Can the four-door Porsche Panamera still do what’s expected of a Porsche?

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Porsche claims that producing a four-door GT, such as the Porsche Panamera is, was a dream of company founder Ferdinand Porsche, although until 2009 they have been the preserve of independent tuning firms and determined individuals outside of the company.

That said, Porsche did flirt with the idea itself in 1998, when then Porsche engineer Ulrich Bez was tasked with preparing a prototype four-door GT to build on the success of the 928. It became the 989, a front-engined, rear-drive saloon with the general shape of a stretched Porsche 911. It never reached production, but some of its details made their way onto the 993-series Porsche 911.

The Panamera is brilliantly stable at speed, no doubt thanks to unrestricted autobahn testing

Porsche arrived at the Panamera project determined to ensure its official take on the four-door GT did not dilute the brand's reputation for sportiness. It delivered on that promise, producing a four-seat, four-door car which, although not immediately endearing itself completely to either Porsche’s customer base or the luxury segment, took both to places they’d never been to before. 

Its maker claims the model wildly succeeded its own expectations, with the facelift in 2013 designed to keep the sales chart ticking over especially in America and China, the latter now the biggest market for the Panamera

The headline addition to the line-up is intended to make an impact stateside. The E-Hybrid is now a petrol-electric plug-in model capable of around 20 miles on electric power alone thanks to a newly developed battery. Twinned with the same supercharged 3.0-litre V6 from the previous car, Porsche claims a total output 410bhp and a somewhat fanciful 91.1mpg with CO2 emissions of just 71g/km from the high-tech, 2095kg saloon. 

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Elsewhere in the range, the most notable mechanical change brought by the facelift is the replacement of the 4.8-litre V8 in the Panamera S with a new 414bhp 3.0-litre twin turbocharged V6 mated exclusively to a PDK dual-clutch automatic transmission. The seldom-seen manual has been discontinued.

Beneath it, the range still kicks off with the 306bhp 3.6-litre V6, sells in bulk with a 3.0-litre V6 diesel motor and tops out with the 513bhp biturbo version of the V8 aboard the seriously expensive (and four-wheel-drive only) Turbo. The 434bhp naturally aspirated eight-pot lives on in the leaner GTS


Porsche Panamera rear spoiler

Porsche says all of its cars use styling cues taken from the 911 as their basis and the Panamera is no different. The shutline of the Panamera’s bonnet, for example, and the high-set front wings, are obvious Porsche 911 traits, as is the falling side window line.

Matching these to a car other than a rear-engined two-door coupé is not the challenging part of the design. The difficult part is making the traditional Porsche 911-style sloping roofline work with this luxury hatchback’s proportions. On almost all hatchbacks the downward curve is reversed at some point by a boot lip or spoiler, but not on the Panamera. And it’s the way the roofline curves that’s the most controversial – and, to our eyes, least successful – element of the design.  

The raised profile of the front wings is one of Porsche's styling trademarks

The raised profile to the front wings is a Porsche styling trademark. The bonnet can’t be so flat between them, of course, because the engine is in the front, hence the ‘power bulge’. For the 2013 facelift, little happened that will alter the Panamera’s silhouette in a layman’s eyes, but for a Porsche designer, the changes are significant. 

At the front there are now larger air intakes (considerably larger if you opt for the GTS or Turbo) and the linework has been tweaked for a more dynamic appearance, aided by the adoption of new headlights.

At the back there’s a clear differentiation between generations thanks to the relocation of the number plate. Along with a wider windscreen and bigger clusters, the emphasis here is on a lower stance and increased width.

The result is a broader backside, but not necessarily a cuter one. As before, all Panameras get an automatic pop-up spoiler, but the Turbo and the GTS’s is more extravagant, not only rising but also sprouting two winglets that sweep outwards as it extends upwards.


Porsche Panamera dashboard

Porsches rarely sit directly alongside their rivals, but the Panamera is marked out further by having four seats to the more common five, and by the fact that convention dictates a big luxury car should have a saloon boot rather than a hatchback.

Nevertheless, its interior finish has been executed to a superb standard. In terms of perceived quality, Porsche has nothing to fear from any car with a list price of less than £100,000. 

In terms of perceived quality, Porsche has nothing to fear

The layout, with its tall centre console running throughout the cabin, was originally featured on the Carrera GT, and has now migrated across Porsche’s lineup. Of course in the Panamera it means that there are two individual chairs in the back rather than a bench. 

