CAPE TOWN, South Africa — What is a Porsche? Not so very long ago this was a pretty straightforward question. But as the range has grown ever outwards (and upwards), Porsche has played with our expectations. They’ve used all that lovely 911 and sports car heritage to sell us the dream of sporty versions of inherently unsporting machines. By and large it’s worked, too. The Cayenne is pretty spectacular, the Macan displays agility and balance that seems at odds with its brief, and the Panamera skillfully combines luxury with genuine driving thrills if you go looking for them. Maybe all that navel gazing “is it really a Porsche?” nonsense is a debate that’s dead and buried.
Well, maybe. Clearly none of these cars truly has the strands of 911 DNA that Porsche loves to crow about, but it’s equally true that deep down they all have a unique sense of cohesion and engineering depth that characterizes this extraordinary company. Porsche gambled with the Cayenne and ever since we’ve all been winners. The 911 gets better, the Cayman and Boxster remain almost without any credible rivals, and every new model line has real dynamic ability. And so that brings us to Porsche’s new plug-in: the 2018 Porsche Panamera 4 E-Hybrid. Same story, right?
On paper everything looks good. The E-Hybrid combines a 2.9-liter, twin turbocharged V-6 with 330 hp at 5,250-6,500 rpm and 331 lb-ft of torque from 1,750-5,000 rpm with an electric motor rated at 136 hp and 295 lb-ft. The maximum combined output is 462 hp at 6000 rpm and 516 lb ft from 1,100-4,500 rpm. That’s enough to haul this 4,784-pound sedan from 0 to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds and on to 172 mph. It can also cover as much as 31 miles on the European cycle on electric power alone and can touch as high as 86 mph without using its gas engine. (The electric range as defined by the EPA is yet to be announced.)
The Panamera E-Hybrid also features the Sport Chrono package, allowing you to switch between E-Power, Hybrid Auto, Sport, and Sport Plus settings via the rotary dial located beneath the right spoke of the steering wheel. Air suspension with three baseline settings is also standard equipment. For comparison, those two items are optional on the Panamera 4S – which has a little less power than the E-Hybrid at 440 hp and 405 lb ft – and yet at $99,600 the E-Hybrid is actually $300 cheaper than the 4S. Okay, so the 4S is lighter by some 661 pounds and actually scoots to 60 mph even quicker at 4 seconds flat, but the E-Hybrid surely has it covered for sheer breadth of ability?
Sweeping through the congested road network of Cape Town and heading to the simply awe-inspiring beauty beyond, confidence is high. We’re fully charged up (the liquid cooled 14.1 kWh lithium ion battery is located beneath the trunk floor. It takes 12.5 hours to charge via a 120-volt system or just 2.4 hours with the optional 7.2 kW on-board charger with a 240-volt connection) and the E-Hybrid is serene. The air suspension has a lovely long travel feel but with tight control, the steering is much lighter than the last generation Panamera but that only adds to the effortlessness of progress, and the outstanding new interior radiates a sense of well-being. All very Porsche.
At least until you brake. Oh dear… the pedal feel is very strange indeed. As you begin to push down it seems feather light with zero retardation. Then you hit a lumpy, inconsistent part of its arc that makes it feel like you’re juddering into the ABS on a gravel surface. Of course you’re not — it’s the braking system juggling electrical regen and the mechanical action of pads biting into discs. Despite having melded this process into a clean, intuitive weight and travel in the sublime 918 Spyder, on the Panamera 4 E-Hybrid it feels all wrong. Just then the usually impeccable PDK gearbox clunks in a shift as the engine wakes up to join the fray. Not very Porsche at all.
We drive on and slowly escape the city’s ecosystem of ragged little pickups and mini-buses and a sense of decorum returns. You can adjust to the strange sensation of the brake pedal with time and practice and the PDK is largely on its best behavior. Hybrid Auto mode works well as the speed picks up, the car switching between electric power alone and boosted internal combustion engine pretty quietly. Unlike the last hybrid Panamera, this car feels muscular all the time, too. The old model required 80-percent throttle opening before the electric motor would step in to assist acceleration, but in the new car it’s always ready and 516 lb-ft is just the flex of a toe away. Incidentally, if you go into the menu system there are two more sub-settings when in Hybrid Auto mode – E-Hold and E-Charge. The first essentially avoids depleting the electrical energy so you can anticipate your arrival in a city and have a fully-charged battery, while E-Charge uses the car’s twin-turbo six to help quickly top off the system.
As the landscape opens and the road starts to bunch up, it’s time to poke beneath the refinement to see how deep the E-Hybrid’s quality runs. That means selecting Sport Plus, setting the dampers to their firmest setting, and using the electric energy for boost rather than efficiency. I like to change gears manually in these situations and the PDK delivers quick shifts on request. Body control is good, grip almost unshakeable and the car is always composed and unhurried. However, you feel that weight through slightly dulled responses and the sheer effort required to haul the car back down to sensible speeds for corner entry.
An S-Class or 7 Series couldn’t hope to tackle these roads with such speed and composure, but while the E-Hybrid is impressive, there’s no real sense of fun or engagement. The engine doesn’t sparkle at all, the balance resists understeer but doesn’t feel keen to move to your inputs, and somehow it feels like the car is tolerating your behavior rather than encouraging it. And when the battery is depleted the claimed 462 horses feel a long way out of reach… the boost is fleeting and rather half-hearted. You’ve no choice but to wind it all back down to Hybrid Auto mode and then select E-Charge. It’s time to get off these amazing roads that ebb and flow with the landscape and find the highway back to Cape Town.
Sure enough, the Panamera is ready to run on that eerily effective electric power alone by the time the city comes into view. The seats are cooling my back, the 12.3-inch widescreen infotainment setup works wonderfully, and the locals love the Panamera’s shape and are full of smiles as it slips quietly along. It’s a pretty remarkable sedan and there’s no doubting it combines luxury and immense ground covering ability like nothing else. But is it a Porsche? The purist in me says no. Way too heavy, too inert, and just not the fine polish to the controls that you’d expect. Usually I try to strangle the purist in me and accept that the Cayenne/Macan/Panamera I’m driving is just too good to fall victim to philosophical arguments. But for once that little annoying voice screaming about feel, precision and attention to detail won’t go away. He’s right, dammit. My advice is to stick to the lighter, more agile, more joyous, and more authentic Panamera 4S.
2018 Porsche Panamera 4 E-Hybrid Specifications
On Sale: Summer 2017
Engine: 2.9L twin-turbo DOHC 24-valve V-6, 330 hp at 5,250-6,500 rpm, 331 lb-ft from 1,750-5,000 rpm, plus electric motor rated at 136 hp and 295 lb-ft. Combined output 462 hp at 6,000 rpm and 516 lb-ft at 1,100-4,500 rpm
Transmission: 8-speed dual clutch automatic
Layout: 4-door, 4-passenger, front engine, AWD sedan
EPA Mileage: N/A
L x W x H: 198.8 x 85.2 x 56.0 in
Wheelbase: 116.1 in
Weight: 4,784 lb
0-60 MPH: 4.4 sec
Top Speed: 172 mph