First Drive: 2010 Porsche Panamera a 4-door sedan 78 years in the making

2010 Porsche Panamera – Click above for high-res image gallery

Porsche invited us to Germany to be one of the first to drive its all-new Panamera, the company's first four-door sedan. We spent three days assailing the Bavarian Alps, streaking across the German Autobahn, and meandering through picturesque Alpine towns. We touched 170 mph at one point and sat stagnant in city traffic during another. What were Porsche's objectives with this new sedan? How does it drive? Who's going to buy it? And, most importantly, does the Panamera deserve to wear the coveted Porsche crest? Find out after the jump...

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All Photos Copyright ©2009 Michael Harley / Weblogs, Inc.

In 2002, the venerable 911 and relatively young Boxster were joined by an all-new third model that had loyal Porsche purists up in arms. Their favorite automaker had partnered with Volkswagen to introduce a Porsche-branded sport-utility vehicle called the Cayenne. Critics cried foul, enthusiasts wailed, and doomsayers predicted the end of the brand.

Within a few years, Porsche's SUV had become the best-selling model in the company's lineup – a true automotive success story. The profits from the Cayenne were used to develop next-generation 911 models including the GT2, GT3, and the LMP2 RS Spyder racing program. The cash also helped fund the development of an all-new program, the Panamera Gran Turismo -- Porsche's first sedan.

As expected, pundits have again raised their eyebrows in doubt while Porschephiles have resumed shedding soppy tears. The countless expressions of drama and doom continued... before anyone had ever driven the car.

Porsche set out to design the world's first uncompromised four-door. The automaker maintains that the Panamera Gran Turismo is yet another success story waiting to be written and claims the all-new model is the new class benchmark for performance, exemplary efficiency and personal comfort. The vehicle's world-first innovations within the segment include the first double-clutch transmission, the first with an engine start-stop system, the first with an air suspension with on-demand air volume, the first with active aerodynamics, and the first with an available "Sport Chrono" package elevating performance at the touch of a button.

With the exception of the family-oriented Cayenne SUV, all of Porsche's current offerings are generally second or third vehicles in most households -- most 911, Cayman, and Boxster owners own another daily driver. The Panamera is the fifth addition to Porsche's range and the automaker is determined to break that barrier by offering a four-passenger sport sedan that is spacious and comfortable enough to be the primary vehicle.

Unlike the BMW M5, Audi S6, and Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG -- all competent family sedans gussied-up to masquerade as sport sedans -- the Porsche Panamera is built with the sole objective of being the only clean-sheet high performance sport sedan in the segment. Even the Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG, arguably one of the Panamera's closest competitors, pales in performance.

While a traditional three-box sedan would have been a no-brainer, the team stuck with the philosophy that form would follow function. The vehicle had to seat four passengers comfortably, and their full complement of luggage had to fit in the trunk. Most importantly, the center of gravity had to be sports-car low. The result, from its slightly raised front fenders to the muscular rear shoulder line, makes the Panamera instantly recognizable as a Porsche. Even if it lends itself to controversy.

But the hue and cry from the marque's ardent devotees overshadows the significance of the automaker's first sedan. Call it unique. Call it daring. Call it stylish. Call it unsightly. Regardless of what descriptor you use, most of us seem to agree that it looks like the unlikely five-door offspring of an illicit tryst between a Porsche 928 and a Chrysler Crossfire. Interestingly enough, the more time we spent with the Panamera the more we understood, appreciated, and genuinely started to value its looks.

The Panamera is physically more substantial in person than it appears in pictures. By the tape, it is slightly larger than the Mercedes-Benz CLS 63. Its overall length is 195.7 inches (2.7 inches longer than the CLS 63), and the Porsche rides on a 115-inch wheelbase (2.6 inches longer than the Mercedes). Its stance is significantly wider too. The front track is 65.2 inches (up 2.2 inches) and the rear is 64.8 inches (up 2.5 inches).

The four-seat design, with tapered back rests and integrated head restraints, is instantly recognizable as classic Porsche. Unusual at first site, it almost appears as if the automaker has installed its unique front seats in all four passenger positions. The advantage to this layout is immediately apparent as all seating positions are extremely comfortable and supportive, with or without the optional sport seats. As an added benefit, passengers in the rear don't feel relegated to "coach."

