It was doomsday weather in Stuttgart. The temperature gauge read minus two degrees Celsius (28 degrees Fahrenheit) as the swollen skies emitted a mix of rain, sleet, and snow. Could it be that the whole adventure was in jeopardy? The day before, Frank Walliser, the Porsche 918 Spyder's high-strung project leader, had called an emergency meeting. There was no way that this triple-hearted roadster could be unleashed in such adverse conditions on uncompromising, low-profile summer tires. Officially, Porsche does not yet offer winter rubber for the 918. Unofficially, however, a friend of a friend of Walliser's who works in the prototype shop produced a set of black wheels shod with brand-new Pirelli Sottozero winter tires. That promptly led to another minor complication, namely the need to find space for four wheels with summer tires, not to mention the noncollapsible, four-foot-long torque wrench required to mount them.
Despite these snarls, the factory gates opened promptly at 10:30 a.m. and released a highly exclusive three-car convoy: first out was the Cayenne chase car with driver, photographer, and luggage; second in line was the chrome blue (a $63,000 option) 918; and third was a Volkswagen Touran minivan driven by a chipper mechanic who would swap the Pirellis for ultra-high-performance Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires at the end of day one.
It takes about fourteen hours to drive nonstop from Stuttgart to Valencia, but we chose the scenic route, which was 1082 miles long and called for 22 hours and 48 minutes of wheel time. My passenger was Sebastian Ruger, a thirty-one-year-old whiz-kid engineer who knows a lot about hybrids and almost everything about the 918. The low, wide, and outlandish two-seater commenced the first leg of the journey in E-Power. In this mode, the two electric motors (one for each axle) whir and hiss a happy duet, which sounds unexpectedly subdued from inside the car and catches pedestrians by surprise. In tandem, the compact power packs muster 286 hp and an impressive aggregate torque of 398 lb-ft. Depending on one's driving style, E-Power offers a maximum zero-emissions range of eighteen miles or a top speed of 93 mph.
On the entrance ramp to the A81 autobahn, a bomb suddenly dropped on our acoustic idyll as the V-8 engine entered the scene like a bat out of hell, loud and harsh and furious. Up to 3000 rpm, the angry, flat-crank, direct-injected 4.6-liter V-8, which is a direct descendant of the RS Spyder racing car's powerplant, sounds rough and raucous. Between 3500 and 6500 rpm, the gasoline feed, firing order, and valve timing finally agree on a slightly smoother rhythm and pace. But it's only from 7000 rpm to the cutout at 9150 rpm that one gets the full hammer effect that also harks back to its race car roots. "In essence, the 918 is a street-legal track tool," says vehicle development leader Eugen Oberkamm. "This applies not only to the drivetrain, but also to the chassis, the steering, and the brakes."
Too true. The racing seat makes you painfully aware of your love handles, the racing suspension vigorously kickboxes the occupants of the cabin, and the racing brakes decelerate with unabashed grinding noises. The visibility to the rear is also race-car-like, compromised by all those gills and louvers and the XXL wing. The noise level at highway speeds matches a race car for pungency and persistence. Fuel consumption, on the other hand, is more akin to the modesty of a family sedan. Our observed average of 22 mpg was not bad at all for a 214-mph supercar. Depleting a full load of electric juice is dead easy: just ignore the detent in the throttle pedal or push the red "hot-lap" button -- and don't forget to brace yourself. Restoring the energy to its 6.8-kWh peak is equally simple: keep the engine spinning at medium revs for about fifteen minutes in Sport mode -- or better still in Race -- and the green dots will duly light up again.
Lyon, France, welcomed us with ankle-high speed bumps, narrow lanes, and the tallest curbs this side of the Eiger's north face. Although tackling the down ramp to the hotel parking garage was a thirteen-minute nerve-wrecker (even while employing the front-axle-lift system), we successfully completed the slalom course and found the solitary charging point thankfully unoccupied. Whereas a high-speed wall charger would have performed the act in twenty-five minutes, hooking up the car to a (s)low-voltage charger extended the process to about four hours. The batteries always keep a 25 percent emergency charge -- unless you make an impromptu detour to the racetrack, where the entire energy reservoir can be depleted at a push of the hot-lap button. Although the E-Power reservoir was tapped whenever it made sense, we nonetheless had to make four stops to fill the 18.5-gallon fuel tank with a total of 56 gallons of premium unleaded.