In many ways that made life easier for Porsche, because the seats can (optionally) be widely adjustable in a way that a bench can’t be. The formula has proven so successful that the 2013 refresh, while distinguishable outside, barely made a scratch on the inside.

The slightly inboard rear buckets still offer a better view ahead, and rear legroom is adequate within a typically generous class. An Executive version, with a 15cm longer wheelbase, is now offered to satisfy the demands of the back-seat obsessed Chinese market.

Up front, the chairs remain on the supportive end of comfortable – this is a Porsche, after all – and the driving position is first-rate. The Panamera’s minor controls are still a little on the fussy side, but they’ve been around long enough now (and repeated elsewhere) that it’s easy to overlook how fiddly it can occasionally be to interact with the navigation and audio systems. 

Otherwise, with typical Porsche accuracy, the car does all you could ask of it. The dials are first rate; defined by the gun-sight rev gauge, and always memorable for the dial which doubles as a sat nav display.

The E-Hybrid gains some embellishments to set it apart from the rest of the range. Porsche has decided that lime green will be its colour shorthand for e-mobility, so you get brake calipers, dashboard needles and exterior badging finished in that shade.

More significant tweaks include a Power Meter that depicts the threshold between electric power and combustion, and assists the driver in maintaining zero-emission propulsion. Further assistance is provided by the accelerator pedal, which features a noticeable pressure point change to denote the point in its travel at which the V6 will kick in.

There are also E-Power and E-Charge buttons on the centre console for toggling between the driver modes, but even in this eco-focused luxury saloon the surroundings are unmistakably those of a Porsche Panamera


Porsche Panamera side profile

One of the Panamera’s defining features is that it moves and sounds like a Porsche rather than conforming immediately to the conventions of the luxury car market. The end result is that, because of its inherent size and weight, the model tends to work better as more power is injected into it. 

Thus the entry-level 3.6-litre V6-powered car and the current 3.0-litre V6 diesel model struggle to stimulate the driver. Neither are asthmatic – even the oil-burner will hit 62mph in 6.8sec – but nor can they be considered quick.

The entry-level V6 petrol isn't quick but it's a perfectly serviceable choice

The petrol six-pot is at the very least free-revving and quietly characterful; the hand-me-down diesel, although popular thanks to its 44.8mpg potential, is neither, and feels too often like an unfortunate compromise. 

A similar accusation could be aimed at the E-Hybrid, which, although not suffering from a lack of pace, is just far too soulless for consideration outside of a city centre, or the United States. Objectively, the bigger battery has given the model better flexibility and eco credentials, but it’s still tagged to Porsche's lacklustre 3.0-litre V6 engine and the combination only feels quick in the most benign way imaginable. 

The other debutante first seen at the 2013 facelift is far easier to like. The 3.0-litre V6 is essentially a fettled, downsized and twin-turbocharged version of the 3.6, and it feels impeccably well honed for the job at hand. The V6’s reticence at low revs is eradicated by the 383lb ft available at just 1750rpm, and, thanks to a new balancer shaft, it’s just as refined on the motorway as the V8. It’s possible that returning buyers will miss the old V8’s braggadocio when pushing on, but if maximum attack is your default position, then the GTS is still the superior choice

With its V8 bulked up to 434bhp for the facelift, the GTS’s 0-62mph time (thanks mostly to the ever-sleeker seven-speed PDK dual-clutch automatic gearbox) descends to 4.4 seconds. But it is the way that it gets there and the way that it roars towards 7000rpm that set the naturally-aspirated eight-cylinder engine apart – perhaps even from the mighty Turbo above it. 

That said, if you want the ultimate in time-crushing, continent-crossing pace, then there is no other four-seater quite like it. With 516lb ft driving all four corners, the blown Panamera grips and goes like a car carrying far less than its near two-tonne burden.

The stats are faintly ridiculous – 8.9sec to 100mph quick enough for you? – but then so is the car. The Turbo, as it is elsewhere, is a statement of incredibly muscular intent.



Porsche Panamera rear quarter

At 1931mm wide, the Panamera takes up more road space than a Land Rover Discovery, but on anything from a decent B-road up the Panamera actually feels a lot smaller and more nimble than its size suggests.

Mostly this is down to the steering, which, if not identical to that of Porsche’s sports cars, shares some of the same characteristics. Namely, that it is precise and feelsome. 

The steering shares precision and feel with Porsche's sports cars

Driven at medium speeds, the Panamera feels endlessly capable, but it doesn’t provide quite the same fluidity or thrills you get with a Porsche 911 or, for that matter, a Jaguar XFR. Whether that is an issue is, of course, entirely personal.