Unlike the dashboard of the 911, Boxster, and Cayman -- each a derivative of the other -- the cockpit of the Panamera is unique and innovative. The primary cluster is comprised of five circular dashboard instruments. As is racing tradition, a large analog tachometer sits in the middle. The speedometer, oil pressure and oil temperature gauges are to the left. To the immediate right is a high-resolution 4.8-inch color TFT multi-function digital display presenting a selection of on-board computer information, or a close-up of the navigational system map. The fuel and water temperature gauges reside to the right of the digital display and a seven-inch high-resolution touchscreen sits high in the middle of the dashboard, the centerpiece of the standard Porsche Communication Management (PCM) system with navigation.

As expected, the Panamera pampers its occupants with yards of leather, fine wood (or carbon fiber), aluminum trim, and high-quality plastics. A long, button-laden center console runs the length of the cabin, effectively keeping passengers divided as optional multi-zone temperature controls (up to four) adjust each occupant's microclimate. Overhead, another console controls cabin lighting and the sunroof. While intimidating at first glance, the sea of buttons are logically placed into quadrants of climate control, suspension settings, vehicle settings, and emergency (hazard lights, door locks, etc...). After some familiarization, their individual operations are readily absorbed.

Active aerodynamics are standard equipment on all variants of the Panamera, but they alter slightly based on trim level. The Panarama S and 4S feature a one-piece rear spoiler that is retracted and flush with the bodywork until the sedan reaches 56 mph, at which point it moves into an angle of -3 degrees. At 100 mph, the wing angle lifts to +5 degrees to increase downforce. At 127 mph the spoiler moves to its maximum deflection of +14 degrees. The spoiler on the Turbo model is fitted with two additional flaps that extend to increase surface area. It too deploys to -3 degrees at 56 mph, but then locks at +10 degrees at 127 mph and up. The rear spoiler is designed to prevent lift, not increase downforce (and increase drag). The drag coefficient of the S and 4S models is .29, while the Turbo is slightly higher at .30; the frontal area is the same for both.

Under the skin, Porsche developed an all-new chassis for the Panamera. The design goals focused on strength and safety, yet overall mass was also scrutinized. The end result is a fully galvanized lightweight hybrid platform manufactured from a variety of strong, yet weight-saving, materials. The body in white is comprised of 25% light alloys (aluminum, magnesium, composites, and plastics) and 75% steel (deep-drawn, super-high-strength micro-alloy, polyphase, and boron-alloys). The front sub-frame, and most of the suspension components, are aluminum alloy. The hood, fenders, doors, and rear lid are aluminum. The door structures are aluminum as well, while the window frames are magnesium. Magnesium alloy is also used in the front radiator mounts to save weight in the nose of the vehicle (mass is more detrimental to handling as it moves further away from the center of the vehicle). Overall, the Panamera's weight distribution is roughly 52/48 percent (front/rear). Curb weights range from 3,903 lbs. (S), to 4,344 pounds (Turbo). These aren't exactly in 911 territory, but they are respectable within the segment.

The Panamera S (base MSRP $89,800) and Panamera 4S (base MSRP $93,800) share a 4.8-liter normally-aspirated V8. While it's based on the V8 units sold under the hood of the Cayenne, the all-aluminum engine has been significantly re-worked for the four-door sports car. The engine features Porsche DFI Direct Fuel Injection and VarioCam Plus (one-sided variable camshaft management with adjustable valve lift). To lower its position within the vehicle, and improve handling, the oil sump was flattened and the final drive on the front axle of AWD vehicles is connected directly to the engine.

The standard gasoline-fed unit is rated at 400 bhp at 6,500 rpm and 369 lb-ft of torque between 3,500 and 5,000 rpm. The standard wheel package shared by both models includes 18-inch wheels with 245/50ZR18 tires up front, and 275/45ZR18 tires in the rear (19- or 20-inch wheels are optional on all models). The standard tires are specially designed Michelin Pilot Sport PS2. According to Porsche, the Panamera S will sprint to 100 km/h (62 mph) in 5.2 seconds. The AWD Panamera 4S, putting power down through four fat contact patches, will do the same run in 4.8 seconds. Both cars share the same 175 mph top speed.

The Panamera Turbo (base MSRP $132,600) shares the same 4.8-liter engine (with a lower compression ratio), but twin-turbochargers boost its power to 500 bhp at 6,000 rpm and 516 lb-ft of torque from 2,250 to 4,500 rpm. If the driver selects the "Sport Plus Mode," an "overboost" function increases turbocharger pressure for up to ten seconds to bump torque to 567 lb-ft, an impressive 10% gain. The Turbo is fitted with standard 19-inch alloy wheels wrapped in 255/45ZR19 tires up front, and 285/40ZR19 tires in the rear. The tires are also Michelin Pilot Sport PS2. Porsche, usually conservative, claims the Panamera Turbo will sprint to 100 km/h (62 mph) in 4.0 seconds flat and it won't run out of steam until it hits 188 mph.

