A very large, very ugly, wide-mouthed frog with a saggy derrière, that can run very fast.’ If, instead of a picture of a sprinting amphibian, this description brings to your mind the first-generation Panamera, you’re not alone. While many fast cars have in the past been likened to graceful, elegant and ferocious animals, Porsche’s four-door sportscar had the ignominious distinction of being associated with the most ungainly of creatures. And justifiably so. Making any sort of improvement to that model’s appearance seemed highly improbable, and the Panamera getting anywhere close to being considered attractive was unthinkable. But the unthinkable is what Zuffenhausen pulled off last year when it revealed the second generation of its sports saloon. Despite being longer, wider, and taller than before, the new Panamera manages to look strikingly attractive, with a roofline that sweeps back elegantly towards the firmed-up butt.
The impression it gives in photos is much greater in the metal. With a rear that’s not as bulbous as its predecessor’s, a lower roofline, and flared rear haunches, it now looks like a four-door 911. Apart from the other styling cues, the taillights play a significant role in bringing about this similarity with the 991 sportscar.
And it’s a good thing that the taillights look striking, as that’s the part of the Panamera that most other drivers on the road will get to see thanks to the new 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 engine, which makes 542bhp and 770Nm of torque. Channelling this grunt to all four wheels is a new eight-speed PDK dual-clutch gearbox, which also lets the Panamera Turbo blaze away from nought to 100kph in a blisteringly quick 3.6 seconds (with the Sport Chrono package), an astounding achievement considering the car weighs nearly two tonnes. A relatively wide torque band, starting from 1,960rpm going up to 4,500 revs, enables relentlessly rapid progress, and gives you access to seemingly boundless reserves of power even in higher gears. The eight-speed dual-clutch transmission shifts cogs seamlessly, with gears 1 to 6 tuned for better performance with a short ratio, while gears 7 and 8 keep revs low with their longer ratio, aiding better efficiency.
The virile 4.0-litre V8 snarls into life with a fittingly deep exhaust rumble, which grows into a more dramatic growl as the revs pile on. Sadly though, this delightful soundtrack will be better enjoyed by passersby and those in other vehicles, as the Panamera’s sound deadening virtually shuts you away in an eerily noiseless passenger cell. While this does take away from the experience, which could have been more theatrical and exhilarating if some of the incidental music seeped in, it adds to the other half of this schizophrenic saloon. In fact, the Panamera hits the sweet spot between comfort and performance like no other saloon of this size on sale today does. This is achieved thanks to a combination of factors including the new, lightweight MSB-F platform, adaptive air suspension with three-chamber technology that boasts 60 per cent greater air capacity than before, new Porsche Dynamic Chassis Control Sport (PDCC Sport) and rear-axle steering. Additionally, it also comes equipped with the 4D Chassis Control system, which gauges pitch, roll and yaw, and employs the best driving modes by synchronising all chassis systems. This works in conjunction with the Porsche Active Suspension Management, or PASM, which continuously tweaks the damping force on each wheel electronically, keeping body motion in check, and optimising comfort. Opting for the Sport Chrono Package will give you an even more aggressive tuning of the chassis, engine and transmission. It also adds a circular mode switch on the steering wheel complete with a 918 Spyder-style Sport Response button. While Normal is where you’d keep the button at for long highway trips and short urban jaunts, drives to stimulating mountain roads definitely call for Sport and Sport Plus.
So it is with the knob twisted to the most extreme mode that I head towards what is arguably the most challenging road in the Middle East — the treacherous mountain path that snakes up seemingly all the way to the heavens from the sleepy little town of Taween off Ras Al Khaimah. From terrifyingly steep inclines, tortuous chicanes, and hair-raising 180-degree corners, it has everything in its arsenal that can put the capabilities of the machine and the man behind its wheel to the most gruelling test. This is a trail that I have negotiated many times previously with cars like the Lamborghini Huracán, Jaguar F-Type R and more recently the Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport. Considering the significant difference in girth and heft the Panamera has with these cars, I am a bit sceptical. But, boy, am I in for a surprise as the Panamera slices through every bend with a kind of agility and sprightliness that looks simply unnatural in a car of its proportions. Despite the punishing angles of ascent, I seem to have boundless reserves of power under my right foot, as if every single one of those 542 thoroughbreds is vying to be at my disposal. In Sport Plus mode, the steering is incredibly direct, the chassis is optimally stiff and the V8 roar reverberates through the deep valley beneath, coming back up to mock the mighty mountain.
However, while the engineers have succeeded to a great extent in ‘shrinking’ the Panamera’s 5,000mm length, there’s no missing the car’s enormous width, which feels even more sizeable as the road narrows down towards the mountain’s peak. But now I am splitting hairs, and nothing takes away from the engineering triumph that Porsche has pulled off.
While it is the V8’s bottomless power and the suspension’s dexterity that comes to the fore as I go up, the descent reveals how brilliant a job the six-piston aluminium monobloc fixed brake callipers at the front and four-piston units at the rear do in reining in those horses. Even under the extreme loads they are subjected to while coming down such arduous roads, they hold up impressively without any fade, and inspiring much confidence.
Back down on level ground and on the way back to Dubai, the adaptive cruise control catches my attention by being remarkably less jerky when adjusting speeds in accordance with the set distance from the vehicle ahead. Dubbed Innodrive, this technology is based on a predictive system that not only relies on navigation data and information supplied by the radar and video sensors, but also senses gradients and corner radii long before you reach them, and prepares the gearshift and speed of the Panamera smoothly.
The controlled cruise also gives me a chance to take in the changes to the cabin, which are quite substantial. In fact, it’s a completely redesigned interior, with a wider, flatter dashboard that looks a lot more sophisticated than before. The most conspicuous change is that the scores of buttons that littered the centre console in the previous model have been ditched in favour of touch controls that are now accessed via a high-resolution 12in screen integrated into the dashboard. Ahead of the driver, behind the steering wheel are two additional screens that show virtual instruments, navigation info and a range of other data with an analogue rev counter in the middle.
The rear passengers also get a touchscreen interface of their own, which lets them control air conditioning and entertainment among other things. The two rear buckets are very comfortable and supportive and since they are placed lower than before, there’s ample headroom even for tall passengers despite the more sloping roofline.
The second-generation Panamera is everything that Porsche tried to achieve with the first. It looks like a four-door 911, and proves that the similarities go way deeper than in the looks, and are ingrained into its very DNA. It’s a proper four-door sportscar that can give many supercars a run for their millions. It’s a completely different beast compared to its predecessor, and Porsche can breathe easy knowing that it won’t see any frog or duckling references. In fact, it’s the kind of transformation that would have provided inspiration to Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen, were they around.