Ferrari, McLaren: watch out! Porsche’s new 918 Spyder is ready to challenge LaFerrari and the P1 for the green supercar crown. After an extensive drive on the race track, this lightweight plug-in hybrid emerges as a sensationally fast and competent piece of kit. A dark horse, if ever we saw one.
We’re in Leipzig, Germany at Porsche’s other test track, adjoining its second assembly site. And it’s raining. Hard. Tension, excitement, uncertainty and suspense describe the atmosphere in the pitlane. A squadron of Porsche engineers, test drivers and helpers is mingling around two cars – one battered ‘series one’ mule and one almost-production-ready prototype, number 25 out of 25, a hand-built matt-black Weissach edition model priced at €3m. Towering above the crowd is the lanky frame of Porsche’s test-drive god, Walter Röhrl. ‘Anyone ready for a ride?’ Sure. Walter’s race taxi is a white 911 GT3 RS 4.0 fitted with roll-cage and semi-slicks. It hates wet weather: power oversteer, lift-off oversteer, aquaplaning-induced no-more-steer. After only one lap, we’re back in the paddock for a pow-wow. First, they close the Bus-Stop chicane (inspired by Spa), then the Corkscrew (inspired by Laguna Seca) is coned off. Go or no go? Just before lunch, the chiefs give us the thumbs up.
Porsche 918 Spyder: the first impressions
Stuffing oneself behind the relatively large steering-wheel ain’t easy when your parents fed you well, but eventually the big body bonds with the bucket seat via a three-point belt. My passenger, the senior project manager Dr Frank-Steffen Walliser, deserves a medal for being so calm and courageous, all day long. The first attempt to get us going fails. Click, clonk, cluck, silence. ‘Try again.’ I twist the key, push the gear selector in Drive, and voilà! – the 918 whirs forward, mute like a fish. Handicapped by the 300kg-plus battery pack, the 1640kg Spyder joins the track, still gaining noiseless momentum. In E-mode, the planet-friendliest Porsche ever can accelerate in 7.9sec from 0-62mph and on to a zero-emission maximum speed of 94mph. As soon as you push the throttle past a deterrent, however, lightning strikes, hell breaks loose and the two-seater turns into a rocketship. At least as awe-inspiring as the very physical forward thrust is the noise shock which fuses the high-rev bark of a real race-car engine and the restless back-up choir of a dozen air hammers to a deafening crescendo furioso. Richard Wagner, who was born in Leipzig, would have loved it.
What's it like when the petrol engine fires up?
Once the V8 has made itself felt and heard, it refuses to go back to sleep. It’s not a smooth operator like the 4.8-litre units fitted to Cayenne and Panamera. Instead, the flat-crank dry-sump motor was ripped out of the victorious Le Mans Series monoposto where NVH played no role at all. In the 918, the 4.6-litre powerhouse behaves like a freshly caught lion in too small a cage. It’s not only the noise pattern that tattooes your auditory channels, it is also the aggressive induction, the coarse combustion and the eruptive exhaust which keep powdering your torso with goose pimples.
This engine produces inertia forces of all orders, it kicks and pulls and pushes inside its aluminium jacket, and it refuses to disclose a single smooth-running sweet spot because refinement never was on the agenda. We drive for about 30 seconds in hybrid mode, which is fine for country roads but definitely the wrong therapy for the track. After all, there is no point in coasting from one chicane to the next, nor are we interested in premature, super-smooth uphsifts in Drive. No, this car is all about white knuckles, wet palms, focused eyes, exposed nerves and a throbbing heart. So let’s go for it by twisting the map switch, even though, unfortunately, it’s not as intuitive nor as easy to operate with the right thumb as Ferrari’s manettino.
Sport totally transforms the character of the Porsche. The shift time shrinks from 100ms to 80, the adjustable wing suddenly looms large in the rear-view mirror, the combustion engine is now running permanently, and E-boost is available for up to 20 seconds. Although there are an extra 282bhp waiting to be unleashed, this programme does not yet trigger the full KERS effect. It also shifts up at relatively conservative revolutions, and the battery strategy is devoted to charge conservation. In the rain and on those baked-to-order Michelins with marginal tread depth, Sport is nonetheless keen enough to dry one’s throat on the long main straight where the speedo reads 136mph at the 150m brake sign. Normally, we would have shifted into third at 9150rpm just before the start-finish line, but with the wipers working overtime it is essential to brake early.
‘Unlike any other hybrid car, the 918 will recuperate even when ABS is active,’ says Walliser. ‘The transition between electric and hydraulic deceleration is totally unnoticeable. Despite a maximum brake recuperation of 0.5g, the brake pedal feel always remains the same.’ This breakthrough was achieved with a lot of help from Bosch, who invented a new system combining an active brake fluid volume reservoir with an electro-mechanical brake assistant. How does it work? While the active volume reservoir reduces the brake pressure during recuperation, the assistant adjusts the electric brake force. The process is called brake blending, and is bound to give Ferrari and McLaren some food for thought.
How does this mega-hybrid handle?
