I’m in the driver’s seat of a silver 2015 Porsche 918 Spyder in pit lane at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. Such a cool track, and I practically have the whole thing to myself. The man who has been in charge of creating this car, Dr. Frank-Steffen Walliser, is riding shotgun. Porsche factory racing driver Patrick Long is going to lead us around the track in a Porsche 911 Turbo S, which I just drove for a couple of familiarization laps around COTA.
Normally, driving a Porsche 911 Turbo S around one of the greatest tracks in America would be enough to deem this an epic day, but there is nothing normal about today. I am about to drive the long-awaited, hybrid-powertrain, limited-edition, ungodly expensive, outrageously powerful Porsche 918 Spyder. By comparison, the 911 Turbo S isn’t much to Tweet home about.
This doesn’t sound like a supercar, does it?
We’ve left the lightweight roof panels in place on our 918 Spyder, because I want to concentrate on the car, not the wind in my hair. I insert the key into a slot on the instrument panel to the left of the steering wheel and crank it. Lots of lights illuminate on the dash and I hear the whirring and whining of electric motors, but there are no sounds of internal combustion.
That’s because we are in E-Power mode, the default position on the circular “map switch” that’s in the lower right quadrant of the steering wheel. A toggle switch on the right is where you select Drive. There is no P for Park. That’s what the electronic parking brake button adjacent to the gear selector is for.
Long leads us out of the pits, and the big hill off the front straight looms ahead. Electric whooshing, more whirring and whining, forward movement. Reasonably rapid movement, even, but, geez, this isn’t very exciting. That’s okay, I tell myself. I need some time to acclimate my right foot to the brake pedal, which feels a little wooden, and to get a sense of the steering. Turn One at the top of the hill is a slow, sharp left-hander.
Electric steering? Not a problem
I quickly realize that the steering is very, very good. Fluid and light yet oh, so precise and requiring only the most minimal inputs. And the steering wheel itself? It doesn’t tilt, but it telescopes and it is perfectly sized and shaped. It is one of the best expressions of a modern steering wheel I’ve seen—replete with multiple functions yet without looking like a circular video game console. And, as Long tells me later, “you’re really only using two switches on it, and they’re in the same places we put them on the race cars.”
Hybrid mode is more exciting than it sounds
Long isn’t dawdling in the 911 Turbo S. I can hear Walliser speaking to me but I don’t even turn my head to look at him. My eyes are on the track, looking into the corners, while I try to duplicate Long’s movements as closely as I can. Before I know it, we’ve rounded the corner of Turn 20 onto the front straight and Long’s voice comes on the two-way radio: “Hybrid mode, hybrid mode.”
I twist the map switch dial and it’s like something explodes behind me: the 608-hp, 4.6-liter V-8 engine fires to life. Now it feels like I’m in a real supercar. “In hybrid mode, you are using either the engine or the electric motors,” says Walliser. “But not both at the same time.”
Okay, this is a lot better than E-Power, for sure, but this lap is really another familiarization exercise. I detect a note of patience in Walliser’s voice, as though there is much more to come.
It feels like the exhaust pipes are coming out of the back of your head
Lap three, and I’m in Sport Hybrid mode. The V-8 is operating continuously, and the electric motors are lending a hand as needed. The exhaust is crackling through the huge “top pipes” that are mere inches from our heads.
Yes, the exhaust pipes are on top of the car, not at the back. This sounds as cool as it looks and looks as cool as it sounds. However, Walliser’s team had to devise a little detachable carbon-fiber wing which affixes to the top of the windshield header when the roof panels are removed, to direct enough air to prevent exhaust gases and hot air from making their way into the cabin. Oh, the problems that supercar engineers must solve.
Lap four, and I’ve dialed in Race Hybrid mode. “You will notice that the upshifts are much faster now,” Walliser tells me. Indeed. In this mode, the batteries are doing everything they can to help you drive like hell, rather than helping you be efficient. I like this.
By now, I’ve learned to feather the brake pedal just so, and I’ve come to savor the sounds the 918 makes under hard braking: first, the high-frequency whirring of the regenerative electric motors, followed by the particular grinding of the ceramic brake rotors. Nice. I’ve also become pretty adept at using the shift paddles.
If it’s a Porsche, then the rear end should be loose
Race Hybrid mode’s increased power combined with my increased familiarity with the car and the track leads me to overcook it in a tight left-hander, and the stability control steps in decidedly but gently. Some opposite lock and we’re once again aimed directly at the rear end of Long’s 911 Turbo S, as we should be. Walliser seems pleased. “The stability control is the same no matter what mode you’re in,” he says. “It gives you advice on where to go, and that’s it.”