The next morning, S GO 9182 followed the river Rhone south in whisper-quiet fashion, elegantly swooshing past slower traffic, repeatedly soaking in applause and thumbs up. When fully charged, battery power alone can whisk the 918 from 0 to 62 mph in a brisk 6.2 seconds. Twelve miles down the road, the black box summoned Hybrid mode, signaling that the V-8 will now cut in and be phased out according to throttle orders. Not sufficiently inspiring? Then twist the thumbwheel one notch clockwise into Sport, and try to suppress a big smile when the powerplant grabs you by the neck and tacks your torso to the seat. In Race, the Porsche morphs into a real road rocket, and the ultrafast urge is matched by an even more aggressive shift strategy. The seven-speed PDK dual-clutch automatic hammers the gears through the gate like a firing pin on steroids, the electric motors howl breathlessly at their ambitious redline, the V-8 keeps bursting noisily into brief charging spells. This car runs concerted attacks on your senses. It dries your throat, moistens your palms, and fills your nose with the sweet smell of fast-flowing electrical current. In a way, it even reduces carbon-dioxide emissions by making you hold your breath in a mix of astonishment and awe.
The arrow-straight and suspiciously empty Autoroute du Sud is the perfect place to check out the infotainment system. We like the comprehensive content, the quick response time, and the clever ergonomics. We don't like the reflections on the shiny screen, the marginally intuitive coordination of the two monitors, and the lack of any haptic feedback. Rolling at a steady 80 mph through radar-infested territory, we killed time rating the Burmester sound system (sensational, and it doesn't even cost extra), the "authentic" leather seats (but are they really $26,000 nicer than the smoother standard leather?), the body-color ignition key to the left of the steering column (why does the wheel telescope but not tilt?), and the auxiliary electric heating (a whopping $6000). Despite the numerous extras, our 918 still lacked the heavily promoted Weissach package, which adds an astonishing $84,000 to the grand total while taking out about ninety pounds of weight. We applaud the achievement, but a similar effect could be reached by buying this driver $1000 worth of Weight Watchers vouchers.
The most demanding section of the entire voyage was the winding coast road between Perpignan, France, and the Spanish border. Although the pavement is narrow, bumpy, and dotted with blind crests, the 918 tracked with the precision of a fighter jet, clung like a magnet to the tarmac sprayed dark gray with mist from the Mediterranean Sea, and decelerated like an accordion, only to reach out for the next straight with expandable elasticity. As soon as the hinterland opened up and the menacing rock faces gave way to rolling hills, the Porsche readily beamed us into a parallel universe with relentless forward thrust. The 2.6-second acceleration from 0 to 62 mph very nearly ended in cardiac arrest, and the speedometer showed 124 mph a mere 4.7 seconds later. Scared by my own courage, I hit the brakes and immediately wished for a four-point belt, stronger forearms, and eyeballs capable of staying inside their sockets. This mind-boggling, energy-squashing performance comes via carbon-ceramic discs the size of manhole covers, custom Michelin tires boasting a top-secret compound, and the riveting regeneration performance of the hybrid braking system, which can pull up to 0.5 g.
We approached Barcelona in balmy weather that felt more like early June than late November -- high time to convert the coupe into a spyder. Even with the roof stowed in the tiny (3.9-cubic-foot) cargo bay, the carbon-fiber body feels as if it has been hewn from solid. The downside to this granite-like rigidity is a rock-hard suspension that feels like it could loosen fillings. Only professional masochists would dare to switch the damper calibration from Have Mercy (standard) to Last Rites (sport). The push of a button will also freeze the large tail rudder for either maximum downforce or maximum speed. Even with the energy packs depleted, the plug-in supercar can top 200 mph, but Spanish jails are damp and cold, so we didn't even try. Through tunnels, 90 mph in third gear was enough to crack the plaster and cause paint chips to drop from the ceiling long after the villain had vanished.