Leipzig, Germany. It is raining cats and dogs from the pewter skies that brush Porsche’s test track adjoining the marque’s second assembly site. Tension, excitement, uncertainty, and suspense describe the atmosphere in the pit lane. A squadron of Porsche engineers, test drivers, and helpers is mingling with eighteen journalists who gather around two cars: one battered series-one mule and one almost production-ready prototype -- a hand-built, matte-black Weissach edition model worth around 3 million euros (production cars with the Weissach package will start at $929,000; base 918 Spyders start at $845,000). Towering above the crowd is the lanky posture of Walter Röhrl, an icon in his own right. “Anyone ready for a ride?” he asks. Sure. Walter’s race taxi is a white Porsche 911 GT3 RS 4.0 fitted with a roll cage and semi-slicks. The hoarse and hairy howler hates wet weather: power oversteer, lift-off oversteer, aquaplaning-induced no-more-steer. After only one lap, we’re back in the paddock. First, they close the bus stop chicane (inspired by Spa), and then the Corkscrew (inspired by Laguna Seca) is coned off. Go or no go? Just before lunch, the chiefs give us the thumbs up. At last, the countdown is running.
We’re number two. Only four laps per participant. No special requests, no photography, no leeway. Stuffing oneself behind the relatively large steering wheel isn’t easy when your parents fed you well, but eventually the big body bonds with the bucket seat via a three-point belt. My passenger, senior project manager Dr. Frank-Steffen Walliser, deserves a medal for being so calm and courageous. The first attempt to get us going—fails. Click, clunk, silence. “Try again.” I twist the key, push the gear selector into Drive, and - voilà! - the 918 whirs forward, as mute as a fish. The 3615-pound Porsche enters the track, still gaining noiseless momentum. In E-mode, the Spyder can accelerate from 0 to 62 mph in 7.9 seconds and up to a zero-emissions maximum speed of 94 mph. As soon as you push the throttle past a detent, however, all hell brakes loose and the two-seater turns into a rocket ship. At least as awe-inspiring as the very physical forward thrust is the shock of noise. Composer Richard Wagner, who was born in Leipzig, would have loved it.
Once the V-8 has made itself felt and heard, it refuses to go back to sleep. This is not a smooth operator like the 4.8-liter unit fitted to the Cayenne and the Panamera. Instead, the flat-crank dry-sump engine was sourced from the victorious Le Mans Series monoposto, where NVH is not an issue. In the 918, the 4.6-liter powerhouse behaves like a just-captured lion in a too-small cage. It assaults your auditory channels with its aggressive induction, coarse combustion, and eruptive exhaust. This engine kicks and pulls and pushes, and it refuses to disclose a single smooth-running sweet spot because refinement never was part of the agenda. We drive for about thirty seconds in hybrid mode, which is fine for country roads but definitely the wrong choice for the track. There is no point in coasting from one chicane to the next, nor are we interested in premature super-smooth upshifts in Drive. Instead, this car is all about white knuckles, wet palms, focused eyes, exposed nerves, and a throbbing heart. So let’s go for it by twisting the map switch, which unfortunately is not as intuitive or as easy to operate with the right thumb as Ferrari’s manettino.
Sport mode totally transforms the character of the Porsche. The shift time shrinks to 80 milliseconds, the adjustable wing suddenly looms large in the rear-view mirror, the engine is now running permanently, and E-boost is available for up to 20 seconds. Although an extra 285 hp is waiting to be unleashed, this program does not yet trigger the full KERS effect. It also shifts up at relatively conservative rpms, and the battery strategy is devoted to charge conservation. In the rain and on those custom Michelins with minimal tread depth, Sport is nonetheless keen enough to dry one’s throat on the long main straight where the speedometer reads 218 km/h (135 mph) at the 150-meter braking sign. Normally, we would have shifted into third at 9150 rpm just before the start-finish line, but with the wipers working overtime it is essential to brake early. Says Dr. Walliser: “Unlike any other hybrid car, the 918 will recuperate even when ABS is active. The transition between electric and hydraulic deceleration is totally unnoticeable. Despite a maximum brake recuperation of 0.5g, the brake pedal feel always remains the same.” This breakthrough was achieved with a lot of help from Bosch, which invented a new system that combines an active brake fluid volume reservoir with an electro-mechanical brake assistant. While the active volume reservoir reduces the brake pressure during recuperation, the assistant adjusts the electric brake force. The process is called brake blending, and it is bound to give Ferrari and McLaren some food for thought.
