For old-school Porsche loyalists, the past decade has been a test of automotive faith. First came the great sacrilege of 2002: the Cayenne, a bloated SUV aimed at status-seeking commuters and socialite soccer moms. Then, in 2009, came the second blow: the Panamera, a luxury-laden sports sled with four doors and the dimensions of a minivan.
How could this be? To a dyed-in-the-wool sports car believer, a Porsche must be as small, and it must have a rear-mounted boxer engine and two doors, in the same way that the Pope must be Catholic.
So as I fired up a new Panamera S, controversy was my co-pilot. Was this really a Porsche? I wasn’t sure.
Compared to Porsche’s best-known car, the iconic 911, the Panamera is huge, and its shape violates the traditional Porsche form language: A 911 looks like a torpedo with a windshield; the Panamera conjures up a giant, swollen tennis shoe.
My outlook began to change once I dropped into the driver’s seat. The interior was comfortable yet compact, like the cockpit of a jet fighter that had been given a makeover by Giorgio Armani. The V8 engine burbled under the long hood. I knew that the Panamera had adjustable suspension. I found the switch and selected Super Sport – there was a hiss of distant valves, and the car began to sink, hunkering down on its suspension.
Out on the highway, the Panamera was stunning, with phenomenal power and huge grip from the steamroller tires. Traffic parted before me - I was commanding one of the world’s great autobahn juggernauts. Two hundred and fifty kilometres an hour (and possibly a jail cell) was a throttle touch away.
This was a different brand of speed. Pavarotti was singing an aria through the concert hall quality sound system, with a bass track underpinning provided by Panamera’s 400 horsepower V8. The Bluetooth system synced effortlessly with my BlackBerry, and my contact list popped up on the Panamera’s dashboard screen as if commanded by a digital genie.
The highway was empty. A police car went by me at about 150 kilometres an hour, obviously on his way somewhere important. I saw him look at the Panamera as he passed, and he gave me the thumbs up. I tucked in behind him for a few minutes, blasting smoothly through the night.
Back in the city, I had some misgivings. The Panamera was a great highway hauler, but I couldn’t get past its size. It filled my garage like a giant Bluefin tuna that had been hauled into a fisherman’s dory. Who needed a car like this? I’d rather have a Porsche 911 and a fuel-efficient five-seater when I wanted to cruise with friends. I wondered if the Panamera would sell.
The next day, I got a new perspective when my wife and gave a couple we know a ride to a party. They instantly loved the Panamera. “I want one,” she announced. He did too.
They weren’t alone. People stared at the Panamera wherever we went. As its driver, I had stepped into the spotlight at the centre of a grand social stage. When I stopped at the grocery store, a young guy who looked like Kanye West ran up to me and shook my hand. “Brother, that's a wicked ride,” he said. “You're rolling in style.”
But the Panamera still wasn’t the Porsche for me, and I would have traded it in a second for a 911. But my tastes are obviously not universal – within a year of its introduction, Porsche had sold more than 22,500 Panameras,. The car’s success illustrates the delicate commercial balance that a manufacturer like Porsche must strike. Although their brand equity is based on their history of making small sports cars, confining themselves to that segment alone would be commercial suicide.
Ironically, the success of big Porsches like the Cayenne (which accounts for 50 per cent of the company’s annual sales) and the Panamera is to the benefit of small-Porsche fanatics like myself – selling big Porsches pays the rent, so the engineers can keep designing and building the Porsches that the true believers really want. As Adam Smith said, the invisible hand of capitalism moves in mysterious ways.