Our Porsche duo is now moving pretty fast. I’m driving just as hard as I can to keep Long in view, although I’m sure he’s barely breaking a sweat. (Driving in his wake reminds me of big-city marathons I’ve run: the world-class athlete is in front, and I’m way behind, digging into my fanny pack for an energy gel.) Either the brakes seem to have smoothed out or my application of the pedal has (probably the latter, but Walliser admits that state of battery charge, grip level, and speed all can slightly affect brake pedal feedback). The steering is totally pure and accurate. Grip and body control are phenomenal. The sound of the V-8 and the exhaust is now overlaid with tires and brakes and the PDK downshifting and upshifting. I am having a very good time.
Give me all 887 hp and 944 lb-ft, would you?
Four laps are over and we are coming back onto the front straight. “Push the red button in the center of the switch,” Walliser tells me. This engages all of the remaining battery power to provide a few very fast laps. The 918 is totally alive and I’m really driving hard. The car sounds amazing, a rich mixture of whirring and regenerating motors and raw, metallic internal combustion.
We pull into the pits and my pulse subsides and I realize that, really, the Porsche 918 Spyder is equally exhilarating and easy to drive. I’ve had little of the anxiety I’ve had in other Porsches, such as the 911 GT2. I’ve never driven a Porsche Carrera GT, but I have to believe the 918 is more accessible for a driver like me.
Launch control & a hot lap: Patrick Long takes the wheel
As we’re finishing lunch in a paddock suite, Porsche Cars North America president Detlev von Platen jokes that the launch-control exercise coming up is perhaps ill-timed. A few minutes later, I climb over the wide, carbon-fiber sill on the passenger’s side of the 918 and settle into the leather bucket seat. Patrick Long is going to demonstrate the car’s launch control, then do a hot lap of the track.
“Are you going to be okay with this?” he asks.
“Oh, sure,” I reply. “I have no problem with hot laps.”
Long revs the V-8, releases the brake pedal, and we catapult forward. My abdominal organs feel like they have been shot through the seatback and into the engine compartment. I’ve never felt launch control like this before. I pride myself on having an incredibly strong stomach, but I’m wondering if this was such a great idea.
Out on the track, Long is working the car, oh, about twice as hard as I had been. When we’re on the long, back straight, I glance over and see 170 mph on the speedo. The highest I’d seen when I was driving was 135 mph, a paltry speed for this car. We pull back into the pits and I stumble out of the 918, clutching my gut.
On the fastest road in Texas
Circuit of the Americas is conveniently located near the new stretch of I-35 where the posted speed limit is 85 mph. Naturally, I head for the interstate in the 918. Hey, I can go 100 mph in the 918 Spyder, and I’ll be only 15 mph over the speed limit.
I twist the dial between Sport Hybrid and Race Hybrid modes and alternately mash the accelerator and brake pedals. I want to hear the V-8. I want to go 125 mph. But then I lose my nerve and start imagining a roadside chat with the police, so I scrub off 40 mph. I repeat this process a half dozen times.
Out here on the road, the 2015 Porsche 918 Spyder is pretty noisy. The car’s carbon-fiber structure amplifies every sound: road, wind, tire, engine, electric motors. It’s not unbearable, but it’s noticeable. Good thing there’s an eleven-speaker Burmester stereo. How did they stuff eleven speakers into this cabin? “It wasn’t easy,” Walliser admits.
My brief time in the 918 Spyder is over, but I cannot complain. It’s likely we will meet again, and even if we don’t, I’ve driven a car, hard, that very few people ever will. Today, I’ve learned that this sports car, this incredibly complex melding of technology, expertise, and corporate ambition, lives up to the hype. It’s a real Porsche. It just happens to be a Porsche of the future, available today.
2015 Porsche 918 Spyder Specifications
Base Price: $847,975
Engine: 32-valve DOHC V-8/plug-in electric hybrid
Displacement: 4.6 liters (280 cu in)
Power: 608 hp @ 8700 rpm
Torque: 390 lb-ft @ 6600 rpm
Motors: Two permanent-magnet AC synchronous
Electric output: 129/156 hp (front/rear axle)
Batteries: 6.8-kWh lithium-ion
Total output: 887 hp
Transmission: 7-speed automatic
Steering: Electrically assisted
Front suspension: Control arms, coil springs
Rear suspension: Multilink, coil springs
Brakes: Vented carbon-ceramic discs
Tires: Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2
Tire sizes F, R: 265/35R-20 (95Y), 325/30R-21 (104Y)
L x W x H: 182.8 x 76.4 x 45.9 in
Wheelbase: 107.5 in
Track F/R: 65.5/63.5 in
Weight: 3715 lb
Weight dist. F/R: 43/57%
0–60 mph: 2.5 sec
Top speed: 214 mph
Electric-only 0–62 mph: 6.2 sec
Electric-only top speed: 93 mph
Electric range: 18 miles
Charge times: 7 hours at 120V, 2 hours at 240V, 0.4 hour at 400V