How long is 18 years in the auto industry? Enough time for two generations and a half of a car model, you would hazard. But in Zuffenhausen, 18 years can also be enough time to shelve a model, put the only known prototype into cold storage and generally go about getting involved in everything – from an engine for Harley Davidson to building and successfully mastering the super SUV segment. What you see in the blue corner is the car that was ‘nearly’ never built.
If he were alive today, Michael Crichton would have loved to write a novel mirroring the life of Porsche through its 60 years of existence. And the Panamera would be devoted to half the paperback. Back in the early ’90s, an engineer at Porsche by the name of Ulrich Bez was handed over a budget of 300 million pounds to design, develop, engineer and produce a four-door saloon that would make the best from BMW and Mercedes-Benz shrink into oblivion. Project 989, as it was called, would be Porsche’s first attempt at making something more than a 2+2 sports car.
The design was frozen, a prototype was created and generally all looked swell, until the world markets collapsed and Porsche was forced to backtrack on the project. Ulrich Bez moved on to other things, but he didn’t forget Project 989. Neither did Porsche. Thus, today, we have two cars that live in the name of the 989 – the other being the Aston Martin Rapide. Oh, and Ulrich Bez is the current MD of Aston Martin.
So, until the Aston Martin Rapide comes along, this is what makes for a really cooking story. Porsche’s engineers claim that the Panamera, with the optional air suspension package, rides better than the Mercedes-Benz S-Class (Hande hoche!) and can beat the Maserati Quattroporte GTS to the sporty four-door crown (Mamma mia!). It’s Zuffenhausen’s way of saying ‘We may be 18 years late, but not ‘too’ late’. But can we agree?
Ah, the Mercedes-Benz S-Class! The fact that it is the best car in the world isn’t news, neither is the fact that in the last thirty years, anyone who has wanted to take on the S-Class has copiously mentioned it in their product literature. And if I told you it hasn’t moved an inch from that position after this test, you won’t even as much as raise an eyebrow. This, ladies and gentlemen, is Mercedes S-Class territory; others simply follow its rules. This is a luxury car with all the trappings of everything that makes you feel like you are on your way to heaven. I won’t even hesitate when I tell you that after spending just five minutes in the rear seat of the S-Class, I could tell you, even without having sat in the Panamera, that the big Merc rides better. In this, the long-wheelbase guise with those oh-so-awesome seats that can be ‘fixed’ in many ways, it just felt special. If I were Lilliput-ian, the seats would be Gulliver’s hand lined with velvet.
Propel yourself to the driver’s seat and the three-pointed star on the nose will transfix you as much as the smooth, purring 5.5-litre V8 will. This, the S500, has 369 horsepower, which isn’t too far removed from what the others have on offer here. Even with all that 1880 kg of bulk, the S500 moves quick enough for you to not notice, nor sense its rapidity. Its gearbox is a study in engineering – it just works away effortlessly in the background, gently stroking the axles to deliver power to the wheels.
There is no drama, no sense of velocity, unless you have a VBox strapped on or constantly keep checking the speedo. It’s nice for all those fat cats who want to get somewhere without realising that their driver is involved in some Monday morning traffic GP. It also, somehow, seems to hide its mass pretty well in town, something I wasn’t expecting it to. Click the Sport mode and the dampers stiffen themselves to make for slightly less roll and a stiffer than usual setup. Even then, it never ever gets intrusive. The best cars in the world don’t get better than this, or do they?
To the Maserati Quattroporte, then. Sounds evocative even before you’ve seen it, right? I wouldn’t hesitate to say it is the best looking saloon in the world. How else would you explain the horde that gathered outside the Renaissance Hotel lobby to feast their eyes on this ravishing Maser, even as a Porsche and a flashy Merc tried to vie for attention? Or maybe it had something to do with the way it sounded. This particular 2009 example, owned by Rohan Agarwal, a young car lover, had a Kreissieg valvetronic exhaust installed to hike horsepower up by a count of 10 and the decibel count up high enough to leave Greenpeace flustered. Installed by the nice folks at Racetech (www.racetech.co.in), the car attracts attention even before it has reached your driveway! For what is a 4.7-litre, Ferrari- borrowed V8, it’s like a Maserati Quattroporte Challenge Stradale. And then it looks so good, the fairer kind will just want to be seen with you.
