The Porsche Panamera is one of the world's best large sports sedans. It has the luxury, space and performance to make it a great alternative to the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, BMW 7 Series, Audi A8, and is as distinctive as the Aston Martin Rapide and Maserati Quattroporte. Now in its third model year, the 2012 Porsche Panamera is available in a head-spinning seven variants, with thousands of optional configurations.
New for 2012 is the Panamera Turbo S, powered by a turbocharged, 4.8-liter V8 engine that cranks out a whopping 550 horsepower and 553 pound-feet of torque. Those 50 extra horses come at a premium, however, with the Turbo S starting at nearly $37k higher than the regular Panamera Turbo.
Also new for 2012 is the Panamera S Hybrid, powered by a 3.0-liter V6 paired with an electric motor. The latter is capable of making up to 333 hp on its own, with max horsepower of 380 hp in full hybrid mode using both gas and electric motors. The electric motor helps the Panamera S Hybrid achieve plenty of low-end thrust, with its peak 428 pound-feet available at just 1000 rpm. EPA estimated fuel economy is fair, at 22/30 mpg City/Highway, or a 25 mpg Combined rating.
Yet another variant, the 2013 Panamera GTS, is launching later in 2012 as a 2013 model, with a refreshed exterior and a starting price of $111,000.
Panamera's exterior design is based on roominess and space efficiency while attempting to maintain Porsche styling heritage. The look seems to be a love-hate proposition, with haters ahead slightly and very little middle ground. We think it looks ungainly from the rear three-quarter view. But park a Panamera among its competition from BMW, Mercedes and Audi, and it's the Porsche that stands out, the one that you want to get in and drive. In any case, those who can embrace the styling will be rewarded with a truly substantial, satisfying automobile.
The Panamera is only slightly smaller than the BMW 7 Series, and it delivers the sporting performance of a world-class sports sedan with the comfortable ride and refinement of a luxo-cruiser. Those extremes required a lot of careful engineering. Porsche builds the body from lightweight materials and puts the engine low and as far back as possible. The Panamera's standard adjustable suspension can change the ride from soft but stable to race track-ready.
All Panamera models are fast, as is expected from Porsche. The V6 hits 60 mph in as little as 5.6 seconds, while the V8-powered Panamera S models pull of 0-60 mpg in 5.0 seconds. The Panamera Turbo cuts that time to a sports-car bashing 3.6 seconds, with little if any turbo lag and a rush of power that pins you back in your seat.
Don't think for a moment you're giving up cabin space by choosing a Porsche. The Panamera is truly roomy, with back-seat headroom, legroom and hip room that rival that of a Mercedes S-Class sedan. A standard full-length center console divides the Panamera into four distinct and comfortable seating positions. The feel from the driver's seat is much like that in Porsche's iconic 911, only slightly higher off the ground. All of the seats are supportive without being too firm or too deeply bolstered. The space inside still surprises us. The rear seat has enough head room for an NBA point guard and plenty of leg room, too.
The hatchback design makes the Panamera useful as a family vehicle. With the rear seats up, the rear cargo area is as roomy as the trunk in a mid-size sedan. With the seats down, the Panamera has more cargo room than a luxury wagon, with easy access to a fairly expansive load floor.
The Porsche Panamera doesn't come cheap, and as it is with any Porsche, options can add 50 percent or more to the model price. Yet on another level, given its impact and relative performance, the base Panamera V6 might be considered a deal.
The appearance of the Porsche Panamera is polarizing. Critics who praise the car for its performance, space and comfort consider the styling a weak spot. Some are fond of the look, if only in ugly-duckling fashion. Some cannot abide it at all and seem to get angry just talking about it. We think it's attractive from head on but looks ungainly from most angles. Its ungainliness at least has plus side: interior space and space efficiency.
The Panamera is a substantial car. Exterior dimensions such as length, width and wheelbase surpass those of mid-size luxury sedans such as the Audi A6, BMW 5 series and Mercedes E-Class, and come within a few inches of full-size models such as the Audi A8 and BMW 7 Series. Yet the Panamera body shell is built from a cocktail of lightweight materials that includes boron steel, aluminum, magnesium and high-tech composites. Hidden parts such as axles and some suspension components are aluminum. As a result, with a minimum curb weight of just 3880, the Panamera is lighter than those smaller, mid-size competitors, and nearly 1000 pounds lighter than the full-size competitors. This is important, because the lower weight contributes to the Panamera's relatively high fuel-economy ratings and sports-car-like handling feel.
