impromptu horsepower demonstrations.
Porsche has stitched the Panamera with highly bolstered seats both front and rear, keeping passengers firmly planted during those exhibitions. And while I was plenty taken with the excellent quality of materials and clever attention to detail throughout, I was more impressed with just how functional the cabin really is. Beneath that lengthy power liftgate sits 15.7 cubic feet of cargo area with the rear seats up. Stash the back buckets and you can bask in the glory of a cavernous 44.6 cubic feet of space. It's a huge area, especially in a vehicle I expected to focus on performance first and load lugging second.
For 2011, Porsche has fitted its entry-level Panamera with a new direct-injection 3.6-liter V6 built in-house. Based on the same architecture as the meaty V8 used in the Panamera S, the engine cranks out 300 horsepower at 6,200 rpm and 295 lb-ft of torque at 3,750 rpm. The power is more than enough to hustle the Panamera with authority, even given the vehicle's 3,880-pound curb weight. And according to the EPA, the six-cylinder should be good for 18 mpg city and 27 mpg highway. I managed around 20 mpg combined, thanks in part to an optional seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox with automatic start/stop system. Check out the Short Cut below to see the fuel-saving wizardry in action.
With 100 fewer ponies than the Panamera S, the base five-door V6 takes 0.8 seconds longer to reach 60 mph, though remarkably, it can still do the dance in six seconds flat. That's plenty quick for a vehicle this size, and the power comes on in the kind of beautifully smooth curve that only a naturally aspirated engine can deliver. I'll admit that I spent some time longing for the instantly available torque of a V8, but that's just because I'm greedy. But what the Panamera V6 lacks in the neck-snapping acceleration department, it more than makes up for in its ability to weld itself to the serpentine tarmac of East Tennessee.
At speed, the Panamera drives like a car half its size, and the rev-happy V6 means that maintaining velocity is all about protecting momentum. The amount of grip on hand is downright absurd, and the suspension, tires and rigid chassis all but implore you to try to test their limits. Under proper caning, shifts from the PDK gearbox are dizzyingly quick – just let the dual-clutch do the shifting and you're rewarded with surgical gear changes that produce a seamless well of acceleration.
Or, if you think you're smarter or more capable than all of the engineers at Porsche, you can bend the PDK to your will via a set of push/pull paddles. In fact, our only real complaint with the Panamera driving experience comes from the location of those gear swaps. First off, the paddles operate in the opposite fashion of most competing systems – you push forward to change up a gear, whereas in nearly every other automobile, you pull back, a motion that's a natural extension of your body's movement rearward under acceleration. Further, with my chunky paws at nine and three, I found myself inadvertently shifting under hard cornering – not the kind of thing you want to be doing with someone else's $92,189 luxury sedan.
The Panamera is a tough car to wrap my mind around for several reasons. I had the hardest time figuring out how something this large and comfortable under more pedestrian driving scenarios could grow horns, shoot fire from its eyes and rip up bleeding swaths of asphalt with a press of the Sport button and a nudge of the accelerator. It's like the very best form of magic on the planet – the kind that's real.
That's not to say that the Panamera is a perfect machine. On at least one occasion, the transmission occasionally returned befuddled, jerky shifts in slow traffic, though never at speeds over 40 mph. And the iPod interface nearly reduced me to a blathering, violent imbecile thanks to its confounding folder layout and infuriating search function. Do yourself a favor and skip reading the owner's manual. You probably won't have any more luck trying to navigate the system on your own, but at least you won't have wasted half an hour of your life skimming through dry technical writing, either.
Even so, I'm completely smitten with the Panamera. While on a recent Autoblog Podcast, our esteemed contrarian emeritus Jonny Lieberman called the Panamera Turbo the very best vehicle ever created. At the time, I thought him one latte short of his southern California quota, but I can only imagine what an extra 200 horsepower would do for the base vehicle.
It's rare thing for me to a find a car that I actually want to drive for extended periods by myself. Whereas my youth was filled with hours-long back-county escapades, these days, if I'm driving, I'm working. But the Panamera all but demanded that I put away my notebook, strap down the camera and explore the tangled web of roads that scrawl through Union County. It was a request I happily obliged over and over again through my week with the big Porsche. It's hard to pay a larger compliment to a brand that prides itself on building some of the world's best all-around drivers. Even if it comes in the form of the marque's most unlikely ambassador.