The appearance of the Porsche Panamera is polarizing. Critics praise the car for its performance, space and comfort but consider the styling a weak spot. Some are fond of the look, if only in ugly-duckling fashion. Some cannot abide it at all and seem to get angry just talking about it. We think it's attractive from head on but looks ungainly from some angles. Its ungainliness is related to its impressive interior space and space efficiency.
That said, the Panamera does have presence. It stands out when parked among a group of luxury cars. Seeing it this way, it's the car we want to drive.
The Panamera is a substantial car. Exterior dimensions such as length, width and wheelbase surpass those of mid-size luxury sedans such as the Audi A6, BMW 5 series and Mercedes E-Class, and come within a few inches of full-size models such as the Audi A8 and BMW 7 Series. Yet the Panamera body shell is built from a cocktail of lightweight materials that includes boron steel, aluminum, magnesium and composites. Axles, suspension components and other bits you can't see are aluminum. As a result, with a minimum curb weight of 3880 pounds, the Panamera is lighter than the smaller, mid-size competitors, and nearly 1000 pounds lighter than the full-size competitors. This is important, because the lower weight contributes to Panamera's good fuel-economy ratings and excellent handling feel.
Benefitting from its racing experience, Porsche pays particular attention to airflow around the body. The Panamera was the first luxury four-door to use a full underbody shield; it even covers the driveshaft and mufflers. This reduces both wind resistance and lift. The radar sensor for the available active cruise control is positioned to minimize the disruption of airflow, but it's ugly, degrading the appearance of the front end; we'd pass on the active cruise option for that reason. A cleverly hidden active rear spoiler rests under a chrome trim strip and pops up at speed to increase rear downforce.
Panamera's shape flows from two key factors: packaging, and heritage. Porsche wanted a four-door that looks like a Porsche, and that meant elements of the 911 sports car. These influences include the signature shoulders or haunches around the rear wheels, a hood that sits lower than the front fenders, and a front end with no conventional grille above the bumper. In some ways, the Panamera looks like a giant 911.
Given its role as true four-passenger automobile, the Panamera needed the rear seat space of a sedan and the cargo utility of wagon. These crucial parameters led to a rounded four-door hatchback design instead of a traditional three-box sedan. The hatchback allows for generous rear headroom, cargo utility and a sporty coupe-style profile.
The hatch style creates unconventional proportions, and a car that looks awkward from some angles. The length added by the rear doors and the high rear roofline seems to stretch the car too far. Gaze at the Panamera and there's a strong urge to chop about 18 inches out of the roof and sharpen the roof's slope to the rear. But if Porsche did that, the Panamera would look a lot like a front-engine 911. The four-door's bulbous rear end reminds us of the old 928. The net effect is ungainly.
If the design isn't elegant, it nonetheless creates a presence in traffic. That large rear end stands out. And from the front, the Panamera attracts lots of attention when it creeps through a parking lot or pulls up to a restaurant. It stands out when parked among other big luxury sedans.
The models can be distinguished by subtle trim details and wheels. The Panamera V6 is distinguished by matte black trim surrounding its side windows, which is chrome on V8 models. The V6's exhaust tips are oval, with a single outlet on each side, rather than the two pair of round tips found on V8s. The V6 comes standard with unique, five-spoke 18-inch wheels.
The Panamera has a lovely cabin, luxurious and well executed. Fit and finish are excellent in all Panamera models. While its luxurious, almost bespoke quality can match some of the richest sedans in the world, the Panamera retains the sporting, playful ambience that has identified Porsche cockpits for decades.
Interior materials in the Panamera are top-notch, with supple, soft-touch surfaces, and several upgrades are available. Panamera V6 and Panamera S models come standard with three partial-leather upholstery choices, while the Turbo gets full-leather upholstery in five color choices or four two-tone combinations. Interior trim is available in carbon, aluminum, or five real-wood options. The V6 we tested had black lacquered wood, and it was striking.
The full-leather option adds rich, heavily stitched leather to the dashboard and doors. An alcantara roofliner is available and extra leather is available on just about everything, including the rearview mirror, steering column and air vents. It's all very handsome.
The driver's position is similar to that in the 911 sports car, low for a luxury sedan. The standard seats are not fancy, but they deliver a fabulous combination of support, grip and long-range comfort. Power seats are standard, while 14-way adjustment comes in the Panamera Turbo, and 18-way sport seats are available.
The biggest problem inside the Panamera, perhaps the only potential deal breaker, is rearward visibility. The side mirrors are triangular shaped and don't offer very broad scope. It takes awhile to get comfortable with them, especially for drivers who rely heavily on the side mirrors in traffic. The rearview mirror isn't any better. The rear glass may seem large, but its angle makes it look like a slot through the rearview mirror. Looking over the shoulders backing up, the fat rear pillars block large arcs of the surroundings. The obstacle warning system helps, but what you'll see is a pictograph of potential obstacles on the dash, rather than the obstacles themselves. The rearview camera is optional and we recommend getting it. It should be standard. It makes backing up safer because it's easier to spot a child. On a practical basis, it makes parking quicker and less stressful because the driver can see just how far back the bumper to that other car is or spot posts or holes you may want to avoid.
