CAPE TOWN, South Africa — The hunchback from Zuffenhausen, also known as the Porsche Panamera, is no more. The new 2017 Porsche Panamera—it goes on sale in the U.S. in early 2017—is a brand-new design based on the Volkswagen Group’s trend-setting Modular Standard Platform (MSB) architecture, and in early 2019 the Panamera will also come in station wagon form. What’s it like? To get an early taste, we traveled the roads north of Cape Town, South Africa, land of ancient post-colonial tarmac, freshly sealed freeways, and dirt trails dusted with the world’s finest red sand. Our convoy consists of five cars and three different Panamera versions: the beefed-up, 422-hp, all-wheel-drive V-8 diesel, the V6-engined 440-hp 4S, and the top-of-the-range 550-hp turbo. (Note: all power, torque, and performance figures cited in this story are unofficial until final certification occurs.)
Like the original Cayenne, the first-generation Panamera was not pretty. Rumor has it that Porsche’s then-CEO, Wendelin Wiedeking, had a personal interest in the crooked raised roof; it allowed his broad frame to fit comfortably in the rear seat. At the same time, the cargo deck had to grow and grow again until it would hold four golf bags, allegedly mandatory in these circles. The result was a humpback whale on wheels: wide and low and, at up to 4,700-plus pounds, every bit as heavy as it looked.
Still, though its packaging was compromised in places, the Panamera dynamically outgunned its rivals from day one, and the Porsche badge made up for what it lacked in initial street cred. The face-lift introduced in 2013 was not a significant step forward, but the second-generation Panamera, dubbed G2, is a huge aesthetic improvement.
The first thing you notice when buckling up in the passenger seat is the redesigned instrument panel. Gone are the endless rows of buttons on the transmission tunnel, the small monitor with the old-school graphics, and the five individual round dials. The driver environment now looks much more modern. In addition to the 12-inch touchscreen, there are two 7-inch displays—the one to the left of the tachometer sums up all vehicle-related info, the one on the right concentrates on connectivity and new options such as night vision.
Positioned relatively high up on the center stack is a full-size homescreen that invites you to choose from five basic layouts, supported by the usual selection of information widgets. In addition to standard functions such as navigation or phone, you can tap web-based services including Google Earth and Street View, or check out what’s available in terms of on-board assistance systems. First impression? Fewer buttons, yes, but increased complexity. Welcome to Porsche’s version of the digitalized car.
The first ride of the day is in the diesel—the 4S diesel, to be precise, because the S distinguishes the V-8 from the V-6. Not a day too soon, the more space-efficient MSB matrix makes room for the 4.0-liter oil burner and all-wheel drive, which is a must when there is 627 lb-ft of torque. In an act of wise predisposition, the research-and-development department ensured the new eight-speed PDK transmission can cope with up to 737 lb-ft. After a brief walkaround, we’re off, giving it stick in first, second, and third. Full-throttle acceleration from 0-60 mph takes a guesstimated 4.3 seconds, give or take a tenth. Top speed is said to be close to 190 mph. Fitted with four fat tailpipes and an optional two-voiced exhaust, the powerhouse sounds more like a race truck than a six-figure executive express. Speaking of “executive,” it is worth mentioning that Porsche will retain the long-wheelbase Panamera that currently accounts for 25 percent of the production.
MSB makes provision for a fully scalable multi-material mix that relies primarily on steel and aluminum. It also features a combination of thinner and larger body panels, more efficient production methods and a lighter chassis, although it’s expected to be about the same weight as the outgoing car. In its role as think tank for the VW Group, Porsche conceived a second, heavy-duty rear axle for future MSB-derived four-door Bentleys. Although the classic steel suspension is standard on all new Panameras other than the Turbo, the mules Porsche shipped to the Cape were fitted with air springs throughout. The main improvement here is the notably bigger volume of the three-chamber bellows, which promises enhanced compliance and a broader ride-height variation. To change the setting, simply push a button next to the transmission lever. In combination with 20-inch tires, Sport is again a bit of a boneshaker, but according to senior test engineer Markus Schieritz, “this model does cover the full scope from relaxed GT to aggressive sports coupe.”
The Turbo is up next. Same camouflage, different stance. Lower, meaner, with a deeper chin, and a little wider round the hips. While the new front spoiler shouts “Move over!,” the active rear air dam unfolds again like a seagull’s wings. The LED headlights glow in blacked-out housings; the optional matrix beam setup boasts even more pixels than the system used in the new Audi A8. The multispoke alloys are shod with 275/40 R20 and 315/35 R20 Michelin Pilot Sport plus tires. The sports seat feels comfortable and supportive, while the fully loaded steering wheel incorporates the circular mode selector. Meanwhile, the most frequently used secondary controls are grouped around the gear selector on a black flush-fitting touchscreen. Classy but not particularly intuitive, despite a solitary old-fashioned, direct-access rotary knob positioned above a silver thumbwheel.
