I have always hated the way certain arrogant motoring journos will mindlessly attack a car whose only real shortcoming seems to be that it doesn’t resonate with the Wally in question sent to test it. Yet I was at serious risk of committing that same journalistic crime as I jumped on the bomber to Darwin for the Panamera launch.
Truth is, I have a long history as an Anglophile. My favourite episode of Fawlty Towers is ‘The Germans’ (“Whatever you do, don’t mention the war!”); until I reached puberty and fell in love with the entirely edible Barbara Bach in The Spy Who Loved Me, my favourite film was Sink the Bismarck. Are you beginning to get the picture?
My first motor (see, I even say ‘motor’) was a Morris 850; my latest, a Bentley Continental GT. I’ve owned and loved some truly beautiful cars in my lucky lifetime but apart from a silver 904 ‘slotty’ that I bought when I was 14, Porsches have never numbered among them.
Still, in some strange way I felt I could relate to the Panamera. After all, we have a lot in common: it’s unusual to look at, has a serious thirst when provoked and a bad-ass reputation to live up to. Objective assessment of the Panamera was going to be hard work for old ‘Bunty’ but hey, with the Turbo’s 368kW on tap and a top whack of over 300km/h, it was sure to be worth the effort, given the whole exercise was to take place on some of the world’s most iconic roads.
I last drove the Stuart Highway in my mate Grahame Foster’s Jaguar XK120 coupe. It was a Jaguar club rally back in the 1990s, a commemoration of Les Taylor and Dick Rendle’s 1951 open-road world speed record – averaging 91.3mph (147km/h) over 900 miles (1448km) of dirt – set in a similar car. Legend has it that on arrival in The Alice they were cheered briefly by adoring townsfolk then locked up by the Plod for speeding. I was a tad concerned we might meet the same fate on our 2000 kilometre test, as the Northern Territory’s legendary ‘unrestricted’ open-road speed limit was cruelly reduced to 130km/h in 2007.
DAY 1, 255km: Darwin to Jabiru
Time to meet my road buddies for the next three days. The road manager for the Panamera’s entire lap of Oz is Warwick McKenzie; our ‘Akela’, or ‘Great Grey Lone Wolf’, who leads the pack by strength and cunning. Adam Storey is Michelin’s marketing manager and a road trip sponsor. ‘The Michelin Man’, as I like to call him, makes me feel better about my ‘fuller figure’.
The official photographer is Peter Watkins, or ‘Kaptain Kangaroo’ as he became known after an unfortunate incident with our national symbol.
Then there’s Jacqui Madellin: Kiwi motoring journo, enigma, and paid-up member of the sisterhood. Her email address begins jacmad@… Say no more…
Finally, John Murray, Brand Manager of Porsche Cars Australia. He’s a man who can actually say ‘Doppelkupplungsgetriebe’ (German for double-clutch transmission, I’m told) five times in quick succession. Respect!
I get to see the cars for the first time out front of the pub after breakfast; a blue Panamera S and the awesome silver Turbo. My first impression? Whatever else it is, or is not, the Panamera’s a big bastard. A long ‘briefing’ from the Akela is followed by a ‘brief longing’ to get on the road. It takes forever to get away as I see for the first time the impact this car has on people.
While we’re being brought up to speed on the vast array of technology in the Panamera – the three-phase spoiler, diffuser, ventilated seats, six-pot calipers, four cupholders and Doppelkupplungsgetriebe – people are coming up to us in droves; they want to see and talk about the car. It has real presence; if you plan to drive one of these, you’d better enjoy being constantly noticed. Then again, show me a Porsche driver for whom that will be a deal-breaker.
I’m surprised by the Panamera; like many other cars I’ve encountered over the years, it looks way better in the metal than in photographs. I remember seeing the first Ferrari 360 promotional shots 10 years back and thinking, “what have they done?” Then loving the car so much after seeing it, face to funny face, I bought one.
The Panamera is a car of many perspectives and there’s no shortage of debate over its unusual shape. Here on our Darwin hotel driveway, online, in magazines all over the world and even among the Porsche faithful, it’s a hot topic.
Most agree the frontal treatment is an homage to the venerable 911, some see echoes of classic four-door sedans from a gentler era, at least round the hindquarters. But Porsche hasn’t built a sedan, it’s built a sports car – one with four doors, four genuinely comfortable seats and heaps of leg room – and almost got away with it. It’s got a pretty face and nice ass, and the three-quarter perspectives, both front and rear, are genuinely appealing, but this fantastic piece of engineering remains clumsy when viewed directly from the side. No matter what prejudices you bring to the debate, it’s the inevitable price of compromise. I remember buying a fully reversible jacket when I was 18; it never looked quite right either way.
After doing 15 minutes of free Porsche PR with the enthusiastic Darwin public, I go very close to selling a Panamera before I’ve even driven one. The Akela is pleased by my knowledge and easy manner and gives me a sales badge to sew onto my shirt.
After taking deposits we draw straws to see who gets the Turbo. I’m on a roll and I stir the Turbo into life for our first short run to the Humpty Doo Hotel and lunch. Excellent. The blazing Territory sun is well and truly over the yard arm and although the Turbo’s four-zone air-conditioned cabin and ventilated seats are more than up to it, just knowing it’s 38 degrees outside has given me a deep and gorgeous thirst. I’ve long suffered a condition known as ‘alcoholic constipation’ – I can’t pass a pub, and I’m ‘Jonesing’ for my first NT Lager of the trip even if it means getting out of the car just half an hour after getting into it.
