Reviews

2011 Porsche Panamera Walk Around

The Porsche Panamera's appearance is polarizing. Many critics who otherwise praise the car for its performance, space and comfort consider the styling a weak spot. Some are fond of the look, if only in ugly-duckling fashion.

The V6 Panamera, introduced for 2011, has a few distinguishing features. The trim surrounding its side windows is matte black, as opposed to chrome on the V8 models. The V6's exhaust tips are oval, with a single outlet on each side, rather than two pair of round tips. It also comes standard with unique, five-spoke 18-inch wheels.

The four-door Porsche is a substantial car. Exterior dimensions such as length, width and wheelbase surpass those of mid-size luxury sedans such as the Audi A6, BMW 5 series and Mercedes E-Class, and come within a few inches of full-size models such as the Audi A8 and BMW 7 Series. Yet the Panamera body shell is built from a cocktail of lightweight materials that includes boron steel, aluminum, magnesium and high-tech composites. Hidden parts such as axles and some suspension components are aluminum. As a result, with a minimum curb weight of just 3880, the Panamera is lighter than those smaller, mid-size competitors, and nearly 1000 pounds lighter than the full-size competitors. This is important, because the lower weight contributes to the Panamera's relatively high fuel-economy ratings and sports-car-like handling feel.

Thanks to its racing heritage, Porsche pays particular attention to airflow around the body. The Panamera is the first luxury four-door with a full underbody shield, even covering the driveshaft and mufflers. This reduces both wind resistance and lift. The radar sensor for the available active cruise control is positioned to minimize the disruption of airflow, though it degrades the appearance of the front end (unacceptably to some). A cleverly hidden active rear spoiler rests under a chrome trim strip and pops up at speed to increase rear downforce.

Panamera's shape flows from two key factors: packaging, and heritage. Porsche wanted a four-door that looks like a Porsche, and that meant elements of the iconic 911 sports car. These influences include the signature shoulders or haunches around the rear wheels, a hood that sits lower than the front fenders, and a front end with no conventional grille above the bumper.

Given its role as true four-passenger automobile, the Panamera also needed the rear seat space of a sedan and the cargo utility of wagon. These crucial parameters led to a rounded four-door hatchback design instead of a traditional three-box sedan. The hatchback allows for generous rear headroom, cargo utility and a sporty coupe-style profile.

It also creates rather unconventional proportions, and a car that looks awkward from some angles. The length added by the rear doors and the high rear roofline seems to stretch the car too far. Gaze at the Panamera and there's a strong urge to chop about 18 inches out of the roof and sharpen the roof's slope to the rear. But if Porsche did that, the Panamera would look a lot like a front-engine 911. The four-door's bulbous rear end reminds us of the old 928. The net effect is a bit ungainly.

If the design isn't elegant, it nonetheless creates a presence in traffic. That large rear end stands out, and the Panamera attracts lots of attention when it creeps through a parking lot or pulls up to a restaurant.

Interior

The four-door Panamera might have the most appealing interior in any Porsche so far. It's certainly the most luxurious and best executed. Fit and finish are excellent in all Panamera variants. While its luxurious, almost bespoke quality can match some of the richest sedans in the world, the Panamera retains the sporting, playful ambience that has identified Porsche cockpits for decades.

Materials in the base Panamera are top-notch, with supple, soft-touch surfaces, and several upgrades are available. The V6 and S models come standard with three partial leather upholstery choices, while the Turbo gets full-leather upholstery in five color choices or four two-tone combinations. Interior trim is available in carbon, aluminum, or five real-wood options. Our V6 had black lacquered wood, and it was striking.

The full-leather option adds rich, heavily stitched leather to the dashboard and doors. Those who really want to personalize their vehicles can opt for an alcantara roofliner (standard on Turbo) or extra leather on just about everything, including the rearview mirror, steering column and air vents. It's all very handsome.

The driver's position is low for the typical luxury sedan, and similar to that in the 911 sports car. The standard seats may be the best there are. They're not fancy, in terms of a million adjustments, but it's easy to get them right, and they deliver a fabulous combination of support, grip and long-range comfort. The base power seats upgrade to 14-way adjustment in the Panamera Turbo, while buyers who love fiddling can choose the 18-way sport seats in all models.

The biggest problem inside the Panamera, perhaps the only potential deal breaker, is rearward visibility. The side mirrors are triangular shaped, and don't offer very broad scope. It takes a while to get comfortable with them, especially for drivers who rely heavily on the side mirrors in traffic. The rearview isn't any better. The rear glass may seem large, but its angle makes it more like a slot through the rearview mirror. Peering over the shoulders backing up, the fat rear pillars block large arcs of the surroundings. The obstacle warning helps, but what you'll see is a pictograph of potential obstacles on the dash, rather than the obstacles themselves. The back-up camera is optional and we recommend getting it. It should be standard. It makes backing up safer because it's easier to spot a child and easier because it's easier to spot obstacles. On a practical basis, it makes parking quicker and less stressful.

