FIRST DRIVE | 2018 Porsche Panamera & Sport Turismo GTS
The worst thing about Bahrain is driving in it. Not because of rogue camels or anything trivial like that, no, but because of the draconian traffic fines. They’re terrifying — especially when you convert them into rands. Skip a red light and you’re looking at R20,000. Exceed the speed limit by 30% and your wallet will be R10,000 lighter. Have an accident and you’ll be liable for R40,000.
Other than crashing your brains out at the Nürburgring in a hire car I can’t think of a better way to bankrupt yourself behind the wheel of an automobile.
Consequently I’m being extra cautious, which all seems counterintuitive considering that I am here sampling the spicy new Porsche Panamera and Sport Turismo GTS models.
Built specifically to slot in between the 4S and range-topping Turbo, the GTS is a formidable piece of machinery. One that secretly rolls its eyes at being dawdled down a four-lane freeway at a steady 80km/h. For beneath that lengthy bonnet resides the same double-blown 4.0l V8 engine you get in the aforementioned Turbo. The only difference being that here it has been detuned to deliver a "mere" 338kW and 620Nm.
Luckily Porsche knows a thing or two about making livable performance cars and as such my Panamera GTS takes this blatant misuse in its stride. Driven at these slow speeds in amongst this strict land of skyscrapers and hotels and oil wells it feels about as laid back and docile as your cousin’s Volkswagen Golf GTI.
Comfortable too. Those 18-way electric sports seats might look like track-day specials but they’re engineered to keep your meat-covered skeleton happy — even after a good few hours at the helm. Being a GTS model Porsche didn’t skimp on Alcantara, a fabric that adorns everything from the centre seat panels and sun visors to the steering wheel and headliner.
Other standout standard features include the Sport Chrono Package (identifiable by the now familiar stopwatch on the centre console and race car-inspired drive mode switch on the steering wheel) as well as the fantastically intuitive Porsche Advanced Cockpit infotainment system. The latter is the stuff of sweaty tech-porn dreams with its massive 12.3-inch HD touchscreen on the centre console plus two equally arresting seven-inch screens mounted within the instrument binnacle.
What does seem unnecessary, however, is the addition of a head-up display that projects information onto the windscreen in front of you. Back in the 1990s head-up displays kind of made sense but now they feel somewhat redundant. Not to mention distracting. Luckily you can turn it off, which is what I do when we arrive at the meat of this exotic launch sandwich: the Bahrain International Circuit.
It’s quite a place this: a track of numerous layouts that has hosted everything from Formula One to the World Endurance Championship. Scan the circuit map and you’ll spy a generous blend of high and low-speed bends, not to mention a main straight that must, to my calculations at least, be about one kilometre in length.
It’s a ballsy locale to launch an automobile, especially one that’s essentially a four-door luxury saloon weighing close on three tons. Amazingly though, the Panamera GTS takes it in its stride. During my first session out on track tailing Le Mans-winning racing driver, Michael Christensen, I’m free to get a taste of the speed and acceleration this thing is capable of.
That V8 engine immediately takes centre stage thanks to its burbly soundtrack and super flat torque curve. You’ve basically got 620Nm to play with from 1,800rpm all the way up to nearly 5,000rpm, which gives it some enviable punch when exiting corners.
It’s put down well too: Porsche’s active all-wheel drive system makes sure all that muscle is delivered to the tarmac without any tyre-smoking drama. Complemented by a long wheelbase you get a car that feels incredibly stable when you turn the wick up — especially through the faster high-speed sweeps. Gear changes are handled by the firm’s excellent eight-speed PDK transmission that, when set to Sport Plus Mode, has your back through all bends. Even though there are paddles on the wheel you will never need to use them — it’s that good.
Night falls and my second session is held under artificial light. The layout has been switched to the full-fat Formula One circuit and there are a few tighter and more complicated corners thrown into the mix.
And the GTS hides its heft well when chucked through them thanks to its trick sports chassis. Not only does it sit 10mm lower to the ground than the regular Panamera but the active three-chamber air suspension system has been tweaked to deliver sharper handling on the ragged limit. Turn-in is mightily impressive for such a large machine while body roll is barely distinguishable.
You could be forgiven believing you were in a smaller vehicle. Yet for me the star of the dynamic show is the braking performance. Equipped with the optional carbon ceramics there is zero fade present here — even after three hot laps that include braking from 240km/h to about 60km/h in less than 100m. It’s quite astonishing.
But then the whole package is. Well, at least from what I can tell after driving it for a few short hours. You’re getting all the luxury of the lesser models plus a sportier exterior partnered to the kind of performance potential few owners will ever dream about channelling.
And if Porsche does land the Panamera GTS range at under R2m when it arrives here next year, well, then it’s something of a bargain too. See it then as the thinking man’s Turbo. Just not in Bahrain though: racetrack aside I think I’d be more comfortable taking a taxi.