It can take decades or longer to establish that most elusive of things in the automobile business, a desirable brand, and it’s no mean feat when it works. And no mean feats were the Porsche 356 and 911, which did most of the heavy lifting over the second half of the 20th century to cement the brand in the world’s popular imagination as the focused maker of efficient, quality sports cars. (Admittedly, they had help along the way from the less iconic but still worthy 914, 924/944/968, and 928.)
Yet it’s fair to say that for all these years of supreme focus and the continuing existence of glorious, more or less true to brand principle sports cars—Boxster, Cayman and 911—the meaning and financial raison d’etre of the Porsche brand has morphed wildly in the 21st century. A couple of weeks spent driving first a Porsche Macan GTS (a close relation of the Audi Q5 but exclusively expensive at $85,000 as tested,) and then a Panamera Turbo Sport Turismo (the four-door luxury sports wagon with an eye-watering price tag of $174,730) reminded us of how much has changed.
These cars are not just pricey and quick. To be specific, 4.4 seconds to 60 mph for the Macan, which is powered by a 360-horsepower twin-turbo V-6. A brutal 3.0 seconds will occupy the Panamera on the way to sixty, which has a 550-horsepower twin turbo V-8 to call on, though even more rapid acceleration is available at extra cost in a Panamera hybrid. Both Macan and Panamera ride and handle well, though we’ll never tire (geddit?!) of pointing out that a compromised ride comes free with every set of 20-inch rims. We’re not confident it’s worth whatever alleged benefit giant wheels provide in the good looks department, but obviously the market has decided otherwise.
These Porsches are screwed together nicely and they seem to catch peoples’ attention as we pass by, which many owners will enjoy. Inside, gauge faces, graphics and other interfaces remind us of Porsches we’ve known and loved. A center console containing dozens of vehicle character, comfort, and infotainment controls strikes an unusual note, though. The aircraft-like array of buttons adds to the sense of occasion when you approach these Porsches to climb in, sit-down, and prepare to drive off. Its all placed just ahead of where your right arm might rest and, if viewed rationally, it seems at great risk of damage and extreme customer disadvantage, financially speaking, should a Diet Pepsi or coffee lose its way. Still, it looks cool.
And yet for all that, and whatever else these amazing Porsches are, they are not sport cars. They’re a different kind of Porsche. The kind that handles surprisingly well and goes surprisingly fast for a car that weighs over two tons (close to 4,200 pounds, in the Macan’s case, and 4,500 pounds for the Panamera.) The Macan rides high. The Panamera rides lower, but it’s bigger. They’re large cars and put their bulk together with the knowledge that SUVs provide the bulk of Porsche sales, and you see how they underscore the fact that the brand—now largely dependent on SUVs with platforms it shares with VW and its legion other brands—has completely changed its ethos. Indeed, it’s hard to think of another brand where the difference in product character has been so rapid or intense. It’s like the friend that went away for the summer and came home fat.
While we admire so much of what Porsche does and has done, we miss the past and wonder what it stands for today? “We’re the ‘heavy cars of more or less conventional design that go surprisingly fast and handle surprisingly well for cars that weigh a lot and get around 20 mpg if they’re lucky’ people?” It’s something to be, I guess. But I’m hoping based on the swiftness of the brand’s transition from sports car company to SUV company, that when Porsche performs its next quick change act—as its promised to do with a new range of electric cars—it switches back to something efficient, technologically advanced, and fun to drive just as easily.