Remember when people still ripped on Porsche for building four-seat cars? I’m talking four adult-sized seats, not the toddler chairs in a 911. It all seems so quaint, now that the Panamera sedan and a pair of SUVs—the Cayenne and Macan—are together responsible for 75 percent of Porsche’s U.S sales. The market hasn’t spoken, it’s screaming through a 1,000-watt megaphone: We expect Porsche performance. But we also demand practicality, a Porsche that family and friends can enjoy.
If that compromise isn’t for you, you’re welcome to buy a traditional Porsche sports car—anything from a Boxster convertible to a bonkers 911 GT2 RS with 700 horsepower.
But here’s the thing: The new, second-generation 2017 Porsche Panamera isn’t much of a compromise. The Panamera, with no hyperbole, might be the world’s best luxury car right now. It delivers performance and technology on rough par with a Ferrari gran turismo like the GTC4Lusso—and more than any comparable Aston Martin or Bentley—at less than half the price of those highfalutin' brands. For people who crave luxury and creature comforts, but have no desire for a Mercedes S-Class or other full-size sedan, the Panamera delivers on all fronts—yet still drives uncannily like a Porsche sports car.
Critically, the Panamera finally looks like a Porsche sports car, too. The first-generation Panamera, released in 2010, drove great. Then your eyes met that Quasimodo of a rear end. For many aesthetes, the Panamera’s style, or lack of it, was a deal killer.
If the deal dies this time, it won’t be because of the looks. Against all odds, Michael Mauer, Porsche’s design chief, has made this Panamera appear streamlined and downright handsome. The car is 1.3 inches longer, with a 1.2-inch longer wheelbase; it's actually 0.2 inches taller, too. Yet designers played down the car’s optical height, including a more steeply canted roof. Occupants sit closer to the floor, so the Panamera’s headroom and backseat—designed around the six-foot, five-inch frame of its former CEO—remain famously accommodating. And though the car is just a quarter-inch wider, the designers fool your eye: Gym-toned rear fenders, 3D taillamps, and a full-width strip of LED light create an impression of dominating width.
The Porsche lands another one-two of style and technology inside, from its perfectly correct sport seats and driving position to swoon-worthy luxury. Now, count me among people who actually enjoyed the previous Panamera’s banked center console, striped with dual rows of switches that weren’t half as confusing as some journalists suggested. Either way, it’s all replaced by the Porsche Advanced Cockpit. A handsome pair of knurled metal switches controls cabin temperature, but virtually every other control operates via a dramatic 12.3-inch touchscreen—including convenient, drag-and-drop widgets—and a flat black console panel with flush-set haptic switches. A second screen, affixed to the stern of the front console, lets rear occupants fiddle with audio and climate settings.
Drivers peer at an enormous central tachometer flanked by four digital, symmetrical and configurable dials. There’s online navigation, Apple CarPlay, and Porsche Connect apps. It all recalls something from Captain Kirk’s sexy spaceship dreams. This Panamera makes as beautiful and modern an interior statement as any car on the road, with design, materials and Swiss-watch craftsmanship that make a Tesla look like a used Toyota. And this from Porsche, a company that, not so long ago, seemed like it would ride Blaupunkt AM/FM radios into the 21st century.
I’ve railed against haptic feedback switches in cars from Lexuses to Cadillacs, with their typically cheapo feel and haphazard operation. Lo and behold, Porsche’s haptic switches are the best yet—not least because they work when you touch them, first time, every time. Performance-based controls, including for the adaptive suspension, respond with a firm and satisfying click, like a traditional button. Main menu switches respond with a lighter, whispery touch. But poking the touchscreen still pokes a few holes in the Porsche’s game: Screen menus are a bit scattershot, with some miniature and illegible icons that fall prey to the dainty-switch disease that’s begun to infect several luxury models. Slanting sunlight also tends to bounce off the mirror-black console surface, washing out the controls.
I force a six-foot-five companion into the back seat. His hair brushes the headliner—an effect exacerbated by reclining the rear seat—yet he proclaims himself plenty comfortable for a multi-hour drive. Here, the Porsche plays another trump card from its loaded hand, with family-sized accommodations and more luggage space than many full-size luxury sedans.
From the Nissan Maxima of the Nineties to today’s Aston Martin Rapide, automakers have claimed the creation of a true four-door sports car. Ladies and gentlemen, the Panamera is it. Consider the (admittedly gorgeous) Rapide; its backseat is barely fit for a circus performer, and its performance and technology pale before the Porsche's. Yet its base price is more than double the Panamera 4S's.
