Turbo, hybrid versions of Porsche Panamera S in industry's vanguard

For 2012, the S turbo and hybrid models are new to the Porsche Panamera lineup.
For 2012, the S turbo and hybrid models are new to the Porsche Panamera lineup. Porsche/MCT

The 2012 Porsche Panamera S turbo and hybrid are an immersion course in modern powertrain technology and a roadmap to where the whole auto industry is headed.

The cars use electrification, light materials, charged induction, downsized engines and new transmissions to deliver power and efficiency that would have been inconceivable not long ago.

Most of us will never own a six-figure super car, but soon we'll all have vehicles that dip into the same bag of tricks. Porsche engineers are at the leading edge of combining performance and fuel efficiency.

The S turbo and hybrid are new to the Panamera lineup. They give the big four-door a model that delivers high mpg with Porsche character and a rocket that hits 60 mph in 3.6 seconds.

They are arguably the peak of drivetrain and chassis technology. Disappointingly, they lack some features far less expensive models offer, like voice-recognition and blind-spot alert.

The S hybrid has a supercharged 3.0-liter V-6 and an electric motor that combine for 380 horsepower, an eight-speed automatic transmission and rear-wheel drive. Prices start at $95,000.

The S turbo has a 550-horsepower twin-turbo 4.8-liter V-8, seven-speed dual-clutch transmission and all-wheel drive. Prices start at about $173,000.

I tested a very well-equipped pair. The Panamera S hybrid stickered at $108,540. It featured 14-way power front seats, heated and ventilated front and rear seats and Bose audio.

The Panamera S turbo cost $193,690 and boasted $8,840 ceramic composite brakes.

The hybrid competes with big luxury hybrids and diesels like the BMW Activehybrid 7, Lexus LS 600h L, Mercedes-Benz S400 hybrid and S350 Bluetec diesel. Its EPA rating of 22 m.p.g. city, 30 highway and 25 combined beat the other hybrids and tied the S350 diesel.

The S350 would cost $500 more a year to run, because diesel costs more than the Porsche's premium fuel, according to the EPA.

Honestly, though, at this level, fuel economy isn't about saving money. It's about having the best toy and the biggest technical bragging point.

The Panamera S hybrid's handling is excellent, with a smooth ride, precise steering and very good brakes.

Power is OK in normal mode, but delivers the excitement you expect from a Porsche when you press the sport button. The hybrid's electric system contributes to 428 pound-feet of torque available at just 1,000 rpm.

The system has enough power to drive the Panamera in electric-only mode for short distances.

During my test, the engine shut off when coasting at speeds up to 70 mph. That contributed to an otherworldly 52 mpg on a 100-mile-plus highway run with the cruise control set to the prevailing traffic speed of about 70.

The hybrid and turbo both have an auto-stop feature that shuts the engine off when the car is idling and motionless.

The sensation of starting and stopping is more noticeable than in some cars with similar systems, even inexpensive ones like the Toyota Prius and Chevrolet Malibu Eco.

The twin-turbo V-8 is blindingly fast. A "sport+" mode raises performance to a level that _ like the car's 190-mph top speed _ should only be used on closed tracks.

The regular sport mode is a kick in the pants, stiffening the suspension and activating an overboost that briefly raises torque from 553 to 590 pound-feet.

The Panamera S turbo is remarkably comfortable and easy to drive despite its race-track capabilities. The staggered-width 20-inch tires have prodigious grip.

Electronic aids including body-roll reduction and torque-vectoring to deliver maximum power to each wheel without losing grip.

The optional ceramic composite brakes grip like claws, but their main virtue is that they don't overheat. You can drive a Panamera equipped with them like a race car, slamming the brakes on for hard stops all day without losing braking power.

The Panamera's interior is quiet and driver-focused, with clear, simple gauges.

Touch-screen controls for audio and navigation work very well. It's disappointing not to have voice-activated phone dialing in such exquisite cars, but the audio quality of hands-free calls is very good.

Both cars have an excess of buttons on the center console. They'd also benefit from more storage space for phones, sunglasses, iPods, etc.

Visibility is limited by high haunches and big C-pillars. The ultrasonic parking helps, but a rear camera and blind-spot and cross-traffic alerts would be better.

The interior materials are good. The S turbo raises the ante with an Alcantara headliner and carbon-fiber interior trim.

The Panamera S hybrid and turbo are very light. They tip the scales at 4,365 and 4,398 pounds, respectively. That's hundreds of pounds lighter than the competition. Porsche used magnesium, aluminum and other light materials to save weight.

High-end brands can pave the way for technologies that become common. Antilock brakes, stability control and other safety systems started in luxury models, then became commonplace.

Porsche's Panamera S turbo and hybrid are doing the same thing for efficiency and performance.

Mark Phelan is the auto critic for the Detroit Free Press. He can be reached at mmphelan@freepress.com.

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