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sports cars

2012 Porsche Panamera.anatol Kotte

Porsche is not an SUV company, nor a hatchback company, though the Cayenne SUV and the Panamera hatch do make a strong case for one, the other, or both. So what is Porsche?

Well, let's start where hard-core Porschephiles might find what we'll call the hard truth: through the first quarter of this year, Porsche sold more than twice as many Cayenne SUVs (14,867) as rear-engine 911 Carrera sports cars (6,536), even though 911 sales were up 37.6 per cent worldwide.

Porsche is a legendary and well-loved maker of sports cars, of course, but it earns the biggest bucks on SUVs and to a lesser extent Panamera hatchbacks (7,467 in the first quarter). That not-so-secret dirty little secret begs the question: If the Cayenne is Porsche's best-selling model by far, what is Porsche? Is Porsche more Jeep than, well, Jeep? Are sports cars now just a sideline business for Porsche? I mean, Porsche sold a piddling 1,361 Boxsters and Caymens in the first quarter. If Porsche's trucks and four-door cars dominate, what sort of company is it?

These are not idle questions for gearheads with a German bent. I can tell you, at the huge Porsche Rennsport Reunion last November in Monterey, where thousands of Porschephiles gathered to pay obeisance to the brand and its history, a big chunk of hard-core Porsche owners spoke often and loudly and even fearfully about the future of the brand.

The long-running and still not consummated takeover of Porsche by the sprawling Volkswagen Group remains a worry. And Porsche's growth plans, the move into new segments, including the upcoming SUV smaller than the Cayenne, are also a concern. Porsche aims to sell 200,000 vehicles a year by 2018. No matter how successful the 911, Boxster and Cayman sports cars may be, 200,000 is only possible if Porsche sells more non-traditional vehicles – SUVS and four-door cars of all sorts, and moves perhaps as many as half of them in China.

My own take on Porsche is this: at its core, Porsche is an ambitious German car company that is more than anything logical, rational, analytical and objective. And I'd argue that's why this Stuttgart-based auto maker, while on the surface something of a contradiction, is nothing more than a left-brain-dominated car company. Its ranks are filled with passionate engineers – many of these engineers may have balked at the idea of going into the SUV and luxury hatchback business to survive, but who eventually came to realize the strategy makes sense and has worked.

Porsche is here and growing, and fantastically profitable, regardless of the worries of the hard-core enthusiasts who decry the VW influence and the SUV/hatchback expansions. Indeed, as of May 1, Porsche increased its worldwide sales by 29 per cent to 30,231 vehicles. Year-over-year revenue was up 32.4 per cent to €3.025-billion ($3.89-billion). Operating profit reached €528-million, 18.4 per cent more than in the first quarter of 2011.

Porsche, then, is making bags and bags of money. In the first quarter, Porsche's operating return on sales was 17.5 per cent. That sort of return puts Porsche among the ranks of high-tech companies in terms of earnings. Matthias Müller, president and chief executive officer of Porsche AG, told me in an interview that Porsche succeeds because the vehicles deliver a driving experience that is a blend of rationality and pleasure. Porsche owners buy a combination of peak performance and sportiness, mixed with efficiency and practicality – right across the model range, he said.

And while at times finicky, Porsches last. The company says that about 70 per cent of all the Porsche vehicles ever built are still on the road. In the most recent J.D. Power and Associate 2012 Vehicle Dependability Study, Porsche was No. 1 among European car brands and the 911 was ranked tops in its segment.

Porsches tend to survive over the decades and many are worth more today than when they were new. Auto Bild and Schwacke, for instance, reports that the Porsche Panamera Turbo is the most price-stable car in its class, at least in Germany – with a residual value after four years at 56 per cent of the original price.

So Porsches last and they also perform. The new S Coupe version of the 911, for instance, lapped the Nürburgring's Nordschleife circuit in 7:40 minutes, some 14 seconds faster than the previous model. Want a comparison? The latest 911 can do the Nurburgring as fast as the old 911 GT3 – the road version of the Cup racing car.

Porsche company types say the new 911 is fast and responsive because the engine is more powerful, the car is lighter, the chassis is better in every way and high-tech systems such as Porsche Active Suspension Management (PASM) and Porsche Dynamic Chassis Control (PDCC) and Porsche Torque Vectoring (PTV) squeeze everything possible out of the car and its driver.

This being the new "green" age of the automobile, Porsche has a buzz phrase called "Porsche Intelligent Performance" that describes planet-saving initiatives such as auto start/stop, thermal management and electrical system recuperation. Porsches can now coast when power isn't needed thanks to this mouthful: Porsche Doppelkupplungs-getriebe or (PDK).

And as they told us at the launch of the new 911, "The sports cars' new electro-mechanical power steering offers not only Porsche's typical precision and feedback but also helps to increase efficiency and reduce fuel-consumption." For 2012, fuel consumption and emissions are down 16 per cent compared to the old car. So Porsche's left brain is at work, heeding the times. The Panamera and Cayenne hybrids suggests that, as well.

Yes, Porsches go fast and look the part. But if you ask the Porsche types what the secret is, you get a very left-brain answer: value retention. Two out of every three Porsches ever built still exist because they have value to their owners and in the marketplace.

Valuable as Porsches have proven to be, we're no longer talking about a pure sports car company. We never will be again, either. So what is Porsche? It's a left-brain car company that makes some pretty good sports cars.