First Drive: 2017 Porsche Panamera Turbo

If your experience with Mexico has been limited to fenced-in coastal resorts, then you may not realize that it’s one of the most ecologically diverse countries on the planet or that the area around Mexico City holds scenic and challenging mountain roads that rival anything to be found in California. I certainly didn’t.

The 2017 Porsche Panamera marks a second generation for the car that began the sports car marque’s foray into sedan territory.

Of course, to get to them you need to overcome the driving standards, aging vehicles, soul-crushing traffic, speed bumps (everywhere!), errant pedestrians, stray dogs, livestock crossings, toll booths, and the police. (I was advised that when driving in Mexico it’s a good idea to know how to say, “How can we fix this?” in Spanish.)

Look beyond all of that, though, and you’ll be rewarded. Not all of the roads are in peak condition, but many of them are: kilometre after kilometre of flat asphalt unspoiled by winter heaves, and winding paths that lead to spectacular mountain and valley views with banked curves strung together one after another.

It was for one particular road, and one particular car, that I found myself there.

The 2017 Porsche Panamera marks a second generation for the car that began the sports car marque’s foray into sedan territory. To put it through its paces, we headed west of Mexico City to drive a stage of the race from which the car takes its name: La Carrera Panamericana.

First contested in 1950 in celebration of Mexico becoming the first Latin American country to complete its section of the Pan-American Highway, La Carrera Panamericana ran along much of the original highway’s length. It began in Ciudad Juárez, across the U.S. border from El Paso, and traveled south to end in Ciudad Cuauhtémoc on the Guatemalan border over nine stages and five days.

Porsche’s first entry came in 1952, when Prince Paul Alfons von Metternich brought his virtually stock 356 1500 Super Cabriolet to an eighth-place finish overall.

In 1953 the FIA formed the World Sports Car Championship, a predecessor to today’s World Endurance Championship (WEC), and assembled a calendar of the most prestigious road races on the planet: the 24 Hours of Le Mans, 12 Hours of Sebring, and Mille Miglia were included, and the seventh and final race was La Carrera Panamericana, run in November of that year.

That year, Porsche’s involvement in the race deepened enormously. Three factory cars were entered: two 550 Spiders driven by German pilots Karl Kling and Hans Herrman, and a 356 piloted by a British-Mexican actress and racer named Jacqueline Evans de Lopez, who was the only woman to enter all of the original races. Seven privateer teams entered as well, one of which went on to win the under 1600 cc class: Jose Herrarte of Guatemala in his 550 Coupe.

Over its five-year span, the initial iteration attracted some of the biggest names motor racing has ever known: Juan Manuel Fangio, Phil Hill, Alberto Ascari, Carroll Shelby, Bobby Unser, and NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. all tried their hands at it, among many others. But following the disaster at Le Mans in 1955 – 84 people died and 120 more were injured after a car crashed into the crowd – La Carrera Panamericana was suspended by the Mexican government, bringing its tenure to an end after just five runnings.

More than three decades later in 1988, the race was resurrected as a vintage and historics event with the stages kept as close as possible to the originals. Today it covers 3,200 kilometers of Mexican roads over seven days, beginning in the south in the state of Oaxaca and traveling northward to Durango.

We were taken in a convoy of brand new Panameras west of the city of Toluca and into the shadows of Xinantecatl, a dormant volcano in Nevado de Toluca National Park. There, we followed the twisting roads up the mountainside to an altitude of 3,100 metres to reach the start of the Raíces special stage, 9.4 kilometres of the same stretch of road used annually in the race.

We had Panameras and helmets, and the road was even closed for us. But few of us writers are actual race-car drivers, and the organizers aren’t completely insane: this was not a speed contest.

After being split up into pairs, we were given a target time over which to complete the distance of 7 minutes and 35 seconds – which, perhaps not by coincidence, is just three seconds less than the time set in the new Panamera at the Nürburgring Nordschleife. There, over a distance of 20.8 kilometres, 7:38 equates to an average speed of 163.5 km/h; here, our target was an average of a little over 74 km/h. It goes without saying that we were not quite operating on the same echelon of performance. Still, my teammate Richard and I were determined to give it our best shot.

There will be nine variants of Panamera available in Canada when all is said and done: the rear-wheel-drive base model, and the all-wheel-drive 4, 4S, E-Hybrid, and Turbo, the last four also being available as long-wheelbase Executive models. On this outing, though, only the 4S and Turbo were available for evaluation. Richard and I had a lucky draw and ended up with a Turbo for the special stage, which meant we had 550 horsepower and 567 lb-ft of torque to play with from the 4.0L V8 as opposed to 440 hp and 405 lb-ft from the 2.9L V6 in the 4S. (It also meant we had $167,700 worth of car underneath us as opposed to $114,300 if we screwed up.)

