Introduced eight years ago, the Panamera represented Porsche’s first assault on the luxury saloon segment and – with the notable exception of its rear roofline, which I’ll politely refer to as “controversial” – the Stuttgart-based manufacturer got it very nearly right. The Panamera was fast, handled beautifully and, provided you were only planning to carry three other passengers, had a superbly comfortable cabin that was well designed and meticulously put together using top-quality materials. Indeed, so long as you could live with its weird-looking rump and compromised luggage capacity (and so long as your name wasn’t Jeremy Clarkson, who, for reasons understandable only to himself, utterly loathed it), the Pana was an absolute corker.
The second-generation Panamera was introduced in the middle of last year, fortunately with its ungainly humpback smoothed into something much more elegant, but otherwise with evolutionary styling. The revisions make the big Porsche as handsome as its predecessor should have been, and with the recent launch of a new line of Executive models (with wheelbase extended by 150cm over the standard car, overall length increased to almost 5.2 metres and rear-seat legroom up by 110cm) this rakish four-door coupe finally becomes a credible – though still left-field – competitor to the Mercedes S-Class and BMW 7 Series.
The first car to be built on a new VW-group platform that will also be shared by the next-gen Bentley Continental GT, the 2017 Panamera was initially offered with a choice of three turbocharged engines – a 2.9-litre V6 and a 4-litre V8, both petrol-powered, and an Audi-developed 4.2-litre V8 diesel – an eight-speed, double-clutch gearbox and all-wheel drive. These have now been joined by a plug-in hybrid, whose twin-turbo 2.9-litre V6 is augmented by an electric motor to deliver a total system power of 456bhp, as well as 700Nm of torque – a huge thwack of urge that’s available almost instantly from rest.
Numbers such as these should make the Panamera 4 E-Hybrid, which I recently drove both in standard- and extended-wheelbase versions, an absolute stormer – and the claimed 0-100km/h time of 4.6 seconds (4.7 for the bigger Executive) and 278 maximum are certainly on the rapid side of quick. In practice, however, the E-Hybrid isn’t quite the oversize, tarmac-devouring road rocket that those figures suggest, and though you will be impressed, it won’t necessarily be for reasons that you’d normally associate with Porsche.
Flaunting its eco credentials with badges and even brake callipers painted a lurid shade of green, the hybrid Pana is perhaps most remarkable when driven in pure electric mode. This it can manage – and in absolute silence – for around 48km and at speeds of up to 140km/h before the battery is almost completely drained and the car reverts to petrol/hybrid power. I tried it for myself, not in town but gliding calmly and noiselessly through the countryside almost entirely on electricity, covering 47km with virtually zero petrol consumption. The flat battery, however, meant that for the remaining 25km I switched the powertrain to E-Charge mode, which generates more power than is needed simply for driving and guzzles gas like a binge drinker. Nonetheless, I did eke out an average of 5.2 litres/100km for the entire 72km journey – considerably higher than Porsche’s claimed 2.5 litres, though still fairly creditable for a large and heavy luxury car.
While with both power units operating in tandem the Panamera 4 E-Hybrid is as ballistic as a luxury limo would ever need to be, one unexpected downside derives from the in-house V6, whose dissonant drone in normal drive modes is in stark contrast to the unruffled quiet of electric power. It’s a curious and unexpected shortcoming from a powertrain whose operation is otherwise so seamless. Selecting a more aggressive option from the drive menu makes the engine note more tuneful, though I doubt whether being hurled around between appointments like a rally driver is entirely appropriate for a captain of industry or finance.
What passengers certainly will appreciate, whether in the standard saloon or the longer Executive, is the pillow-soft ride comfort from the Pana’s air suspension and the sumptuousness of the cabin, its four contour-hugging chairs clothed in soft, smooth and expensively aromatic hide. Modern and almost minimal, but with beautiful materials and finish, it’s a very different interpretation of executive luxury from that of Mercedes, though no less inviting or persuasive. Those seated in the back also have the option of the Porsche Rear Seat Entertainment system that utilises a pair of detachable 10.1-inch, high-definition tablets and in addition to screening a range of media from a variety of sources also enables video conferencing and interactive displays of navigation and system-status information.
Of course, all this cosseting and tech inevitably involve a trade-off in weight, and the E-Hybrid is notably heavy for a Porsche – and particularly so in Executive guise. In fact, the long-wheelbase model weighs a staggering 2.25 tonnes unladen, and with fuel and people aboard you’re looking at around 2.5 or more.
Such portliness is partly due to the hefty battery pack that sits under the tail (hybrids weigh around 300kg more than comparable petrol and diesel versions), and in spite of the best efforts of the chassis engineers the E models are noticeably less nimble than other Panameras. So while you won’t feel much encouragement in this car to emulate such Porsche ambassadors as twice-World Rally Champion Walter Röhrl or recent Le Mans winner Marc Lieb, you’ll almost certainly be won over by its impeccable abilities both to whisk you around town in complete silence and, cushioned by those air springs, to waft effortlessly and swiftly along freeways.
As such, it’s as far from a traditional Porsche as can be imagined, delivering only some of the poise, delicacy and involvement that one experiences with a beautifully sorted Carrera, Boxter or Cayman. As an inspired re-imagining of the luxury saloon, though, it’s the genuine article.