In a nondescript brick building in the middle of Stuttgart, Germany, is a nondescript desk where dreams come true. In exchange for a few signatures, a scruffy journalist (or a wealthy sheik) can get the keys to an $845,000 Porsche.
“These guys must have very good insurance,” thinks the journalist as he shows up for the test drive in a car he could never afford.
Some background: I was in Germany for a week, reporting a Bloomberg Businessweek feature on the new Macan, a small crossover SUV that Porsche hopes will attract a new kind of customer. On the last day of the trip, Achim Schneider, Porsche’s lead press handler, cracked a wry smile and said: “We’ve got a little bit of a surprise for you.”
Porsche engineers are a pragmatic bunch. They knew I had to drive something to the R&D center about 30 minutes away. And a 918 Spyder would be an uber-efficient option. It goes 214 miles per hour, and it’s a hybrid. Heck, it’s a double-hybrid with two electric engines boosting a gas power-plant (albeit a massive one).
This is the vehicle that shattered the production record at the famous Nurburgring. It’s the design you would get if you gave a blank check to a hippie, a 12-year-old boy, and a few rocket scientists.
The flaws of the car, however, were evident immediately. With a passenger riding shotgun and the roof panels stowed in the hood’s tiny hatch, there was nowhere to put a sandwich. I chose a little shelf right in front of the instruments, which were full of numbers that didn’t seem believable anyway.
Secondly, it takes pilates techniques to check the blind spots, which is something one wants to do when maneuvering around a parking lot full of brand-new Porsches. After toggling a little dashboard switch to “R,” I leaned out the window like a fisherman backing a boat into the water.
Also, a big red button on the control panel screams to be pushed. Sort of tacked onto the center of the steering wheel, it’s a feature straight out of Q’s James Bond lab. Apparently it burns all of the battery—and much of the gas—in a sprint for maximum speed. “I don’t think we’ll be touching that today,” said Thomas Becki, my gracious chaperone.
We pulled out, ghosting up to an intersection with a whisper. Yet another opportunity missed. I imagined a midlife crisis and realized, in such an event, the 918 would do nothing to announce my presence, beyond, you know, looking sleek and shiny.
There was, however, a cupholder. Too little, too late, Porsche.
We slipped onto the autobahn, merging and creeping up to about 70 miles per hour as silently as a sailboat. The two electric engines spun like furious little robots, while the big gas-powered beast snoozed just ahead of the rear axle.
Ahead of us, a line of Audis and BMWs stretched like a parade of teutonic barnyard animals. Never has an RS7 appeared so dopey and pedestrian. “You need to get closer to make them move over,” Becki coached. “When they do, make sure to put the pedal all the way down.”
I nudged forward, remembering the big green carbon-ceramic brakes I had seen behind the wheels. The cars, as promised, drifted to the right lane. I stomped per Becki’s instructions and flinched as a wet booming crackle erupted behind my head. The engine was awake, and it did not seem happy about it.
This is where the ride went into life-imitating-art territory. I was no longer driving on the autobahn—I was just watching a GoPro video that someone had sped up for effect. The gears in the transmission were outstripping the gears in my head. I wasn’t really even steering, just kind of holding on and leaning a little. The only thing that tethered me to reality was the feeling of the seat back eagerly trying to collapse my rib cage.
As a younger man, I was lucky enough to break the sound barrier riding in the back seat of a Blue Angels F-18. Porsche’s speed machine made much more of an impression.
As we shot into a tunnel, the engine noise shifted into a lower, louder gear. I eased off the gas, and everything went quiet again—the engine at my back conked out like a narcoleptic demon. The robots had me now, smoothing out my clunky foot and ham-handed steering, gliding me through the sharp exit corner without any drama.
By the time we pulled into Weissbach, I had used only about half the speed the 918 was capable of. My colleague Jason Harper (who actually knows how to drive a car like this) has a more thorough review of what the vehicle can do.
A supercar like the 918 makes little sense. For starters, one could buy four new Ferraris for the same pile of money. And even at the elevated price, it seems unlikely Porsche will make much of a return on the model, given what it must have cost to create. The company is building only 918 of this year’s model.
But the players in the upper echelons of the auto industry are towed along by so-called halo cars, which burnish the brand. Porsche doesn’t need to sell the 918 to justify it; just the fact that it exists makes people further covet its more affordable sports cars.
The 918 has a second very important role: bridging the gap between the car world’s naturally aspirated past and its electronic future. If (and possibly when) the company makes a hybrid 911, notoriously prickly Porschephiles won’t be able to complain much about performance. They’ll have to gripe about the lack of sandwich storage and the silence.