Thanks to its hide of Carrara White paint, the phrase that came to mind as I looked at the bulbous body of the 2012 Porsche Panamera Turbo S was "white whale." But turning the ignition, hearing the engine make its initial aggressive growl before settling down to a quiet idle, I doubted that Ahab's little wooden whaler would have a hope in hell of ever catching this car.
From the first spy shots floating around the Web, the Panamera has come in for negative aesthetic criticism, but get behind the wheel and all thoughts concerning the car's pudgy rear end begin to seem superfluous. When a car goes this fast and handles this well, who cares what it looks like?
And in Turbo S guise, the top trim, the Panamera broaches supercar territory, getting to 60 mph in 3.6 seconds, according to Porsche. After trying out the car's launch control, we have no doubts concerning that statistic.
CNET editor Antuan Goodwin was in the driver's seat, with me weighing down the passenger side, as he pushed the Sport Plus button, pulled the shift lever to manual, then turned off traction control. Voila, the Launch Control icon lit up on the steering wheel hub.
Antuan brought the revs up, let the brake go, and bam!, we were both punched in the back as the car rocketed forward. Besides the instantaneous speed and our own yells of wonder, there was no drama. The tires didn't smoke and the car kept a straight line. 60 mph came and went so fast Antuan was on the brakes well before the end of the straightaway.
Eight cylinders, seven gears
That episode illustrates just a little of what this car is capable of. It uses an immensely powerful, but in classic Porsche style very efficient, power plant, a twin-turbo direct-injection 4.8-liter V-8. This engine produces 550 horsepower and 553 pound-feet of torque, yet still turns in EPA figures of 15 mpg city and 23 mpg highway.
In a tour involving freeway, highway, city, and vigorous back-road driving, the Panamera Turbo S turned in 17.8 mpg. Although not breaching 20 mpg, few cars that go this fast can boast real-world fuel economy of this level. Besides the efficient engine, much credit is also due to the Panamera Turbo S' seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, Porsche's Doppelkupplung.
Another high-tech part of the drivetrain, this transmission works like a manual, using clutches to engage and disengage gears. But as a computer controls the clutches, the transmission can shift automatically. This technology results in hard shifts that better transmit engine power to the rear wheels, while allowing the convenience of automatic shifting. There is also a manual mode, which shifts with speed and precision.
Many automatics these days have Drive, Sport, and Manual modes, but Porsche leaves Sport off the gate. Instead, the Panamera Turbo S includes a Sport button on the console. And one labeled Sport Plus. Not to mention a button with an icon looking like cartoon eyes that activates the sport exhaust, a little feature that merely makes the exhaust note more aggressive.
Pushing the Sport button changes the transmission's shift points to keep engine speed higher, and puts the suspension in Sport mode. The active suspension, standard on the Panamera Turbo S, constantly adjusts stiffness at each wheel to keep the car planted when you are doing things such as doubling the recommended speed in a turn. The Sport Plus button does everything the Sport button does, but to a greater degree.
The changes in the Panamera Turbo S engendered by these buttons are nothing short of phenomenal. Although it feels taut in normal mode, Sport revs it up, putting the transmission into an aggressive mode in which it holds low gears when accelerating out of a turn, for example.
While putting this car to the test, Sport mode felt potent, like what you might get out of a very capable car like the Audi S4. Sport Plus was another level entirely, making the Panamera Turbo S competitive with cars such as the BMW M5.