What's the perfect car for chasing an eclipse? This was a question I found myself asking ahead of the 2017 eclipse that cut its way across the Northern and Eastern US.
My family had booked a vacation rental that was not only smack in the middle of the totality -- the darkest path of the moon's shadow -- but also happened to be nestled in among some of the best driving roads in the country: western North Carolina. This area is home to the iconic "Tail of the Dragon," but you needn't travel far to find countless similarly excellent, though far less-traveled roads.
The tumultuous terrain of the Smoky Mountains necessitated those roads, but it also creates some tumultuous atmospheric conditions, a situation not necessarily ideal for an event dependent on clear skies. Because of this, I wanted a car that could allow me to move, and move fast, if weather wasn't looking good for the afternoon totality show.
But that car couldn't just be fast. I had a two hour crawl over some torn-up, congested highways before getting to the good roads, so the perfect eclipse ride also needed a strong touring game. It also had to seat more than just two people, since it wouldn't do me much good to jet off and leave my family behind in the clouds. Finally, it needed a big enough trunk to fit a 130 mm reflector telescope with its equatorial mount, tripod, eyepieces and various other accessories.
Basically, the perfect eclipse car had to be a, and Porsche was kind enough to let me borrow a Panamera 4S for my journey northward from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and into the hills of North Carolina. It's not quite the Turbo S I'd park in the daily driver slot of my dream garage, but with 440 horsepower on tap, the 4S is not lacking in oomph. And even without the extra few cubic feet the wagonized Sport Turismo adds, there was plenty of room in the back for the bulky scope -- plus my carry-on suitcase -- without folding the seats.
My blurry-eyed trip out of ATL was made in the early morning, hot on the heels of an uncomfortable redeye flight. As I navigated through the city and then further northward I was mighty glad to have the car's lane-keep assist, active cruise and other safety systems on full alert.
But once I finally got off the highway and headed north through Walhalla, SC, making my way up toward the point where the sun and moon would strike their bullseye at just past 2:20 in the afternoon, I needed neither ADAS nor caffeine to keep me alert. As the road began to climb and double back on itself, I twisted the selector knob on the wheel through Sport and over to Sport Plus, stiffening the suspension, sharpening the throttle and opening the exhaust.
With the twin-turbocharged, 2.9-liter V6's throat cleared the Panamera sounds like a totally different beast. The feel is transformed, too, rear-steering system really helping this 17 feet long sedan hustle through the turns like a much smaller machine. After three hours on the road I was refreshed and alert when I pulled in the driveway to meet my family, and the sound of the exhaust echoing off the hills heralded my arrival with due fanfare.
As the day and time of the eclipse arrived, the sun shone bright, unaware of what was to come. Our eyes, however, were on the horizon. A few troubling clouds lingered there, but the radar was clear and so we sat tight.
The first sign of real trouble came not from the skies, but from our phones. Online weather services started dropping like flies hours before the main event, leaving us blind. Though we had a clear view to the east and, importantly, straight up to where the eclipse would happen, a mountain ridge right behind us blocked our view of the weather to come from the north and west.
Just after 1 p.m., when the first piece of the sun started to go dark, all was clear. But 15 minutes later a big, ugly, gray cloud floated into place and parked itself right in our view. Totality was fast approaching, and we hadn't come all this way to stare up into a cloudy sky.
With no satellite imagery and a limited view of the oncoming weather patterns, we were torn: Should we hop in the car and try to get away from the troublesome cloud or sit tight with our scopes and hope for the best? I took the middle course and jumped into the Panamera alone on a scouting mission, finding a narrow, sinuous road up to the top of the ridge.
Through a gap in the dense woods I could see blue skies to the West and the North, but plenty of not-so-little puffy clouds cruising about, just the sort that could ruin everything. The conditions weren't terminal, but neither were they great, and totality was now less than 45 minutes away.
I sped back down the hill, quad-tipped exhaust resonating off the trees, and tried another road, heading toward the blue skies in the hope of finding a better vantage point. All around me people were pulling off the road, getting out of their cars and squinting up at the waning sun. The two-lane strip of broken pavement was increasingly jammed with traffic. I wasn't getting far. With no signal, I could neither report back what I'd found nor find out whether things had miraculously cleared at home base.
Frustrated, and afraid of getting stuck in gridlock away from the rest of my family, I swung a quick U-turn and flew back up the mountain, Panamera's 20-inch tires complaining but never failing on the uneven asphalt.
Pulling back in the driveway I saw clouds, not only above but on the faces of everyone gathered around our two telescopes. We were now less than 20 minutes away from the main event, the totality that would deliver a mid-day twilight and unparalleled views of the coronal halo around the sun, and we couldn't see a damned thing.
Again, it was decision time: Stand there and pout, or hop back in the car and try to find a way around the troublesome cloud. While I won't pretend that given the choice between action and inaction I always go for the former, on this day and with that car sitting hot and ready, action was the way to go. There was no time to tear down the scopes, so my wife, her brother and a friend and I all piled in the Panamera and away we went.
I bypassed the tight, narrow road that had taken me up the ridge earlier and headed north and west, playing chicken with the moon's fast-approaching shadow and hoping beyond hope I wasn't about to get stuck in some godawful piece of rubbernecker gridlock. There was indeed plenty of traffic, but by now most who were going to pull over already had. The rest seemed to be people like us, people in a hurry to get to a different vantage point.
We were hardly flying, barely approaching the performance envelope of a Panamera burdened with four adults, but we were at least moving. As I drove, my passengers squinted up through the two massive panes of glass that made up the panoramic roof of this 4S. With them calling out updates on the sun's progress I frantically looked for open areas ahead, breaks in the clouds, anything.
It wasn't to be. The clouds were indeed thinning, but I had run out of time to escape them entirely. Just a few minutes before totality I finally pulled off, tucking the car behind a roadside billboard and turning my eyes to the heavens.
And just then the clouds split for just a moment, giving us a tantalizing glimpse of a crescent sun before closing again and consuming all sight of it. Still, the experience was far from over. Around us the crickets were chirping, a hint of confusion in their song, and everything grew silent -- everything, that is, except for a gaggle of locals in up the hills somewhere who heralded the event with a fusillade of small-arms fire.
And then it got dark. Suddenly, weirdly dark. Though we couldn't see the sun above, we could see the darkness approaching from the west. As it swept across us, a chill of cool electricity was in the air. Totality was tempered somewhat by frustration, but it was still an incredible experience.
As the afternoon dawn quickly rose, we climbed back into the Panamera and pulled onto the road. Ahead of me, a big, ugly, gray SUV blocked the curves ahead, floating along at 15 mph below the posted speed limit. But after just a few turns it pulled aside. The road cleared, the sun began to shine down again and I put my foot down, knowing that even if the skies above hadn't cooperated, I at least had a pretty epic drive to come.