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car review

2012 Porsche Panamera Hybrid.

The "most economical Porsche" is not exactly a Toyota Prius, but at 7.1 litres/100 km combined, no one should be sniffing at the fuel economy here. I mean, this is a Porsche with seating for four that travels from pump to pump with the efficiency of a Toyota Camry.

And, of course, everyone who drops $108,700 on a Panamera Hybrid is doing so to save the planet. Of course. Absolutely. The typical One Per Center isn't so much interested in this Grand Turismo's 270 km/hour top speed, nor the 6.0-second 0-100 km/hour sprint. No, it turns out the Porsche Panamera Hybrid owner wants a 1,980-kilogram eco warrior capable of winning a fuel economy challenge.

Just kidding. Or am I? Who knows? Porsche has created a fuel-thrifty Panamera with V-8 performance and better-than-typical V-6 efficiency in a total package that drives like a – well, a Porsche. Really. It's the truth.

Another truth is that here we have a hybrid powertrain that in effect is shared with the Porsche Cayenne S Hybrid and the Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid. The supercharged, direct-injection gasoline engine is straight out of the Audi S4 and the new Audi A7. Welcome to the Volkswagen Group, Porsche. And how do you Porschephiles feel about that?

The gas engine is rated at a healthy 333 hp, the electric motor at 47 hp, and the combined output is a whopping 380 hp, with 427 lb-ft of torque. That's a lot of get-up-and-go. I mean, the V-8 in the Panamera 4S ($108,900) is rated at 400 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque.

And it's quite a tidy little bit of engineering, this Panamera Hybrid, even if the guts of it comes from the generosity of the Volkswagen Group. In a nutshell, this parallel hybrid – which means the car can run on gas alone, electricity alone or some combination of both – consists of an electric motor sandwiched between the V-6 and the eight-speed automatic transmission. Porsche has included a clutch between the engine and the electric motor and – oh, the let's skip the engineering lesson.

Here's what you need to know. Various sensors and a computer brain dictate when you are and are not going with gas, or electricity or a combination or nothing at all. That is, the engine can be completely de-coupled in "coasting" or "sailing" mode to save fuel.

You can also drive a couple of kilometres on batteries alone, though that was never my experience during my test drive. Real eco warriors will want to punch the E-Power button to optimize their "green" driving. Doing so discourages use of the gas engine by remapping the throttle. In bumper-to-bumper traffic you inch along in near-silence, mostly on battery power.

Now if you do feel compelled to air out this puppy, the electric motor adds a boost of power, one muscular enough to light up the rear tires (yes, the Panamera Hybrid comes in rear-drive only). Fast, fast, fast. In so-called "Boost" mode, the gas engine and electric motor deliver power simultaneously to the gearbox, if the battery is suitably charged.

Alas, while the performance is V-8-like, the aural joys are not. This baby does not sound like a snarly V-8, or even a sonorous V-6. No, it just sounds like it's working hard. But at least when you prod the throttle everything jumps right to attention. Wham! You're gone. One very smart brain is at work here, putting together all the instruments in a world-class symphony.

And another thing: the eight-speed Tiptronic transmission uses 7th and 8th as what you might call overdrive gears to promote fuel efficiency. The gearing, then, is notably long and gear changes are silky.

So, too, are all the stops and starts of the engine. This Porsche hybrid is constantly flipping the switch from gas to electricity to a bit of both. On and off goes that V-6 with astonishing regularity. This is not a jarring experience, but it's noticeable and, of course, a commonplace with all hybrids. In any case, the fuel economy numbers show how well all this works.

If you want to show the world how "green" you are, the car has hybrid badges on the rump and front doors. Nothing else proclaims this a hybrid though; in all other respects it looks like a normal Panamera S, which is a design I happen to like, though not everyone is in agreement about this four-door Porsche with the hatch at the rear and the fold-flat rear seats.

I like the cabin, too. But again, not much in there screams "hybrid," other than an E-Power meter alongside the familiar instruments. The onboard computer displays some pretty graphics that depict what's doing what – gas engine, electric motor, regenerative braking and so on. The rest of the interior is straight Panamera, with all its jet-fighter-inspired array of buttons and switches.

What should not be lost here is the very nice work of the Porsche engineering team. They managed to take all the weight and complexity of a hybrid – to package two different drive systems, gasoline and electric – and get them to work together hand-in-globe.

The result, dynamically, is a Panamera Hybrid capable of driving with all the balance and precision of a Porsche car with four doors. It's all about managing the distribution of the hybrid components, I'm told. The end result is a big, heavy four-seater that drives like a lighter two-seater.

The Panamera S Hybrid is an engineering marvel, yet if we get a Panamera diesel here in Canada, it will be at least as fuel-efficient and not nearly so complex. Government regulators like electric cars, however, so first come the hybrids. Diesels? You'll be hard-pressed to find a politician singing the praises of a fuel-efficient diesel.

Congratulations to Porsche for creating a hybrid that delivers on the brand's promise. No doubt a tidy portion of Panamera buyers will go Hybrid. Driving the most economical Porsche is the green thing to do, after all.

2012 Porsche Panamera Hybrid

Type: Grand touring luxury sedan

Price: $108,700 (freight $1,115)

Engine: 3.0-litre V-6

Horsepower/torque: 333 hp/325 lb-ft

Hybrid/electric: 47-hp electric motor and 288-volt nickel metal hydride battery pack

Net hybrid power: 388 hp/580 lb-ft of torque

Transmission: Eight-speed automatic

Drive: Rear-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 7.6 city/6.8 highway; premium gas

Alternatives: BMW ActiveHybrid 7 L, BMW S400 Hybrid