The roads winding from the southernmost coast of Spain up to Ascari Race Resort near the town of Ronda are enough to bring telling tales out of any car that professes to have high performance intentions. What talented few acquit themselves well on these roads are then exposed to the 3.4-mile Ascari circuit, and that's usually enough to send most of them home in a huff of brake dust and blow-by.
This time in the crucible, it's the 2012 Porsche Panamera GTS, a car first shown under the hard lights of November's Los Angeles Auto Show. Despite not being the most powerful in the range, this naturally aspirated GTS is tipped to offer the most race-like dynamics of the entire Panamera portfolio. And after 100 or so miles on public amusement park roads and 20 or so on the track, this plus-size GT showed us it's capable of dicing it up like a 911 or Cayman while delivering an understandably different experience from behind the wheel.
Horsepower for the GTS' naturally aspirated dry-sump 4.8-liter V8 stands at 424 at 6,700 revs, and its redline now rests at 7,100 revs – 400 rpm beyond the Panamera 4S. Torque plateaus at 383 pound-feet at 3,500 rpm, with the lion's share available between 3,000 and 5,500 rpm. Curb weight, as given by Porsche, is 4,232 pounds, or just under 10 pounds per horse to haul around. The GTS can scoot, too. Acceleration to 60 miles per hour is declared in 4.3 seconds, though our experience suggests real-world times will be quicker, and top speed is 178 mph.
Are the GTS' trappings enough to let the Panamera boast of being almost a clubsport car? Let's give it an 8.5 on a scale of 10 in that category, which is frankly a chunk better than any 16.3-foot long Porsche should be capable of – especially on a track. We've driven all manner of Panameras before this, and they always surprise us with how sporting they truly are. Even so, the capabilities of this GTS genuinely astonished us. The night prior our drive, we assembled journalists admitted to one another that we didn't expect anything extraordinary, but we knew that Ascari would quickly lay any flaws bare. And we couldn't help but remark on how brave it was of Porsche to bring this very non-Ascari car to the circuit.
To get every performance point as advertised out of the Panamera GTS, you need to peruse the phalanx of buttons on the console and light up Sport Plus which, among other things, sets the adaptive air suspension 1.4 inches lower down than on a cruising Panamera 4S. Then, search for the button with the twin-exhaust graphic on it and light up that one, too, because every good track day deserves theme music. Thanks to a dry day with nearly no traffic and time on a smooth closed circuit, the Porsche Stability Management on our GTS was frequently switched off.
The drive section up the so-called "Ronda road" and then afterward back down to the tourist-happy coast revealed its fair share of revelations. First, it's difficult in public surroundings to get the Panamera GTS to feel like anything more than a fully optioned Panamera 4S. This is clearly not a bad thing anyway, and its base price with delivery of $110,875 is well below that of any heavily optioned 4S.
Versus the $136,700 Panamera Turbo or the barking mad $173,200 Turbo S, the GTS understandably requires more revs from its standard-fit seven-speed PDK gearbox, but the paddles on the standard sport steering wheel make this a welcome doddle. The fantastic noise from the matte black quad-barrel sport exhaust is best enjoyed from the outside while trackside, since Porsche engineers have done such an excellent job excising the cabin's noise, vibration and harshness for improved day-to-day manners. In Sport Plus mode with bigger revs, the cabin does come to life, however, and the percolating burble on downshifts is a nice touch for both performance and acoustics.
Our pre-drive thoughts ranged from how unwieldy this Stuttgart giant might be on those nasty Ascari curve sequences to wondering if we'd have to wrestle with the sort of understeer we've experienced on this circuit with performance cars like the BMW M5 and Audi RS5. Fortunately, reality – and Porsche's engineers – had a different agenda. Simply put, it's wonderful to be surprised and proven wrong about a car's key characteristics, and the Panamera GTS hoons around like a damned M3 GTS.
Granted, every test car among our bunch was optioned out to around $150,000, but then, the driving was so good that we stopped thinking about these less-than-fun financial facts. You should get the $8,840 Porsche Ceramic Composite Brake discs and you should add on the $5,000 Porsche Dynamic Chassis Control with Porsche Torque Vectoring Plus. And so on and so forth. It all adds up, but at this level of weight and this level of pure zing, anyone not getting such optional helpers would be doing themselves a disservice, at least if they plan any serious track work. As fitted to the much smaller 2012 911 Carrera, PDCC w/PTV+ is not really necessary and can feel like too much help, but here it's definitely needed if you're at all tempted to push things to certain limits at a track.
The GTS drives much lighter than its fighting weight. A frequent word wafting through our thoughts was "balance" while tearing up the track. Given that we had perfect conditions for turning off PSM all the way, this innate sense of equilibrium magnified the car's appeal by a power of ten. Could we see a Panamera GTS in a drift competition sometime soon? Don't doubt it; after our initial "discovery" laps, we found that with PSM off, the weight transfers and the rate of hook-up from the Michelin Pilot Sport tires (255/40 ZR20 front and 295/35 ZR20 rear) means that true, ballet-like movements are possible if one just plays nice with the throttle and steering. The PCCB discs, which can be accommodated only with optional 20-inch wheels, practically goad you to brake as late and hard as possible prior to hitting every inside apex.
Under these extreme conditions of sustained higher revs in Sport Plus mode, the sound and fury of the Panamera GTS' intakes finally come into the cabin via the front pillars' "sound symposer" tubes – a bit of sonic trickery similar to what has just been introduced on the new 911.
Dialing up 3,500 rpm on the clock is something of a sweet spot, since the larger cooling elements of the GTS' front intakes start taking in more air in "Ram" mode. It's no coincidence that the 383 lb-ft of torque peaks at 3,500 revs as the horsepower starts its sweetest upward spiral right there, too. It's close to a form of turbocharging, you could say, in a naturally aspirated car.
Our test car was furnished with the GTS' standard leather and Alcantara mix, a combination we'd stick with. The benefit of the faux suede's gripping properties cannot be overstated in a hurtling performance car that puts up humungous lateral-g numbers. To be honest, all that we missed was the chance to drive a manual-six equipped car. Oh, it'll never happen, we know, but the three-pedal setup we tried at the initial launch of the Panamera in a 3.6-liter V6 model was our favorite then, and in the GTS, it would be a terrific and gifted de-contenting option. Besides, the seven-speed PDK dual-clutch unit, for all its goodness, can be frustrating when trying to downshift into truly high revs. The transmission electronics waiting for revs to ebb to an acceptable level (around 3,500 rpm) prior to allowing a downshift can be a real buzz-kill. Whereas we wouldn't grumble much if we had the low torque of the Turbo model for powering out of the corners, here we had a few spirited conversations with that left paddle.
If it can be taken as any indicator, after those first couple of learning laps, we set the multi-adjustable driver's seat down to its lowest point, squeezed in the bolsters and girded our Porsche's various electronic wizards and nannies to their most extreme settings. It only took a couple of sorties around Ascari to know that the Panamera GTS is not just a legit four-door sports car, it has the goods to deliver where all other big sport sedans fear to tread.