Dr. Strangehatch, Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Hate The Panamera
The publication of Frank Greves’ article in American Journalism Review served as a rude reminder to me how time really does fly. Mr. Greves describes the fallout from my less-than-fawning review of Porsche’s Panamera and Panamera Turbo. What follows is the story he didn’t tell: how Porsche tried to keep me out of the car, how they tried to “correct” my review after the fact, and the fractious relationship I’ve had with Stuttgart’s PR people since then. I’ll also provide links to the original review and video review of the car, so you can decide for yourself how wrong, or right, I was.
A serious warning before you click the jump: Sex, violence, skullduggery, harsh words, and excessive alcohol consumption are described in semi-graphic detail below. This is not for the faint of heart, the excessively moral, or the uncritically Porschephilic. It’s also not a short story. You’ve been warned.
It’s five hundred and six miles from my front door to the paddock entrance at Road America in Wisconsin. In October of 2009, I packed up my Audi S5 to make the trip. The mercurial owner of LeftLaneNews, Canadian entrepreneur Nick Aziz, had asked me to meet him there for the Porsche Panamera preview and had agreed to pay my fuel bill there and back as compensation for reviewing the car. Needless to say, I was excited.
Let’s get this out of the way: I was, and am, a Porsche fanatic. I own three Porkers — a white 993 Carrera 2, a Boxster 550 Anniversary I bought in 2005 for the purpose of competing in SCCA’s National Solo, and a white 944 2.5. I’ve visited Stuttgart and toured the factory. I own approximately two dozen 1/24-scale Porsches and perhaps eighty books about Porsche. I’ve read Excellence Was Expected in its entirety. Twice. I’m a PCA member of eight years’ standing and have attended dozens of Porsche-centric events. Do you get the idea?
Yes, I knew that loving Porsche was often a lot like loving Ike Turner. The company too-frequently pushed junk out the door and expected its customers to serve as field testers. Replacement parts cost too much. The pricing of the cars themselves is beyond ridiculous. Warranties are voided for the slightest of purposes; Porsche simultaneously deluges its customers with images of Porsches on-track and rebukes them for daring to put their own Porsches there. Doesn’t matter. I was a fan.
The night before the Panamera event, I met Nick and Matt, our videographer, at a Motel 6 near Elkhart Lake. They had an entire bottle of Smirnoff Lime and insisted that we finish the thing. Although I’m about fifteen years older than they are, I did my part and then some. At four AM, I woke up to find an email on my phone from an old college girlfriend whom I’d recently started seeing a bit when her schedule would allow. It was fairly racy, to put it mildly. Still buzzed from my share of Nick’s vodka, I sent back a five-paragraph response, typed with my thumbs, which shamed Tropic Of Cancer in its explicit details of my intentions for our future couplings. I praised her voluptuous body and her utterly amoral approach to sexuality and boasted of the expected after-effects of our next meeting. I hit “Send” and went back to sleep.
The arrival of the mail caused her iPhone to buzz. Although she was sound asleep, her husband, who was a firefighter, was getting dressed for his shift and decided to check her mail in case it was urgent. Needless to say, my phone rang at 4:10AM. And again at 4:12AM, by which time I had found the phone. My buzz was now a raging headache, and my eyes were too fuzzy to see the caller ID.
“Hell. Hell. Ow. Hell. Oh.” I slurred.
“CAUGHT YOU, YOU DIRTY MOTHERFUCKER!” the voice at the other end of the phone screamed. “I’M GONNA KICK THE SHIT OUT OF YOU. YOU THINK YOU CAN FUCK MY WIFE AND GET AWAY WITH IT?”
“Who. Is. This?” I replied. I didn’t recognize the voice, and honestly, dear readers, there were a few people who could have made that call.
“You don’t know who this is?” the firefighter asked.
“I’m so. So. Sorry. My head hurts,” I explained.
“Well then… uh. Um. Well. Fuck off anyway, Jack!” And the phone went dead. I fell back asleep with the phone in my hand. Three hours later, when Nick banged on my door, I thought I’d dreamed the whole thing. A quick check of my phone showed I hadn’t and filled in the blanks. Oh well. The firefighter in question was certainly capable of kicking the aforementioned ass of mine, but my experience has been that this never happens. Most people do the easiest thing in life, given the choice. Last time I heard, they’d made up and everything was fine.
When Nick, Matt, and I arrived at the Panamera event, we found out that Porsche wasn’t expecting us. There had been a communication snafu, the details of which would take a novella to relate, and we weren’t actually invited. After some conversation between Nick and the Porsche PR people, it was agreed that we could stay and do some videotaping. Color me furious; this was going to a be a thousand-mile roundtrip to look at an ugly car.