All three models are fitted with Porsche's impressive electronically-controlled double-clutch transmission. The so-called "Porsche-Doppelkupplungsgetriebe" (German for "double-clutch transmission") or simply "PDK," features a seven-speed gearbox with a multi-plate clutch controlling the gear changes. The driver decides whether to leave the shifting in full auto mode, shift with the center console-mounted lever, or shift manually via sliding levers on the steering wheel spokes. Three driver-selected settings (Normal, Sport, and Sport Plus) vary shift speed and authority from Cadillac-soft to Formula-One-severe.

Fuel economy figures are still in the works, but Porsche is promising the Panamera models will be some of the most efficient in their class. In addition to the lightweight building materials, engineers micromanaged the small details hidden from view. They focused on things like reducing residual brake forces on the rotors, a power steering pump with on-demand control, and engine start-stop technology (reportedly good for a 10% increase in the city cycle alone). The team even worked with Michelin to develop a reduced rolling resistance, yet high-performance, tire.

We've never been disappointed by Porsche brakes, and the Panamera lineup continues the impressive trend. The Panamera S and 4S both wear massive vented and grooved 14.2-inch rotors (1.42 inches thick) with six-piston aluminum monoblock calipers up front. The rears are 13.0-inch (1.10 inches thick) in diameter wearing four-piston calipers. The Panamera Turbo bumps up to vented and grooved 15.4-inch rotors (1.50 inches thick) with six-piston aluminum monoblock calipers up front. The rears are 13.8-inch (1.10 inches thick) in diameter wearing four-piston calipers.

According to Porsche, the standard brakes on the Turbo deliver 1,700 horsepower of braking force and are identified by their red calipers. Like all other models from Porsche, the automaker offers its Porsche Ceramic Composite Brakes (PCCB) package with unique yellow calipers. Stunning, oversized 16.1-inch rotors (15.4-inch on the S and 4S models) crowd for space within the 20-inch front wheels. The rear rotors are nearly as impressive at 13.8-inches.

The aluminum suspension is a double-wishbone arrangement up front, and a multi-link setup in the rear. Porsche Active Suspension Management (PASM), an electronic damping control system, is standard on all Panamera models. The driver selects one of the three aforementioned modes based on driving style: Comfort, Sport or Sport Plus. Regardless of the chosen setting, the system continuously monitors driving conditions. If the suspension is in "Comfort" mode and the driver swerves suddenly, the dampers and springs automatically switch to a firmer setting to improve maneuverability. Likewise, if the setting is in "Sport Plus" mode and the road surface becomes irregular, the system will drop into a softer setting automatically. The Turbo models are fitted with PASM combined with an adaptive air suspension that includes automatic leveling (based on calculated load), ride-height adjustment (dropping nearly an inch at high speeds), and the ability to vary the spring rates by reducing the volume of air in the system.

Our introduction to the Panamera took place in Germany, the machine's natural habitat. We opened up all three models on the "no-speed-limit" stretches of Autobahn, and twisted them through spectacular canyons in the Alps. All told, we spent a considerable amount of time behind the wheel.

Porsche handed us the keys to our first car, a rear-wheel drive Panamera S with ceramic brakes, at the airport. We opened the power-assisted rear hatch and dropped in two pieces of checked luggage, two carry-on bags, and our large camera bag. It swallowed all with room to spare.

In a very gentleman-like fashion, we swung open the front door and settled our six-foot two-inch frame behind the wheel. After a quick tilt and telescope adjustment of the wheel, and some toying with the multi-mode seat controls, we immediately found our ideal driving position with the three-spoke steering wheel falling into our hands and the transmission shifter just inches to our side. Visibility out the front and side is good. On the other hand, the three-quarter view over the shoulder is a bit limited by the thick C-pillar, while the view rearward is hampered by the smallish back window.

To the left of the steering wheel is where Porsche always locates the key slot, and the Panarama is no exception. Keyless entry ("Porsche Entry & Drive") or not, all models require a physical twist to initiate ignition – there is no push-to-start button. The 4.8-liter V8 fires immediately and settles into a mellow rumble. With the suspension and transmission in "Soft" and "Normal," the PDK transmission is placed into "D" and we leave the parking lot...