Imagine my disappointment when the Akela suggests that it might be a good idea to wash down my barra-burger with lemon squash rather than beer, what with having 230km left to drive in Porsche’s brand-new 368kW, $365,000 car before sundown and all. I grudgingly agree with Akela’s irrefutable logic and he offers me a good citizen badge as compensation. It doesn’t help with my disappointment but manages to nicely cover the tomato sauce stain I now have on my promotional T-shirt. Turns out they do them in XXXL after all. The Michelin man and I are well pleased.
Refreshed and sharp-witted, we win the first of many arguments with our Kiwi colleague and jump back into the Turbo for the run to Jabiru. I turn on the route guidance which, as is usual in the Territory, says, “Proceed along the motorway till you reach the horizon and fall off the end of the world.” We elect not to use the top-shelf Burmester 16-speaker audio system; instead we sing several rousing choruses of The Pub with No Beer because it makes us both feel better. The bonding is beginning between me and the Michelin Man, although there’s an unspoken understanding that there’ll be no ‘manhug’ at day’s end … not on the first day, anyway.
DAY 2, 567km: Jabiru to Daly Waters via Pine Creek
We start the day with a spectacular scenic flight over the timeless Kakadu landscape. The pilot balances the aircraft by seating me up front and the other five in the back. There is some tittering but I pretend not to hear.
The next leg through to the old gold mining town of Pine Creek is a brilliant stretch of road with seemingly endless sweeping corners and the only serious twisties you’ll find up here not located in the hotel mini-bar.
The ‘Who’s driving the Turbo?’ feud erupts again. I manage to convince my belligerent Kiwi colleague that letting me drive the Turbo today is the only way to keep me from referring to her as ‘Mad Jacqui’ in my piece for Wheels; she unwisely agrees and I celebrate by getting a shot of me standing in front of the Turbo pointing at a no-standing sign; a big S with a bold red line through it. Says it all, really.
For such a big car the Panamera is fantastic through the bendy bits. Both variants qualify for the major league of Grand Touring cars. Predictably, the Turbo is a much more satisfying thing when exploring the car’s true potential. The ride/handling compromise is phenomenal, belying the car’s near two-tonne weight. The active air suspension and big Michelins deliver flat, secure, handling. The extra $100,000 for the Turbo will be money well spent for the well-heeled. We arrive at the legendary Daly Waters Pub right on dusk and the place is packed.
Actually the place seems packed even when there’s no-one about because there’s so much crap everywhere. It’s like standing in the middle of a Jolliffe cartoon. Signed – and sometimes soiled – undergarments of every size and description dangle from the rafters. There are student cards, licences, passport photos, number plates and even the odd autographed feminine hygiene product stuck to the autographed walls. Most importantly for this thirsty traveller, there’s a well-stocked bar with a similarly well-endowed German backpacker behind it who seems most impressed to learn that the new Porsche parked outside belongs to me. Sort of.
DAY 3, 912km: Daly Waters to Alice Springs
After a hearty breakfast of bacon and what the pub menu describes as ‘bum-nuts’ we head to the disused WWII Daly Waters airstrip which fortunately seems to be in reasonable enough condition for a few high-speed passes. It’s a bit over a kilometre in length and I see nearly 260km/h in the Turbo on the final run before standing on the anchors. The Akela checks to see what we’ve done to the fuel consumption figures in the last 20 minutes, smells the brakes and decides that with thousands of kilometres left to run before the end of the tour, it might be a good time to get back on the road.
So what do you buy the man who has everything? His own airstrip, obviously. We stop for lunch in Tennant Creek 405km later. The guy who fuels the car is excited, and not just by the Panamera; he thinks he recognises me and tips off the editor of the local paper. We’re halfway through lunch in a nice restaurant when Barry from The Tennant and District Times bursts in, camera in hand, looking for Ted Mulry. I point out that sadly Ted has been dead for eight years. He seems disappointed so I offer to sing a few bars of Jump in My Car. Barry wisely declines, checks the spelling of my name and takes a few shots anyway; it’s clearly another slow news day in Tennant Creek.
The remaining 500 kays to The Alice is via one of the straightest roads you’ll ever see, stretching inexorably into Namatjira Country: unique, vast, shimmering and empty. It’s not the sort of place you expect to see a random breath test unit, but just before sunset there are the boys in brown. They seem pleased to see us; the Porsches a welcome change from the endless queue of Britz Campers, Toyota utes and road trains. We survive the breath test but there’s nearly an incident when, as a part of the ‘intervention’, the cop asks if we’re carrying any porn. “Sure,” I say. “What are you into?” I assume he’s lost his sense of humour when he claps me in handcuffs; it’s only when I start to shake involuntarily and he bursts out laughing that I may just have lost mine for a moment.
We make Alice just after dark and head to the hotel for ‘the debrief’; a few well-chosen exaggerations, farewell drinks, manhugs and handshakes. It’s time to hand back the keys to one of the world’s great GT cars.
This wasn’t so much a road test as a road trip; one of those ‘Kerouac’ experiences that’s left me smiling involuntarily like some poor demented bastard on lithium. Three dazzling days scything through the unforgettable red centre of this fantastic country in the latest, and quite possibly finest, expression of Teutonic technology and I’m feeling lucky again.
More cynical people than your old uncle might suggest that if you have the money and you want a Porsche, you buy a 911. If you want a fast four-seater family car, buy a Jaguar XFR or a BMW M5; for the cost of the Panamera Turbo you can just about buy both.
But with the sweet taste of this fantastic three-day motoring odyssey still in my mouth, if money weren’t an issue, and I could find four adults I could stand being with for substantial periods, in spite of any remaining niggling reservations about its appearance, I just might put my hand in my pocket. It’s quite simply that good a car … and it’s got a Doppelkupplungsgetriebe.