Nürburg, Germany – You'd never know it from the ill-fitting body panels, janky exhaust note, or high-frequency hums emanating from beneath its swoopish body panels, but the work-in-progress Porsche 918 Spyder promises to be a phenomenal figurehead for the German dream factory when the finished product finally debuts.
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Why the unbridled optimism? After a recent passenger ride in pre-production vehicle on country roads surrounding the Nürburgring, my seat-of-the-pants impressions of the 918 suggest that the low-slung plug-in hybrid should exude no shortage of hypercar charisma when production commences on the symbolically laden date of 9/18 next year.. but more on that later. The real reason for celebration is what this line-topping Porsche represents and, even more crucially, one number it produces: 7 minutes, 14 seconds, the time it took to lap 12.4 miles of Green Hell not long after my all-too-brief ride-along.
The Numbers Game: Super Superlatives
For some reference, the time is a full 8 seconds below Porsche's target for the car, than the Corvette ZR-1d, and 4 seconds quicker than the fossil fuel-burning 911 GT2 RS. Not to put too much stock in the oft-cited Nürburgring lap time, but 7:14 says more about the 918's racecar-like ambitions than perhaps any other marketing metric. And it could get even quicker as development moves along.
Not that the 918's specs aren't already astounding: 795 horsepower and 575 lb-ft of torque are nothing to sneeze at, but the real wonderment starts when you peel away those body panels, dig beneath the skin, and marvel at the complexities of its mechanical guts. The car, we're told, is so densely packaged you couldn't fit a Kleenex box anywhere beneath its carbon fiber skin. The mid-mounted 4.6 liter V8 produces 580 hp—actually, more than the RS Spyder LMP2 race car it's based on—and the nearby lithium-ion battery feeds up to 200 kW of power to the electric motor driving the front wheels. Engine exhaust is routed up & out from the rear decklid (due to the confluence of heat producing hardware), and no fewer than 55 computers and 4 cooling circuits work in tandem to orchestrate the electromechanical symphony between the engine and electric motor.
Seat of the Pants: How Low (and Fast) Can You Go?
After shoehorning my five foot, eleven inch frame into the passenger seat of a 918 Spyder development car, the first thing I felt was low. Literally. Strapped in with a five-point racing harness, there's only 6.69 inches separating your butt from tarmac. With an overall height just under 46 inches, this truly is a marvel of packaging when all factors are considered—but the diagnostic test equipment and fire suppression tank nestled between my feet don't make this squat supercar feel any less compact.
The powertrain can be operated in one of four modes: EV, Hybrid, Sport Hybrid, and Race Hybrid, and appropriately enough, my pilot chooses all-electric as we pull out of the Nürburgring paddock and onto a neighboring public road, which happens to be swarmed by telephoto lens-wielding car paparazzi snapping away at this particular specimen of automotive exotica. EV mode offers a total cruising range of only around 16 miles, and before long we switch to Hybrid via small red switch on the steering wheel. The V8 kicks to life with a guttural hum, and acceleration gets noticeably livelier as the 918 picks up the pace and whips a right turn onto a rambling b-road. Although the suspension feels taut and the powerband plentiful (the electric motor alone can sustain a staggeringly broad plateau of up to 442 lb-ft of torque between 1,000 to 9,000 rpm), the soundtrack suggests there's some audio design work that remains to be done: high-pitched whines from the motor and burly V8 grunts defy the high-tech wizardry that enables the broad differential between ass hauling speed and its estimated fuel economy of 78.4 mpg.
Race Mode, For the Win
On a winding stretch of road, Race mode opens another window into car's ability to achieve a 7:14 Nürburgring lap time: with both power sources driving all four wheels wrapped in sticky Michelin rubber, the 918 claws forward and whooshes ahead with effortless expedience, and the quick blast reverts to sane speeds faster than you can say "Again, again!"
Apart from the cognitive dissonance of the test car's unrefined sounds its face flattening performance, my seat time reveals that though it will face daunting competition from exotic hybrid range toppers like the "new" Ferrari Enzo and McLaren F1, the Porsche 918 Spyder will nonetheless offer its own unique blend of bleeding edge technology and gut-stirring performance when it falls into civilian hands in late 2013.