Porsche’s $929,000 918 Supercar Roars Like a Million: Review

The 918 Spyder is Porsche’s first supercar in about a decade, with devotees waiting for its release as feverishly as any Apple Inc. product. Imagine if the world’s biggest technology company was releasing the iPad HyperFast and the iPhone SuperSexy at the same time, and you’d get the idea.

The 918’s price can brush $1 million, four times that of any other new Porsche. Its hybrid technology hurls it to 60 miles (97 kilometers) per hour in 2.5 seconds. It ran Germany’s infamous 13-plus-mile Nurburgring racetrack in record time --

6.57 minutes -- faster than any production road car, ever.

Facts that border on hyperbole and certainly beg questions. What’s it like to actually drive? Is it worth all that dough?

I found out in December, one of only 100 or so journalists worldwide who got a chance to test a production model on public roads and a racetrack.

Prepare for the obvious: With 887 horsepower and 944 pound-feet of torque, the 918 is pretty quick. In hindsight, my test-drive was a series of shutterlike moments, scenery fluttering by in discrete panels like a choppy 8-millimeter film. Hammer the accelerator and embark on a hallucinogenic trip, your mind flooding with wonder, fear, endorphins. It’s the perception-warping speed of science fiction.

Wow Worthy

Cars like the 918, LaFerrari and McLaren P1 are sometimes referred to as hypercars. They have big prices and are produced in very small numbers. Despite horsepower ratings that reach toward four figures, they are aimed not at professional racecar drivers but at well-to-do mortals, many probably in their 60s or older.

So the 918 couldn’t be scary or unpredictable. It had to be wow-worthy as the price implies, but not soil-your-trousers bonkers.

The base 918 starts at $845,000. The racetrack-oriented Weissach model, which might well be described as the “way louder, tougher on your back and will annoy your passenger package,” starts at $929,000. Additional options cost as much as a brand-new car: a trick exterior paint for $63,000 or special leather seats for $26,000.

Porsche, a unit of Wolfsburg, Germany-based Volkswagen AG, says it wanted the 918 to showcase just how far technology has come since the release of its last supercar, the Carrera GT in

2003. I drove it years ago and it was formidable. The Carrera GT is also the car in which actor Paul Walker was killed Nov. 30 in California.

Electric Motors

The 918 is a hybrid, with two electric motors that individually power the rear and front wheels. They can power the car alone, so that it operates in all-electric mode, or in tandem with the ferocious 608-horsepower V-8 engine, which is mounted behind the driver in the center of the car.

One of the hybrid’s most impressive applications is that it can fully recharge its own batteries while driving, using the gasoline engine and regenerative braking. Which means you plug it in every day, or never. Clever indeed.

The car is sexy. The proportions are perfect, the angles exaggerated, the racing heritage unmistakable. The fenders bulge provocatively, while the center of the hood is extremely low. It’s smaller than expected; not super wide or particularly long. The two-seater has roof panels that can be manually removed so that it also serves as a convertible.

The interior is fighter-jet compact, and it’s hard to make an elegant entry. You have to scoot your rump over a wide sill and then drop into the tight bucket seats.

Silent Start

The car starts in all-electric mode. Twist the key (located to the driver’s left, as in all Porsches) and the car turns on silently, like Nissan Motor Co.’s Leaf. Tip down a lever, engaging drive, pop off the e-brake button and roll quietly away.

Porsche says you can get about 20 miles of pure electric driving around town before the lithium-ion battery pack is depleted. (The pack is located low in the carbon-fiber body. Incredibly, the car’s center of gravity is located below the wheel hubs.)

It’s pleasant to drive around city streets in electric mode, particularly with the top off. People stop and gawp at this slick piece of sculpture creeping silently around.

Engage the engine by putting it into “hybrid,” “sport hybrid,” or “race” modes, and the Spyder’s demeanor savagely shifts. The engine does not switch on quietly, seamlessly or with any sleight of hand. Rather it blasts on like a cannon, assaulting eardrums and sending a spasm through the car.

The party is ready to start. On public roads it’s best to use the acceleration in short spurts and then slow back down immediately. Giggle-inducing fun, but it demands restraint and temperance.

Racetrack Ready

Better to turn its potential to the racetrack, where you can exploit the full-out, Mad Hatter power.

The 918 uses all manner of technological wizardry to keep the car on target and out of trouble, and in the process make you feel like you’re a Formula One driver. These tricks include rear-wheel steering and torque vectoring.

So it was that, on an unfamiliar track in a car I’d barely driven, I was blurring around at a pace that few other sports cars could manage.

A moment in slipstreaming time: Hurtling down the front straight, well over 150 mph, I was holding the steering wheel with only fingertips. The car tracked straight and true, perfect.

A left-hand corner approached and I waited until the last moment to graze the brakes. The car slowed and turned simultaneously, graceful and seemingly impervious to physics -- an unlikely convergence of skills, like asking an ice skater to do a triple Lutz while texting.

Forgiving Sensors

I straightened my hands on the wheel, blasted back on the gas and the car downshifted and bolted. I made a mistake and felt the rear end slipping out. I jiggled my hands to correct, but the sensors had already done it for me.

Easy? Almost too easy. The most difficult thing was being smooth while transferring between brakes and gas. At the end of my second set of laps, I placed the car in “hot lap” mode, which uses all of the car’s battery power to go the full bananas.

Corners rolled by, straights unfurled, tires made ungodly noises. Much of the footage in my mental 8-millimeter film is missing because my brain couldn’t record that quickly. The 918 is bananas. Extraordinary bananas. Worth $1 million bananas (if you’re the kind of individual who parts with that kind of money).

The only likely complaint? Finding roads or even racetracks that match up to the mix of technology and performance. A First World problem indeed.

The 2014 Porsche 918 Spyder with Weissach Package at a Glance

Engines: 4.6-liter V-8 and two electrical motors for a total of 887 horsepower and 940 pound-feet of torque.

Transmission: Seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual.

Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 2.5 seconds.

Range and mileage per gallon: About 20 miles on electric power; mpg not yet rated.

Price as tested: $985,000 (estimated).

Best features: Boggling performance, ease of driving in all-electric mode.

Worst features: Hard to get into without looking foolish; price of options.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)