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First Ride: Porsche 918 Spyder

Frank Walliser looks like the perfect son-in-law. But as soon as the lanky, curly haired engineer climbs behind the wheel of his baby, the 2014 Porsche 918 Spyder plug-in hybrid supercar, the soft-spoken Walliser morphs into a real animal.

The first two warm-up laps on Porsche's Weissach test track lull the passenger into a false sense of security. Walliser keeps checking the gauges, apologizes for the broken glass on the touchscreen that covers the entire center console, flicks the switch that Ferrari calls the manettino through its positions, even makes a quick phone call to confirm that this particular V-8 is really limited to 6000 rpm. Within five minutes, we go through four of the five driving modes. E-power is eerily quiet in a car that one expects to trumpet and roar. Hybrid feels a little rough, because the 585-hp engine cuts in like a landmine and fades out like a tear in a film. Sport hybrid combines all three powerplants in a jam session that is as entertaining as it is erratic. Finally, there is race hybrid, which puts the electric motors on steroids and makes the dual-clutch transmission bang through the seven gears as though it were designed by Kalashnikoff.

One last smile, one final check, one more nod. Then Walliser drops his polite mask. No more hissing of the electric motors, no more lift-off coasting, no more part-time torque boosts. Instead, the 4.6-liter V-8 and its two battery-fed assistants hammer their 795-hp message into our ears with a loud techno rhythm. "Eventually, the shift-up speed will be increased to 11,000 rpm," shouts Walliser. Is that a devilish grin on his face as we approach the next fast right-hander? Staring through the curved windshield with angst and awe, I am shocked to see my driver brake too late for the downhill S, accelerate too hard in second at the brow of the hill, turn too fast into the blind left-hander that follows. Too late, too hard, too fast? Wrong. When it comes to traction, grip, roadholding, handling, and performance, the 918 Spyder reigns supreme in its own universe. To prove the point, Walliser stops the vehicle abruptly at the beginning of the longest straight. With PSM (Porsche Stability Management) deactivated and the thumb switch on race hybrid, he floors the throttle and signs the tarmac with four black stripes that are about 1000 feet long. Two weeks later, a professional driver did the same thing on the 'Ring (it's on YouTube -- five or six seconds of top-notch goose-pimple material). The expected performance figures are: 0 to 62 mph in less than three seconds, a top speed of more than 200 mph, and a Nordschleife lap time of about 7 minutes, 10 seconds.

Even though his passenger's complexion is fast changing from reddish to sickbag-yellow to ashen, Walliser continues to drive the hell out of number 24, which is the second-to-last prototype. "We lengthened the wheelbase by 3.1 inches to increase cabin space, and we extended the rear overhang to improve stability," he says. "The drag coefficient is a decent 0.34, and the frontal area is commendably small. Thanks to the three-stage active aerodynamic system, we have downforce at all speeds and zero lift. Two adaptive ground-effects diffusers are incorporated in the nose tray, the substantial rear spoiler extends and adjusts its pitch, and a pair of motorized lateral radiator louvers also control the air flow. Add to this the low center of gravity and the nicely balanced 43/57 percent front/rear weight distribution, and you can imagine that this car pushes the envelope in the way it hugs the ground at any speed and on any type of surface."

Then, just to prove himself wrong, the part-time hooligan intentionally kicks out the tail through a second-gear kink, and the PSM electronics tighten the line again. "This is an incredibly quick car, yet it is putty in your hands -- always docile and benign," he adds.

A motorsports aficionado, Walliser was in charge of the RS Spyder program before adopting the 918. Not surprisingly, the monocoque of the road car was clearly inspired by the single-seater, and the high-revving normally aspirated engine was also handed down from the racing department. In fact, the V-8 was developed before the V-10 that powered the Carrera GT. Weighing a mere 309 pounds, the compact 32-valve engine has no belt-driven auxiliaries; every component is fed directly by the 67.5-kW battery, which delivers in excess of 200kW. Consisting of eighteen modules and 324 individual cells, the energy pack sits in front of the engine and below the 18.5-gallon fuel tank. Other than the tub and the V-8, the liquid-cooled battery stack is the most expensive individual item in the 918. It can accelerate the 918 (in E-mode) to 62 mph in 8.0 seconds, reach a top speed of 94 mph, and cover at least fifteen miles between plug-ins.

The most complex street-legal Porsche ever, the 918 tips the scales at 3750 pounds, which is light for a hybrid but not exactly anorexic for a supercar. "The weight penalty over a hypothetical V-8-engined version is about 700 pounds," explains the chief engineer. "It is impossible to compensate for such a handicap completely, but by developing the rear-wheel steering system we shed a virtual 220 pounds. How come? Because thanks to RWS, the 918 is measurably faster on winding roads and on the racetrack. What also helped is that this car is not a conversion, not an evolution, not a hybrid edition of something that already existed. Instead, this is a purpose-designed vehicle that carries absolutely zero surplus body fat." Even the two electric motors have been trimmed down to the bare essentials. The one that drives the front wheels via a single-speed fixed-ratio transmission delivers 116 hp. For stability reasons, it is decoupled at 147 mph. The one in the back develops 129 hp and 184 lb-ft. It's sandwiched between the seven-speed PDK box and the comparatively petite V-8. Yes, the 918 can do front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive, and all-wheel drive, plus torque vectoring.