Benefitting from its racing experience, Porsche pays particular attention to airflow around the body. The Panamera is the first luxury four-door with a full underbody shield, even covering the driveshaft and mufflers. This reduces both wind resistance and lift. The radar sensor for the available active cruise control is positioned to minimize the disruption of airflow, though it degrades the appearance of the front end (unacceptably to some). A cleverly hidden active rear spoiler rests under a chrome trim strip and pops up at speed to increase rear downforce.
Panamera's shape flows from two key factors: packaging, and heritage. Porsche wanted a four-door that looks like a Porsche, and that meant elements of the iconic 911 sports car. These influences include the signature shoulders or haunches around the rear wheels, a hood that sits lower than the front fenders, and a front end with no conventional grille above the bumper.
Given its role as true four-passenger automobile, the Panamera also needed the rear seat space of a sedan and the cargo utility of wagon. These crucial parameters led to a rounded four-door hatchback design instead of a traditional three-box sedan. The hatchback allows for generous rear headroom, cargo utility and a sporty coupe-style profile.
The hatch style creates unconventional proportions, and a car that looks awkward from some angles. The length added by the rear doors and the high rear roofline seems to stretch the car too far. Gaze at the Panamera and there's a strong urge to chop about 18 inches out of the roof and sharpen the roof's slope to the rear. But if Porsche did that, the Panamera would look a lot like a front-engine 911. The four-door's bulbous rear end reminds us of the old 928. The net effect is ungainly.
If the design isn't elegant, it nonetheless creates a presence in traffic. That large rear end stands out. And from the front, the Panamera attracts lots of attention when it creeps through a parking lot or pulls up to a restaurant. It stands out when parked among other big luxury sedans.
The models can be distinguished by subtle trim details and wheels. The Panamera V6 is distinguished by matte black trim surrounding its side windows, which is chrome on V8 models. The V6's exhaust tips are oval, with a single outlet on each side, rather than the two pair of round tips found on V8s. The V6 comes standard with unique, five-spoke 18-inch wheels.
The Panamera has a lovely cabin, luxurious and well executed. Fit and finish are excellent in all Panamera models. While its luxurious, almost bespoke quality can match some of the richest sedans in the world, the Panamera retains the sporting, playful ambience that has identified Porsche cockpits for decades.
Interior materials in the Panamera are top-notch, with supple, soft-touch surfaces, and several upgrades are available. Panamera V6 and Panamera S models come standard with three partial-leather upholstery choices, while the Turbo gets full-leather upholstery in five color choices or four two-tone combinations. Interior trim is available in carbon, aluminum, or five real-wood options. The V6 we tested had black lacquered wood, and it was striking.
The full-leather option adds rich, heavily stitched leather to the dashboard and doors. An alcantara roofliner is available and extra leather is available on just about everything, including the rearview mirror, steering column and air vents. It's all very handsome.
The driver's position is low for the typical luxury sedan, and similar to that in the 911 sports car. The standard seats may be the best there are. They're not fancy, in terms of a million adjustments, but it's easy to get them right, and they deliver a fabulous combination of support, grip and long-range comfort. Power seats are standard, while 14-way adjustment comes in the Panamera Turbo, and 18-way sport seats are available.
The biggest problem inside the Panamera, perhaps the only potential deal breaker, is rearward visibility. The side mirrors are triangular shaped and don't offer very broad scope. It takes awhile to get comfortable with them, especially for drivers who rely heavily on the side mirrors in traffic. The rearview mirror isn't any better. The rear glass may seem large, but its angle makes it look like a slot through the rearview mirror. Looking over the shoulders backing up, the fat rear pillars block large arcs of the surroundings. The obstacle warning system helps, but what you'll see is a pictograph of potential obstacles on the dash, rather than the obstacles themselves. The rearview camera is optional and we recommend getting it. It should be standard. It makes backing up safer because it's easier to spot a child. On a practical basis, it makes parking quicker and less stressful because the driver can see just how far back the bumper to that other car is or spot posts or holes you may want to avoid.