Driving it is even more fun, as long as you are a fan of Italian motors. The Quattroporte is a different experience altogether. With finely stitched red leather on the seats, door panels and steering, it’s a wonderful place to be in. The controls look a bit odd at first and the overall ergonomics aren’t logical, but all is forgiven when the V8 is given a thorough workout. With 433 bhp in stock, the Quattroporte is quick. Unlike German V8s that sound more robotized, this one sounds more mechanical, more soulful. The Kreissieg exhaust system allows you to store two settings from five levels. This one had the most silent setting, which sounds like a stock exhaust, and the loudest, which might even beat DGCA norms for low-flying aircraft. It doesn’t have the sport suspension settings, but nevertheless handles sweetly enough to explore the car’s limits.
Unlike typical German cars that either leave your teeth chattering in protest or your hindside revelling in softness with their multiple stage suspension, this one is somewhere in between – a naturally acceptable setting. It’s nicely balanced, with the engine at the front and the transaxle evenly distributing weight. Suspension travel can’t be altered, so keeping its nose clean is a toughie. And don’t go looking for too much grip – it’s just the Italian way of doing things. Sporty it is, but not in the traditional manner and thus if you aren’t the traditional sort of guy, the Maserati is for you.
Traditional, however is what the Panamera is, as long as you are willing to forgive the way it looks, which, well, is an acquired taste. The silhouette is quite well managed and despite that high sill which merges into the C-pillar, there is enough room on the inside for two rear-seat passengers. From the rear you won’t mistake it for anything but a Porsche, and the same goes for the nose too – except it looks out of place in the entire scheme of things. Among the three though, it has the sportiest and the best interiors out there. Dripping in fine materials and hard-to-fault build quality, you won’t be complaining even two decades later if you plan to hold on to it. And the list of toys to play around with is just phenomenal.
But where Porsche have achieved the impossible is the way it drives. It is, and I mean it, a long-wheelbase 911. The way it shrink-wraps around you is baffling. Once you are past those jaw dropping moments, simply step on the gas and it’ll re-write some of Newton’s laws. The S here, like the others, is rear-wheel drive and even though it may not have the luxury of all-wheel drive like the 4S and Turbo, it is not a poorer cousin by any stretch. The manner in which it goes from calmly pottering around town to full blown 200 kph plus runs is bewitching. In between all of that it manages to ride well too, with some hints of traditional Porsche stiffness even in the softest of settings. Yes, the S-Class has more space and has infinitely better seats, but you won’t complain in the Panamera either. The grip levels are staggering, and the 245 section tyres at the front are well matched to the 275s at the rear to complement the very good turn-in feel. Maybe, in the wet, the 4S might give you that extra bit of traction around corners, but then again you wouldn’t want to be doing crazy speeds in appalling conditions to begin with.
To end it all, the S-Class, in its own right, is a wonderful car and probably the most practical, but you won’t be making your own little Nurburgring out of Narkanda in it if you wished to. Maserati has made the ultimate statement of a saloon in the form of the Quattroporte and to call it the Louis Vuitton of cars wouldn’t be out of place. It shouts, even when standing still, and will lead to more knocks on your door than any other car. The Porsche, however, is in a different league. Its looks may be questionable, but Porsche has made a habit of drawing your attention away from its controversial designs. Porsche’s four-door is the class leader, not because it retains its Porsche genes, but because it manages to do that despite all its fancy-shmancy and a sense of flawless Aryan engineering ethos. It may, in the process, lack some seasoning called soul, but it isn’t the worse for it. It may have begun as a concept as the Berlin Wall started to collapse, but it is 18 years late, not 18 years too late.