The V6 Panamera has a manual tilt-telescope steering column. It works well enough, but like that back-up camera, the power tilt-telescope should come standard in this league. The steering wheel itself is fantastic: thick and wrapped in tactilely pleasing leather, with just a tiny bit of give when you squeeze. A button behind the bottom spoke heats the wheel independently of the seats. The manual shift buttons on the wheel work one way, with upshifts on one side and downshifts on the other.

There are five gauges in the instrument binnacle, all large and easy to see. The tachometer sits front and center, black numbers on white background, with a gear indicator and big digital speed readout at the bottom. That's good, because the radial speedometer is marked in hard-to-read 25-mph increments. It sits to the left of the slightly larger tach, while a multi-function display sits to the right. Both of these contrast with the tach, using black backgrounds and white characters. The multi-function display shows a range of data chosen by the driver, from trip information to vehicle systems to navigation directions. Two smaller gauges at the edges complete the package: fuel level and coolant temperature on the right, and oil pressure and temperature on the left.

Some important switches are spread around the steering column. Turn signals are conventionally operated with the left side stalk, while the lights are operated with a radial switch on the dash, next to Porsche's unconventional left-side ignition switch. Wipers are controlled with the right-side stalk. Cruise control functions fill a third stalk, to the lower left, making room for redundant audio and phone controls and trip-computer buttons on the steering-wheel spokes.

Stalk-mounted cruise control isn't optimal, but Porsche's system works a lot better than that used by Mercedes-Benz, which tends to get in the way of simple turn-signal operation. The Panamera's window switches are perfectly placed in the driver's armrest, right at the fingertips when the left forearm is resting. The reading lights, sunroof switch and obstacle-warning control are collected in the headliner above the rear-view mirror.

The main barrage of switches, of course, are clustered in a center pod that flows up from the Panamera's console and around a seven-inch, touch-screen video/navigation monitor. There are upwards of 32 buttons on the dash and console, with another 18 buttons surrounding the screen.

Porsche has opted for a button for every possible command rather than a centralized controller along the lines of BMW's iDrive. At first the array is a bit daunting, but operation gets simpler fairly quickly with familiarity. The buttons are logically grouped by function and easy to reach. A central controller might look more elegant but they tend to be harder to learn, and far more distracting while driving. On the down side, the Panamera's standard navigation system can be hard to figure out.

Audio systems begin with a single CD, 11 speakers and 235 watts of power, and we found it quite good. The optional Bose surround sound system, with 14 speakers and 585 watts, is loud and clear. It matches anything in most luxury cars. The 16-speaker, 1000-watt Burmester surround sound is as clear as any auto stereo we've heard, and we've heard some good ones.

Storage up front includes a pair of cupholders in the console that can hold change, keys and other items when they're not occupied by drinks. There's also a shallow center-console box, a fairly large glovebox, and good-sized door pockets that are lined with fabric to eliminate the annoying sound of sliding glasses or CD cases. More than storage, what jumps out is the way the full-length center console creates four distinct seating pods, each with all the room and comfort the vast majority of passengers will ever need. This is one sports sedan that doesn't compromise rear seat room.

The rear seats are essentially buckets like those in front. The rear seats don't adjust in the V6 or S, but they're still comfortable and grippy, with backs reclined at a comfortable angle. Adjustable rear seats are optional on all models. And there's a lot of room. We found that a 5-foot, 8-inch rear passenger could stretch legs fully behind a 5-foot, 8-inch driver, with feet tucked under the front seat. Rear-seat headroom is even more impressive, accommodating occupants well over 6 feet tall. The copious space would make the Panamera a fine chauffer-driven vehicle, though giving up the driver's seat wouldn't be easy.

In standard trim, the rear is nicely finished, with four reasonably sized air vents that can be adjusted or closed completely. Rear seat heaters and four-zone climate control are optional. There's almost as much storage in back as in front: two cup holders in the center console and a shallow bin in the folding armrest, with small, lined pockets on the doors and map pouches on the back of the front seats.

Cargo space is impressive, too. With the rear seats up, there is 15.6 cubic feet of space behind them, or about as much as the typical mid-size sedan's trunk. Four suitcases fit easily in the Panamera, and access is easy thanks to the hatchback. A shade-type, pull-out cargo cover is optional, but the standard lift-up cover works better. It attaches with cables to the liftgate, and opens when the standard power gate rises. It's also easy to remove, but then the driver has to find some place to store that big panel.

Switching the Panamera to max cargo mode is a matter on pressing one button on each of the seatbacks. The seatbacks drop one at a time, creating a nearly flat load floor with tie downs, and a maximum 44.2 cubic feet of cargo volume that you can reach from the rear or through the side doors. That's more than what's available in mid-sized luxury wagons such as the BMW 5 Series or Audi S6.

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