In the hours that followed, we attended the inevitable self-congratulatory speeches and technical presentations. I was permitted to catch a ride around Road America with Patrick Long. There were two other journalists in the car and I noticed that Long was deliberately “thrill-riding” us, hitting curbs and using too much throttle on the exit. Needless to say, my colleagues were impressed beyond words. although in my experience a print journo can always figure out a way to describe how impressed he was by Each. Awesome. Car. Out. There.
Next up was the press drive itself. Each journalist was to be allowed three supervised laps around Road America. Some of them didn’t bother to take their turn. Nick asked about getting me into one of the idle cars, but was told “No, you’re not on the list.” This list was very important, apparently. After some back-and-forth, it was agreed that we could take a Panamera Turbo, along with our Rainier truck avec Steadicam, onto the track at lunch for “low-speed filming.” Score.
To earn our low-speed filming, we were forced to sit through a lunch presentation and watch some videos. For the lunch itself, I was seated next to David Donohue. He was regaling the table with tales of derring-do. “I’m racing a Camaro at VIR in thirty days,” he said. “It’s professional, Grand-Am, very interesting stuff.”
“Ooh!” I squealed. “I will be racing there too.”
“It’s a Grand-Am race,” he said.
“I know! I’m running ST! You must be running GS! Should be a lot of fun!” He literally turned away from me and stopped talking, making a listen-to-this-crazy-guy face at the other journos. They nodded in sympathy at poor David Donohue and the mentally-ill fan pretending to be a fellow racer. I left the table in shame and grabbed my helmet for the low-speed laps.
My suspicions about the “low-speed laps” turned out to be correct. The track was empty and the corner stations were empty, too. As long as we kept it slow by the Porsche tent on the front straight, we could do whatever we wanted. After doing some genuine low-speed photo laps, I sent the Rainier ahead, waited a while, and lapped at my own pace. Uh-oh. This car was fast, yeah, but it wasn’t exempt from the laws of physics. They’d promised a “911 driving experience”. That was a lie, and I knew that to be true because I owned a 911. They’d also promised that the Panamera would be the premier luxury sedan. That, too, was a lie. At the time, I was still driving my pair of Phaetons in addition to my S5, and I’d had an A8 and CL55 as company cars in the previous year. I knew what top-notch luxury cars were like to drive, and the Panamera didn’t meet the standard. It didn’t ride well, it was overly complicated to operate, and the Bluetooth was as half-assed as the rest of the telematics. Against the 1999 S-Class, this would have been mildly impressive, but the Panamera hit the market with an interior and features package that was already past its sell-by date.
At this point, I had a couple of options. I could fawn over the car and repeat the talking points provided to us in the briefing. (For an example of just how hard somebody can suck the collective Porsche PR staff off, read the Edmunds Panamera review.) Alternately, I could speak my mind and face the consequences.
After returning to the press tent, Nick schmoozed us forty-five minutes on the local roads in another Panamera Turbo for filming. We ended up creating this video from the footage. (The outtakes from this video are used for Matt’s “Wikileaks” video at the top of the page.) The video wasn’t super-complimentary, but neither was it a Farago-style blast: I called it “the most fun-to-drive full-size sedan money can buy,” while admitting that “If you’re a 911 intender… this is not going to replace any of those.” After some discussion with Nick, I even agreed to call the interior “sufficiently competitive”.
I then drove the five hundred miles home and wrote this review for Speed:Sport:Life. These paragraphs sum it up for the click-averse:
The Porsche Panamera Turbo is the fastest mass-produced sedan in history, by virtually any measuring stick one would care to use. Only the AMG biturbo V12 cars come close in a straight line, and on a racetrack they wouldn’t see which way the beetle-backed Por-sha went. Our passenger laps with Flying Lizard driver Patrick Long only served to confirm what we learned driving the Panamera Turbo around Road America ourselves: this is the Corvette of luxury sedans.
And therein lies the problem. The Panamera is supposed to be the Porsche of luxury sedans: characterful, beautiful, desirable, perfectly conceived to suit the needs of its owners. That was the goal. Unfortunately, the “Porsche of luxury sedans” was, and continues to be, the Audi A8. By contrast, the Panamera is fast but flawed, dramatic but disappointing. It produces the numbers but fails to hit all the targets for true satisfaction. After years of reminding auto enthusiasts that pure power and performance numbers don’t make for a perfect car, Porsche has gone ahead and proved the point themselves.