What is clear is that some of the misgivings we previously had for quality of ride dispensed by the standard Porsche Active Suspension Management system have been addressed. 

For the 2013 facelift, and doubtless with those rear-seat Chinese buyers in mind, Porsche has sought for a better compromise between handling and high-end comfort.

The software that controls the damper and air spring rates was recalibrated, oil flow-through was modified in the adaptive dampers and the front suspension mounts were strengthened for better solidity. The result is a less tetchy Panamera, and one generally not unsettled by the kind of slow-speed intrusions that tripped up its predecessor. 

Such fettling means, in the UK specifically, that the car’s superior brand of handling can be pushed that bit closer to its potential. As before, this is better enjoyed in rear-wheel drive format, making the Panamera S that bit more desirable than it otherwise might have been.

The lighter, shorter V6 is mounted further back than the V8, and with no all-paw drivetrain to power, it lends the big Porsche an appreciable sense of balance and agility to go with the unfathomable grip. 

Of course if you prefer, the latter can be carried to the nth degree. The GTS remains the most interesting of those models, endowed with the Porsche Traction Management system and thanks to the tightened-up running gear, but the Turbo is the one Panamera which actually feels as though it really needs drive sent to all four wheels to better mete out its potential.


Porsche Panamera

At the entry-level, the Panamera is a reasonable package with acceptable running costs. The diesel’s 166g/km CO2 emissions, for example, will be a draw to many potential buyers. However, it’s still far too easy to inflate the asking price with even modest ticking of the option boxes.

Even after the facelift, Porsche still sees fit to charge punters for items like a rear wiper, which seems ridiculous for a car that can’t be had for less than £60k.

The Panamera's extensive options list soon pushes prices up

All the models come equipped with a seven-speed PDK transmission apart from the E-Hybrid and diesel V6, which possess an extra cog and ratios that are optimised for more frugal cruising. 

If, like a sizeble proportion of Panamera buyers, you’re not concerned with the cheaper options, there’s a notable jump to the new V6-powered S model. The smaller engine offers some obvious benefits over the old V8, while economy has increased to a credible 32mpg and CO2 emissions cut to 204g/km. There is a small penalty in opting for the 4S, but certainly not enough to put off prospective buyers already comfortable with the price tag. 

As it was meant to, the E-Hybrid makes for an attractive prospect if you live in or commute to central London. With CO2 emissions of just 71g/km, the model dips under the 100 percent discount threshold deliberately set at 75g/km to benefit the new generation of plug-in hybrids.

As that fact pits the Panamera against ‘rivals’ such as the Chevrolet Volt and Vauxhall Ampera, Porsche could plausibly argue that it is the only show in town at the moment.

That won’t last, though, and everyday, variable driving at greater distances quickly shortens the advertised 91.1mpg economy back towards a figure that might reasonably be expected from a diesel engine.

Beyond the E-Hybrid in terms of price are the GTS and the Turbo, both of which offer sub-30mpg (at a barely-achievable best) and arguably fall some way outside the normal concerns of a running cost equation.


4 star Porsche Panamera

Back in 2009 we said the Panamera didn’t fit properly into the luxury saloon segment but with the Porsche's arrival the class had become all the more interesting.

Four years later, there’s still a distinct aura of the maverick about the Panamera's vim and vigour, but advances in its rolling comfort, powertrains and running costs have gently broadened the appeal of Porsche’s four-door gamble. 

Porsche, as you might expect, has put the driver first

The influence of the firm’s Chinese customers is clearly not to be underestimated. It is the reason why Porsche has gone to the expense of introducing a lengthened variant, and probably why it has tinkered with the formerly firm ride quality. But who are we to complain? Especially if the end result is a Porsche that works just as well in Sheffield as it does in Shanghai. 

Efforts to satisfy buyers in Seattle as well have improved the previously redundant hybrid model, but its huge weight and suspect economical advantage mean it will remain a niche product in the UK.

The diesel will not, but oil burner fans are advised to wait for the Panamera to receive the ballistic biturbo motor currently wowing Porsche Cayenne buyers. Doubtless it will have a similar effect in Porsche’s saloon, where a continued focus on driver involvement tends to make the quicker Panameras the better ones.

The new S model doesn’t suffer much for the loss of the V8, but the emphasis on a certain level of commitment – still necessary if you want to fully appreciate the car’s point – mean it’s the GTS and Turbo that endure on the fantasy shortlist for those with four seats to fill and continents to cross.

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Porsche Panamera 2009-2016 First drives