It's a year of big debuts for the German auto industry, including a rare overhaul for the Mercedes-Benz S-class. While that Benz will undoubtedly go all-out on luxury, the refreshed Porsche Panamera sharpens its focus on performance. Sure, there are some comfort and convenience upgrades, but who cares about Apple CarPlay when there's a 630-hp Turbo S? And that's not even the most powerful Panamera in the quiver.
We had the chance to explore the revised Panamera's talents when we joined Thomas Friemuth, vice president for the Panamera product line, and a couple of his top engineers for a late round of testing in the Black Forest mountains southwest of Stuttgart.
We couldn't see the 2021 model's visual changes, which were hidden under mild camouflage, but we know they'll be modest. There's a distinct lower front end for the Turbo S, and the rear end receives slight updates. The taillights now run uninterrupted across the width of the Panamera's posterior, and the Porsche lettering is three-dimensional. All models receive the Sport Design package, previously an option, which essentially brings more aggressive lower body cladding. Three new wheel designs and two new exterior colors complete the revisions to the Panamera's exterior.
Inside, the changes are equally subtle. The new steering wheel emphasizes the family resemblance with the 911, and there are some fresh choices in the realm of wood decor. The shift paddles feel solid and expensive, though we're glad that—unlike on the 911—it's still possible to manually select gears with a console-mounted shifter that works intuitively: Pull backwards to upshift, push forward to downshift. It took Porsche a long time to reverse that pattern, so we feel obliged to commend them for tacitly admitting that they were once wrong about something.
On the technology front, Porsche upgraded its infotainment system to include new connectivity functions such as Apple CarPlay. Voice recognition is improved, the system is faster, and the central screen features a higher resolution. We still have a few gripes. We'd like a more flexible display in front of the driver, perhaps one inspired by the Taycan, and it wouldn't hurt if the Sport Chrono clock would kindly disappear at the touch of a button—or at least just not look like such a highbrow afterthought.
The changes to the Panamera's powertrain are more significant than the cosmetic and interior tweaks. The entry-level 3.0-liter V-6 makes way for a 2.9-liter V-6, rated at the same 330 horsepower. It is closely related to the engine in the Panamera 4S, which retains the same displacement but could receive a power boost to 450 horsepower. Above that, there's the Panamera GTS with a detuned version of the Panamera Turbo's 4.0-liter V-8. The GTS receives a power boost from 453 to 473 horsepower.
Meanwhile, the Panamera Turbo, previously rated at 550 horsepower, disappears to make way for the enthusiast's ultimate Panamera: the Turbo S, which packs a lofty 620 horsepower. This move required a number of changes to the engine's inner workings. The pistons and crankshaft are upgraded to withstand the boost from larger turbochargers, and new injectors deliver more fuel. Even the spark plugs are unique. It's a considerable investment that delivers significantly improved performance.
And then there's the expanded hybrid lineup, which includes a new mid-level version, the Panamera 4S E-Hybrid. That car slots between the entry-level Panamera 4 Hybrid and the Panamera Turbo S E-Hybrid. All of them receive a 17.9-kWh battery in place of the old 14.1-kWh pack, leading to about 30 percent more fully electric range (which should in turn bump the EPA-rated electric range to 18 miles). The two lesser models are based on the 2.9-liter V-6, while the Turbo S E-Hybrid continues to be based on the 4.0-liter V-8.
The entry-level hybrid will remain close to its current 462 horsepower output, and the new Panamera 4S E-Hybrid will be rated at 552 horsepower. The Turbo S E-Hybrid gets an upgrade from the previous 680 horsepower and will now crack the 700-horsepower barrier, although Porsche hasn't yet finalized the exact output. However, unlike on the non-hybrid Turbo S, its V-8 remains largely unchanged. So, we think the enthusiast's choice is clear: Give us the Turbo S, without the heavy hybrid technology.
All engines are mated to an ultra-quick eight-speed dual-clutch automatic, and all-wheel drive is standard everywhere except for the base model. During our driving, we found that a case can be made for each engine in the lineup, but the hybrids make the biggest leap from the 2020 models, now feeling more natural and offering more aggressive responses in the sportier modes.
Porsche's engineers also paid attention to the Panamera's chassis, with refinements to the adaptive dampers and 48-volt active anti-roll systems. The optional air suspension is retuned for noticeably better comfort in the more docile settings, befitting a car that—despite its low silhouette—offers rear-seat space that approaches 7-series, A8, and S-class territory, especially in the long-wheelbase version.
On the other end of the settings, the Panamera has become even more aggressive in its performance modes, no doubt in response to new competitors such as the four-door AMG GT and the BMW M8 Gran Coupe. This sports sedan was never lacking in performance, but the changes to the chassis systems, combined with noticeably more precise steering, should ensure it remains dynamically competitive with the best the competition can offer.
Charging through the sparsely traveled roads of the Northern Black Forest, the Panamera feels incredibly nimble and agile. No other car in its class can be positioned with such precision in both tight and fast corners. The stability control system, depending on the setting, allows for a lot of fun before it kicks in. There've been times, on luxury-car launches, when a route that included tight roads only served to expose a car's shortcomings. In the Panamera, roads like that highlight its superior dynamic capabilities.
Porsche will continue to offer the Panamera with a choice of three bodies: regular, long-wheelbase Executive, and Sport Turismo wagon. While development on the next generation has already started, the current car will be with us for the next few years. Despite the proliferation of slinky German four-doors, the Panamera remains a unique proposition, marrying luxury-sedan comfort with sports-car poise. We'll see it unmasked in late August.
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