First Drive: 2013 Porsche Panamera GTS

Mainstream cars keep getting more homogenous. Volkswagen has reduced the number of build combinations for Jetta from 148 to fourteen. Sedans like the Toyota Corolla are sold in huge numbers with just one engine. And even the bestselling car in America, the Toyota Camry, is available with your choice of only three powertrains.

Contrast that with the Porsche Panamera: it now has eight powertrain variations. Eight! For a car that sells as many in a year as Toyota sells Camrys in a good week. And it's not just Porsche offering powertrain overload -- the Mercedes-Benz S-Class has seven, the BMW 7-series six. And that's not counting short- and long-wheelbase versions of their chassis. As choices for the rest of us become more and more limited, for the one-percenters who want to differentiate themselves from one another, life just keeps getting better.

Porsche is particularly masterful at wedging new variants into extremely narrow slices, and the Panamera GTS takes the slot, horsepower-wise, between the Panamera 4S and the Panamera Turbo. Using the 4S as a starting point, it adds some off-the-shelf parts from the Turbo, a few unique bits, and lots of blacked-out trim to create a new model Porsche claims is the "purest expression of a sports sedan." Of course, you could argue that a rear-wheel drive, manual-transmission Panamera might fit that description better -- hello, BMW M5 -- but here the word "pure" takes on a different meaning.

The GTS is available solely with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic, all-wheel drive, and an upgraded version of the direct-injected, 4.8-liter V-8 that we know from the Pamanera 4S. In GTS form, the high-compression, short-stroke powerplant receives bespoke intake camshafts with revised profiles (12 mm of lift instead of eleven) and the ten-percent-stiffer valve springs from the Turbo's engine. Engine breathing is improved on both the intake side and exhaust side, which combined with software changes, is enough for 30 additional horsepower and 15 more lb-ft of torque. The 430 hp peak is achieved at 6700 rpm; that's the 4S's engine redline but the GTS's modifications allow it to rev to 7100. At the top half of the rev range (anywhere over 3500 rpm), the V-8 breathes through two additional air filters with intakes located low in the GTS's bespoke front fascia, providing a ram-air effect at high speeds.

The all-wheel drive system from the 4S is unmodified, but the PDK transmission shifts more aggressively, and unique engine calibration works to keep a pre-load on the driveline to minimize lash. In normal and Sport driving modes, the powertrain computers cut ignition and fuel more aggressively to drop the engine speed more quickly during shifts -- and indeed it's fascinating to watch the needle in the large, center-mounted tachometer. Under moderate acceleration, shifts are absolutely imperceptible to your backside, and yet the needle drops so quickly it's hard to believe it's not all simulated.

Sport Plus mode is particularly aggressive, foregoing the cylinder deactivation under full-throttle shifts and instead slamming the clutches between the gears to make use of the engine's rotational inertia. Or, in other words, it power-shifts each gear -- and combined with launch control's brutal clutch-dump, it helps give the GTS a 4.3-second sprint to 60 mph, 0.3 seconds faster than the 4S. The extra power at the top of the rev range also bumps top speed from 175 mph to 178 mph.

The GTS gets the Turbo's brakes, and in standard mode rides 0.4 inches lower than the 4S, with a stiffer calibration. (The standard air suspension lowers the car a further 0.6 inches when in Sport Plus mode -- to the same ride height as 4S models in that mode.) PASM adaptive dampers are also included, as is PTV, Porsche's brake-based system that activates a rear brake on turn-in to help rotate the car.

How does it all add up? On the road, the GTS still rides well, though the combination of stiffer suspension calibration and twenty-inch wheels calls attention to some chassis flex we hadn't noticed in other variants. Hatchback bodies, which lack a structural crossmember at the rear seats, are often less rigid than sedans, and the price for the Panamera's highly useful cargo hold is some cowl shake and steering-column shudder. Let the record state, however, that there is certainly no penalty in the handling department -- the GTS attacks corners with sports car reflexes and grip. Body roll is freakishly absent, and this Panamera's overall body control is absolutely second to none. It turns in with zero reluctance -- almost like a mid-engine sports car -- and displays very good overall balance. The GTS will understeer significantly in some situations (high-speed, off-camber corners, for example), but its rear end is willing to dance if you ask it to -- say, with a quick flick of the steering wheel or a well-timed lift of the accelerator pedal.

