After more than 5,200 miles of driving Porsche's new Panamera around the East Coast this summer on Road Trip 2010, I think I've developed a pretty good sense of what it's like to hang out with a celebrity.
Everywhere I went in the Panamera, Porsche's first-ever four-door coupe, people wanted to talk about it. From tollbooth workers to folks in big box store parking lots to blue bloods in fancy neighborhoods to guys hawking water on the hot streets of Baltimore, everyone had a question or a comment about the car, or a thumbs-up as they walked by it.
Often when I'd walk back to wherever it was parked, I'd find people circling it, checking it out from every angle. And it didn't stop when I was driving. More times than I can remember, I'd look over and see someone snapping pictures in the lane next to me. When I could, I'd slow down and let them take the time to frame their pictures.
After weeks of this, I suppose it started to go to my head: maybe it was me they were taking pictures of. But when I got home and took my trusty old Subaru Outback on the road, I didn't see any cameras. It was all about the Panamera.
I had originally approached Porsche about Road Trip 2010 because I knew that it was soon going to release a hybrid version of its Cayenne SUV. But I was told that that vehicle wouldn't be out until this fall. Would I like to try the Panamera?
It's hard to say no to such a question--especially because I knew I'd be driving more than 5,000 miles in whatever car I took with me, and the chance to spend that much time in high-performance German luxury sounded pretty good. But I was concerned: When I go on Road Trip, I cart a ton of gear with me, and I wondered whether the Panamera, even with two spacious rear seats, could handle me and all my stuff.
After some back and forth with a Porsche representative about this, I decided it would be fine--it would give me the motivation to pack smart, and I have to say that, in the end, the car easily handled everything I wanted to put in it, two large rolling suitcases that I was able to hide away in the rear trunk, plus a couple of backpacks and some assorted other things.
Oddly enough, the idea of the Panamera having a significant amount of storage space was driven home the other day when I was watching HBO's "Entourage," and saw that one of the characters was driving a Panamera--how cool is that, I thought, to have been able to drive the kind of car featured on a show that plays up glamour to the extreme--and there was a brief exchange about using it to lug a bunch of cargo.
When I arrived in Washington D.C. to start Road Trip 2010, I was handed the key to a Panamera S. I drove that car for 2,167 miles, at which point it conked out. Apparently, something went wrong with the fuel pump, and the car went into what I was told is called "limp mode," which allows it to drive at a very reduced speed, enough in my case to get me to the nearest Porsche dealership, four miles away.
It's surprising that a car that had less than 12,000 miles on it would break down, but it happens. I didn't end up finding out precisely what happened, or why. I had appointments to keep, and I needed to move on.
Soon, I was on the road again, this time in a Panamera 4S, which is essentially the same vehicle, except that the 4S is all-wheel drive, and can do zero to 60 in 4.8 seconds, while the S is rear-wheel drive and takes 5.2 seconds to hit 60. Both have a top (track) speed of 175 miles per hour--but I never made it anywhere close to that; I was too afraid to get speeding tickets, and though I can say I often drove the car the way I think it should be driven, my time behind the wheel didn't occasion any encounters with law enforcement.
Of course, spending so much time on the East Coast, I found myself in slow traffic many more times than I can count, and I would always think: this isn't what this car was made for. Each time, I'd vow never to let I-95--the most common culprit--slow me down again. Yet, it's nearly impossible to cover any real ground in the Northeast without giving in to I-95.
I'm not a car reviewer by trade, and there's little point in my trying to cover all the bases someone who does it regularly would cover. But I can still offer my impressions of the Panamera (also see my video review below)--a car I will say with no reservations is a lot of fun. I don't know if I'll ever be in the position to drop $114,000 on a sports car--that was the price of the 4S I was driving, counting all its options--but if I am, I would seriously consider the Panamera. (My colleagues at CNET's Car Tech do review cars for a living, however. You can see Wayne Cunningham's in-depth review of the Panamera 4S here.)
To begin with, I had heard a lot of commentary on the car's looks. Many people weren't shy in saying they thought the Panamera wasn't a pretty car, and when I first saw one, I wasn't entirely sure what to think of it. I thought it looked odd--not surprising since it had very unusual lines for a Porsche--and also that it reminded me of a Jaguar.
Yet the more I drove it, and the more times I looked at it after parking, or when I returned to it after a night in a hotel or a day of reporting, I developed the opinion that it is a very striking and attractive vehicle. I think people's stark reactions to it have everything to do with the unusual nature of a four-door Porsche--it's not compact in any way, after all.