Before the rear wheels hit the two-lane airport access road, we notice the steering. Without a window sticker or options list to confirm our suspicions, we're forced to assume our car is fitted with Servotronic speed-related power assistance as the effort is unnaturally overboosted. Thankfully, the steering effort increases with our velocity as we head through the airport grounds, and our attention is quickly focused elsewhere.

At our first stoplight, the Panamera shut its engine off. It was unnerving, but completely normal as part of the advanced Auto Start-Stop function. Working like most hybrid vehicles, all Panamera models will shut down the engine when the vehicle is stopped and the brake pedal is held. When the pressure on the brake is released, the engine springs back to life and the driver proceeds forward without much of a perceived delay. The system is smart enough to monitor available battery power and climate control temperature. If either deviates too far, the engine will restart automatically. (All U.S. vehicles will have the switch-activated Auto Start-Stop function default to "off.")

In its softest setting, and at low speeds, the Panamera drives like most other large German luxury sedans. Unlike a 911, it feels heavy and substantial around town – especially pulling away from a standstill when the laws of physics have to be coaxed to release the two-ton Porsche. Throttle response from the normally-aspirated 400-hp V8 is good, never lethargic. The weight seems to fall off as our speed increases, unlike the Panamera's closest competitors.

To our delight, the steering is responsive and accurate to our inputs, allowing us to easily navigate through the narrow European roads with light traffic. It's about 150 km (80 miles) to our hotel, so we make our way to the Autobahn for some double-time to catch dinner.

Outside Munich, the local stretch of Autobahn is limited to 120 km/h (75 mph). It's frustrating, but it gives us plenty of time to acclimate ourselves with the new sedan. At U.S. highway speeds the Panamera is a very stable platform nearly absent of wind noise. It's comfortable and mindlessly numbing, just like a luxury sedan buyer expects.

Heading further south, we finally hit an unlimited-speed section of the Autobahn. Set free, we bury the throttle. The PDK transmission, leisurely content in seventh gear, instantly springs to attention. It quickly drops a few gears and the engine growls loudly as it spools around the tachometer. Each redline instigates a quick shift, and the engine snaps back into the power band eagerly climbing upwards once again. The speedometer is moving too, but at a slower pace. We bring the Panamera S up to about 230 km/h (142 mph) and hold it there.

Watching us close the gap in their rearview mirrors, Mercedes-Benz and BMW drivers recognized the Porsche and immediately moved out of our way. One fellow, in an older S-Class, tried to hold us off for about a kilometer before he eventually conceded to the rival from Stuttgart. The road opened up, and we pressed faster.

At 272 km/h, our maximum velocity thanks to the traffic that afternoon, the Panamera was kissing 170 mph. Although we were cutting through the air at Boeing 737 take-off speeds, the Porsche was confident and attentive. Even more so, it was relatively quiet (a 911 at 150 mph is a different story). At those speeds, the rear spoiler is at maximum deflection and the suspension automatically adjusts for the conditions (although our "S" model was not equipped with air suspension, the pneumatic shocks on the Turbo model would have lowered the chassis by 25 millimeters).

The ease at which the Panamera cruises above 150 mph is impressive, but it's the braking that blurred our vision. One of our many high-speed excursions was cut short by a VW Golf that ventured into our lane to make a pass. Pounding the brakes at nearly 235 km/h (145 mph) would unsettle most cars, but the Panamera shook it off with less drama than hitting week-old road kill. Porsche's PCCB ceramic brakes seemed so completely unfazed that we deliberately tried our "brake test" several more times when the road cleared. There was never any sign of fade or increased stopping distances. We can't image anyone in the States overdriving the Panamera's stoppers.

Off the Autobahn, and pressed through the canyons that first day, the rear-wheel drive Panamera did its best to impersonate a 911. It was neutral in the corners, and a real pleasure to drive fast. In similar fashion to a 911, it enjoys being pushed hard and never breaks a sweat. While the 7 Series, S-Class and Audi A8 dance like football linebackers, the Porsche sedan demonstrated moves akin to an experienced receiver.