The Panamera V6 has a manual tilt-telescope steering column. It works well enough, but like that back-up camera, the power tilt-telescope should come standard in this league. The steering wheel itself is fantastic: thick and wrapped in tactilely pleasing leather, with just a tiny bit of give when you squeeze. A button behind the bottom spoke heats the wheel independently of the seats. The manual shift buttons on the wheel work one way, with upshifts on one side and downshifts on the other.
There are five gauges in the instrument binnacle, all large and easy to see. The tachometer sits front and center, black numbers on white background, with a gear indicator and big digital speed readout at the bottom. That's good, because the radial speedometer is marked in hard-to-read 25-mph increments. It sits to the left of the slightly larger tach, while a multi-function display sits to the right. Both of these contrast with the tach, using black backgrounds and white characters. The multi-function display shows a range of data chosen by the driver, from trip information to vehicle systems to navigation directions. Two smaller gauges at the edges complete the package: fuel level and coolant temperature on the right, and oil pressure and temperature on the left.
Some important switches are spread around the steering column. Turn signals are conventionally operated with the left side stalk, while the lights are operated with a radial switch on the dash, next to Porsche's unconventional left-side ignition switch. Wipers are controlled with the right-side stalk. Cruise control functions fill a third stalk, to the lower left, making room for redundant audio and phone controls and trip-computer buttons on the steering-wheel spokes.
Stalk-mounted cruise control isn't optimal, but Porsche's system works a lot better than that used by Mercedes-Benz, which tends to get in the way of simple turn-signal operation. The Panamera's window switches are perfectly placed in the driver's armrest, right at the fingertips when the left forearm is resting. The reading lights, sunroof switch and obstacle-warning control are collected in the headliner above the rear-view mirror.
The main barrage of switches, of course, are clustered in a center pod that flows up from the Panamera's console and around a seven-inch, touch-screen video/navigation monitor. There are upwards of 32 buttons on the dash and console, with another 18 buttons surrounding the screen.
Porsche has opted for a button for every possible command rather than a centralized controller along the lines of BMW's iDrive. At first the array is a bit daunting, but operation gets simpler fairly quickly with familiarity. The buttons are logically grouped by function and easy to reach. A central controller might look more elegant but they tend to be harder to learn, and far more distracting while driving. On the down side, the Panamera's standard navigation system can be hard to figure out.
Audio systems begin with a single CD, 11 speakers and 235 watts of power, and we found it quite good. The optional Bose surround sound system, with 14 speakers and 585 watts, is loud and clear. It matches anything in most luxury cars. The 16-speaker, 1000-watt Burmester surround sound is as clear as any auto stereo we've heard, and we've heard some good ones.
Storage up front includes a pair of cupholders in the console that can hold change, keys and other items when they're not occupied by drinks. There's also a shallow center-console box, a fairly large glovebox, and good-sized door pockets that are lined with fabric to eliminate the annoying sound of sliding glasses or CD cases. More than storage, what jumps out is the way the full-length center console creates four distinct seating pods, each with all the room and comfort the vast majority of passengers will ever need. This is one sports sedan that doesn't compromise rear seat room.
The rear seats are essentially buckets like those in front. The rear seats don't adjust in the V6 or S, but they're still comfortable and grippy, with backs reclined at a comfortable angle. Adjustable rear seats are optional on all models. And there's a lot of room. We found that a 5-foot, 8-inch rear passenger could stretch legs fully behind a 5-foot, 8-inch driver, with feet tucked under the front seat. Rear-seat headroom is even more impressive, accommodating occupants well over 6 feet tall. The copious space would make the Panamera a fine chauffer-driven vehicle, though giving up the driver's seat wouldn't be easy.
In standard trim, the rear is nicely finished, with four reasonably sized air vents that can be adjusted or closed completely. Rear seat heaters and four-zone climate control are optional. There's almost as much storage in back as in front: two cup holders in the center console and a shallow bin in the folding armrest, with small, lined pockets on the doors and map pouches on the back of the front seats.
Cargo space is impressive, too. With the rear seats up, there is 15.6 cubic feet of space behind them, or about as much as the typical mid-size sedan's trunk. Four suitcases fit easily in the Panamera, and access is easy thanks to the hatchback. A shade-type, pull-out cargo cover is optional, but the standard lift-up cover works better. It attaches with cables to the liftgate, and opens when the standard power gate rises. It's also easy to remove, but then the driver has to find some place to store that big panel.