In one year's time, the first customer car will roll off the assembly line. In the Zuffenhausen plant, Porsche is currently installing a brand-new manufacturing facility for project X2, which was kicked off in 2009. This high-tech vehicle will be assembled almost entirely by hand, and the company intends to build four units per day. The assembly time is an incredibly short forty hours, which is half that of the Carrera GT. In total, no more than 918 examples are going to be sold, priced at [euro]768,026 (just shy of $1 million) including tax. At this point, about 300 customers have put down a deposit. The relatively long list of options includes a 500-watt surround-sound system, a custom luggage kit, electric auxiliary heating, liquid-metal paint, a wall-mounted battery charger, and special RS wheels. At $91,000, the most expensive extra is the Weissach pack, which takes out 77 pounds of weight. Among the fifty-odd measures dedicated to do so are hollow-spoke wheels, thinner leather, a miniaturized A/C compressor, and an unpainted, shrink-wrapped body.

After an exciting morning on the track, we break for lunch and a tour of the normally top-secret prototype shop. In this brightly lit, clinically clean, intensive-care ward, the twenty-four mules and the two demo cars built for the marketing department are being attended to by a team of specialist mechanics. There is still a lot of tweaking and fine-tuning to be done. The V-8 needs to complete its high-load dyno tests; NVH is an issue at high revs and when the engine cuts in; and there are plenty of software updates waiting to be downloaded to the car's black boxes. Since most vehicles in the shop are partly dismantled, this is a perfect opportunity to zoom in on some of the clever engineering details, such as the front-wheel-drive assembly that packs motor and differential into one compact housing. Or the rear-wheel steering, which shrinks the turning circle and greatly enhances the directional stability above 125 mph. The suspension is totally devoid of rubber elements. The tires are special compound UHP Michelin Pilot Sport, 265/35ZR-20 in the front and 325/30ZR-21 in the rear.

Right now, the 4593-cc V-8 develops 585 hp at 8500 rpm, but Frank Walliser reckons that the rev level can be raised to 10,000 rpm. Presumably, that would not only boost the power output but also the maximum torque, which currently is 369 lb-ft at 6500 rpm. The dry sump lubrication employs four composite scavenger pumps to make the oil circulate fast enough. The con rods are made of titanium, the engine block is of thin-wall aluminum, and the lightweight crankshaft is forged from high-strength steel. The 918 sports a hybrid brake layout: assisted by a so-called iBooster, the two electric motors also function as powerful deceleration devices, feeding the recuperated energy back to the main battery. The carbon ceramic brakes feature six-pot calipers and sixteen-inch rotors (front) along with four-piston calipers and fifteen-inch discs (rear). The biggest challenge for the engineers was to create an intelligent electrohydraulic link that synchronizes both units and ensures a responsive and progressive pedal feel.

Time to head out onto the road. Unclipping the panels on both sides, the chief engineer takes only thirty seconds to convert the coupe into a Targa. The open roof makes it much easier to enter the cabin, to slide onto the carbon-fiber seat, and to attach the red racing harness. The door aperture is painfully small with the top in place, the wide sill is difficult to straddle, and the geometric shape of the dashboard compromises knee- and legroom. The visibility is good except to the rear, where the bulging top pipes and the big wing obstruct the view.

Weissach is not exactly in the middle of nowhere, but within fifteen minutes, one can reach relatively empty and open country roads, the kind of habitat that makes Porsche engineers grin and their passengers puke. Without warning, the chief aims his right index finger at the red dot in the center of the circular control pod. Then he floors the loud pedal and looks at me with a blend of triumph and pity. Pinned into the seat, I feel the forward thrust turn my stomach inside out and upside down. Still gaining momentum at a cartoon-movie rate, number 24 approaches a crest, but instead of getting airborne, the car simply stretches its legs and sucks itself back onto the blacktop. "Remember: always plenty of downforce. No lift, ever." Frank Walliser is clearly enjoying himself. "Concentrate on the steering. Around the straight-ahead position, it is quite relaxed and reassuring. But it speeds up nicely when you turn in." Which we do, generating the kind of g-force that can briefly separate neck and shoulders. "Only 2.3 turns lock-to-lock. And of course it's electromechanical, so it is powered by the battery." Yes, yes. Can we stop for a coffee, please?

We are back in race mode, still meandering at an absurd pace through the idyllic late summer green. The V-8 is revving hard through the gears, the PDK box operates in total attack mode, and whenever a long straight beckons the two electric motors briefly boost speed with a high-pitched hiss. Then, all of a sudden, the master lifts off, slows down, and shifts into E-mode. Game over? No. Just switching to a different kind of progress. Slower, smoother, almost silent compared to a minute ago. The mechanical noises have all but disappeared. Only the voices of the wind, the tires, and the brakes can be heard. If this is the future of mobility, could we please have more of it, and at more affordable prices? "Fixed price, fixed number of cars, fixed concept," says the driver, apologetically shrugging his shoulders. "There is, however, no doubt that the plug-in hybrid will soon filter through the ranks." After a pause, he adds with a slight undertone of regret: "But at Porsche, we are probably never going to do an application as extreme as this again."