2019 Porsche Panamera GTS first drive review: Hitting the sweet spot

In a world of big luxury sedans, the Panamera has always been the alternative choice. Somewhat compromised on the comfort side of the equation relative to cars like the Audi A8 or Mercedes-Benz S-Class, its performance has consistently been on another planet than those land yachts. The new generation of Panamera, introduced in 2017, cleaned up the controversial look of its predecessor, while myriad handling tweaks (like rear-wheel steering) delivered the kind of poise you wouldn't expect from a machine weighing in the neighborhood of 4,400 pounds.

Now it's time to take that kind of performance to the next level with the 2019 Panamera GTS, a new, $128,300 flavor of Porsche's sedan. It offers a fine selection of performance-oriented options, plus some other upgrades, creating the most dynamic Panamera yet.

The package

Panamera GTS takes the base Panamera formula and bolts on many of the more speed-minded choices from the options sheet, things like the racier exhaust, 20-inch wheels, the Sport Chrono package and the Turbo's trick, three-section folding rear wing.

On the inside, the GTS carries seats with Alcantara inserts, plus a matching headliner and a steering wheel wrapped with the same soft-touch material. Contrasting-color seat belts and logos are available as well, if you need the extra pop. The analog lap timer stands proud at the center of the dashboard, and the GTS is the first Panamera with a head-up display that can (optionally) beam back at ya through the windscreen.

Yes, the HUD shows speed and navigation and all the usual stuff, but this is the most dynamically configurable HUD I've ever seen in a car. Spend a little time poking around in the Porsche's infotainment system and you can make the HUD show pretty much anything you like, dragging and dropping everything from a speed limit display to a G-meter into six slots, creating a totally custom layout.

2019 Porsche Panamera GTS

The Panamera's new HUD is completely configurable.

Porsche

Darkness is the theme on the outside, with much of the car's trim blacked out, including (optionally) tinted lights and ebony wheels. Front and rear fascias are distinctive to the GTS and more aggressive than the base car, but if none of that is enough to help identify the car, prominent GTS decals lurk just behind the front wheels.

Enough about the look, let's talk about the important stuff. The Panamera GTS makes 453 horsepower from its 4.0-liter, twin-turbocharged V8. That's up 20 ponies from the old Panamera GTS, which still had a V8 but lacked the turbos. That's a mere 13 more horsepower than the current Panamera 4S, but torque is up significantly from 405 pound-feet to 457. An eight-speed, dual-clutch transmission and all-wheel drive get the car to 60 miles per hour in just 3.9 seconds, 0.3 second faster than the Panamera 4S. 

GTS models are typically more about handling than power, and indeed that's the case here. The Panamera GTS' standard air suspension rides 10 millimeters lower than normal Panamera, while 15.3-inch steel front brakes are standard -- though the optional carbon ceramics are the same size as those on the capital-T Panamera Turbo: 16.5 inches.

Torque-vectoring differentials and all the other goodies in Porsche's PDCC Sport package add $5,000, while the rear-axle steering is another $1,620. Those wanting the ultimate handling will want to tick both.

2019 Porsche Panamera GTS

Under the lights on the track -- not something you can do just anywhere.

Porsche

On the track

My time in the Panamera GTS began with a lengthy period on the roads around Bahrain, a place that, suffice to say, did not allow me to stretch the capable legs of the car. I was at least able to verify that the GTS hasn't compromised on the overall comfort and capability of the base Panamera.

As far as the leg-stretching goes, that's what race tracks are for, and indeed Bahrain has a very nice one of those. Bahrain International Circuit has played host to the Formula One circus since 2004, and it's a fantastic place at which to test Porsche's latest Panamera.

The front straight at Bahrain is almost three-quarters of a mile long, while the back straight that leads to it is only very slightly shorter. That means two very heavy braking zones in quick succession. Hauling a 4,400-pound car down from nearly 150 mph is quite a task, yet the carbon ceramic brakes on the GTS handled the job with aplomb, running six laps in succession in the desert heat (and humidity) without fade and with only minimal complaint.

And what about the corners between those prodigious straights? A signature track of designer Hermann Tilke, Bahrain International has about as much finesse in its shape as the contents of a box of spaghetti spilled on the floor. Despite that, it makes for a compelling circuit to drive, and a compelling challenge for a car this big.

I've mentioned the 4,400-pound weight multiple times, but let me now point out that the Panamera, at 198.9 inches, is just 7 inches shorter than a Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedan and about 2 inches wider. This is, then, in every way, a really big car that has no right to be really good on a race track.

Yet that's exactly what it is, composed and and balanced and, yeah, fun. Turn in gently and the car follows, but doesn't exactly leap to the apex. It's when you're more aggressive with the steering on the lower-speed corners, like the ultratight first turn, that the car not only reacts quickly but will happy kick the tail out.

Turn 1 is as much a test of patience as handling, but on the faster, sweeping corners it was possible to get a proper feel. Turn 12 is a long, fast, off-camber right-hander that's a real test of balance -- and commitment. Taking it too fast, the GTS slid wide just like any car would, but a light brush of the brakes to add a little more weight to the front had the nose tucking right back in, ready for the next corner.

In a car like this and with limited time on the track, it's always hard to know how much handling prowess comes from innate chassis balance and how much comes from modern marvels like torque-vectoring AWD and rear-wheel steering. Regardless of what went in the mix, the feast Panamera serves tastes very good indeed. 

2019 Porsche Panamera GTS

Sedan or Sport Turismo? This choice, at least, is obvious.

Porsche

Just right?

The 440-horsepower Panamera 4S starts at $103,000, while the 550-horse Panamera Turbo is a rather more dear $150,000.

The 453-horsepower Porsche Panamera GTS starts at $128,300 in sedan guise, a price that splits the difference between those two almost exactly. If you're purely looking at horsepower, however, the GTS skews more toward the former, but as I mentioned above this package is more about dynamics and engagement than outright shove.

And it is a very well-equipped package out of the box, but as with all things Porsche there are still many more options to peruse. One box worth ticking, if nothing else, is the step up to the more wagony Sport Turismo variant, starting at $134,500. $6,200 is indeed a big up-charge for a tiny amount of extra cargo space, but the improvement it makes to the car's shape is worth every penny.

So, then, is this the perfect Panamera? We'll need some further seat time before passing a final verdict, but based on first impressions, if you want engagement but not the ballistic speed of the Turbo or indeed Turbo S E-Hybrid, then the GTS hits the Panamera performance sweet spot with a bullet. If, however, you really just want a comfortable car that handles, stick with the 4S or the E-Hybrid and save some cash -- or maybe tick a few more of those boxes.


Editors' note: Roadshow accepts multiday vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews. All scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms. However, for this feature, the manufacturer covered travel costs. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists.

The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's editorial team are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.

Discuss 2019 Porsche Panamera GTS