► CAR rides in new 2017 Porsche Panamera II
► We join final sign-off drive in South Africa
► Sleeker, sportier, sexier - says Porsche
The hunchback from Zuffenhausen is no more. It will for model year 2017 be superseded by a brand-new design based on the trend-setting MSB architecture. What's it like, the next coupé/saloon crossover which will for the first time also be available as full-scale shooting brake, starting in early 2019?
To find out, we travelled the roads north of Cape Town - ancient post-colonial tarmac, freshly sealed freeways, countless unannounced sleeping policeman (not to mention the real ones) and dirt trails dusted with the world's finest red sand.
Our convoy consists of five cars and three different Panamera versions: the beefed-up 422bhp all-wheel drive V8 diesel, the V6-engined 440bhp 4S, and the top-of-the-range 550bhp turbo. Join us on a two-day blast in one of the fastest and most rewarding non-conformist five-seaters.
Porsche Panamera: the sequel. What’s new?
Like the original Cayenne, the MkI Panamera was not a pretty sight. Rumour has it that the CEO Wendelin Wiedeking had a personal interest in the crooked raised roof so that his broad frame would fit comfortably in the rear seat. At the same time, the cargo deck had to grow and grow again until it would hold the four golf bags which are allegedly mandatory in these circles.
The result was a humpback whale on wheels, wide and low and at up to 2170 kilos every bit as heavy as it looked. The packaging was still compromised in places, but dynamically this fish outswam its rivals from day one, and the Porsche badge made up for what it lacked in initial street cred. The facelift introduced in 2013 was not a significant step forward, but the second-generation Panamera dubbed G2 is a huge aesthetic improvement.
The first thing you notice when buckling up in the passenger seat is the redesigned instrument panel. Gone are the rows of petits fours on the transmission tunnel, the small monitor with the old-school graphics and the five individual round dials. The driver environment looks much more modern now.
In addition to the 12in touchscreen, there are two 7in displays - the one left of the rpm counter sums up all vehicle-related info, the one on the right concentrates on connectivity and new options like night vision. Positioned relatively high up on the centre stack is a full-size homescreen which invites you to choose from five basic layouts supported by the usual selection of information widgets. In addition to standard functions like satnav or phone, one may tap web-based services like Google Earth and Street View, or check out what´s available in terms of on-board assistance systems. First impression? Fewer buttons, increased complexity. Welcome to Porsche´s version of the digitalized car.
First ride: Porsche Panamera 4S diesel
The first ride of the day is in the diesel. In the 4S diesel, to be precise, because the S distinguishes the V8 from the V6. Not a day too soon, the more space-efficient MSB matrix makes room for the 4.0-litre oil-burner and four-wheel drive, which is a must when there is 626lb ft of torque to be passed around.
In an act of wise predisposition, r&d ensured that the new eight-speed PDK transmission can cope with up to 738lb ft of twist action. After a brief walkaround, we´re off, giving it stick in first, kick-and-rush, second, kick-and-rush, then third. The full-throttle acceleration from 0-62mph takes a guesstimated 4.5sec, give or take a tenth. The top speed is said to be close to 190mph. Fitted with four fat tailpipes and an optional two-voiced exhaust, the 422bhp powerhouse sounds more like a race truck than a 100k-plus executive express. Speaking of Executive, it is worth mentioning that Porsche will retain the long-wheelbase Panamera which currently accounts for 25% of the production.
Tell me more about this fancy new MSB platform
MSB makes provision for a fully scaleable multi-material mix which relies primarily on steel and aluminium. In combination with thinner and larger body panels, more efficient production methods and a lower-calory chassis, G2 saves over 100 kilos in weight.
In its role as think tank for the VW group, Porsche conceived a second, heavy-duty rear axle for future MSB-derived four-door Bentleys. Although the classic steel suspension is standard on all new Panameras bar the turbo, the mules shipped to the Cape were fitted with air springs throughout. The main improvement here is the notably bigger volume of the three-chamber bellows which promises enhanced compliance and a broader ride height variation. To change the setting, simply push a button next to the transmission lever. In combination with 20in tyres, Sport is again a bit of a bone-shaker, but according to the senior test engineer Markus Schieritz, ‘this model does cover the full scope from relaxed GT to aggressive sports coupé.’
What about the faster Panamera models?
The turbo is next - same camouflage, but a different stance. Lower, meaner, with a deeper chin, and a little wider round the hips. While the new front spoiler shouts ‘move over!,’ the active rear air dam unfolds again like the wings of a gull.
The LED headlights glow in blacked out housings; the optional matrix beam set-up boasts even more pixels than the system used in the new A8. The multispoke alloys are shod with 275/40 R20 and 315/35 R20 Michelin Pilot Sport plus tyres. The sports seat feels comfortable and supportive, the fully-loaded steering-wheel incoperates the circular DNA selector, the most frequently used secondary controls are grouped around the gear selector on a black flush-fitting touchscreen. Classy, but not particularly intuitive, despite a solitary old-fashioned direct-access rotary knob positioned above a silver thumbwheel.
What about a head-up display, you ask? Like autonomous driving and that must-have plug-in hybrid, some innovations take a little longer to filter through.