Since the stability control is more laissez-faire in Sport, the fat tail keeps making moves that might cause panic attacks in lesser automobiles. But not so in the super hybrid from Weissach, which can be corrected with a flick of the wheel. At 2.25 turns from lock to lock, the steering is commendably quick. Like the 991 GT3 and the Turbo, the Spyder—which more accurately should be badged Targa—is fitted with adaptive electro-mechanical rear-wheel steering. Its effect is not immediately apparent, but then I am far too busy trying to keep the car on the road, occasionally glance at the instruments, and listening to the instructions from the passenger seat. “Go for it!” commanded Mister 918 as we entered the 85-mph right-hander, ESP snarling, traction control biting, rear-wheel steering helping out front-wheel steering, V-8 pushing and e-motor pulling. Whoever claimed that hybrids are dull and defensive should try this triple-engined masterpiece. “It may not feel that fast,” offers Walliser, “but believe me, in today’s weather conditions, we would have spun three or four times already in the GT3 RS 4.0, and we would have been quite a bit slower.”
Lap number three, and the pointer is switched to Race. The car is in full fighting mode now: shift times are down to 50 milliseconds, 275 electric horses are ready to boost for up to 30 seconds, gear changes are conducted at high rpm in Drive, the ESP/ASR threshold is even lower, the tail rudder is in runway position, and the nasal air intakes are wide open. Right now, the 918 is creating more than twice as much downforce as the GT3 RS 4.0. At the same time, the zone between carving and sliding has narrowed even further. Diligent torque feed is absolutely critical now, but it is easier said than done when your right foot controls more than 590 lb-ft all the way from 800 to 5000 rpm. “You can switch off stability control,” suggests the fearless R&D chief. “First, you deactivate ESP. Then you disable traction control.” Thanks, but no thanks. I just remembered that Porsche has very recently increased the aggregate power output rating from 795 to 887 hp in order to move in on LaFerrari and the P1. At the same time, the company announced the latest set of performance figures: 0 to 62 mph in 2.8 seconds, 0 to 125 mph in 7.9 seconds, 0 to 188 mph in 23.0 seconds, and a top speed in excess of 213 mph. The only phony number given is an average fuel economy of 85.6 mpg. This unlikely rating is due to the New European Driving Cycle (NEDC), which doesn’t take into account the electric energy required to fully charge the battery pack. In reality, a leisurely driven 918 would return about 35 mpg, a brisk pace might bring that down to 25 mpg, and an unlimited autobahn run could drag that figure as low as 20 mpg. Compared with its predecessor, however, the new Porsche is a real economizer, eclipsing the V-10-engined Carrera GT by up to 50 percent.
By mid-afternoon, the rain has finally moved off and the track is beginning to dry. This is a good time to take a closer look at car number 25, which is fitted with the optional Weissach pack. For $84,000, it deletes the air conditioning and the radio while adding lighter magnesium wheels and even more carbon fiber. The total weight saving amounts to 88 pounds. Every little detail counts: wrap instead of paint, Alcantara instead of leather, ceramic wheel bearings, brake pads with titanium backing plates, no glove box, smaller carpets, lighter shift paddles. The test car is fitted with the so-called Salzburg design inspired by an early 917. Too flashy? Then opt for the liquid metal paint and for power seats trimmed in open-pore authentic leather.
Theoretically, the trunk holds 3.9 cubic feet, but as soon as you take off the roof panels, cargo space is exactly zero. The new state-of-the-art infotainment system is too complex to get acquainted with in a few hot laps, but we do familiarize ourselves with the multifunctional steering wheel, which features a pair of practical thumbwheels as well as the aforementioned map switch. Also attached to the helm are the buttons for the cruise control, the manual shift program, and favorite instant access items like the home telephone number.
We ask Walliser what the main issues were during the 918’s very short development period. “The vibrations caused by the V-8 engine; the stability of the extremely sensitive high-voltage electrical system; and, of course, the integration of three different propulsion sources.” Just as a reminder, the 608-hp 4.6-liter V-8 is mated to a 156-hp electric motor that also drives the rear wheels. A second electric module positioned between the front wheels is rated at 129 hp. Together, the three power packs distribute up to 940 lb-ft of torque to all four wheels. Fed by 312 lithium-ion batteries, the electric motors offer a zero-emissions range of up to 20 miles. The plug-in process in your home garage takes about four hours; an available quick-charge DC wall box completes a full charge in only 25 minutes. There is a four-year warranty on the car and a seven-year warranty on the batteries. According to Porsche, servicing costs are about on par with those of a 911 Turbo.
