When choosing a car for the track, it’s key to choose a ride with certain distinct criteria — things like sports-car dimensions and weight, great handling, two seats, an eye-brow singeing top speed and extreme impracticality for everyday driving. But what if your tool of choice just happens to be a luxury sedan? In that case, you obviously like challenges; maybe you’re the kind of guy whose idea of a workout is strapping a bag of rocks to your back and scaling a hillside in track spikes. Or maybe your choice of luxo-sedan just happens to be the 2014 Porsche Panamera ($78,100+). The Panamera’s DNA comes straight from the 911, so it knows a thing or two about attacking curves and straightaways like a ravenous lion on a hapless wildebeest. That’s exactly what we did at Atlanta Motorsports Park, where all good Porsches like to get out and play.
2014 marks a mid-cycle refresh of the big Porsche sedan, but the non-obsessive driver would never tell the difference between the subtle, more cohesive exterior of this Panamera and the car it replaces. As much as we loved the first Panamera, we’ll admit it was never beautiful in the same way as the 911. Porsche’s responded to some of the criticism about the Panamera’s bulbous back end by making the backup lights longer, thinner and based at the bottom edge; coupled with creases that extend the length of the upper roofline, this softens the curvature and makes the hunchback less pronounced. The front fascia has also been cleaned up. Now available in full LED, the headlights are crisper, having lost the slight kink at the leading edge, where the headlight washers were; they’re now retractable and flush with the body. The unpainted plastic section of the rear is more pronounced — which sounds like a bad thing, but reduces the visual thickness of the back end, working like a horizontally striped shirt on a fat guy.
The more drastic refresh happened under the hood, just where we like it. Gone is the big 4.8-liter V8 in the 4 and 4s, replaced by a twin-turbo 3.0-liter V6 that ups the horsepower from 400 to 420. If 8 cylinders is a must-have, the GTS still houses a naturally aspirated one with 10 more horses than last year’s 430, and the king of the hill Turbo bumps the horsepower output from 500 to 520 thanks to its twin turbos. As if anything in the Panamera line wasn’t fast enough already, the S E-Hybrid (formerly S Hybrid) gets a beefed up electric motor, punching its original 380 horsepower up to 416. That’s the kind of oomph that’ll keep lesser hybrids from even crawling out from under their sad, dirty rocks.
You drive the Panamera hard: brake with authority, release as you enter the turn and then just hammer it like Thor on a bad work day.
Our day began with a spirited caravan drive to the track, one that garnered more than its fair share of looks. The Panamera has a strong presence all by itself; try seven of them end to end, hurtling down the highway. Even at legal speeds, the Panamera begs to be driven and driven hard, despite its size. At 75 mph we hadn’t even skimmed the surface of its fire-breathing chops. The track beckoned from a distance.
Once we arrived, the tarmac-loving Porsche staff gave a quick driver briefing for formality and safety purposes, but they kept it appropriately short — this was about the driving. The array of cars included the S, 4S, Turbo and S E-Hybrid, all at the ready for us to drive as we pleased.
Even on cold and slightly damp track the Panamera instilled confidence, planting consistently in both rear-wheel- and all-wheel-drive versions. In fact, the more laps we drove, the more we forgot about the car’s weight (4,000+ pounds), and that there are two more doors in back plus a cargo volume that no sports sedan should have. The Panamera excelled at driving the line and hitting the apexes. On the Turbo and the S, with rear-wheel-drive, the back end kicked out predictably and smoothly with the traction control intervening only slightly. There wasn’t a single section of our multiple laps that made us question the car’s ability to point and shoot; there wasn’t a single moment where we felt the need to pull back on the reins. You drive the Panamera hard, braking with authority, releasing as you enter the turn and then just hammering it like Thor on a bad work day.
The Panamera’s theme of “Thrilling Contradictions” couldn’t be more true. In just about every major sport-luxury sedan comparison, the Panamera crushes the competition. Sure, it’s not the pinnacle of luxury, but that’s not the focus for the Porsche folks. Driving experience is central; everything else about the car is built around it. The morale of the Panamera’s story is that you can have a car that’s incredibly practical, with the ability to haul your family and friends in extreme comfort (just wait for the stretched Executive versions, which are 5.9 inches longer), and you can drive the living hell out of it like you can a 911. That sporting DNA is that evident in the Panamera, and all things considered, that should make no sense whatsoever.