Porsche's Panamera sports saloon is being readied for replacement, so we joined the development engineers on an exclusive ride-along for some final sign off testing in South Africa. Even from the passenger seat it's apparent Porsche's biggest car is going to be a very tough competitor in the sports/luxury sector.
In the metal
Discussing the Panamera's design at this stage is going to be a touch tricky, seeing as the cars we're in are all wearing disguises. Thing is, up close, those stickers and transfers only work so well, and there's no hiding the fact that the new Panamera's a more shapely, elegant form, with some cool looking lights front and rear. They'll feature Porsche's signature four-point DRL design, while the Panamera's rump is certain to be very reminiscent of the current sports car and SUV range. I've never found myself catching glimpses of the existing 'G1' Panamera and thinking it's good looking, but spending two days in company with five G2 Panameras it's clear there's a lot to appreciate about the new car's lines. We're sure it'll fall firmly into the desirable category, which is a very good thing indeed.
What is also obvious is that it's longer, a slight wheelbase stretch and shorter overhangs to the benefit of interior space. A bigger boot features, too, with better access, which is good news if you've ever tried to load the current car up with luggage. There's more headroom all-round, despite the tapering of the rear roofline, a lower h-point inside also adding to the feeling that you're sitting in something a bit more sporting than the class norm. That feeling is added to by the high transmission tunnel, which dominates the interior, splitting the driver and front passenger and containing a number of the infotainment and driver controls within it. The rest are situated in a screen in the centre of the dash, while the instruments take the form of a neat pair of screens centred around a large central rev counter - this is a Porsche, after all. Even in these early prototype cars the leap in material quality is apparent, and the Panamera's detailing is far more appealing. The tactility of the controls, their situation and operation all seem much more intuitive compared to the outgoing car. There's a lot more tech, too, as you'd expect in a car competing in today's luxury and sports saloon marketplace. If there's one omission though, it's the availability of a head-up display, as Porsche is not offering one on its G2 Panamera.
We didn't drive the new Panamera yet; our experience was exclusively from the passenger seat of the car. Still, our ears work just as well there, and they were tickled by the rousing engine notes of all the Panameras we sat in. They included the 3.0-litre biturbo petrol V6 in a 4S, the new 4.0-litre biturbo V8 petrol in the Panamera Turbo and a new 4.0-litre V8 biturbo diesel for the Panamera SD. Given the development engineers in our company confirmed that no Panamera with under 400hp would have rear-wheel drive, it's safe to say the 4S is pushing out in excess of that, and certainly the forceful acceleration underlined that. It sounds magnificent, too; if anything, the engineers reckon it needs toning back a bit, as its exhaust bark is currently more rousing than that of the flagship V8 Turbo's. If the V6 4S felt quick then that Turbo felt absolutely ballistic. Dr Gernot Döllner, Director Model Line Panamera, said that the Panamera Turbo can lap the Nürburgring in the same time as Porsche's old super sports car. So Carrera GT fast around the Green Hell, then.
The V8 engine is all-new, with a drop in capacity to 4.0 litres over the outgoing 4.8-litre unit, allowing it to sneak under the 4.0-litre tax barrier in place in many markets. It's up on power, obviously, though the people at Porsche are not talking figures yet, but we'd estimate on a conservative 3.8-second 0-100km/h time for it, with a top speed in the region of 320km/h. To achieve that Carrera GT-matching lap time you'll need to get busy with the option ticking; to the Turbo's standard air suspension you can add rear-wheel steering, PCCB carbon ceramic brakes and the 48-volt adaptive chassis control system that removes body roll from the car. The electric differential will help, too.
Anything sitting below the Turbo in the line-up rides on standard steel springs mated to PASM adaptive dampers, though air suspension (which features a greater capacity thanks to the addition of a third air chamber) is an option on all. You'll need the air suspension option if you want that trick anti-roll system and the agility increasing rear-wheel steering, though even without it all the Panamera promises to be a very agile machine. That's been one of the development goals says Döllner, to maintain the Panamera's niche as the sector's most sporting proposition, but to add some comfort. From the passenger seat that looks to have been achieved, as all three Panameras we rode in coped with the sometimes poor tarmac on the testing South African roads with real finesse.
Why South Africa? The roads are very similar to those in Europe, though in and around Cape Town there is the advantage of plenty of changes in altitude, and consistently high temperatures. The latter throws up some issues with these development hacks; for example, the fan on production cars when on full air conditioning will be a lot quieter. It's the reason they're here, Döllner also admitting that on the diesel a bit more calibration is required between it and the engine. Like the rest of the Panamera line-up that PDK twin-clutch automatic transmission is all-new, an eight-speed unit that'll sit in exactly the same position in all models, even if they're hybrid (in which case a larger electric motor is integrated into the PDK system's housing). It's dubbed PDK II and thanks to internal finessing, new pumps and frictional gains it's some 30 per cent more efficient than its predecessor.
The shift might not be perfected yet in the diesel, but the performance on offer is extraordinary, the 4.0-litre V8 turbodiesel's massive torque helping here. It's not just impressively, any-rev accelerative, but it's hugely appealing aurally too, sounding very uncharacteristically diesel in its tone. Other advances in the all-new Panamera include the integration of what Porsche dubs InnoDrive, which is a semi-autonomous system, mated to a hugely improved FlexRay synchronous electronic system that's 20 times faster than that in the outgoing car. In time it'll allow car-to-x communication, which will further enable the semi-autonomous driving, which is said to allow the Panamera to corner with up to 0.7g without any input... It'll also help the Panamera owner drive more economically, though legislation means we're not quite at the point where you can climb in the back and read the paper while it drives you to work. Having sat in it as a passenger for a few days, watching how much the development people were clearly having fun drive it, it's likely you'll never need those autonomous features, anyway...
What you get for your money
It's too early to define the engine and model line-up, but as with any new model expect there to be a better, more up-to-date equipment offering across the entire range. That'll more than likely concentrate on stuff like connectivity and convenience, as these are increasingly important in any category now, but especially so in the upmarket, luxury sphere where the Panamera operates.
The all-new Porsche Panamera looks to build on the strengths of the outgoing car while improving many areas where it was lacking. Chiefly comfort, and, as far as we can ascertain behind its disguise, looks, too. We'll only find out for sure when we see it completely undisguised, and drive it, but even so, our early ride in the new model reveals that the Panamera looks like it'll be setting new benchmarks in the sports saloon market.