Sadly, the weather was less-than-cooperative the next day during our first date with the Panamera Turbo. We suffered through more than our fair share of frustratingly wet roads, but they never really seemed to concern the 500-hp all-wheel drive sedan. Cozy in our heated seats, the flagship model delivered gobs of torque at the slightest touch of the throttle. It remained unfazed as we pushed it harder and harder, never really getting past seven-tenths before one of the wheels would break free and slip sideways on the slick wet pavement. Porsche's stability control raises its intervention threshold based on the driver selected the sport settings (stability control may be completely defeated at the touch of a button). We wisely left the switchgear in "Sport" for a bit of a tail wagging, without any overzealous plans to depart the pavement.

The all-wheel-drive system, or Porsche Traction Management (PTM), is self-contained within the PDK housing. In normal operation (dry road), nearly 100% of the power is sent to the rear wheels. When the road becomes slippery, power is automatically routed to the front wheels as needed. Under severe braking, the front wheels are disconnected completely, so the stability control, or Porsche Stability Management (PSM), can more accurately intervene.

The road did eventually dry long enough for us to try the Turbo's "Launch Control" program – standard on all vehicles with the "Sport Chrono" package. Simply select "Sport Plus" mode, hold the brake with your left foot, and send your right foot to the floor. The engine screams for a second or two and then the dashboard illuminates with the "Launch Control" alert. Release the brake quickly and the Panamera Turbo digs all four sticky Michelins into the pavement as it rips to 60 mph in a hallucinatory four seconds. The automaker claims the car will hit 160 km/h (100 mph) in 9.0 seconds flat. Yes, it runs faster than Porsche's own GT3! We can't recall another production sedan that can do that.

That afternoon, we took a Panamera 4S out for a run. Identical to the Panamera S model, yet heavier by a couple hundred pounds thanks to the all-wheel drive PTM, it didn't seem one bit slower or less responsive (in fact, it launches to speed faster thanks to the additional grip). Focusing on the driving dynamics, we could only feel a slight difference in the steering feedback when we encountered cobblestones or rough pavement. In our dry climate, we still prefer rear-wheel drive.

On our last day, we grabbed the keys to a Panamera Turbo for the long drive back to the airport. For the first half of the drive, through some incredibly scenic back roads, we switched the transmission and suspension settings to "Sport" and enthusiastically enjoyed our last few hours with the car. Towards the end of the drive, when the weather shifted gears and the skies opened up, we dropped everything back to "Comfort" and basked in the serenity it delivers. The Panamera is a true dual-personality car, at the simple touch of a few console buttons.

Over the course of three days, we willingly spent about two hours in the back seat of the Panamera sedan. There was plenty of leg and headroom, and we never felt cramped. Porsche calls it a "cockpit for four," and it's very obvious why. Although optional, rear seat passengers are presented with their own center console complete with vents, controls for their own eight-way power seats with heat and ventilation. For once, a back seat in a premium luxury sedan is more comfortable and accommodating than it looks in the glitzy pictures.

Without question, we really liked Porsche's new Panamera. There are, however, a few quibbles that deserve mention. Our biggest gripe is centered on those maddening, and non-intuitive, steering wheel mounted PDK sliders -- just give us a standard set of paddle shifters (upshift right, downshift left). In addition, the limited visibility out the rear half of the car requires head craning during lane changes and backing maneuvers that will keep your vertebrae limber. The long hood does its part to mask the location of the front corners during parking, requiring more time behind the wheel for familiarization. The steering is light at low speeds, and that cool center console loaded with buttons just isn't intuitive when attempting to operate by touch (it's most irritating when you want to change suspension settings at 135 mph). The lack of a push-button start is also puzzling.

These minor criticisms shouldn't keep BMW, Mercedes-Benz or Audi owners from perusing the Porsche showroom this October 17 when the Panamera goes on sale. Even in today's depressed economy, the automaker is predicting 20,000 units will be sold in its first year, with one third of those finding garages in the U.S.

Every Porsche executive we spoke with was beaming with pride about the new Panamera, and none seem fazed by those questioning the logic behind the launch of the brand's first-ever four-door sedan. The proud Germans from Stuttgart have seen a fair share of debate surrounding their products in recent years (automatic transmissions, water-cooled engines, and that Cayenne issue), and have always prevailed as their faithful acclimate to innovation.

We believe that time will once again vindicate Porsche's latest decision to hurl itself into the competitive luxury sport sedan segment. Our three days with the Panamera left little doubt that Porsche has achieved its program objectives in its first-round attempt. Not only is it painstakingly engineered and truly enjoyable to drive... most importantly, the all-new Panamera has earned the right to wear the Porsche badge.

View 32 Photos

Photos Copyright ©2009 Michael Harley / Weblogs, Inc.

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