Thanks to its superior aerodynamics and what should be a slightly lighter weight, the new Panamera Turbo will likely accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 3.5 seconds. Then there will be the next Turbo S, rated at 600 hp and probably hitting or bettering the 3.3-second mark. With the drivetrain locked in the most aggressive mode and the air springs at their cushiest, the top-of-the-range Panamera beams us with vigor into orbit, out of reach of the BMW M5, Mercedes-AMG CLS 63, Audi RS 7 performance, even the Ferrari FF. Gernot Döllner, the man in charge of project G2, sums up the highlights.
“Equipped with start-stop and cylinder-on-demand, the new turbo engine uses up to 20 percent less fuel,” he says. “Helped by a front strut brace, the dynamic stiffness of the body improves by up to 50 percent. In addition, you can now specify goodies like rear-wheel steering and body-roll compensation via electrically adjustable anti-roll bars.”
While the Porsche guys know their test loops inside out, I freeze in the passenger seat as soon as the wizard at the wheel shows his true colors. At what feels like 11/10ths from the word go, the black mule corners with the unreal flatness of a slot racer, turns-in snappily without a trace of understeer, hangs onto the tarmac like a shark to its prey, decelerates as if someone had pushed the big red emergency button, and goes like stink. Such enthusiasm and verve can be taken for granted in the latest 911, but here we are in a family car on steroids that pretends to be immune to g-force.
Through the twisties, Döllner stabs the Sport+ symbol while leaving the gearbox in Drive. Avoiding low revs and delaying gear changes whenever possible, we’re now darting along as if this was the old Kyalami Formula 1 racetrack, a metal puppet on an invisible string in fast-forward mode. For a moment, the coachman may have thought about igniting the next rocket stage by deactivating stability control, but one glance at his pale-faced passengers is enough to change his mind.
Although it shares the footprint with its predecessor, the new Panamera feels smaller than it is. This car is nimble yet never twitchy, precise and maneuverable, always connected completely to the driver and the road. The need to integrate new assistance systems triggered the switch from the super-sweet hydraulic steering to a new electrically assisted device. Porsche says the fixed-rate variable-effort setup is lighter, quicker, and just as responsive. It constantly communicates with dynamic chassis control, rear-wheel steering, and the air suspension to create an even more involving handling balance. “More feedback means more confidence,” states Döllner with a grin. “The new Panamera … can be totally laid back or razor-sharp—your call.” Although the pre-production turbo I drove did live up to this promise, it will be interesting to sample a base model without all the electronic trickeries.
Another Porsche first is the InnoDrive option fitted to these prototypes. InnoDrive is probably best described as a supplementary electronic brain. It monitors traffic in a 360-degree radius, recognizes pedestrians, masterminds active cruise control, will brake autonomously as needed, knows via satellite the difference between long corners and sharp turns, and will make the gearbox slip into coast-mode whenever appropriate. By looking far ahead through cameras and sensors, InnoDrive can not only accelerate and decelerate the car in accordance to other road users but also initiate up- and downshifts. Its main claim to fame is the ability to drive semi-autonomously. Up to 7 mph, there is no need at all for the driver to interfere. Up to 37 mph, the driver has a leisurely 45 seconds to respond. At a higher speed, the driver must grab the wheel within 15 seconds.
The most impressive new Panamera is the 4S powered by the amazing 3.0-liter V-6 Porsche adopted from Audi before adapting it for its own purposes. Lighter than the eight-cylinder units, and every bit as acoustically fascinating thanks to its twin-barrel intake system, the entry-level engine musters a cool 440 hp along with a punchy 420 lb-ft of torque. Less nose-heavy, even hungrier for revs and at least as responsive as its bigger-displacement brethren, this variant embodies the spirit of the stillborn Pajun, the MSB-based Panamera Junior, which would have taken on the BMW 5 Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class in a pre-Dieselgate scenario.
The Cape Town hinterland is picturesque, but the roads could do with a makeover, the speed limits are a nuisance, and premium automobiles tend to attract that extra bit of riff-raff. Although corners come at a premium in this part of the world, the new Porsche felt like a fish in water. Composure no longer comes at the expensive of ride comfort. Even when equipped with thousands of dollars’ worth of extras, the new Panamera is again a proper driver’s car, not a wannabe poseur. True to the Porsche’s tradition, its key strength is the impressive integration of drivetrain, chassis, steering, and brakes. And, of course, the cosmetic correction of that rounded back. Look for the new Panamera to make its official debut during press days during the Paris auto show at the end of September, ahead of the car hitting our shores early next year.