Porsche chief Matthias Mueller eased the fears – at least partially – of true Porschefiles around the globe earlier this year. The brand's customers, he told the annual conference in Germany, "don't want a smartphone on four wheels or the biggest touchscreen in the centre console. At Porsche there's no room for window dressing."
Porsche cars and sport-utility vehicles, he insisted, are all about power and handling, not connectivity and autonomous driving. Drivers are welcome; gizmo shoppers go elsewhere.
Weeks later, Porsche underscored its bona fides by kicking Audi off the top of the podium at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Satisfying? Porsche had returned to Le Mans in 2014, only to suffer a humiliating meltdown; with powertrain woes, just one entry managed to cross the finish line under its own power.
This year, Porsche's 919 Hybrid race cars finished first, second and fifth, with a pair of cars from Audi, its sister Volkswagen Group brand, sliding into third and fourth place after going 1-2 in 2014. The fourth 1-2 Porsche result in history (the others were 1971, 1987 and 1998) was critical for brand-building.
Porsche has felt the sting of criticism from old-schoolers who have feared the worst since the Cayenne SUV launched at the start of the last decade. Then, when Porsche was swallowed whole by the VW Group earlier this decade, the fiercest worriers and naysayers wept, certain the former sports car maker – now primarily an SUV company based on sales – would be diminished within the VW Group.
Their fears were not completely unfounded. After all, VW became the world's biggest auto maker after the first half of this year. VW builds its business on sharing parts and platforms across models, model lines and many brands. How long will it be, many have wondered, until pieces of the VW Golf end up in an entry-level Porsche?
Never, argue Porsche's bosses. They insist that keeping the brand pure is absolutely essential. The sports cars, the Panamera hatchbacks and the SUVs, are the embodiment of the brand; they will forever be nothing but Porsche, through and through. It's the experiences associated with the products that create the magic, so those products cannot be compromised. Porsche, they argue vigorously, makes authentic vehicles; without purity, Porsche experiences cannot happen.
The pressures on Porsche are real. The brand has embarked on the largest, most ambitious expansion in its history. This year, Porsche will sell 200,000 or more vehicles and China is on track to become Porsche's largest market, despite the country's recent economic woes. Rapid growth, in fact, bit into Porsche's legendary profit margin last year yet the growth will continue. Porsche plans to add a seventh model line by 2020. Details? None yet from Porsche.
Speculation is running rampant that Porsche might make a smaller version of the Panamera, or a true wagon/shooting brake model. Analysts also think there is room for Porsche to land a new super sports car model somewhere between the 911 Turbo and the 918 Spyder hybrid – say in the $300,000-$400,000 range.
Certainly Porsche needs to keep a sharp eye on its rivals. Aston Martin, moribund for years, has announced a massive remake of its entire line by 2020. Ferrari is readying an initial public offering that could raise $10-billion (U.S.) or more. The bulk of the funds will be used to prop up parent FCA, but some will also be plowed back into new and more Ferrari models, as promised by FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne.
As for the existing Porsche lineup, the Macan compact SUV introduced in April of 2014 has been a smash, but it faces increasing competition. Mercedes-Benz, for example, is about to launch its all-new GLC and BMW later this year will introduce the second-generation X3 in Europe, followed by a global rollout.
Then there's Tesla. The start-up battery car company has proven there's a rich market for premium battery cars among wealthy eco-warriors. At the annual meeting this year, Mueller conceded that Tesla has built an "exceptional" car, one that has set the "standard" for electric vehicles. To be successful with any future battery car of its own, Porsche needs at least to match the range of a Tesla Model S, as well as exceed its performance on the road and at the recharging station.
Porsche already offers plug-in hybrid variants of the Cayenne and Panamera. It's possible we'll see plug-in variants of every Porsche model before the end of the decade. As Porsche's Le Mans performance showed, a hybrid can be a very exciting race car, a winner and a Porsche that delivers the experiences owners crave – real and highly personal, as well as vicariously through the brand's successes on the track
Nonetheless, there is clearly a limit to how much and how fast Porsche can expand. No one from Porsche will say what that limit is. But we all can see that authentic as a Porsche experience may be, if everyone is driving one, it would no longer be special.
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