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Relief: It's not ugly Add to ...

We now know what the four-door Porsche car will look like and it's a relief - it's not ugly.

I was worried the Porsche Panamera might be. My fear can be traced to the Cayenne, Porsche's sport-utility vehicle. It is not a styling success. The Cayenne is okay to look at, but so is the last-generation Hyundai Santa Fe.

The two bear a striking similarity to one another and if I were going to drop somewhere between $56,000 and $154,000 or more on a high-performance Porsche truck, I would not want it to look like a Hyundai that sold for $25,000 several years back.

Porsche designers were stuck with using basic Porsche styling cues for the Cayenne and they don't work very well on a big, wide, tall SUV. The Cayenne is fast and handles amazingly well for an SUV. It has also been a great sales success. But as a design study, not so much.

The Panamera is an entirely different story. It is a beautiful, low-slung car, with classic low-nose, short-rear-deck proportions. The front air intakes are low; there is no boring radiator grille to muck up the front end.

The wheel arches, meanwhile, are muscular, the wheels themselves huge - enough to completely fill up the wheel wells. The 911 Carrera design cues that seem so totally inappropriate in the Cayenne work beautifully in the Panamera.

For power, Porsche plans to offer six- and eight-cylinder engines. Direct fuel injection and turbocharging will boost output in the most powerful cars to 500 horsepower, while the six will be rated at 300 hp. Porsche also plans to introduce a gasoline-electric hybrid version, as it will with the Cayenne.

As long as there are wealthy people to buy cars next year when the Panamera goes on sale, this four-door will be a hit. The world-wide launch is slated for next summer, with the Panamera being a 2010 model.

It's great to see Porsche working hard at developing a great looking car, one that stretches the company in exactly the right direction. Of course, lately Porsche the car company has not needed hits in its vehicle lineup, not with Porsche's skill and luck at wielding derivatives.

Earlier this month, Porsche said it earned a pretax profit in its last fiscal year of €8.57 billion by managing sophisticated financial instruments. These instruments were connected to Porsche's takeover bid for Volkswagen AG.

What Porsche did is barely understandable for most people and even smart investors were caught with their collective pants down by Porsche's bold moves.

Porsche used "cash-settled options" to corner the market on most VW shares. That caught a lot of short sellers in VW - hedge funds, primarily - by surprise and they ended up losing billions as shares in VW soared.

Porsche made a bundle. Eighty per cent of its profits last year were made from playing the financial markets, not making cars. Regulators and the marketplace have both figured out what Porsche did on the way to huge profits and a controlling ownership stake in VW. So massive windfalls like what Porsche enjoyed last year are unlikely to come along again, a second year in a row.

So it's back to the boring business of making cars people want to admire, own and drive. That's where the Panamera comes in, and given Porsche's recent sales slump, not a moment too soon.

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