Porsche Keeps the Speed and Adds Some Room

What a very bad time to come out with a very good car. The top end of the luxury-car market is down 40 percent this year—even worse than the overall automotive business, which is off about 30 percent. And yet Porsche is coming ahead with the 2010 Panamera, a much-anticipated superposh sports sedan.

The racy four-door four-seater, set to go on sale this fall, has been on the design slab for some time, conceived well before the economy began careening off track. Porsche is hoping that in this rare instance timing isn't everything. Indeed, the car's unique, goose-bump-inducing features just might lure reluctant buyers. The Panamera is an unusual blend of true sport performance, deluxe styling, and comfort for four full-size adults. Roomy like the Cayenne SUV but sporty like the Carrera, it fits in an automotive category by itself.

As luck would have it, I was vacationing in Europe while Porsche was previewing the car to the automotive press. I couldn't imagine a better way to improve on a European holiday—and on the autobahn, no less. I took the keys and took off.

I felt some trepidation at first. Would this family car, with its modern and lavish interior, swap the sportiness I expect from Porsche for size and a glam image? The Panamera and I started our daylong journey in Elmau, Germany. We wound through storybook villages nestled below massive limestone mountains, the jagged peaks relinquishing the last tufts of winter snow. Just like all Porsches, the Panamera offered a deep and satisfying symphonic exhaust note that echoed through the hills. Very nice.

The Panamera comes with a new quick-shifting double-clutch transmission called PDK, standard on two of the three models. The driver can use steering-wheel-mounted paddles to shift manually if she wants, or the car will do it automatically. I was surprised at how seamless shifting was, feeling no loss of power or traction as the gearbox worked through the gears. Then I played with buttons on the center console, which acts as the car's brain to alter its personality. In Comfort mode, the shocks stay soft to ride smoothly over rough road. Then there's Sport, for a tighter ride through twisty terrain. And Sport Plus on the Panamera's turbo model will go from 0 to 100 kph in a skin-contorting 3.8 seconds, or so the company says—crazy for a car this roomy and comfortable. I didn't have a timer, but punching the gas definitely induced an adrenaline rush.

I worked my way onto the auto-bahn, found a stretch that wasn't speed-regulated, hit the Sport Plus button, and floored it. The car automatically hunkered down about an inch, lowering its center of gravity. The shocks tightened. One hundred kph, 200 kph, smooth, easy—sheer joy. Three hundred kph, with no end in sight to the available torque or power. Hard to envision anyone driving this way with the kids in the back seat, but still good to know you could. And then—a note from the onboard computer alerting me that tire pressure was too low to sustain my high speed. Rats. And yet, thanks for the warning. I slowed to a more reasonable pace and tried to wipe the grin off my face. Not possible.

Porsche promises to offer the Panamera in a hybrid model at some point. For now it comes in three flavors, all powered by a 4.8-liter V-8 engine: a base-level rear-wheel-drive S model ($89,800) has 400 hp; a 4S four-wheel-drive edition ($93,800) also has 400 hp; and a Turbo model ($132,600) produces a thrilling 500 hp. A smaller, six-cylinder engine—in both rear-wheel and all-wheel drive—will be available in about a year.

I stopped the Panamera in a small village to take a few snapshots. Within seconds, several locals ran out of their shops to get a good look. I don't speak German, but the nose prints left on the car's windows attested to the widespread recognition and anticipation of this next-generation Porsche. Cool is the same in every language.

Porsche Keeps the Speed and Adds Some Room | World