After multiple laps of Spain's Ascari race track, where we recently spent time in the new BMW M5, our Panamera GTS -- equipped with the optional PCCB ceramic brakes -- experienced not a whiff of brake fade. Watching the video footage provided by a Video VBox, we see that the Michelin Pilot Sport tires provided enough grip to sustain 1g of cornering force around most of the bends. And they didn't make a sound no matter how far we exceeded their grip level.

In Sport Plus, Porsche's stability control system, PSM, interfered not one bit with fast lapping. It didn't do much to mitigate understeer, but it also didn't scrub off unnecessary speed if the rear end happened to come around. It is brilliantly calibrated and truly earns its title as a driver aid, rather than an electronic nanny.

On track, as on road, the GTS's only glaring fault as a driver's car is steering that provides zero feedback.

We had two complaints about our tester that are fixable: inscrutable steering-wheel-spoke-mounted shift buttons and optional heated and cooled seats that were too narrow and too hard and didn't provide enough lateral support. Luckily, the GTS comes standard with far more comfortable and supportive sport seats (which are also surprisingly narrow), and a steering wheel with actual paddles (left paddle for downshifts, right for upshifts.)

Other than some GTS badging, the interior is an assemblage of off-the-shell optional Panamera items, and our comments about other Panameras still apply. That means we love the gorgeous interior, though there are many similarly sized buttons that don't enhance usability. The LCD screen integrated into the round gauges is an awesome touch, and the Panamera's sound systems are fantastic. The broad choice of interior colors is great, but light colors create distracting reflections on the windshield. And though the cabin is narrow, the back seats offer vast headroom and more than enough legroom for a quartet of adults.

The power and handling, more aggressive front fascia, and blacked-out trim are all well and good, but the Panamera GTS's best quality over the 4S is actually something that doesn't add much to performance: the Sound Symposer and the sound of exhaust. Comprised of two membrane-sealed tubes connecting the intake manifolds to the base of the A-pillars, the Sound Symposer pipes the V-8's nasal intake honk directly into the cabin at a press of a button. That same button opens up a bypass on the exhaust, and the combination turns the GTS from a quiet kitty into a snarling lion. The sound alone is worth the price of admission, and after hearing its roar, we couldn't bring ourselves to drive the GTS in quiet mode.

Nothing against all the other changes -- they're great -- but it's the sound that really sets the GTS apart from lesser Panamera models -- and the Turbo. The GTS starts up with a Ferrari-like BWAAP of violent exhaust snarl and hard acceleration will certainly turn heads. Porsche even programmed in some popping on overrun, it's fantastic. This might be the perfect Panamera for the one percent of the one percenters who want to set off car alarms as they drive by. Now that's a niche product.


2013 Porsche Panamera GTS

Price: $110,875
On Sale: Now

Engine: DOHC V-8
Displacement: 4.8 liters
Power: 430 hp @ 6700 rpm
Torque: 384 lb-ft @ 3500 rpm
Transmission: 7-speed automated manual
Drive: all-wheel

Chassis
Steering: Power assisted
Suspension, front: Multilink, adaptive air springs, active dampers
Suspension, rear: Multilink, adaptive air springs, active dampers
Brakes: Vented discs, ABS
Tires: 255/45R19 front, 285/40R19 rear
Wheels: 19 x 9 inch front, 19 x 10 inch rear

Measurements
L x W x H:
195.7 x 76.0 x 55.4 in
Wheelbase: 114.9 in
Curb weight: 4232 lbs
Cargo space (rear seats up/down): 15.7/44.6 cu ft
Fuel capacity: 26.4 gal
Fuel mileage: N/A
0-60 mph: 4.3 sec

Sideways the Seven
Very nice car but I don't really get the need for a GTS variant. Either way, I'm sure they will sell.

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