First Drive: 2011 Porsche Panamera (V6) [Review]

Porsche lopped two cylinders and 100 lbs. off of the Panamera S' nose. Does the V6-powered Panamera make a good entry-level offering?

The typical Porsche Panamera buyer currently averages a household income of $633,000, which is both ridiculously high and a trend that Porsche knows can't last. Early adopters will soon have their fill of Porsche's first four-door sedan, with the German automaker looking to the future with a V6 version of the Panamera.

Incomes will no doubt still be double or triple the nationwide average - but at least things will be a little more realistic for buyers of the "everyman's" Panamera, a more sensible version of the Panamera S and Turbo. Equipped with Porsche's new 3.6-liter V6, the Panamera and Panamera 4 offer the same looks, comfort, handling and braking as their V8 counterparts, but with better fuel economy and a lower price of entry.

Despite being down two-cylinders, the V6 versions of the Panamera line up against the same competitors as the Panamera S and Panamera 4S. That means that buyers will likely be cross-shopping the V6s with the BMW 7-Series and Mercedes-Benz S-Class. However, given its starting price of about $74,000, it's quite possible that potential Panamera buyers could also be taking a look at high-end 5-Series and E-Class models - especially given the Panamer's performance chops.

What's new, aside from the V6?
Because we've already sampled the Panamera in V8 form, we can't call the V6's four-door layout a major breakthrough.

But while there may not be anything on the revolutionary front here, the Panamer's V6 engine is definitely forward-thinking. Even just a few years ago it would have been considered blasphemous for an automaker to launch a high-performance sedan with a base V6, but in a world of crumbling economies and fluctuating gas prices, Porsche new 3.6-liter engine just kind of makes sense.

For better or for worse, the V6-powered Panamera looks pretty much like its V8 brethren. While some may still be put off by the Panamer's elongated 911 look, we've grown to quite like the four-door's exterior style.

Up front the Panamera is classic Porsche, with a fascia that looks like a natural progression between the automaker's 911 and the Cayenne models. LED driving lights sit atop inlets which, of all things, actually aid in headlight cooling. A sculpted hood also adds to the Panamer's aggressive look - even if it's only a V6 lurking beneath.

Behind the rear doors is where the Panamera goes controversial, adopting a shape similar to the derriere found on the 911. Although we can see why people would take issue, we like the idea of a new and unique shape on the road - no one will ever mistake the Panamera with another sedan. The bulbous shape also helps with interior space, but we'll get to that in a bit.

Germanic cavern
Say what you want about the Panamer's exterior styling, but the sedan's interior is beautifully executed. While not as sensual as the innards you'd find in the Aston Martin Rapide, the Panamer's interior is gorgeous in a precise, German kind of way. Everything has its place and function, with subtle details like toggle-switch HVAC controls adding to the Panamer's cockpit-like environment.

While the sea of buttons on the Panamer's center stack and console may at first seem overwhelming, the overall layout is well thought out, with the most used functions at an easy arm's reach. Thankfully, most of the Panamer's functions are handled through good old fashioned buttons, and not some on-screen menu with eight steps to change the radio station.

The overall quality of the Panamer's interior is top notch, despite its "base" model designation. Navigation is standard on all V6 Panamera models, as is a leather covered dash and arguably the best front seats in the business, thanks to excellent support and more than adequate bolstering.

The Panamer's rear seats aren't quite as form-fitting as the front buckets, but that's because they serve an entirely different purpose. Although the Panamera was designed first and foremost as a performance sedan, it will actually largely serve as a chauffeur-driven car in the ever-important Chinese market, another sign of just how different things are on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. Adding to the Panamer's rear-seat comfort, 6'2'' tall former Porsche CEO Wendelin Wiedeking demanded that he be able to position the driver's seat to his comfortable driving position and then be able to sit in the back seat with leg and head room to spare. Needless to say, Porsche engineers achieved that charge.

