2012 Porsche Panamera Driving Impressions

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.

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