Richard drove first, and I navigated with one eye on the odometer and timer on the 12.3-inch touch-activated infotainment screen and the other on our route book. He gunned it out of the starting gate and tore his way through the opening turns. At the first checkpoint, I announced that he was 45 seconds ahead of the target time. His drive was far less exciting from that point on. Even after seemingly crawling through the remainder of the stage, we crossed the line 25 seconds ahead of schedule.

Knowing that matching our times between ourselves was a bigger factor in scoring, our strategy was to land my time as close to Richard’s as possible while still being somewhere between it and the target. As a result, my run was far more subdued. The full 7 minutes and 15 seconds of it can be seen in the video below.

Despite our efforts, we didn’t win. One of our competitors is a seasoned rally racer and knew well enough to slow down to near zero while approaching the line to hit the target time on the button. But it was fun, and it accomplished the goal: we learned a great deal about the characteristics of the new Panamera.

A sedan that lives up to the name

When Porsche first presented the Panamera to the world in 2009, it was an opening salvo into the sedan space by a company that made its name building sports cars. It was very good, but it wasn’t perfect: it felt tail-heavy, both in design and drive feel, and the centre console with its sea of buttons could be difficult to navigate at times.

On these points and others, the second-generation Panamera has brought the nameplate rocketing forward.

Porsche’s designers focused a great deal of attention on honing the rear end even further to bring the Panamera in line with the marque’s characteristic coupe style. The result is dramatic: the car’s hips are more sculpted and streamlined, the rear fascia is trimmer, and the rounded rear window and continuous lighting strip complete the emphatic statement. If there were any doubts about whether the Panamera belongs in the Porsche family, the new look has quashed them handily.

Adding to the drama is Porsche’s trick new rear spoiler, a video of which you’ll find below along with some delightful engine noises. It opens automatically at speeds of over 100 km/h, or you can activate it with a crowd-pleasing button on the console.

The tweaked rear end hasn’t cut on cargo space, either: the 495 L trunk is larger by 50 L and deeper than that of the outgoing model.

These themes need to continue inside to appease the enthusiasts, though, and they do.

The centre console has been replaced by a sleek touch-activated panel that provides both audible and haptic feedback, and the 12.3-inch infotainment system has been overhauled to be far more user-friendly and provide multiple methods of input through a small scroll, the touch pad, voice control, or by tapping the screen itself. Apple CarPlay is available, but Android Auto is not compatible as yet. An optional rear touchscreen gives second-row passengers access to temperature and infotainment functions.

On the instrument cluster, the centre-mounted tachometer with its digital speedometer is flanked on either side with 7-inch screens that can each be adjusted on the steering wheel.

The front seats are available with 18-way adjustment, four-way lumbar support, side bolsters, and standard heating with optional ventilation. At the back, optional eight-way adjustments include a two-degree increase in incline. Both rows can be equipped with a massage function.

The aforementioned two new engines each mark a drop in displacement from the last generation, but they bring higher horsepower figures (up 20 hp in the V6 and 30 hp in the V8), better acceleration (0–100 km/h in 4.2 seconds in the V6 and 3.6 seconds in the V8 with the sport chrono package, each 0.3 seconds faster than the last), and better fuel consumption (8.1 L/100 km combined in the V6 and 9.3 in the V8, improvements of 1.0 L and 1.1 L respectively).

The new Panamera also receives a new eight-speed PDK (dual clutch) gearbox standard with all models, which now uses a shift-by-wire system to allow the shifter to move to a higher position on the centre console. It shifts quickly in auto mode, but I found that paddle inputs didn’t get quite as immediate a response and there was some lag as it tried different gears in passing maneuvers. These points might be aided by the Sport Chrono package; the models I tested weren’t equipped with it, but on top of adding a Sport Plus drive mode that further sharpens the shift pattern as well as quickening throttle response and firming up the damping, it also features a button that delivers 20 seconds of peak performance for overtaking.

Some new features have been added to assist with handling: three-chamber adaptive air suspension with 60-percent higher air capacity, the Porsche Dynamic Chassis Control system (essentially anti-roll bars, here electromechanical, and associated monitoring systems), and available rear-axle steering. All models in Canada except for the base will come with the Porsche Traction Management all-wheel-drive system.

We were given two ways to test how this all stitches together. In a straight line at a tick or two over 200 kilometres per hour, the 4S is absolutely on rails. And both the 4S and the Turbo I was in handled similarly on the twisty bits: grip for days with just enough oversteer to keep things fun without getting out of hand.

If you need four doors and still want access to spirited driving Porsche style, it has arrived.

Tracing La Carrera Panamericana in a four-door Porsche. 1/16/2017 6:30:00 AM