The Panamera V6 has a manual tilt-telescope steering column. It works well enough, but like that back-up camera, the power tilt-telescope should come standard in this league. The steering wheel itself is fantastic: thick and wrapped in tactilely pleasing leather, with just a tiny bit of give when you squeeze. A button behind the bottom spoke heats the wheel independently of the seats. The manual shift buttons on the wheel work one way, with upshifts on one side and downshifts on the other.
There are five gauges in the instrument cluster, all large and easy to see. The tachometer sits front and center, black numbers on white background, with a gear indicator and big digital speed readout at the bottom. That's good, because the radial speedometer is marked in hard-to-read 25-mph increments. It sits to the left of the slightly larger tach, while a multi-function display sits to the right. Both of these contrast with the tach, using black backgrounds and white characters. The multi-function display shows a range of data chosen by the driver, from trip information to vehicle systems to navigation directions. Two smaller gauges at the edges complete the package: fuel level and coolant temperature on the right, and oil pressure and temperature on the left.
Some important switches are spread around the steering column. Turn signals are conventionally operated with the left side stalk, while the lights are operated with a radial switch on the dash, next to Porsche's unconventional left-side ignition switch. Wipers are controlled with the right-side stalk. Cruise control functions fill a third stalk, to the lower left, making room for redundant audio and phone controls and trip-computer buttons on the steering-wheel spokes.
Stalk-mounted cruise control isn't optimal, but Porsche's system works a lot better than that used by Mercedes-Benz, which tends to get in the way of simple turn-signal operation. The Panamera's window switches are perfectly placed in the driver's armrest, right at the fingertips when the left forearm is resting. The reading lights, sunroof switch and obstacle-warning control are collected in the headliner above the rear-view mirror.
The main barrage of switches, of course, are clustered in a center pod that flows up from the Panamera's console and around a seven-inch, touch-screen video/navigation monitor. There are upwards of 32 buttons on the dash and console, with another 18 buttons surrounding the screen.
Porsche has opted for a button for every possible command rather than a centralized controller along the lines of BMW's iDrive. At first the array is a bit daunting, but operation gets simpler fairly quickly with familiarity. The buttons are logically grouped by function and easy to reach. A central controller might look more elegant but they tend to be harder to learn, and far more distracting while driving. On the down side, the Panamera's standard navigation system can be hard to figure out.
Audio systems begin with a single CD, 11 speakers and 235 watts of power, and we found it quite good. The optional Bose surround sound system, with 14 speakers and 585 watts, is loud and clear. It matches anything in most luxury cars.
Storage up front includes a pair of cupholders in the console that can hold change, keys and other items when they're not occupied by drinks. There's also a shallow center-console box, a fairly large glovebox, and good-sized door pockets that are lined with fabric to eliminate the annoying sound of sliding glasses or CD cases. More than storage, what jumps out is the way the full-length center console creates four distinct seating pods, each with all the room and comfort the vast majority of passengers will ever need. This is one sports sedan that doesn't compromise rear seat room.
The rear seats are essentially buckets like those in front. The rear seats don't adjust in the V6 or S, but they're still comfortable and grippy, with backs reclined at a comfortable angle. Adjustable rear seats are optional on all models. And there's a lot of room. We found that a 5-foot, 8-inch rear passenger could stretch legs fully behind a 5-foot, 8-inch driver, with feet tucked under the front seat. Rear-seat headroom is even more impressive, accommodating occupants well over 6 feet tall. The copious space would make the Panamera a fine chauffer-driven vehicle, though giving up the driver's seat wouldn't be easy.
In standard trim, the rear is nicely finished, with four reasonably sized air vents that can be adjusted or closed completely. Rear seat heaters and four-zone climate control are optional. There's almost as much storage in back as in front: two cup holders in the center console and a shallow bin in the folding armrest, with small, lined pockets on the doors and map pouches on the back of the front seats.
With the rear seats up, there is 15.6 cubic feet of space behind them, or about as much as the typical mid-size sedan's trunk. Four suitcases fit easily in the Panamera, and access is easy thanks to the hatchback. A shade-type, pull-out cargo cover is optional, but the standard lift-up cover works better. It attaches with cables to the liftgate, and opens when the standard power gate rises. It's also easy to remove, but then the driver has to find some place to store that big panel.
Switching the Panamera to max cargo mode is a matter on pressing one button on each of the seatbacks. The seatbacks drop one at a time, creating a nearly flat load floor with tie downs, and a maximum 44.2 cubic feet of cargo volume that you can reach from the rear or through the side doors. That's more than what's available in mid-sized luxury wagons such as the BMW 5 Series or Audi S6.