Is diesel dead? Time for Rory to remind us how potent it can be in the new Panamera 4S
“They’ve only gone and ruined it.” That’s the first thought that crosses my mind as I approach the fleet of 2017MY Panameras lined up in front of me. There’s disappointment at first, then a growing anger. I’m scowling, confused, cursing under my breath, wondering what on Earth has possessed Porsche’s design team to wreak such havoc with the car’s exterior.
When it launched, the original Panamera was criticised for being ugly, but that’s why I loved it. In a world where so many cars are designed to be as aesthetically appealing as budgets and practicality will allow, it stood alone – a proud beacon of hideousness whose ungainly look was part of its charm. At least in my eyes.
But here, in front of me, stands something that is… well, it’s pretty. And it’s making my blood boil. Porsche has taken what was once a giant middle finger on wheels and made it… nice.
Words: Rory Reid
Photography: Richard Pardon
The problem, for me, is that this new model appears to have lost all of the charm that made it so special. The slightly awkward front end is now muscular and well-sculpted, with twee LED headlights.
It’s not particularly pretty in profile. I’ll concede that it still looks like the world’s foremost experts in cutting and shutting have welded together two cars that are only vaguely similar, and that’s great – it’s a talking point. But then I see the back end, and that ruins it all.
Gone is the lardy hunchback I once loved, swapped for what can only be described as a pert, attractive, 911-like rump. It’s even got haunches now, like a proper sports car. It’s all so inoffensive. The new Panamera is Gérard Depardieu with a nose job, or Katie Price without her massive, oversize chest appendages. It’s fine, but where’s the fun in fine?
Fortunately, within moments of driving the thing, it’s clear Porsche has gone to town beneath the surface, most notably with its range of engines, and most notable of all is the 4S Diesel.
Whereas the previous Panamera made do with a six-cylinder diesel, this new car goes two cylinders better. Under the bonnet is a 4.0-litre twin-turbocharged V8 that cranks out 416bhp and – this is the kicker – a quite staggering 627lb ft of torque between 1,000 and 3,250rpm, making it the world’s fastest diesel production car.
Not once does the 4S Diesel betray the fact it’s fuelled by the gunk you get from a black fuel pump. It’s silky smooth, issues a low, seductive rumble from the exhaust and, most importantly, has a turn of pace that makes you question everything you previously understood.
Bury the throttle from low speeds, and the 4S Diesel takes off like it’s possessed. Zero to 62mph is dispatched in 4.5 seconds, though our test car was packing the optional Sport Chrono package with launch control, so it knocks that off in 4.3. This thing is easily quick enough to embarrass just about anything you encounter, small, purpose-built sports cars with a Carrera badge on the rear bumper included.
Within moments, I discover that it makes no sense to drive the 4S Diesel like I would an ordinary performance car. It runs out of puff above 3,500rpm, so short-shifting through the new eight-speed PDK ’box is key. After a couple of attempts, it becomes second nature, and I’m soon being carried on a wave of acceleration the likes of which I’ve never experienced in a diesel car. Naturally, I’m eager to see just how far I can push the thing. I bury the throttle in fifth on the autobahn, and the needle climbs. Keep it buried, and the speedo nudges an indicated 177mph.
Initially, I assume that surging straight-line speed is its biggest party trick, but I’m proved wrong. It’s not long before I’m snaking through some of Bavaria’s twistiest tarmac, astonished at how much speed I can carry through corners. I take it reasonably easy at first, naturally expecting it to understeer its way towards the nearest flora and/or fauna, but it grips gamely. I push harder, and discover that not only does it hang on, it also turns in more sharply than anything this size really has a right to.
I ponder the forces at work here. Physics? They seem to have gone out the window. Witchcraft? Perhaps. But more realistically, it’s a combination of the Panamera’s newly engineered chassis (aluminium, mostly, stiffer and lighter than in the previous gen), three-chamber air suspension and, most interestingly perhaps, a new rear-wheel-steering system. Below 30mph, the front and rear wheels steer in opposite directions, tightening the turning circle. Above this, they turn in the same direction, in the name of stability.
Stopping is less interesting than it ought to be considering the Panamera’s size and 2,125kg kerbweight. Six piston calipers hug 360mm cast iron front discs, while four-pistons clamp down on the 330mm rotors at the rear. It stops well, despite science saying it shouldn’t.
While channelling my inner Senna, I remind myself that the 4S Diesel isn’t even the fastest example of the Panamera. The Turbo offering managed to lap the Nürburgring in 7:38, but I’m not convinced that the Turbo would leave the 4S Diesel for dead – certainly not on the twisty stuff. This, regardless of the engine powering it, is a car that hauls unbelievable ass.
As for economy? Well, according to Porsche, it’s off the charts. Exercise restraint, and it’ll do 42.2mpg with CO2 emissions as low as 176g/km. I don’t care what it’s powered by – no car capable of out-dragging a Chevrolet Corvette should be able to manage those numbers.
The Panamera’s main skill, of course, is its ability to exhilarate not only the driver, but three passengers who have come along for the ride. I lose count of the number of times I catapulted myself out of a hairpin while getting a shiatsu massage. Had I been travelling in the rear, I’d have vomited at these speeds, certainly, but not before marvelling at the amount of head- and legroom on offer – enough for your average NBA basketball player, I’d wager.
Of course, not all is perfect in the Panamera 4S Diesel. Here is a car that was clearly a labour of love for its designers, so much so they’ve been guilty of over-egging the pudding. Why on Earth, for example, would any car need a two-speed electric-window mechanism? I’m serious – you can choose to wind your window up slowly or, if you pull a little harder on the switch, have it close more rapidly.
Why, while we’re on this subject, would Porsche include a central air vent that cannot be controlled with the human hand? Why must I tap my way through the graphical user interface – a foot-long touchscreen – before using virtual joysticks to blow air in my direction? And why, pray tell, does the Panamera have the option to both heat and cool your seat simultaneously? Here is a car, ladies and gentlemen, that can literally blow hot air up your arse, should you so wish.
Of course, there are plenty of tech gadgets that do make sense. There’s in-car wifi, you can tweet while you drive, and the optional Burmester audio system is, without question, the best I’ve ever heard. And it’s these little things that make the overall package so special, despite my quibbles.
Ultimately then, this is a brilliant motor. I’d even go as far as saying it’s the best performance car in the luxury sector. It’s certainly the best diesel vehicle I can remember sitting in, particularly where performance is concerned. But is it enough for me to forgive the watering down of its admittedly divisive looks? I don’t think so. I like my four-seater, four-door performance saloons with more character. Yes, Porsche has given its customers the ultimate Panamera, but it’s not the Panamera I want.