Twenty years ago, the first Porsche limousine rolled off the assembly line at Stuttgart; four doors, 8 cylinders, wide fenders, big brakes and a period correct Alpine stereo system. It was built in small quantities, by hand. To those who knew, it was distinguishable at a distance, but to the man on the street, it was invisible. Truly a car for the one percent – in terms of both means and taste.
You won’t find it in any of the Porsche catalogs of the era. It was called the Mercedes-Benz 500E. And it wasn’t an AMG anything. Back then, AMG was an independently-owned speed shop, a Roush Performance with a stern accent.
Today, AMG has ceased to be a speed shop. It’s not even really the zenith of Mercedes-Benz performance cars; it is now another trim level of SUV for affluent mothers. You’ll find more C63s parked outside beauty salons than at Mosport. They are bought not for their performance characteristics, but simply because it is the most expensive trim level of a given model line, and the AMG badge lets everyone know that. The badge matters now.
A car like the original W124 500E would be dead on arrival today. In an era of conspicious consumption, a $160,000 Porsche-engineered sedan that’s barely distinguishable from an E550 has a slightly worse chance of success than an anti-global warming film does at the Oscars. Enter the Panamera. It is a Porsche, not a Mercedes. If we’re being diplomatic, it is distinct looking, and is designed expressly to inform everyone that you have arrived. One look at the old 500E and the new Panamera is strong evidence that vehicular vulgarity has risen in proportion to income inequality.
Once you’re inside the Panamera, the ungainly looks become less of a concern. The interior is a cavalcade of buttons that overwhelms at first, but their functionality and ease of use beats the knob-and-touchscreen systems that Mercedes et al now employ. Nobody would ever accuse to Panamera’s interior of being simple, but like that of the W124, it is elegant. The view out of the hood is decidedly old school as well; you can actually see over the hood, so that the corners of the fenders are visible. Most modern cars seem to have a hood that disappears off the metaphorical cliff. This little touch makes the 16 foot long Panamera markedly easier to maneuver in urban traffic, a small benefit that isn’t readily apparent but goes a long way with its intended client base of upper class working stiffs who need to weave their way in and out of construction zones and clogged lanes.
The blogger brigade that breathlessly reported on this car’s debut last year was perhaps over-eager to use Porsche’s own PR copy describing this car as some sort of track ready Panamera. Let’s get serious. It’s got 30 horsepower more than the standard Panamera 4S, as well as suspension and brake bits from the Turbo, but the only time that one of these will see track time is at a Porsche-sponsored lapping day for owners. The lawyers, accountants and finance executives mentioned above don’t usually have the time or inclination for an HPDE day. That doesn’t mean they can’t get their kicks elsewhere.
Porsche probably knows this, and I’d bet that’s why the GTS excels at the Stop Light Grand Prix. Between the all-wheel drive system and the 7-Speed PDK gearbox, there is no way you will lose any sort of unsanctioned speed contest to anything short of a Nissan GT-R. The GTS posts an identical 0-30 time (1.4 seconds) to the Panamera Turbo S, despite a 120 horsepower deficit. As the speeds increase, a gap develops, but when will you find an open quarter-mile in the financial district? Rest assured that the view below is what every other driver will be seeing of you.
I’m not philosophically opposed to this car like certain brand purists are, but one has to wonder: what’s the point of the Panamera? The argument is this: Car companies exist to make a profit, and Porsche needs to diversify beyond impractical sports cars to ensure its survival in the future. A sedan is a natural extension of the brand after the Cayenne, and a good way to use up capacity at the Leipzig plant.
But I don’t want my Porsches to be practical, nor do I want my luxury sedans to feel like a Porsche. A hard ride and a noisy exhaust in a 911 are undeniable facts of life. In this car, they are a simulacrum, a consolation prize given to you by Porsche because your wife wouldn’t let you by a 911.
And that’s ultimately what’s wrong with this car; it is neither fish nor fowl. It is dynamically brilliant but forever a mutt, stuck somewhere between supercar and sedan, with the worst attributes of both. If you want to make a statement, you can buy the Jaguar XJ, which can be had with a stupendously powerful V8 engine, in your choice of two wheelbases and multiple equipment configurations. It makes the same kind of statement as the Panamera, but it’s infinitely more elegant. If you want something more German, than the Audi A8 is peerless and has yet to suffer from the same kind of terminal prole drift as the S-Class or the 7-Series.
But if you really must have the Porsche — if you really must have a Porsche sedan — you can buy a 500E and have enough left over for something air-cooled. Both of those choices have more claim to Stuttgart than the Panamera, and they won’t make you look like a hen-pecked corporate servant either.