Since ESP assumes more of a laissez-faire approach in Sport, the fat tail keeps making moves which may cause panic attacks in lesser cars. But not so in the 918, which only needs a flick at the wheel to behave again. At 2.25 turns from lock-to-lock the steering is quickly geared. Like the 991 GT3 and the 911 Turbo, the Spyder is fitted with adaptive electro-mechanical rear-wheel steering. I didn’t really notice it, but then I was far too busy trying to keep the car on the road, and listening to the instructions from the passenger seat. ‘Go for it!’ shouts Walliser as we enter the 85mph right-hander, ESP snarling, TC biting, rear-wheel steering helping out front-wheel steering, V8 pushing and e-motor pulling. Whoever claimed that hybrids are dull and defensive should try this triple-engined masterpiece. ‘It may not feel that fast,’ shouts Walliser. ‘But it actually is very, very quick. At the same time it’s always totally controllable. This mix of pace and balance is bound to appeal to all kinds of drivers. Believe me: in today’s weather conditions, we would have spun three or four times already in the GT3 RS 4.0, and we would have been quite a bit slower.’
Lap number three, and the map pointer is already showing Race. The car is in full fighting mode now: shift time 50ms, 282bhp electric horses ready to boost for up to 30sec, gear changes conducted at high rpm in Drive, even lower ESP threshold, tail rudder in approach to runway position, nasal air intakes wide open. Right now, the 918 is creating over twice as much downforce as the GT3 RS 4.0. At the same time, the demarcation zone between carving and sliding has narrowed even further. Diligent torque feed is absolutely critical now, which is easier said than done when your right foot controls more than 590lb ft all the way from 800 to 5000rpm.
‘You may switch off stability control,’ suggests the fearless Walliser. No thanks. I just remembered that Porsche has very recently increased the aggregate power output rating from 795 to 875bhp in order to move in on LaFerrari and P1. At the same time, they announced the latest set of performance figures: 0-62mph in 2.8sec, 0-125mph in 7.9sec, 0-188mph in 23.0sec, top speed in excess of 213mph. The only phoney number given is average fuel consumption of 85.6mpg. This unlikely rating is due to the New European Driving Cycle which doesn’t take into account the electric energy required to fully charge the battery pack. In reality, a leisurely driven 918 returns about 35mpg, brisk pace is reflected by a decline to 25mpg, and a free autobahn could push the efficiency down to 20mpg. In relation to the outstanding performance however, the new Porsche is still a real ecomeister which eclipses the V10-engined Carrera GT by up to 50%.
Tell me about the lightweight Weissach pack...
By mid-afternoon, the rain has moved off and the track is beginning to dry. This is a good time to take a closer look at number 25 which is fitted with the optional Weissach pack. For £60k it deducts air-con and radio while adding lighter magnesium wheels and even more carbonfibre. The total weight saving amounts to 40kg. Every little detail counts: wrap instead of paint, Alcantara instead of leather, ceramic wheel bearings, brake pads with titanium backing plates, no glovebox, smaller carpets, low-calorie shift paddles. The test car is fitted with the so-called Salzburg design, inspired by an early 917. Too loud? Then opt for the liquid metal paint and power seats trimmed in open-pore authentic leather. Theoretically, the boot holds 110 litres, but as soon as you take off the roof panels, cargo space is exactly zero. The new state-of-the-art infotainment system is too complex to get acquainted with in a few hot laps, but we do familiarise ourselves with the multi-functional steering wheel, which features a pair of thumbwheels as well as the map switch.
Walliser tells me that the integration of three different propulsion sources was the 918’s biggest development challenge. Just as a reminder, the 600bhp 4.6-litre V6 is mated to a 154bhp electric motor which also drives the rear wheels. The second electric module positioned between the front wheels is rated at 127bhp. Together, the three power packs distribute up to 940lb ft to all four corners. Fed by 312 lithium-ion batteries, the electric motors offer a zero-emission range of up to 18 miles. It takes about four hours to charge, but you could buy a quick-charge DC wallbox which completes a full charge in only 25 minutes.
We go for a second set of hot laps, this time on a drying track. We’re in Race mode, going so much quicker than before and with a near-zero margin of error. The learning process continues, corner by corner. Manual recuperation is not possible in the 918. It’s all done by throttle order, and by braking. There is no kickdown either. Push the hoof towards the firewall, then brace yourself for a time-warp boost masterminded by the push-pull genius inside the torque vectoring black box. Front-wheel drive is gradually phased out as the velocity increases until at 147mph the Porsche becomes 100% rear-wheel drive.
We leave the top three ratios untouched because fourth gear feels fast enough to take us deep into the grey area between courage and cockiness. The carbon-ceramic brakes steam and crackle and smell of hard work, but they do not fade. The tyres are well and truly shot, however. Game over.
This was, without a doubt, one of the best days in my life as a motoring journalist. What a car! If it was not too late, I would marry rich or sell my soul to the devil just to get my hands on the most desirable contemporary Porsche. Who would have thought that a plug-in hybrid can be this much fun? Who would have guessed that one and the same vehicle could cross the city of Leipzig without burning a single drop of fuel and then lap the ’Ring at close to seven minutes? Who would believe that six months before the launch only 387 of the 918 limited-edition pieces are spoken for? So, dear millionaires, if you missed out on LaFerrari and P1, the 918 Spyder is still available at €675,00. And at the end of the day, it may well be the car to beat.