Are we ready for a second set of hot laps? This time, the tarmac is bone dry, but the tires (size 265/35ZR-20 and 325/30ZR-21) are sizzling hot and pockmarked. It’s lap sixty for the prototype. We’re in Race mode again, going much quicker than before and with a near-zero margin of error. The learning process continues, corner by corner, from one driving maneuver to the next. Push the foot towards the firewall and brace yourself for a time-warp boost masterminded by the torque-vectoring black box. Front-wheel drive is gradually phased out as the velocity increases until, at 147 mph, the Porsche becomes 100 percent rear-wheel drive. Although the dampers will switch to firm on request, the Spyder always cruises with all senses on alert. An excursion to the limit is memorable in more ways than one as the car scrapes, snarls, twitches, kicks and finally regains its balance. The carbon-ceramic brakes steam and crackle and smell of hard work, but they do not fade and the pedal is as easy to modulate as a spoon swooshing through chocolate mousse.
At the end of lap four, the tires are well and truly gone, the battery has relinquished 18 percent of its charge, and the driver looks like a drenched wharf rat. This is, without a doubt, one of the best days in my life as a motoring journalist. What a car! If it weren’t too late, I would marry rich or sell my soul to the devil just to get my hands on the most desirable contemporary Porsche. Who would have thought that a plug-in hybrid could be this much fun? Who would have guessed that a vehicle could cross the city of Leipzig without burning a single drop of fuel and then lap the Ring at close to or even less than seven minutes? Who would believe that, six months before the launch, only 387 of the 918 limited-edition Spyders are spoken for? So, dear millionaires, do not fret if you missed out on LaFerrari and the P1; the 918 Spyder is still available at list price. And at the end of the day, when we conduct that definitive comparison test, the underdog from Weissach may well be the car to beat.
Body: Carbon fiber reinforced plastics (CFRP) monocoque interlocked with CFRP unitcarrier; two-piece Targa roof; fixed roll-over protection Drivetrain: Parallel full hybrid 4.6-liter V8 mid-engine with dry-sump lubrication; hybrid module with electric motor and decoupler; electric motor with decoupler and gear unit on front axle; auto start/stop function; electrical system recuperation; four cooling circuits for motors, transmission and battery; thermal management. Engine power: 608 hp at 8,600/min (V8 engine) 154 hp (hybrid module on rear axle) 127 hp (electric motor on front axle) 887 hp (combined) Max. torque: 390 lb.-ft. at 6,600/min (V8 engine) 940 lb.-ft. (equivalent torque calculated on the crankshaft, complete system in 7th gear) 787 lb.-ft. (complete system, 3rd gear) > 590 lb.-ft. (800/min – 5,000/min) Maximum Revs: 9,150 rpm Power output per l: 133 hp/l (V8 engine) Power transmission: Combustion engine with hybrid module and transmission bolted together to form a single drive unit; seven-speed dual-clutch transmission; rear-wheel drive; front electric motor with gearbox for driving the front wheels (decoupled from 146 mph); five pre-selectable operating modes for optimum coordination of all drive units. Gear ratios PDK 1st gear 3.91 2nd gear 2.29 3rd gear 1.58 4th gear 1.19 5th gear 0.97 6th gear 0.83 7th gear 0.67 R gear 3.55 Final drive ratio 3.09 Clutch diameter 8.7 in. / 6.5 in. Chassis and Suspension: Double-wishbone front axle; optional electro-pneumatic lift system on front axle; electro-mechanicalpower steering; multilink rear axle with adaptive electro-mechanical system for individual rear wheel steering; electronically controlled twin-tube gas-pressure dampers in the front and rear with Porsche Active Suspension Management (PASM). Brake system: High-performance hybrid brake system with adaptive recuperation; internally ventilated and perforatedfront ceramic brake discs (PCCB), 16 in. in diameter and 1.4 in. thick; rear discs 15.4 in diameter and 1.3 in. thick. Wheels and tires: front 9.5 J x 20 with 265/35 ZR 20 rear 12.5 J x 21 with 325/30 ZR 21 Curb Weight: 3,715 pounds (Weissach Package: 3,616 pounds) Dimensions: Length 182.8 in. Width 76.4 in. Height 45.9 in. Wheelbase 107.5 in. Track width front 65.5 in. rear 63.5 in. Luggage compartment capacity, VDA ~ 110 l Fuel tank capacity 18.5 gal Energy supply: Lithium-ion battery with 6.8 kWh capacity (BOL nominal), 220 kW maximum power and mains-compatible plug-in charger. Performance: Top speed > 211 mph purely electric 93 mph Acceleration: 0-62 mph 2.8 s 0-60 mph less than 2.8 s 0-62 mph (in electric mode) 7.0 s 0-124 mph (0-200 km/h) 7.9 s 0-186 mph (0-300 km/h) 23.0 s Range: Purely electric approx. 18 mi Warranty: Vehicle (Battery) 4 years (7 years) Charging times: AC charging on a household socket (110 V, 10 A): less than 7 hours AC charging on an industrial socket (240 V, 30 A): less than 2 hours DC charging on an industrial socket (400 V, 32 A): less than 0.5 hours.