Review: Porsche Panamera (4 Vs 4S)

Michael Karesh
by Michael Karesh
review porsche panamera 4 vs 4s

The Porsche Panamera: should it exist? Eight years after the introduction of the Cayenne SUV, many enthusiasts remain steadfast in their conviction that Porsche should stick to sports cars with aft-mounted powerplants. While a two-ton four-door is certainly a lesser evil, has Porsche managed to offer one for which there is no available substitute? A $69,000 Cadillac CTS-V performs extremely well, in both objective and subjective terms. Why, then, spend tens of thousands more for a Panamera?

With a disproportionately long midsection and a humped up rear roofline, the Panamera makes a poor first impression. No doubt the designers faced a tough challenge, to take hard points driven by engineering criteria and make the car instantly recognizable as a Porsche. Still, it’s hard to believe that some subtle tweaks wouldn’t vastly improve the design. The Boxster and especially the Cayenne were oddly shaped in their initial iterations, then improved when redesigned. Will the same be the case with the Panamera? As is, the car’s exterior styling isn’t going to compensate for any other weaknesses. Rather, the rest of the car must be even better to compensate for the styling. One success: the Panamera is instantly recognizable as a Porsche.

The Panamera’s interior is more successful, though here again form is driven by function. There are no artfully exaggerated curves. The instrument panel and center console form a simple, subtly tapered T. For the secondary controls Porsche opted to take the road less traveled, and employ a vast array of oversized buttons and switches rather than burying all but the most basic functions in an on-screen menu. Placing these buttons on the center console makes them easy to hit on the fly. Want to adjust the settings for the transmission or the suspension? They’re right there at your fingertips, no need to even lift your elbow off the armrest. Aggressively raking the high center console to provide a large amount of easily viewable and reachable real estate just happens to look suitably sporty in addition to working well. Some hard plastic is evident, most notably on the steering wheel spokes. But everything looks and feels solid. The instrument and door panels are soft to the touch in the standard car and can be covered in stitched leather. Porsche has come a long way since the interiors of the late 1990s 986 Boxster and 996 911. The glossy, light-colored wood in the tested 4S doesn’t suit the character of the car, but there are many other interior trim options.

As soon as you drop into the driver’s seat it’s evident that the Panamera is much different than the CTS and just about every other four-door luxury car. The aforementioned center console is just the start. In sharp contrast to current trends, the instrument panel isn’t much higher than the center console. A Honda Civic might need a huge, visually imposing, two-tiered instrument panel to convey information to the driver, but a Porsche does not. So while the seating position is low, forward visibility is very good. The low, straight lines of the instrument panel and unusually slender front seatbacks only further emphasize the unexpected width of the cabin. The seats are far from cushy, but provide support in the right places, with modestly sized bolsters that nevertheless get the job done. The Cadillac (and every other conventionally packaged four door) feels tall and narrow in comparison. The difference in height between the two cars is actually only three inches, but feels like at least six.

There’s a good reason you sit high in just about every current four-door car: this enables more legroom within a given wheelbase. Yet despite a low seating position and a wheelbase only 1.6 inches longer than that of the CTS, the Panamera’s rear seat is roomy and comfortable. Some credit is due the fairly long wheelbase and humped up rear roofline that make the exterior appear so odd, but these only contribute an inch or two to the equation. Mathematically, the Porsche’s rear seat room just doesn’t seem possible, since more has been taken out of the car’s height than has been added back by these tweaks. Very intelligent interior packaging and seat design deserve much of the credit. Thanks to the slender front seatbacks and expansive windows the view out from the rear seat is much more open than in the average luxury sedan. What you can’t get: a three-person bench. Since only rear buckets separated by a flow-through console are offered, it’s not clear why the Panamera is so wide. For handling?

The emphasis on function continues with the cargo area: entering a field dominated by sedans, the Panamera is a hatchback with split folding rear seatback. You’ll find as much cargo volume in the typical compact hatch, but the Porsche’s versatility is nevertheless a welcome break from the norm.

The Panamera is currently offered with three engines: a 300-horsepower 3.6-liter V6, a 400-horsepower 4.8-liter V8, and a 500-horsepower turbocharged 4.8-liter V8, with a 550-horsepower variant of the last on the way. In terms of power, the Turbo is the closest match for the 556-horsepower CTS-V, so the salesman asked if that’s the one I wanted to drive. This being Michigan, all of the available cars were all-wheel-drive, which is mandatory with the Turbo but optional with the lesser engines. But since the Turbo starts at $136,250 and ends up over twice the price of the CTS-V once typically optioned, I demurred. One of the non-turbocharged cars would be better. By which I meant the V8-powered S. Approaching the car, I noticed that it was actually the Base model, with the V6. I started to walk back in to request the keys to an S when my curiosity got the best of me. Could a V6 actually be a suitable powerplant for a two-ton $90,000 Porsche? So I drove both it and a nearly $120,000 S.