Switching the Panamera to max cargo mode is a matter on pressing one button on each of the seatbacks. The seatbacks drop one at a time, creating a nearly flat load floor with tie downs, and a maximum 44.2 cubic feet of cargo volume that you can reach from the rear or through the side doors. That's more than what's available in mid-sized luxury wagons such as the BMW 5 Series or Audi S6.
Any Panamera is enjoyable to drive, and all are easy to drive. The V6-powered Porsche Panamera lacks nothing, and achieves decent fuel economy. It's a truly efficient, luxurious four-passenger car with Porsche DNA. The Panamera Turbo delivers truly breathtaking performance that's almost too easy to control. The V8-powered Panamera S feels lighter and livelier than the Turbo, and can be even more entertaining on winding roads. All feel as if they're milled from one giant block of billet aluminum. That's due to the car's advanced engineering and extensive use of aluminum, magnesium and composites in the body structure.
The base Panamera is powered by a 3.6-liter V6, which is essentially the 4.8-liter V8 in the Panamera S with two cylinders removed. The cylinder V is angled at 90 degrees, and the six-cylinder features a balance shaft to smooth its operation. It also delivers the latest in control and materials technology, with high-pressure direct fuel injection, infinitely variable valve timing and variable valve lift. It has an auto start/stop feature to save fuel by seamlessly shutting down and restarting at red lights. It uses a dry sump oiling system rather than a standard oil pan, so it can sit low in the chassis for a sports-car center of gravity. It delivers peak output of 300 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque, but weighs just 404 pounds with the transmission attached, according to Porsche.
We discovered there's plenty of go in the Panamera V6, probably as much as anyone ever needs on the road. That power comes smooth and strong no matter the road speed, and the 7-speed transmission always seems to pick the right gear in full automatic mode. Porsche's PDK gearbox is actually a clutch-operated manual that shifts itself. It's the best dual-clutch transmission going, and one of the smoothest. It works fabulously as an automatic if left in Drive, but it still gives the Panamera more of a performance bent than the typical luxury car. It's not quite as smooth as a conventional torque-converter automatic. You'll notice this most on moderate, coast-down stops, when the PDK lurches ever so slightly as it downshifts.
With the V6 engine, the Panamera can scoot from 0 to 60 mph in as little as 5.8 seconds, according to Porsche, with a top speed of 160 mph. The all-wheel drive version is even quicker (5.6 seconds to 60), despite its greater weight, thanks to an even better distribution of traction. Yet the V6 Panamera still delivers 18 mpg city, 27 highway, according to the EPA, or 18/26 mpg with all-wheel drive. We matched those numbers during a 400-mile run at 75 mph. The combination of acceleration, exhilaration and fuel economy from the V6 is genuinely impressive for a car this large, and speaks to its engineering depth. From here, the Panamera gets even faster.
The 4.8-liter V8 in the Panamera S and Panamera 4S models bumps horsepower to 450 hp, with the same willing response across its rev range as the V6. Acceleration starts with a burst and remains strong for passing punch, and the 0-60 time drops to 4.8 seconds while top speed increases to 175. We actually found the Panamera S more fun to drive on the race track than the Turbo. Significantly lighter, the rear-wheel-drive S felt more agile and nimble, more tossable, more enjoyable. On the race track, the Turbo felt bigger and heavier by comparison, though it posted quicker lap times due to its superior acceleration performance. In short, we give the big thumbs up to the S model. It is the sweet spot in terms of sensible performance. The 4S falls in between the two in terms of that feeling of agility, still feeling more agile than the Turbo but not as agile as the S.
The 500-hp turbocharged V8 in the Panamera Turbo is brutally quick, knocking the 0-60 time down to 3.6 seconds. Kick the throttle and the acceleration knocks you back in your seat, not letting up until you do, or at 188 mph, whichever comes first. Thanks to the standard direct injection, turbo lag is minimal, if at all existent. Sure, the Turbo is overkill, but it sure is fun.
And thanks to Porsche's overall efficiency, not even the Turbo is brutally anti-social. With auto start/stop, the efficiency of the dual-clutch PDK transmission and Panamera's comparatively svelte weight, no model carries a gas-guzzler tax (a familiar feature in this league). The Panamera S delivers 16/24 mpg City/Highway, while the Turbo is rated 15/23 mpg.
