Porsche have taken the unprecedented move of releasing ten new Panamera models at once and, here in Muscat, and have gathered together six derivatives for the assembled press to fight over during the day. The arrival of the new Panamera to the Middle East region has been marked in true Porsche style, with a two-day press launch and road trip through the highest mountain range in the Eastern Arabian Peninsula.
What are the changes?
Aesthetically, the exterior design changes have been minimal even though Porsche themselves are referring to this new face-lifted Panamera as the "second generation". New bumpers for each of the variants, new headlight units and a redesigned rear with relocated number plate are the obvious, but then, Porsche have always been advocates of the ‘evolution not revolution' design ethos.
The unrivalled breadth of range is one of the hallmarks of the second generation which now includes two Executive versions for the Panamera 4S and Turbo featuring an extended wheelbase (15 cm). A third new model, the Panamera S E-Hybrid, marks a new technological benchmark as the world's first plug-in hybrid in the luxury class.
From a driving perspective, however, the Panamera has garnered a reputation as one of the best full-sized luxury saloons available which Porsche attribute to the "race car DNA" which is imbued in to all of its models. Sales figures stand testament to this, especially so in the Middle East where sales have continued to climb in the outgoing model. The Middle East is one of the largest markets for the Panamera, even as global sales of this model have seen a decline of more than 30% in the first half of this year combined with the same period in 2012.
New technologies mean fuel savings of up to 56% and with the exception of the diesel model, more power. The standard version offers a blistering top speed of 259 kph, 310 hp and fuel consumption of just 8.4 l/100 km, proving efficiency need not mean a compromise in sporting performance.
The first Panamera I was nominated to drive is the 4S with a newly developed twin-turbo, three-liter V6 powering all four wheels. Power output is slightly up on the older, naturally aspirated engine of its predecessor. Peak power of 420 hp kicks in at 6,000 rpm although there is little opportunity to put it to use as we exit north through Muscat in our mandatory Panamera convoy following a Cayenne lead car. What I can testify to is the incredible ease with which the 4S accelerates. This is put to the test by leaving just enough of a gap between me and the car in front and persuading the accelerator with a dab of right foot. Initial lag from the twin-turbo is quickly forgotten about as the 4S picks itself up and powers forward with serious purpose without any fuss being made whatsoever by the V6.
The Panamera is more involving to drive than any of the other saloons in the market. It captures most of the essence that makes two-door Porsches such wonderful vehicles to pilot. The new S model, especially, feels wonderfully poised and composed. On the roads in Oman that stretches north of the capital Muscat into the spectacular Hajar Mountains, the 4S shrugged off it considerable mass and behaved like a fully fettled sports car. The new 3.0 liter V6 bi-turbo petrol musters a considerable 420 hp and 520 Nm, which should silence naysayers who believe it shouldn't have replaced the naturally aspirated 4.8 liter V8 that used to do service in S models. The new powertrain isn't as sonorous as the V8, but it makes a not-unpleasant sound thanks to the standard fitment of an adaptive sports exhaust and it uses a claimed 18% less fuel.
I was also offered the opportunity to drive the 520 hp Turbo with an impressive 0-100 kph that takes just 4.1 seconds, but it lacks the 4S's light-on-its-feet feel and the S E-Hybrid. The latter is a plug-in hybrid that pairs electric power and a 3.0 liter V6 supercharged petrol engine for a total power output of 306 kW and a 0-100 kph sprint time of 5.5 seconds. With an average consumption figure of 10.5 L/100 km, we couldn't get near Porsche's combined-figure claim of a wildly optimistic 3.1 L/100 km. But, in the S E-Hybrid's defense, we were driving it on undulating mountain passes that aren't exactly its natural habitat. And its green-tinged badges clearly make it known to public that its wealthy owner is (potentially) concerned about the environment.
An unquestionable success, however, is the design and construction of the cabin. The materials are flawless and refinement top-notch. The only fly in the cockpit's rich ointment is the aforementioned lack of usable room in the rear. In this regard, it is soundly beaten by the Cayenne.
New to the lineup is the Panamera S E-Hybrid, a rear wheel drive car that has a naturally aspirated 3 liter V6 engine producing 333 hp and an electric motor that produces 95 hp to give a combined total output to 416 hp. As for torque, the engine has 440 Nm and the electric motor has 310 Nm for a total output of 589 Nm. The hybrid accelerates from zero to 100 kph in 5.5 seconds and has a top speed of 270 kph.
While the looks may still divide the room, the truth is as it always has been with the Panamera: the best place to be is in the driving seat. Hopefully I'll get the chance soon to put the Panamera through its paces on home turf and sample that "Race Car DNA".