Thanks to its superior aerodynamics and lighter weight, the new 550bhp Panamera turbo is claimed to sprint in 3.7sec from 0-62mph - that´s 0.1sec quicker than the current 570bhp turbo S. Rated at 600bhp, the next Turbo S will probably do the job in an even more amazing 3.5sec. With the drivetrain locked in hooligan mode and the air springs at their cushiest, the top-of-the-range Panamera beams us with vigour into the orbit, out of reach of M5, CLS 63 AMG, RS7 Plus, even Ferrari FF.
Gernot Döllner, the man in charge of project G2, sums up the highlights. ‘Equipped with start-stop and cylinder-on-demand, the new turbo engine uses up to 20% less fuel. Helped by a front strut brace, the dynamic stiffness of the body improves by up to 50%. In addition, you can now specify goodies like rear-wheel steering and body roll compensation via electrically adjustable anti-roll bars.’
While the Porsche guys know their test loops inside out, the passenger freezes in his seat as soon as the wizard at the wheel shows his true colours. At what feels like eleven tenths from the word Go!, the black mule corners with the unreal flatness of a slot racer, turns in snappily without a trace of understeer, hangs on to the tarmac like a shark to its prey, decelerates as if someone had pushed the big red emergency button, and goes like stink.
Such enthusiasm and verve can be taken for granted in the latest 911, but here we are four up in a family car on steroids which pretends to be immune to g-force. Through the twisties, Herr Döllner stabs the Sport plus symbol while leaving the gearbox in Drive.
Avoiding low revs and delaying gear changes whenever possible, we´re now darting along as if this was the Kyalami race track, a metal puppet on an invisible string in very fast forward mode. For a moment, the coachman may have thought about igniting the next rocket stage by deactivating PSM, but one glance at his pale-faced passengers was enough to change his mind.
Although it shares the footprint with its predecessor, the new Panamera feels smaller than it is. This car is nimble yet never twitchy, precise and manoeuvrable, always totally connected to the driver and the road.
The need to integrate new assistance systems triggered the switch from the super-sweet hydraulic steering to a new electrically-assisted device. The fixed-rate, variable-effort direction-finder is claimed to be lighter, quicker and just as responsive. It constantly communicates with dynamic chassis control, rear-wheel steering and the air suspension to create an even more involving handling balance.
‘More feedback means more confidence,’ states Herr Döllner with a grin. ‘The new Panamera fuses maximum interaction with minimum interference. It can be totally laid back or razor-sharp - your call.’ Although our pre-production turbo did live up to this promise, it will be interesting to sample a base model without all the electronic trickeries.
Any other clever bits in the new Panamera?
A Porsche first is the InnoDrive option fitted to all our prototypes. InnoDrive is probably best described as a supplementary electronic brain. It monitors traffic in a 360deg radius, recognizes pedestrians, masterminds active cruise control, will brake autonomously as needed, knows via satnav the difference between corners and turns, and will make the gearbox slip into coasting whenever appropriate.
By looking far ahead through cameras and sensors, InnoDrive can not only accelerate and decelerate the car in accordance to other road users but also initiate up- and downshifts. Its main claim to fame is the talent to drive semi-autonomously. Up to 7mph, there is no need at all for the driver to interfere. Up to 37mph, the driver has a leisurely 45sec to respond. At higher speed, the wheel must be grabbed within 15sec.
There are three levels of in-cab warnings. First, a light flashes. Then a buzzer will buzz. If this still doesn´t help, a tug at the steering-wheel is bound to shake up even the dopiest coxswain.
So, which of the new Panamera models is the pick of the range?
V8 diesel or 550bhp turbo? Neither nor. The most impressive Panamera II is the 4S powered by that amazing 3.0-litre V6 Porsche adopted from Audi before adapting it for its own purposes.
Lighter than the eight-cylinder units and thanks to its twin-barrel intake system every bit as acoustically fascinating, the entry-level engine musters a cool 440bhp along with a punchy 570Nm of torque. Less nose-heavy, even hungrier for revs and at least as responsive as its bigger-displacement brethren, this variant embodies the spirit of the stillborn Pajun, the MSB-based Panamera Junior, which would have taken on 5-series and E-class in a pre-dieselgate scenario.
The 4S is the lightfoot variety of the five-door coupé concept, the spiritual forerunner to the next GTS, perhaps even a good reason to reconsider that tentative de-contented four-seater Panamera GT6...
New Porsche Panamera II: first ride verdict
The Cape Town hinterland is picturesque, and European winters can be outsmarted by South-African summers, but the roads could do with a makeover, the speed limits are a nuisance, and premium automobiles tend to attract that extra bit of riff-raff. Although corners come at a premium in this part of the world, the new Porsche felt like a fish in water, finely tuned and of commensurate attitude.
The brittleness that haunted the first generation has all but gone, composure no longer comes at the expensive of the ride comfort, the uprated controls provide more feedback. Even when kitted out with ten thousands worth of extras, the new Panamera is thus again a proper driver´s car, not a wannabe poseur.
True to the tradition of the marque, its key strength is the impressive integration of drivetrain, chassis, steeering and brakes. And the cosmetic correction of that rounded back.