How does it drive? It's fantastic, especially on wide-open roads, and really comfortable. Someone asked me if spending so much time in the Porsche was giving me back problems, what with its stiff suspension and all. Quite the contrary--it was seriously cushy, and even someone sitting in the back seat would appreciate the spaciousness of the four-passenger cabin.
The Panamera's acceleration was swift, and where I felt it particularly excelled was on the highway. If I needed to pass someone, I'd punch the "sport" button on the center instrument panel, and the car would explode past whomever I was trying to get around. That was always a very reassuring notion.
The Panamera features a sort of hybrid transmission--the "Porsche Doppelkupplung dual-clutch transmission (PDK), 7-speed, with manual actuation and automatic mode, gear recommendation for optimized fuel economy in manual mode." The idea, it was explained to me, was that you could drive just fine in automatic, but if you needed some extra quick acceleration in, say, urban traffic, you could pop into the manual mode, and quickly shift up or down, depending on your need.
For me, that was largely unnecessary since I was spending so much time on the highway. But it was nice to know that I had that at my fingertips--literally, since there was a button for shifting up or down right on the steering wheel.
The Panamera has a button on the instrument panel that, when pushed, turns on an efficiency feature that essentially powers down the engine when the car is stopped, and powers it back on when the brake pedal is released. I tried this a few times, and found that if the car was on any kind of incline at all, it would sort of jolt a little bit in coming back to life. I found that a bit unsettling, and tended not to use the feature.
It also had two buttons--"Sport" and "Sport Plus" that are used to provide extra power to the engine. On the 4S I drove for the second half of the trip, it seemed that it was necessary to push one of these to get a real kick off the line. On the S I had at the beginning, that kick was always there. Either way, when you clicked into either "Sport" mode, the Panamera became a serious speed machine--precisely the kind of performance driving I expected from a Porsche.
As with any high-end car, the Panamera features a nice navigation system, and I have to say that with a few exceptions, it was more accurate and easier to use than the ones I've used in cars I've driven on Road Trip in previous years. It allowed you to type in entries on the screen, and it often auto-filled in city or street names. Even better, once a destination was set, the directions would appear both on the main display screen and on a smaller, round screen built into the dashboard, just to the right of the tachometer.
That screen is also used to display many other kinds of information--such as your mobile phone's directory, or a list of recent calls, some diagnostics on the car, radio details, and more. It's well placed, easy to see, and best of all, you can control what is on that screen with simple flicks with your thumbs of buttons on the right and left side of the steering wheel. The upshot of that is that it's often very easy to glance at that small screen to see where you need to turn, or to dial a phone number--wirelessly, of course, using Bluetooth--or to change the radio station, all without moving your head, or your hands.
The Panamera is also geared to work well with Apple's iPod, and when you plug one in to the special connector that's hidden away in the center console, you can control the device using those same thumb buttons on the steering wheel. Unfortunately, you don't get full control over the menu structure of the iPod, but it's still nice to be able to scroll through songs and choose them without having to touch the device itself. Oddly, while there was no trouble getting the system to work with a normal iPod, I couldn't get either Panamera to recognize my iPod Touch--I'm thinking there might have been something wrong with the Touch itself. In addition, the system isn't set up to recognize the iPhone as an iPod. In both cases, however, I was able to get the system to at least play songs off the iPod Touch and the iPhone as wired auxiliary devices, and as wireless Bluetooth devices.
Not being a pro car reviewer, I'm not going to try to get into too many details about the Panamera's engine. Suffice it to say, it's powerful. On both the S and 4S models I drove, the cars had an eight-cylinder engine with 400 horsepower. It averaged about 21 miles a gallon, all-told, a bit higher on the highway, and a bit less in the city. It felt strong, and it drove like a champion. Not that I drove that way, but no matter what kind of car I encountered on the open road, I knew I could take them if I wanted.
Indeed, one of my favorite memories of driving the Panamera was when I was winding my way through southeastern Pennsylvania on US highway 30, and I came across someone in what I think was a souped-up Honda Civic. The kid behind the wheel clearly recognized the Panamera, and over the next half hour or so, we jockeyed for position as we sped down the highway. Finally, it was time for him to turn left, and as he did so, rather than glaring at me or flipping me off, he gave me a huge grin and a big thumbs-up.
Since June 23, Geek Gestalt has been on Road Trip 2010. After driving more than 18,000 miles in the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last four years, I've been looking for the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more throughout the American northeast. You can follow my progress on Twitter @GreeterDan and @RoadTrip and find the project on Facebook. And you can also test your knowledge of the U.S. and try to win a prize in the Road Trip Picture of the Day challenge.