Though the same displacement as the undersquare, narrow-V Volkswagen engine that continues to power the base Cayenne SUV, the Panamera’s V6 is a new direct-injected, oversquare, 90-degree-V unit. It’s essentially Porsche’s V8 less a pair. With its wide V, shorter stroke, and dry sump lubrication system (i.e. no deep oil pan), the new engine should sit much lower than the VW engine would have, enabling both a lower hood and a lower center of gravity.

The base Panamera is quick judging from the rate at which the speedometer needle rotates, and Porsche’s first V6 sounds pleasantry energetic while going about its business, but the engine’s basic competency doesn’t stir the soul. The V6 might be too refined for its own good. The torque curve is so smooth and linear, there’s no point at which it comes alive and then surges to its redline. Which, given the oversquare cylinders, should be much higher than 6,500. Similarly, output should be much closer to 100 horsepower per liter—is Porsche sandbagging to leave room for future upgrades? Currently there’s also not enough torque to throw you back in your seat or to rotate the all-wheel-drive chassis; the rear-wheel-drive car could be more entertaining.

After driving the V6 I was about ready to ascribe the lack of visceral thrills to the car as a whole—but then I drove the V8-powered Panamera 4S. The subjective difference is night and day, even if the objective difference from rest to sixty is only about a second (4.8 vs. 5.8, according to Porsche). It only winds a couple hundred rpm higher, and does no better in power per liter, but the V8 sounds and feels far more energetic than the V6. And this is before tapping the button to open up the $2,950 “sport exhaust,” which releases a bunch more burble. Even hobbled with all-wheel-drive the larger engine rotates the rear end at will, shoves the seat into your back, and encourages bad behavior in ways the V6 doesn’t begin to. Would the Turbo make me feel the same about the normally-aspirated V8? I doubt it. Though down 156 horsepower, the regular V8 can go toe-to-toe with the CTS-V in the visceral thrills department. The Turbo is no doubt quicker still, but the difference is likely a matter of degree rather than of kind.

It helps that the Panamera is substantially lighter than the CTS-V wagon. Even in all-wheel-drive 4S form the large hatch weighs 4,101 pounds, compared to the Cadillac’s 4,398. Clearly some of the extra money spent on the Porsche goes towards some premium, lightweight materials.

In a sign of the times, a third pedal is not available. All of the Panamera’s engines pair with a “PDK” seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual. In casual driving this transmission behaves enough like a conventional automatic, with smooth shifts, that some owners will never realize that it isn’t one. The PDK’s most notable flaw: even in normal mode it sometimes holds a low gear far longer than it has to. This flaw is more than outweighed by the transmissions many strengths. Because, like a conventional manual, the PDK provides a direct mechanical connection between the engine and the wheels, responses to the throttle are stronger and more immediate than with a conventional, torque-converter-equipped automatic. Full-throttle shifts are nearly instantaneous, so minimal momentum and microseconds are lost in the process. Manual shifts can be summoned via buttons on the steering wheel. But this is rarely necessary. Instead, hit the “sport” or “sport plus” button on the console, depending on how aggressive you want the transmission’s gear selections to be. A third pedal might add some needed driver involvement with the V6. But with the V8 one wasn’t much missed.

Even the base Panamera is fitted with huge brakes, 14.2” discs clamped by six-piston calipers up front and 13.0” discs clamped by four-piston calipers in the rear. So strong, fade-free braking is a given. Less common: these strong brakes aren’t touchy in casual driving, provide clear feedback, and are very easy to modulate. Speed can be scrubbed as quickly and precisely as it can be gained.

More than anything else, I was curious about how the Panamera would steer and handle. The steering is light, but immediate, quick, and precise. Though not exactly chatty, there’s good feedback and the long, wide hatch can be intuitively placed exactly where you want it. The harder the Panamera is driven, the smaller and lighter it feels, though the nagging feeling that the car is a couple inches longer and wider than it needs to be never quite goes away. Something just seems wrong about driving a car with a full-sized back seat like a sports car. Yet I couldn’t stop myself from doing it. Balance and poise are superb. Hammer the car through a bumpy curve and it easily maintains it composure, varying not a touch from the chosen line. Even with all-wheel-driven the chassis feels dynamic—especially with the V8 to kick the tail out a notch. The adjustable shocks standard with the V8 and available for $1,990 on the V6 can be employed to further reduce roll and tighten up the chassis, though the difference isn’t large. Want even livelier handling and even flatter cornering? A system that pairs active stabilizer bars with a torque vectoring rear differential is available, but will set you back $5,000 plus another $1,990 for the required air suspension.

