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2011 Porsche Panamera (Michael Bettencourt for The Globe and Mail)
2011 Porsche Panamera (Michael Bettencourt for The Globe and Mail)

First Drive

Porsche Panamera still built for hard driving Add to ...

The 2011 Porsche Panamera in base V-6 form is a definite head scratcher: not underpowered by any means, but definitely down on both oomph and comfort when compared to other $90,000-and-up German luxury four-doors.

Yet isn't the Panamera supposed to be a sport sedan? Oh, yes, no trunk. Four-door coupe? No wait, that's supposedly a swoopy sedan these days, the rolling equivalent of a "pregnant virgin."

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Even a year after the Panamera's debut on the streets of North America with its S (V-8) and V-8 Turbo versions, there's still nothing quite like this performance-oriented four-seat luxury hatchback on the market.

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Price-wise, the new $88,000 Panamera V-6 that went on sale this summer lines up with other full-size luxury sedans with sporting road manners, like the Audi A8 and Jaguar XJ, with a similar footprint on the road as well. Plus it means the Panamera now starts at $27,100 less than before, a considerable step down the price ladder, but still in a rarefied atmosphere where usually V-8s and occasionally V-10s play.

Yet with a lower-slung body that loudly whispers extended 911 four-door more than German luxury mobile, one expects a more sporting machine than vehicles like the Mercedes-Benz CLS and BMW 5-Series GT, potential Panamera V-6 rivals that only come in V-8 form, at least for now.

Then consider that the Panamera V-6 also offers an all-wheel-drive option, making it the $92,800 Panamera 4, a sportier but much pricier alternative to luxury AWD wagons like the BMW 535i xDrive Touring and the Audi A6 Avant wagons.

2011 Porsche Panamera

These two family haulers have similar engine specs to the "entry- level" Panamera's V-6, a 3.0-litre six that Porsche stresses is derived from the Panamera V-8, and not just a version of the one in the Cayenne and other VW and Audi models. The Porsche V-6's 300 hp and 295 ft-lb of torque is an impressive engineering achievement from a naturally aspirated six, even if long-time Porschephiles would have preferred a flat-six and its distinctive song versus the same type and size of six that's in your average mainstream family sedan.

Porsche will also offer a manual six-speed transmission in this car, a feature extremely rare in performance luxury sedans bumping up to or past the $100,000 mark, but only in Europe, until North American buyers start clamouring for the true sports car experience. "It's a statement feature," said one Porsche exec, "even if only 2 per cent of our buyers actually choose it." The vast majority of Panamera buyers - even in Europe - will opt for the seven-speed dual-clutch PDK transmission, and for good reason.

Unlike conventional automatics, the PDK actually helps lower both acceleration times and fuel consumption, its official 0-100 km/h time listed at 6.3 seconds for the rear-drive, PDK-equipped version, or 5.9 seconds for the all-wheel-drive Panamera 4 when using the optional launch control that comes with the Sport Chrono package. That's about a second slower than the respective V-8 versions of the Panamera, and two full seconds slower than the take-no-prisoners 500-hp Panamera Turbo.

2011 Porsche Panamera

Turn that talk around to how much fuel each of these cars consume on a regular basis, and the V-6 comes up smelling sweeter than a friend with millions in bail money. At an overall average of 11.2 L/100 km according to the EPA, it is 1.2 litres better than the V-8 Panamera, and much less than its V-8 rivals, making the whopping 14.7 L/100 km average of the current CLS 550 seem like a relative drunken sailor, although in fairness a less thirsty, new-generation CLS is slated to arrive by the end of this year. Compared to mid-size V-6 AWD luxury wagons, both the rear-drive Panamera and AWD Panamera 4 also fare well, slotting near the top of this more fuel-conscious class as well.

From behind the wheel, the V-6 is the first Panamera that doesn't assault the eyeballs when flooring the gas, and it's hard not to miss that thrust if you've sampled any other Panamera. The engine is smooth and happy to rev, although the six-speed manual really made it sing, since it's very easy to shift the opposite way you intended with the PDK's push/pull-type buttons. And I think it would eventually bother me that my six-figure Porsche made the same power as a high-end BMW 1-Series.

Stoplights are greeted with dead silence in all Panameras this year, thanks to a reprogrammed Start/Stop system for North America that now doesn't require you to push a button for it to start - the default is on, unlike the 2010 model. This will help drivers to feel a little less environmentally guilty over idling in line at the local drive-thru or in traffic.

It's when the road gets curvy that the Panamera's performance roots truly emerge from behind the wheel. The low roof and seating position, the quick steering responses and the quick transmission of road bumps to derriere bumps all tell you that this machine was built for hard driving on smooth pavement and snaky curves.

The complex task of pinning down the Panamera V-6's main rivals also makes it tough to criticize its hefty price per pony ratio. In Europe, all full-size luxury car buyers have six- and sometimes four-cylinder options. With about half of all Panamera buyers in North America expected to opt for the V-6 version, maybe Porsche will surprisingly be the company to show other luxury makers on this continent that bigger is not always better.

2011 Porsche Panamera

globedrive@globeandmail.com

2011 Porsche Panamera

Type: Luxury performance four-seat hatchback

Base price: $88,000; as tested (estimated) $105,000

Engine: 3.0-litre V-6' DOHC

Horsepower/torque: 300 hp/295 lb-ft

Transmission: Seven-speed PDK dual-clutch automatic

Drive: Rear-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 13.1 city/8.7 highway (PDK EPA ratings); premium gas

Alternatives: Audi A8, BMW 535i Touring/GT, Jaguar XJ, Mercedes-Benz CLS

Detroit's mounting a comeback – believe it

Detroit Three
Down and almost out a year ago, America's auto makers are back in the game. Jeremy Cato reports on the Motor City's turn around

Follow us on Twitter: @Globe_Drive

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