Review: 2011 Porsche Panamera

Up Front

I'm a big fan of the Porsche (PAH3:GR) Panamera, the four-door luxury car that made its debut in 2010. Until recently, I had only driven the Panamera S, which is powered by a 4.8-liter, 400-horsepower V8 engine. What about the base model, which is only now making its debut in the U.S. and has a 3.6-liter, 300 horsepower V6 under its hood? Would it be too slow and pedestrian to seriously consider, even though it costs a good 15 grand less than the S?

In a word: no. The new, entry-level Panamera is essentially the same car as the S and it, too, is a joy to drive. You give up some raw speed but not much else, and the base model may handle a tiny bit better than the S because it's slightly lighter. Unless you're planning to log time on a racetrack, this new Porsche is plenty quick. And there's good news for denizens of the snowbelt: The Panamera is actually slightly faster with all-wheel drive than with the standard rear-wheel drive and it handles marvelously in ice and snow.

The base Panamera starts at $75,375 with rear-wheel drive and $79,875 with all-wheel-drive. That compares with a starting price of $90,775 for the Panamera S, and $136,275 for the Turbo. Standard equipment on the new entry-level model is the same as on the S and includes leather upholstery, eight-way power front seats with driver memory functions, hard-drive-based navigation and 11-speaker sound systems, a sunroof, a power rear hatchback, rear parking sensors, a tilting and telescoping steering wheel, and a cooled glove box.

The base price doesn't mean much, however. As usual with Porsche, there's an extremely long list of attractive but pricey options. When I outfitted an entry-level Panamera, I easily topped 90 grand and was just getting started (more on options later).

The obvious advantage of the V6 engine is improved fuel economy, but the gains are relatively small. The base Panamera is rated to get 18 miles-per-gallon in the city and 27 on the highway, or 21 combined—only 2 mpg better, on average, than the Panamera S. Still, that's good enough to rank the entry-level Panamera with Audi's (VOW:GR)

redesigned A8 and the Mercedes S400 Hybrid as the most fuel-efficient cars in the category.BMW's (BMW:GR) 6-powered 740i, at 17/25/20, is close but doesn't do quite as well.The V8-powered BMW 750i (15/23/18) and Mercedes S550 (15/23/18) trail behind.

The Panamera is selling very well. In 2010, the model's first full year on the market, the company sold 7,741 Panameras, making it Porsche's No. 2 model in the U.S. behind the Cayenne SUV, which had sales of 8,343.

Behind the Wheel

The key difference between the Panamera and the Panamera S is acceleration. Porsche says the base Panamera jumps from 0 to 60 in 6.0 seconds with rear-wheel drive—5.8 seconds with all-wheel drive. The time drops to 5.2 seconds (5.0 seconds with AWD) in the S (and to 4.0 seconds in the Turbo, which comes only with AWD).

If 0.8 seconds is worth 15 grand to you, then, the Panamera S is your car. If not, the entry-level Panamera will suit you because in other respects it's virtually identical to the S. Even the engine is essentially the same as the V8 in the S, but with two cylinders stripped out. It's a much sweeter engine than the V6 in the Porsche Cayenne. It emits a satisfying growl when you punch the gas.

The only transmission available in the Panamera (at least on this side of the Atlantic) is Porsche's seven-speed, "PDK" dual-clutch automatic. It's a marvelous transmission with a manual shifting function and steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters. It's so quick and fun to operate that only driving purists will consider it a comedown from a traditional stick shift.

If you live in the snowbelt, all-wheel-drive is definitely worth considering. I drove my test car in significant snow and ice and found it remarkably sure-footed. That's partly because when the Panamera is starting off at a normal rate of speed (as opposed to screechingly fast), the transmission almost instantly shifts into second gear to save fuel. This, plus the intelligent all-wheel-drive system, keeps the tires from losing traction, as often happens in performance cars during winter driving.

The Panamera is 195.6 inches long, almost 4.2 in. shorter than a BMW 740i and nearly 11 in. shorter than a Mercedes S400 Hybrid or Mercedes S550. Inside the cabin, however, it feels as roomy as its competitors. The bucket-style rear seats are spacious and comfortable, even for passengers over 6 ft. tall. The downside is that the Panamera seats a maximum of four people, vs. five for its BMW and Mercedes competitors.

The standard cabin is sumptuous, with leather upholstery and flawless fit and finish. The layout seems a bit retro at first, with most functions performed via old-fashioned knobs and controls, rather than a central knob that enters commands on a screen. However, I found the controls intuitive and easy to master.

The Panamera has a sizeable 15.7 cu. ft. trunk. Luggage capacity rises to 44.6 cu. ft. with the rear seats down and there's a pass-through between the rear seats to accommodate skis and other long cargo.

Buy it or Bag It?

Whether to go with the base Panamera or the Panamera S is a glass half-full, half-empty proposition. On one hand, you save $15,000 by going with the base model, get slightly better mileage, and still get a terrific automobile. On the other hand, you need only pay a further 15 grand to get the powerful V8 that offers the kind of screeching acceleration you expect from a Porsche.

The big advantage of the V6 Panamera is that you can outfit it with options and still keep the price under $100,000. The list of options is long, attractive, and pricey. I defy anyone to peruse it without getting sucked in. The mechanical add-ons I'd seriously consider include speed-sensitive steering ($270), Bi-Xenon headlamps ($770) a back-up camera ($1,255), electronically controlled suspension dampers ($1,990), and an adaptive air suspension ($3,980). I'd also want the $1,480 Sport Chrono package, which cuts a further 0.2 seconds off the 0 to 60 time.

Then there's a seemingly endless number of pricey comfort options. Everything from a leather-trimmed rearview mirror ($675) to Guards Red seat belts ($540) costs extra. Here are some other examples: satellite radio ($750), ventilated seats ($800), a Porsche crest on the headrests ($285), walnut or birch interior trim ($995), and illuminated aluminum doorsills ($1,100). Wouldn't it be cool to have a refrigerated compartment with two Porsche-crest glasses in the rear seat? Sure, but that will set you back $2,570. You can raise the cabin's appearance from attractive to drop-dead gorgeous with the optional cognac-and-cedar-colored natural leather package. Price: $5,595.

The new Panamera has several strong competitors. The V6 powered BMW 740i is about as sporty, seats five, and starts at $71,525, about four grand less than the Porsche. The newly redesigned Audi A8 comes with a V8 engine, standard AWD, and is just as fuel-efficient as the Panamera. It starts at $78,925, about $1,000 less than the all-wheel-drive Panamera. The Mercedes S400 hybrid is slower, more luxury-oriented, and more expensive, with a starting price of $91,875.

The bottom line: I'd love to own the new Panamera. It's a terrific car for the money, but only if you go easy on the options.

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