Given this handling, it should come as no surprise that the Panamera rides less smoothly than the CTS-V, much less the average luxury sedan. The ride is far from harsh, but it is very firm. Even small bumps and divots can be felt—and heard. The tires clomp loudly across all but the smoothest surfaces. The optional air suspension might help here, but probably cannot perform miracles. A reason not to buy the Panamera? Not for anyone who cares at all about driving. But those who are seeking luxury first and foremost will be happier elsewhere.

The Panamera being a Porsche, it will cost you dearly, especially if you’re not careful with the extensive options list. All-wheel-drive adds $4,000, about double what others charge. Want this or that bit of the interior covered in leather? Larger wheels? Or a special color? They’ll do that—as long as you’re willing to pay. Painted air vent slats? A mere $2,330. Checking all of the boxes will more than double the base price. The tested Panamera 4 was lightly optioned, and still listed for $90,360, well above the $79,925 base price. The moderately optioned 4S, with a base price of $95,725, listed for $119,525. Dimensionally, the new Audi A7 sport hatch is very close to the Panamera, but costs over $20,000 less. The Audi is initially offered only with a 310-horsepower supercharged V6, though, so it competes only with the Panamera V6. Compare the Panamera 4S to a BMW 550 xDrive using TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool, and the feature-adjusted premium for the Porsche approaches $30,000. To be fair, a Maserati Quattroporte is about $30,000 in the other direction, while not steering and handling nearly as well. And an Aston Martin Rapide, with its sharper styling but less usable back seat? If you have to ask…

Ultimately, semi-exotic price notwithstanding, the Panamera can be justified. Porsche didn’t simply copy what others have been doing then attach its marque to the result. Instead, its engineers thoroughly reworked the envelope to make a large four-door car feel as much like a sports car as possible—while still providing above-average levels of comfort and versatility. People have often claimed that BMW’s sedans and those that have tried to beat them at their own game (e.g. the CTS) drive like sports cars. They don’t. Even if a sedan achieves the same test track results as a sports car, if it has the driving position, center of gravity, and suspension geometry of a sedan it will feel like a sedan.

In sharp contrast, the Panamera sits like a sports car and drives like a sports car, albeit a very large one. The V6, though it posts respectable test track times and is far from the embarrassment it could have been, comes up a little short in visceral thrills, at least in its initial iteration. The specs for both the V6 and V8 suggest plenty of headroom for easy upgrades, but higher-winding, more powerful engines are only future possibilities. Though Porsche charges $12,690 for its additional pair of pistons, the V8-powered Panamera S is currently the way to go. Perhaps if someone else had combined sports car dynamics and an adult-friendly back seat in the same car, Porsche would not have had to. Until someone else does, there is no substitute.

Scott Vollink of Suburban Porsche in Farmington Hills, MI, provided the cars. He can be reached at 248-741-7980.

Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data

Join the conversation
2 of 89 comments
  • ZCD2.7T ZCD2.7T on May 18, 2011

    Audi A7 looks better, and offers acceleration that's smack in between the 4S and the 4, for WAY less. Just as nice inside, too. I'm sure it doesn't handle as well, but will still handle well enough for the target market. Neither car will likely end up on a track, so....

  • Scott Scott on May 18, 2011

    The single best feature of this car is that you don't have to look at it while driving. Now to figure out how to get into it without catching a glimpse and vomiting.

  • Statikboy Those tires are the Wrong Size.
  • Mustangfast I had an 06 V6 and loved that car. 230k trouble free miles until I sold it. I remember they were criticized for being too small vs competitors but as a single guy it was the right size for me. I recall the 2.3 didn’t have a reputation for reliability, unlike the V6 and I4. I think it likely didn’t take off due to the manual-only spec, price tag, and power vs the V6 engine and the way it delivered that power. It was always fun to see the difference between these and normal ones, since these were made in Japan whereas all others were flat rock
  • VoGhost Earth is healing.
  • ToolGuy "Having our 4th baby and decided a camper van is a better use of our resources than my tuner."Seller is in the midst of some interesting life choices.Bonus: Here are the individuals responsible for doing the work on this vehicle.
  • MaintenanceCosts Previous owner playing engineer by randomly substituting a bunch of components, then finding out. No thanks.