Even beyond the engine bay, the Panamera drips high technology. All models feature a Sport button, while those with the optional Sport Chrono Package add Sport Plus. This feature allows the driver to tailor a host of controls, including suspension firmness, transmission shift points and the aggressiveness of the throttle, over a range from maximum comfort and economy to maximum performance. The optional adaptive cruise control almost literally drives the car, using both the gas and brakes to maintain a specified gap to cars ahead, down to 20 mph.
All Panameras come with adjustable suspension. The V6 and S and have electronically variable shock absorbers and conventional steel coil springs, while the Turbo adds air springs (optional on other models). The air suspension is self leveling, and it also varies spring rates. It can lower the car one inch for better handling or raise it an inch to help the front-end clear abrupt driveway transitions and other hazards.
Porsche Dynamic Chassis Control (PDCC) with active anti-roll bars is also available. To counteract body lean in turns, the system twists the roll bars to make them firmer. It can also disconnect the roll bars to improve straight-line comfort on bumpy roads. These systems can transform the Panamera from firm and extra precise to smooth and refined with the touch of a couple of buttons, or they can be left to work on their own by measuring the driver's intent, based on use of the gas, brakes and steering.
The variable suspension lets the Panamera drive like a luxury car or a race track-ready sports sedan. We know, we've experienced this, and it's an impressive feat. This four-door always feels smaller than its considerable size. Many adjustable suspensions are either too soft or too firm, but that's not the case with the Panamera. The base suspension delivers a smooth but controlled (dare we say excellent) ride in the softest mode. The Sport setting makes the car react more quickly, with less side-to-side sway, without ruining the ride.
Same with the steering. The Panamera's is not quite Porsche 911 pure, but it's impressive for a big four-door, even with the all-wheel-drive. It gives the car a very nimble, responsive feel, and it always lets the driver know how the car is gripping with feedback from the tires back through the steering wheel. The steering reacts immediately to anything more than a twitch on the wheel, but it's not twitchy. It grips everything, particularly with the performance tires on the largest available rims. That's the payback, in the luxury sense, for everyday driving.
With the summer-duty performance tires on 20-inch rims, the Panamera's steering grabs at every little nook and cranny in the pavement. While that might be appropriate for a four-door Porsche, it's not necessarily familiar luxury style. The high-performance tires effect ride quality as well. Their short, stiff sidewalls hit little seams and pavement edges hard, and while the suspension comfortably absorbs bumps, the tires crack and deliver a little shock, sometimes with a corresponding, audible chunk. Buyer beware: Actually drive a Panamera with the big rims and high-performance tires before choosing them over the standard all-season packages. We prefer the 18- and 19-inch wheels.
We had the opportunity to test the Panamera's potential on the 14-turn, 4.1-mile Road America road course in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. Though large, the Panamera was at home on this long racetrack, with quick steering and a relatively flat attitude through turns (especially with PDCC). The Panamera's willingness to change direction and respond to driver inputs puts it in a league with the world's best sports sedans (such as the BMW M5), and even some of the better pure sports cars.
The PDK transmission shines on the track as well. It's almost race-ready when the driver chooses the Sport or Sport Plus modes, which hold gears longer to keep power more readily available. Those who want to shift manually can tap the steering wheel buttons in any mode, but in Sport Plus we found that the PDK automatically chose the appropriate gear for track driving 95 percent of the time.
Road America has a lot of long straights, and the Panamera's standard brakes weren't entirely up to that challenge of repeated, hard braking from very high speeds (for many sessions). In some cases (with some drivers), there was a pulsation that may have indicated warped rotors. On the road, the brakes are perfectly capable. Buyers who plan to regularly participate in track days should consider the expensive but impressive composite ceramic brakes. It's not surprising given they have to slow 4,000 pounds of Porsche. Experienced drivers may also be able to reduce brake fade on a track by braking harder but for shorter duration.
The Porsche Panamera is a viable choice among the big four-door luxury sedans. It can carry four adults in supreme comfort and qualifies as a no-compromise luxury sedan. All Panameras perform well on the street and the track. We think it's one of the world's best luxury sports sedans.
New Car Test Drive correspondents Kirk Bell, Mitch McCullough, J.P Vettraino and Laura Burstein contributed to this report.