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Porsche wraps a 4-door hulk in racy corset

The 2010 Panamera sedan is filled with luxury and speed. But compared with a 911, this thing handles like well-upholstered field artillery.

June 26, 2009|DAN NEIL

FROM ELMAU, GERMANY — The new Porsche Panamera is the best-handling big sedan in the world, which I grant is a little like being the smartest kid on the Arizona State football team or the most chaste governor of South Carolina. No matter how hard you try -- and Porsche's engineers have busted their adorable lederhosen here -- a 4,344-pound, 16.3-foot four-door cannot beguile physics like a sports car, and it certainly cannot be made to handle anything like a 911.

The Panamera thus presents Porsche with a problem of brand ontology: What is a Porsche? If you've spent much time in a Boxster, Cayman or 911 Carrera, new or old, you know the feeling of these cars: cold-rolled and heat-tempered, hard and light, nap of the Earth, edgy and reactive, ineffably masculine, a disposition that is to other sports cars what Dexedrine is to Geritol.

The Panamera is none of that. Compared with a 911, this thing handles like well-upholstered field artillery.

There's nothing flickable or silver-heeled about the Panamera, and although its limits are truly spectacular -- the Turbo model with the Sport Chrono package can carrier-launch from zero to 60 mph in 4 seconds, generate 1 g of cornering force and brake to a stop from 188 mph in a tongue-unraveling 7 seconds -- the Panamera requires nothing so much as deliberation at the wheel.

This is a big car (76 inches wide on a 115-inch wheelbase) with a mighty 4.8-liter V8 up front (400 horsepower, or 500 hp in turbo trim).

There's no trailing-throttle oversteer bringing the tail around as there is in a rear-engine 911. No capering through the esses. Yes, you can make the Panamera do amazing things. Bring a whip and a chair.

Porsche's chieftains know they are trying to bridge a conceptual gulf here, so you'll notice the advertising harping on this notion of this gran turismo being a "true" Porsche, to the point of protesting too much. I take a different view. It's a car made by Porsche, with breathtaking engineering that is routine for Weissach. The materials are exquisite, the seats are fantastic, the four-seat interior design is the best on the market and the whole thing is so summarily pleasurable it makes me want to empty out the nearest FDIC-insured facility with a tommy gun, a la John Dillinger.

To nail the throttle, and bring all 567 pound-feet of torque online (in Sport Plus mode), is to know the giddy excitement of falling into a black hole. That 1,000-piece horn section that must have played unceasingly in Richard Wagner's balmy head? It's in the exhaust.

I love the big, through-cabin console with its switches arrayed like the stripes on a sergeant's sleeve. Among the hundredweight of amenities are things such as a second navigation display embedded in the instrument panel and an optional Burmester audiophile sound system, a 1,000-watt, 16-channel/speaker unit that is the best road-going audio I've ever heard.

The damned car is magnificent. But it is not made of the same charmed isotopes as the 911, and therefore is not a Porsche. Sorry.

Ironically, the company's determination to have the Panamera received as a true Porsche has led to the car's greatest downfall: its exterior styling. Or is that a pratfall? If you look closely, you'll see that styling chief Michael Mauer has essentially taken the front and rear of a 911 and rudely grafted two sets of sedan doors in between. I understand this was done in the name of brand continuity, to retain the styling vocabulary of Porsche, in which there is real equity. But, jeez, this isn't styling -- this is some kind of weird enlargement surgery you go to South America for.

We've been here before. When Porsche introduced the Cayenne sport utility vehicle seven years ago, the company turned itself inside out explaining how a 5,600-pound SUV with a two-speed transfer case was spiritual heir to a 917 Long Tail. But it turned out that it really didn't matter. The Porsche SUV turned out to be the heresy that everyone was looking for, and the Cayenne became Porsche's bestselling model. Like the Cayenne, the Panamera is vital to Porsche's long-term profitability and plans for expansion -- and, one assumes, the ultimate goal of taking over VW, the minnow swallowing the whale.

The company expects to build 20,000 Panameras a year at its Leipzig, Germany, assembly hall.

The base model is the rear-drive Panamera S ($89,900); then there's the all-wheel-drive 4S ($93,000) and the Turbo ($132,600). All U.S.-spec cars will be equipped with the exquisite seven-speed, double-clutch PDK gearbox. Within a year Porsche will offer a V6 base model and -- brace yourself, Sunshine -- a hybrid version.

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