Porsche Panamera — The all sports car, frugal luxury sedan

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

A decade ago the thought of Porsche building a four-door sedan was, well, just crazy. The mention of such a move was sacrilege.

It was about that time that the Porsche sport utility vehicle — which too was much maligned, but  has proven a giant success for the German sports car builder — hit the market. The popularity of the Cayenne SUV paved the way for the Panamera sedan, which arrived in 2009 as a 2010 model and has given Porsche another shot in its sales arm.

In 2010, 7,741 copies of the Panamera were sold representing 30 percent of Porsche’s overall sales. Cayenne SUV sales totaled 8,343 meaning that the company’s trademark sports cars captured only 31 percent of total sales last year.

The Panamera’s quick success has led to a more fuel-efficient and less-expensive V-6 model for 2011. And to further underscore Porsche’s commitment to the luxury sedan, it has announced that coming soon is a hybrid version and an even higher-performance turbocharged edition.

But it’s the frugal — frugal in terms of a full-sized luxury sedan — Panamera that we test drove. Here are a few frugal numbers that perhaps will get you thinking that the Panamera V-6 is, indeed, a nice piece of work — gas mileage (18 city ad 27 highway), 0-to-60 (5.9 seconds), and base price ($74,400). Good enough on all counts, we think, in this high-dollar world of German luxury.

The other Panamera models that provide four-passenger driving thrills and a big bite out of the pocketbook are the Panamera S, powered by a 4.8-liter V-8 making 400 horsepower, starting at $90,775; and the Turbo, powered by a twin-turbo version of the V-8 making 500 HP, starting at $136,275. All-wheel drive is available in the base V-6 ($79,875) and the S ($96,675).

Like the Jaguar that maintains a traditional Jaguar persona despite wearing thoroughly modern clothes, the Panamera retains the iconic Porsche look even as a sedan that stretches out nearly 196 inches.

The difference between Jaguar and Porsche is that Jaguar has been designing sedans for decades. Porsche has been designing sports cars for decades. To that point some auto observers say that stretching out the iconic 911 look into a nearly full-sized sedan has perhaps taken the traditional Porsche styling theme too far. They find the Panamera look a bit quirky, a bit contrived.

Be that true there seems to be a line of Lexus, Mercedes and BMW owners ready to make the switch to Porsche that don’t see the Panamera in that light. These owners of traditional luxury are ready for something spiffy while retaining the cabin space they need. Quirky in their eyes is excitement.

In person the Panamera is a head turner. Somehow the hatchback design works, and we think it works marvelously with fenders that flare out over large wheels, stylish character lines, and a slopping roof that still allows for decent rear-seat headroom while maintaining a nice balance and a captivating muscular rear end. The weak point in the package is the front end where Porsche has steadfastly maintained the 911 “gulping guppy” look. It also graces the front of the Cayenne sport utility.

Porsche says it created the Panamera to offer a sports car experience in a spacious four-door package.†And its goal has been realized. Porsche performance lives in both the naturally aspired V-8 version and the turbocharged edition. We understand that Porsche has sold more of the high-horsepower models than anticipated, and we can understand its appeal with 0-to-60 times of less than four seconds, a true sports car, but with four passengers on board.

But if the V-6 turns in big sales numbers when 2011 counting is completed, we can understand that as well. In this new age of high pump prices good gas mileage is important to everyone, even those who shell out the big bucks for a Panamera. And the fact that the 300-horsepower Panamera can turn in rewarding performance while delivering decent mileage is a big selling point.

Here’s the thing.

You give up virtually nothing with the base model. It can be outfitted with nearly all the options available on the V-8 models, and it comes standard with such technological goodies as the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission that provides quick and seamless shifts. First-gear is short for quick takeoffs, but for smooth, quick starts from the stoplight just ease into the gas and the V-6 responds as the dual-clutch imperceptibly manages the gears.

In addition to satisfying performance — don’t get us wrong, this is definitely no turbo-charged V-8 — the base Porsche can handle the curving roads of driving life without embarrassing the Porsche name on the rear hatch. This Porsche provides enough driving fun that should satisfy even the guy who has a 911 back in the garage.

The cabin is indeed a wonderful place. There’s no mistaking the interior for anything but a Porsche as styling cues from the 911 and other models can be seen throughout. As usual with Porsche, the tachometer is centered in the instrument cluster flanked by the speedometer, a multifunction display and other gauges.

And as in other Porsche, there’s no need to squint to get the actual analog speedometer readout as a digital display sits front and center inside the tachometer circle.

The Panamera lacks a central controller knob like those found in many other luxury cars, necessitating numerous buttons in the center display and flanking the gear shift lever. Sounds daunting, perhaps, but we found most of them intuitive and we had no trouble following the prompts.

The Panamera comes with four bucket-type seats, and we discovered all very comfortable. Long-distance travel should be tireless no matter what seat you are assigned.

Despite the slopping roof hatchback design, headroom in the rear is not a problem. Leg room is adequate as well. The second-row seats can be heated and cooled and power adjusted if the correct option package is checked off.

Our test car carried a base price of $75,375 including destination charge and stickered out for $82,150 after adding in several options. Buyers should be aware that there are considerable options from which to choose and they are not inexpensive. A second vehicle we tested with a variety of additional options came to $91,670 including $3,510 for 20-inch RS Spyder Design wheels; $3,655 for full leather seats; $1,990 for Porsche’s full active suspension management system; $1,480 for a Sport Chrono package; and $1,440 for a Bose sound system just to name a few.

Unavailable at any price and a disappointment to not find it in a $90,000 vehicle is a blind spot detection system; and for the money there was no navigation system.

But regardless how the Panamera is outfitted, it’s a very desirable four-place vehicle for those that can afford it.

Base price, $75,375; as driven, $82,190
Engine: 3.6-liter V-6
Horsepower: 300 @ 6,200 rpm
Torque: 295 foot-pounds @ 3,750 rpm
Drive: rear wheels
Transmission: 7-speed dual clutch automatic
Seating: 2/2
Wheelbase: 114.9 inches
Length: 195.6 inches
Curb weight: 3,880 pounds
Turning circle: 39.3 feet
Luggage capacity: 15.7 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 44.6 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 21.1 gallons (premium)
EPA rating: 27 mpg highway, 18 mpg city
0-60: 6.0 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: BMW 7-Series, Jaguar XJ, Audi A8

The Good:
• Good fuel economy with V-6
• Impressive cornering ability
• Spacious, comfortable seating for four
• Outstanding cabin

The Bad:
• No blind spot monitoring system

The Ugly:
• Pricey options kill base car value