To go along with that rear-seat comfort, the Panamera actually provides quite a bit of practicality. Thanks to that unique rear shape we mentioned earlier, the Panamera provides more rear cargo space than your typical sedan. Our test car swallowed three pieces of luggage with no problem, and had plenty of room to spare. Fold down the rear seats and the Panamera becomes downright cavernous.

As much as we liked the Panamer's interior, we did find one major flaw. Atop the dash is a set of vents and a center speaker which, for whatever reason, is made from shiny plastic. When the sun hits the unit at pretty much any angle, it casts a rather larger - and annoying - reflection right in the middle of the windshield. You might get used to the reflection over time, but we wish Porsche designers would have used different materials or nixed the unit altogether.

A V6 Porsche performance sedan?
It's hard to say the point of a Porsche isn't to go really fast, but that's almost the case with the Panamera. Buyers of the Panamera S and Turbo will undoubtedly be looking for speed, but standard Panamera buyers will be more interest in a balance of overall performance and good economy.

Although the same displacement as the V6 found in the Cayenne, the 3.6-liter in the Panamera is actually a new engine to Porsche. Essentially a version of the company's 4.8-liter V8 with two-cylinders chopped off, the Porsche V6 features a 90-degree cylinder bank and advanced features like direct injection. Porsche rates the Panamera at 300 horsepower and 295 lb-ft. of torque, but we suspect the engine has more to give. However, that rather modest rating is responsible for the Panamer's above average fuel economy, EPA certified at 18/27mpg (18/26mpg for the all-wheel-drive Panamera 4). Adding to the Panamer's economy is an auto stop-start system, which defaults in the "˜off' mode.

Power isn't overwhelming, but is extremely linear and probably more than enough for most buyers. The sprint from 0-60 takes about six seconds in the Panamera, with the Panamera 4's all-wheel drive system knocking off another couple of tenths.

Porsche's seven-speed PDK dual clutch transmission is the only gearbox available in the Panamera, and we found it worked well both on the street and the track. Like most semi-automatic gearboxes, there is some inherent stuttering at low speeds, but the PDK is less offensive than most. The only real complaint we had with the Panamer's PDK was its less-than-intuitive paddle setup. Whereas most automakers have adopted a left for downshifts, right for upshifts layout, than Panamera features buttons for both functions on either side of the wheel, not unlike General Motors' system. However, a true paddle setup is on offer for the 2011 model year.

But the Panamer's real forte is handling, and the V6 models deliver in spades. Not only does the V6 shave off more than 100 lbs. from the Panamer's nose, but it also moves the engine farther back in the car's chassis, resulting in a better weight distribution. Look closely at our engine bay shot and you'll see about a foot of empty space between the front of the engine and the radiator.

As a result of the V6's packaging, the Panamera felt almost like a four-door go kart around the 2.3=mile track of Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama. Handling was spot on with plenty of feel through the steering wheel, hiding the Panamer's near two-ton curb weight. The Panamer's brakes proved to be just as good, without any sign of brake fade, even after several hot laps.

We were only slightly less impressed with the Panamera 4, with the added weight of its all-wheel drive system likely to blame. The Panamera 4 is still a phenomenal car to drive, but its 132 pound weight penalty over the rear-wheel drive model made it feel a bit less crisp around the track. However, in everyday driving the difference is negligible, so drivers in foul-weather states needn't worry.

Leftlane's bottom line
Whether on street or track, it's hard to beat the Panamera and Panamera 4's driving dynamics. Throw in plenty of interior and cargo space, plus some very respectable mileage numbers, and the V6 version of the Panamera seems to make some real sense.

While some might think a Panamera with "only" a V6 is making a sacrifice, it's a sacrificed we'd be willing to make on a daily basis for all the reasons we've listed above.

2011 Porsche Panamera base price, $74,400.
2011 Porsche Panamera 4 base price, $78,900.

Words and photos by Drew Johnson.