The Panamera is certainly a thicker slab of fleisch than a 911, stretching nearly 199 inches in length and weighing 4,123 pounds in the all-wheel-drive, Panamera 4S trim of the model I drove. A 911 Carrera 4S is 22 inches shorter and weighs about 700 fewer pounds. Yet the harder I drove the Panamera, the more it seemed to slough off its weight and dance like a more-slender car. Credit Porsche’s Da Vinci code of tech magic, including the electromechanical roll stabilization of PDCC (Porsche Dynamic Chassis Control); an optional air suspension with three-chamber air springs and PASM (Porsche Active Suspension Management); PTV Plus, or Porsche Torque Vectoring; and optional rear-axle steering, which thankfully gets no abbreviation. It’s all integrated with 4D Chassis Control, which analyses and synchronizes the myriad systems in real time to optimizes handling.
Power is served up, generously, via an Audi-based 2.9-liter twin-turbo V6 with 440 horsepower and 405 pound-feet of torque. The new V6 emits a chuffing, high-dollar exhaust note to its 6,800-rpm peak. The reward is a 4.0-second rip to 60 mph in Sport Chrono-equipped versions—along with with a remarkable 21 city/28 highway mpg fuel economy rating that’s identical to a 911 Carrera 4S.
Ante up for the Panamera Turbo, with its 550-horsepower V8, and the trip to 60 mph takes 3.4 seconds. Porsche’s dual-clutch PDK automated gearbox was already an industry benchmark, and the new Panamera trades its seven-speed for an all-new eight speed version with two fuel-saving overdrive gears. (Both the 4S and Turbo hit their top speeds, a respective 179 and 190 mph, in sixth gear).
I keep straying farther and farther afield in the Porsche, so seduced by its performance and comfort that I don’t want to come home. I flash back to a drive of the first-gen Panamera Turbo, the car that I topped out at 185 mph on the German Autobahn, so effortlessly that a sleeping back-seat colleague never woke up. This Panamera drives better, tighter, and altogether with more agility. It feels magisterial when I lope down the highway, especially with the suspension in Comfort mode, but it’s always ready to draw its sword. Accepting the challenge of a favorite test gantlet—Route 301 east of Cold Spring, New York—the Panamera digs into forested curves with almost shocking pace and gusto, and digs out with a palpable boost from its rear-axle steering. The eight-speed PDK is like having a genie aboard, so many steps ahead that there’s no need to even shift for myself...though I have fun trying.
As in the 911 or Cayman, electric steering seems perfectly considered for heft, response and robust on-center feel. I happened to jump from a Panamera to a BMW i8, and while I’ve always enjoyed BMW’s exotic hybrid sports car, its numb, super-boosted steering made it feel like a synthetic Lexus clone in comparison with the Porsche’s organic delights.
My Panamera's lavish roster of gizmos included Night Vision and adaptive cruise control, but not the new electronic co-pilot called InnoDrive, which I’m dying to test. Using three-dimensional navigation data, InnoDrive lets the Porsche automatically tackle winding and hilly roads, calculating and choosing optimal acceleration, deceleration and coasting. Speed limits and other cars are accounted for via radar. All the driver has to do is steer. A Porsche that regulates its own pace on curving roads, including at fairly impressive g-force loads should you choose, is something even Tesla’s vaunted AutoPilot can’t do.
This generous size and all-encompassing performance is fairly priced by today’s luxury standards: At a base freight of $100,950, the Panamera 4S actually undercuts a 911 Carrera 4S by more than $10,000. Ah, but for any Porsche model, there are options: Nearly $40,000 on my version, for a bottom line of $139,000. Those ranged from charmingly old-school—and charmingly no-cost—ashtrays front and rear, to night vision and a nearly $7,000 Sport Package. Style upgrades included $3,790 worth of black cabin leather carbon-fiber trimmings for $1,990, and 20-inch Panamera Turbo wheels for $1,790.
As with the 911, you could fill a soccer stadium with Panamera variants. They range from the China-friendly, long-wheelbase Executive models to a $185,000 Panamera Turbo S E-Hybrid that cranks out 680 horsepower, just 20 fewer than the apocalyptic 911 GT2 RS. A new body style, the 2018 Panamera Sport Turismo, may satisfy station-wagon fantasies like no other car.
That phrase, “Like no other car,” kept flashing in my head while I drove this machine. The Porsche's closest analog must be its German sedan/hatchback cousin, the Audi A7. Now, I adore the Audi and its performance offshoots, the S7 and RS7. Yet on an apfel-to-apfel basis, the Panamera frankly crushes the A7/S7/RS7. The Porsche is faster and more fuel-efficient. It handily beats the Audi's handling and is more fun to drive. The Panamera's gearbox is faster and sharper, the brakes stronger. The Porsche also feels more modern, advanced, and luxurious inside, a remarkable thing considering Audi's renowned interior design.
If I had 900 miles to go and 12 hours to get there, I might grab the keys to the Panamera over any current car—especially if I wanted a daisy-fresh driver and passengers by the end. That includes any traditional yacht-sized sedan, where fun and sport isn't a top priority. I'd urge you to drive one yourself to test that theory. Porsche’s ugly duckling is no more, replaced by a swan that might rule the luxury flock.
Lawrence Ulrich, The Drive’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home. Email him at Lawrence@thedrive.com.