Like most things Porsche, the 2010 Porsche Panamera 4S isn't easy to classify. At first, we were tempted to call it a squashed Cayenne, but the driving characteristics took that comparison out of the running. And although we were reminded of the 911 4S while behind the wheel, we just couldn't bring ourselves to call it a stretched 911.
No, Porsche came up with a unique new car that stands on its own in the model lineup. In broad strokes it takes its place among German flagship sedans such as the BMW 750i, the Mercedes-Benz S550, and the Audi A8, but the Panamera 4S's sport handling makes those other cars look like stately luxo-barges.
Of course, the fastback design of the Panamera also puts it in its own class. Yes, that is a full hatchback at the rear providing a tall luggage area--a strange hint of practicality in such a pricey vehicle. The first spy shots of the Panamera produced quite a bit of negative reaction towards its styling and, though that was mostly undeserved, the long cabin does give it an odd proportion. After spending some time with it, we've come to like the rear quarter and the nose section quite a bit.
Luxury interior, sports car ride
Sitting in the cabin, the fine leather, woodwork, and metal components led us to expect a luxury ride. But the seats were surprisingly hard, and the suspension didn't exactly smooth out the timeworn asphalt of city streets. Instead, the car let us feel the road as a sports car would, communicating changes in the pavement so we could react accordingly.
The Panamera 4S comes standard with Porsche Active Suspension Management (PASM), adjustable with one of the many buttons running down the console. By default, PASM is set to Comfort, although that is not really the adjective we would use. Its two other modes, Sport and Sport Plus, are designed for more enthusiastic driving, but we found that only Sport Plus kept the car screwed down tight enough for satisfying cornering.
PASM works by continually adjusting the shock absorber response based on driving sensor data. Porsche also offers an air suspension with the Panamera, which can change the ride height by an inch, but we didn't have that option on our car.
The car let us cycle through the various suspension modes with a single button, or we could choose to push the Sport or Sport Plus buttons, which not only activate the appropriate suspension mode, but also sharpen throttle response and adjust the transmission programming.
Porsche powers the Panamera with a 4.8-liter V-8 using direct injection and variable-valve timing to achieve 400 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque. Power was immediate and the engine made a delightful roar as it brought us to 60 mph in a Porsche-claimed 4.8 seconds. Actually, our car shaved .2 seconds off that time due to the optional Sports Chrono Package Plus. More than a nice-looking timepiece set into the dash, this package gives the car an extra power boost for fast starts.
We were also impressed by fuel economy from such a big and powerful engine. EPA numbers put it at 16 mpg city and 24 mpg highway, whereas our mixed city, mountain, and freeway driving produced 18.2 mpg.
Part of that decent fuel economy number is due to the standard Porsche Doppelkupplungsgetriebe (PDK), Porsche's relatively new dual-clutch, automated, manual transmission. With seven gears, it lets the engine maintain around 2,000rpm at freeway speeds. A low curb weight of only 4,101 pounds contributes to fuel economy and performance.
But what we liked best about the PDK was its readiness to downshift. A slight push of the gas pedal while on the freeway, and the gear immediately drops from seven to six. Further pressure on the gas pedal encourages lower gear shifts, resulting in exhilarating power. The combination of engine and transmission makes passing other cars an enjoyable pastime.
Putting the Panamera 4S into the corners, it showed that a five-door hatchback could perform like a two-seater. In Sport mode, the PDK showed a willingness to get the engine speed up for power, but we felt a little too much suspension travel. For maximum fun, Sport Plus was just the thing. While cornering, it kept the engine speed up to ridiculous levels, with the tachometer needle continually brushing up against the 7,000rpm mark. Meanwhile, the car stayed flat on the pavement, resisting bounciness, and swinging quickly through the turns.