You meet athletes like this. Musicians, too. Absolute technical masters, accurate and precise verging on machinelike, who haven’t got an ounce of feel.
The second-generation Porsche Panamera has that problem. It’s masterfully engineered, sleek and stylish with a gorgeous interior and performance worthy of the Stuttgart shield. The Panamera Turbo will pants most supercars in a straight line; the Turbo S E-Hybrid will do the same, then slink off silently in EV mode, the ultimate insult. But “feedback” is not a word in the Panamera’s language.
I hoped this latest variant, the Panamera GTS, would fix that. In the Porsche dialect, those three letters usually signify a lightweight, stylish variant loaded up with performance goodies, for far less than you’d spend ordering them a la carte. We called the 718 Cayman GTS Porsche’s best-kept secret; the 911 GTS, to our eye, offers a more compelling performance-to-dollar ratio than any other 911.
But there’s only so much magic three letters can do.
The Panamera GTS comes standard with plenty of great hardware: Adaptive air suspension, lowered 10mm. Oversized brakes, 15.3 inches at the front, 14.4 at the rear. The Sport Chrono package, with the Sport Response button for 20 seconds of overboost. Sport exhaust system, Sport Design appearance package, sporty blackout trim and Alcantara interior. Sport everything.
Oh, and the twin-turbo 4.0-liter V8 engine from the Panamera Turbo. Hold your applause: you ain’t getting the capital-T Turbo’s 550 horses and 567 lb-ft of torque. Despite being mechanically identical to the top-spec Panamera powerplant, the GTS engine only makes 12 pounds of boost compared to the Turbo’s 19, limiting output to 453 horsepower and 457 lb-ft of torque. Porsche is quick to point out how this car out-muscles the previous-gen Panamera GTS by 13 horses and 73 lb-ft. I counter that the Panamera 4S, with its 2.9-liter twin-turbo V6, makes a very respectable 440 horses and 405 lb-ft of torque, and carries less weight on its nose.
So why the neutered V8 instead of, say, more boost to the V6? “The GTS is our emotional car,” Arno Bögl, director of powertrain for Panamera, told me. “The V8 has higher torque, especially at low RPM. With a smaller engine we don’t have that good response.” A V8 is also part of Panamera GTS tradition—the last-gen GTS had a 4.8-liter naturally aspirated V8, a sweetheart motor with 440 horses and a snarling, bellowing voice. For the 2019 model, a slightly retuned eight-speed PDK gearbox and shorter 3.36 final drive gearing (versus 3.15 in the Turbo) send power to all four wheels.
There’s no denying that it’s quick. Porsche says the Panamera GTS (and the wagon-ish Panamera GTS Sport Turismo) will sprint to 60 mph in 3.9 seconds. In practice, it feels more like 3.5.
I don’t know what it is, but somehow this car makes a mid-three-second 0-60 dash feel unexciting. Even Launch Control, which zings the engine to 5000 RPM before you drop the brake, doesn’t wallop you the way you’d expect. In Sport+ mode, the exhaust note gets a touch more rumbly, and like all German V8 sport sedans, this one emits obedient little exhaust crackles on deceleration, but the sound and the shove never really coalesce into something scintillating.
Porsche invited journalists to Bahrain, the sovereign island nation in the Persian Gulf, to sample the Panamera GTS. Out on the sweeping, empty southern half of King Hamad Highway—a pristine road that runs through unpopulated desert and terminates on the manmade island archipelago of Durrat al Bahrain at, I kid you not, a combination Caribou Coffee and Fuddruckers—the GTS was hushed and smooth as polished marble. Porsche’s big-body sedan lives for open highway, though perhaps not one with Bahrain’s every-kilometer speed cameras. Optional rear-axle steering calms the GTS’s reactions at highway speed, and the ride is subdued even with the active dampers in their firmest setting.
We also sampled the GTS at Bahrain International Circuit of Formula One fame. Running on both the wide-open, 2.28-mile Outer Circuit and the technical, 3.36-mile Grand Prix track, the GTS was quick and competent. You feel the weight of the thing—at nearly 4700 lbs, this Panamera can’t hide its heft—but the sport suspension keeps the body motions subdued even as you chuck it into corners with abandon.
You can pummel the Panamera GTS around the track, hauling it over curbs and wailing on the brakes, and the car just rolls with it. It stays poised, even when you’re doing things that would feel abusive in a different four-door sedan. The transmission is almost always in the right gear when shifting for itself, and even in the 90-degree heat of October in Bahrain, the temp gauges never register a worry.
Here’s the thing: hustling a fast machine around a racetrack shouldn’t leave you feeling ho-hum. The Panamera GTS has pace, balance and grip, but cutting a quick lap in the thing is about as rewarding as efficiently washing dishes. The steering is limp even in its firmest setting, barely whispering feedback. The brakes do an amazing job of staying under the car lap after lap, but the pedal is a notch too soft, hard to accurately modulate. Despite having a sport exhaust system, the engine still sounds like it’s two rooms away. The Panamera never felt out of place lapping this fast, challenging track. Truth be told, it never felt like much of anything. The car turned in fast, unflappable laps, but the interaction was dutiful, not collaborative.
I did have one exciting turn in the GTS. Toward the end of our day of testing, two journalist colleagues and I piled into a Panamera driven by racing legend Walter Röhrl. The quiet German, now 71, absolutely keelhauled our four-up sedan around the Grand Prix circuit. My back-seat companion and I sloshed around like crash test dummies, hooting and giggling uncontrollably as Röhrl cranked the wheel and tossed the car into tidy arcing slides. Crossing the finish line, our champion chauffeur checked his wristwatch. “Two seconds slower with four people,” he noted wryly.
It’s clearly a capable machine. With me at the wheel, it turned clean, drama-free laps with no caveats; with Rohrl piloting, it was a rocket. There’s no arguing with the numbers. The GTS has the power, acceleration and top speed of a serious performance car. And it can handle full-speed lapping around one of the world’s most challenging tracks, on a hot desert day, without issue.
But the best performance cars have something beyond numbers. They’re rewarding to drive, whether you’re Walter Rohrl or a regular schlub like me. They give you feedback, reward your good driving. That’s what the Panamera lacks.
Is it fair to be so critical of the Panamera GTS? The car delivers exactly what it promises: A roomy sedan or squareback with a snappy V8 and a chassis that won’t decompensate on a race track. A comfortable cruiser with unflappable handling and acceleration that’ll keep Mustangs in your rear view mirror. A splash of Panamera Turbo at a price that elicits a slightly shallower gasp.
Porsche’s not foolish. Nobody is cross-shopping a Panamera and a 911 GT3. If a privately-owned Porsche sedan finds itself on a race track, it’s probably because of a GPS error. The market doesn’t need a bone-shaking, ear-splitting Panamera RS. The Turbo model takes care of the buyers who want the best of everything; the base-model Panamera is for folks who just want a nice German sedan.
That leaves a pretty narrow swath of buyers interested in a Panamera with a bunch of sport goodies and a rumbly V8. According to a source at Porsche, the last Panamera GTS made up about 15 percent of the model’s sales. And let’s recall that Porsche sells roughly three Cayenne SUVs for each Panamera in the US market.
So the Panamera GTS is a niche model that delivers exactly as much performance as its buyers could reasonably want. On that level, it succeeds. I just wish it did it with a little more jazz.