And that was it… until Gary Fong read the review in S:S:L and contacted my editor, Zerin Dube. I don’t believe I have permission to publish the e-mails, and I know it would be hearsay to repeat what I was told concerning Zerin’s contacts with Mr. Fong, but I believe it’s reasonable to convey at least the gist of the initial conversations. Gary’s primary mission was to “correct the inaccuracies” in the article. His first correction was pricing: I wasn’t given any information so I guessed high by about five grand. That was fine, and I appreciated his input. Next up for “correction”: my driving impressions. He expressed his concerns that I hadn’t driven the car enough; ironic, since I’d begged for time in the car. He suggested that I had missed out on some critical information which had been given out at the combo presentation/party the night before — but how is that relevant to the way the car steers, rides, and handles?
In the world of automotive “journalism”, very few people are ever willing to go on the record. In the months that followed, I was told the following, always by people who refused to let me quote them or even refer to them when trying to get someone else to go on the record:
- “You’re blacklisted, and Fong is asking other companies to blacklist you, too.”
- “We always give Porsche first review on our articles before we publish.”
- “If you give a Porsche a bad review, or if it doesn’t win a comparison test, you will have to explain why to PR before you get another chance at a car.”
- “It’s too much trouble to criticize Porsche. They cut the cars off, and hey, I like driving them.”
- “So what if the Panamera’s an ugly piece of shit? Do you want to work in this business or not? You want to take a 911 Turbo to your high school reunion, or do you want to be on the outside looking in?”
In the year afterwards, I repeatedly watched small-town newspapers, freelancers with no expectation of publication, and jobless ex-print-journos take free trips to Europe on Porsche’s dime while the company refused any and all requests we placed for test automobiles. One rather infamous journo reportedly took his girlfriend/escort on a private jet to Sicily courtesy of Porsche’s bottomless press budget. All you had to do get on the gravy train was to sing the praises of the cars, apparently, and who cares if those praises are warranted?
Well, I care. Speaking as someone who paid his own hard-earned money to purchase a water-cooled Porsche before becoming an auto writer, I don’t appreciate the fact that things like the M96 engine failures have been consistently ignored and/or soft-pedaled by the overly compliant print rags. Had I known everything about Porsche then that I know now, I would not have purchased a Boxster. That money in Porsche’s bank account was placed there by writers who knowingly looked the other way at substandard products so they could fly to the Black Forest and drive the ‘Ring for free. Those writers are scum, bought and paid for by people who look at them as “pawns, or maybe knights”.
Eight months ago, I was contacted by Mr. Greves regarding his AJR article. I told him the unexpurgated story, including names and dates for the allegations which have been anonymized above. It is any surprise that nobody wanted to be quoted in his article? People in this business are afraid of Porsche, they are afraid of Gary Fong and his co-workers, and they are willing to deceive their readers so they can impress their neighbors with loaner cars they are too lazy and unsuccessful to purchase themselves.
Here at TTAC, we are always willing to give someone a chance to prove their ethics, so we will be making a formal request to Porsche Cars North America to be added to their press-fleet list. I’ll keep you posted on how it works out, but I will tell you now: don’t hold your breath. When you’re used to reviewing and “correcting” stories before they’re even published, the prospect of being reviewed in TTAC must be too horrifying to consider. That’s funny, because it’s exactly how this Porsche owner and fan feels about the prospect of ever buying another one.
EPILOGUE: Walking out of the driver’s meeting for the Koni Challenge race a few weeks later, I bumped into David Donohue.
“DAVID!” I yelled. The look on his face was worth every penny I ended up paying for the engine I blew that weekend. My co-driver, 2008 Grand-Am champion Jamie Holtom, blew a second engine in the race itself. The results are here. I call your attention to positions 40 and 43 in said results: for those of you counting along at home, that’s Baruth 1, Donohue 0. Wink.
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The Panamera is like buying sunglasses with the Porsche insignia on them. You need sunglasses and get the Porsche prestige on the frame. Here, you need a car for practical purposes and at the same time you get the Porsche look and name. Enjoy but we're all laughing at you.
Hi Jack As you have over eighty books on Porsches you may be able to help me. I read a travel book published in the mid 1960s about a tour of Bryce Canyon, Zion national Park, Painted Desert, Grand Canyon etc made in a Porsche 911. The car and scenery were both the "stars" of the book, the passion for the car and scenery were complimentary. I would like to re-read the book but do not remember either the title or author! Can you help me? Or perhaps one of your readers knows of the book. Thanks.