2019 Porsche Panamera GTS track and road review

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MANAMA, Bahrain — Hammer down on the German Autobahn, the new Porsche Panamera sedan has a top speed of 181 mph. But here, in the Kingdom of Bahrain, the twin-turbo V8-powered super sedan is all maxed out at 84 mph. How can this be?

Fear.

In Bahrain, the highest speed limit is 120 kph. The country’s Traffic Violation handbook clearly states, “Exceeding the speed limit beyond 30 percent is punishable with a jail term ranging from 1 to 6 months and/or a fine ranging from BD100 to BD500” — about $265-$1,300. Get busted at over 100 mph and they lock you up and toss the key in the Persian Gulf.

In the past few hours we’ve looped this entire island without exceeding a single posted speed limit. Bahrain’s finest drive Toyota Land Cruisers and Dodge Chargers, and they’re everywhere. Everywhere. Bahrain also appears to be home to the most traffic cameras per mile of anywhere in the world, with the possible exception of Ohio.

“The GTS is not for everybody,” says Dr. Thomas Friemuth, Porsche’s vice president responsible for the Panamera product line. “The GTS customer wants his to be sportier, but he doesn’t want to pay $20,000 extra for a Turbo.”

2019 Porsche Panamera GTS first drive: Needed step in the Panamera ladder

Friemuth, who drives a big-block 1969 Yenko Camaro around Germany, and a team of engineers have been developing the Panamera GTS for about two years, racking up nearly 2 million test miles. Three racetracks were used along the way, Italy’s Nardo, Hockenhiem in Germany and of course the Nürburgring,

At $129,350 for the Panamera GTS sedan and $135,550 for the Sport Turismo GTS, these new models slot between the V6-powered Panameras ($86,300) and the Turbo ($151,500), making the GTS the entry-level V8 in the lineup. All the trim on the GTS is blacked out, including the Sport Design front and rear fascias, front spoiler, side skirts, side window trim and badging. Even the “” logo on its tail is dark, and the headlights and taillights are tinted.

Inside, well-bolstered and comfortable 18-way power sport seats with Alcantara inserts are standard. Alcantara is also on the doors, sun visors, headliner and the heated steering wheel. An optional interior package adds red- or chalk-colored seatbelts, stitching, and GTS lettering on the seats. The GTS is also the first Panamera to get Porsche’s new head-up display.

2019 Porsche Panamera GTS first drive: Needed step in the Panamera ladder

Under the hood is a detuned version of the Turbo’s 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8. Boost is down from the Turbo’s 18.8 psi to 11.6 psi, so it makes 453 hp at 6,000 rpm and 457 lb-ft at just 1,800 rpm. That’s 13 horsepower and 73 more pound-feet than the previous-generation Panamera GTS, which used a naturally aspirated 4.8-liter V8.

But don’t expect the explosive thrust of the Panamera Turbo, which packs another 97 hp and 110 lb-ft of torque. Even so, around town the big, boosted V8 is torquey and smooth with excellent throttle response. Power is never a problem, especially above 4,000 rpm.

An eight-speed twin-clutch PDK automatic with specific GTS calibrations for quicker shifts is standard, along with all-wheel drive and black 20-inch wheels. The PDK is still the best dual-clutch in the business. Under hard braking it always downshifts to the right gear for corner exit, and you’ll love the way it clicks off quick and clean full-throttle upshifts right on the V8’s 6,800 rpm redline.

2019 Porsche Panamera GTS first drive: Needed step in the Panamera ladder2019 Porsche Panamera GTS2019 Porsche Panamera GTS2019 Porsche Panamera GTS

Use the launch control, which allows you to rev the engine to 5,000 rpm, and Porsche says the 4,400-pound GTS sedan does 60 mph in 3.9 seconds, and the sedan can complete the quarter mile in 12.4 seconds. The Sport Turismo GTS, which is 66 pounds heavier, covers the quarter in 12.5 seconds and has a top velocity of 179 mph. The team settled on a 3.36 rear axle gear ratio. It’s shorter than the Turbo’s 3.15 gears, but it kept the sedan’s top speed over 180 mph, which was a goal. The previous GTS could touch 179 mph. Both GTS models are built on the standard 116.1-inch wheelbase. Unlike the Turbo, longer Executive models with the 122-inch wheelbase are not offered.

Nor is rear-wheel drive. “We never considered making the new GTS rear-wheel drive,” says Michael Schafer the director of chassis development on the project. “We tried it with the last generation. We even built a prototype. But it just makes no sense to have 450-horsepower-plus with rear-wheel drive. And with the new GTS, max performance was always the goal. Yes, the all-wheel drive adds 66 pounds to the car, but the performance benefit is much greater than that. Rear-wheel drive is fun, but on the the GTS will do what you want and you won’t have to countersteer.”

As tuned for the GTS, Porsche’s all-wheel drive system sends 100 percent of the engine’s power to the GTS’ rear tires on the highway and during most normal driving situations. Although it can send up to 70 percent of that power to the front tires in snow and low-grip situations, when you’re driving the car hard the maximum is 30 percent.

2019 Porsche Panamera GTS first drive: Needed step in the Panamera ladder

Also recalibrated for more response is its optional all-wheel steering system, which adds 21.5 pounds to the rear suspension assembly. It steers the rear tires up to a half-inch in either direction depending on speed and the situation. The Panamera’s active anti-roll bar system, which is called Porsche’s Dynamic Chassis Control Sport (PDCC), is also available, and it too has been tweaked for the GTS. It adds weight, but it helps the GTS corner dead flat, and its operation is completely transparent to the driver. The result is impressive stability in the gale-force crosswinds cutting across the King Hamad Highway, a smooth, deserted four-lane that runs through a Mad Max-like landscape of oil fields, 50 miles south of the capital city.

Our test cars wore the 21-inch optional wheels and tires. Sized 275/35ZR21 and 315/30ZR21, they’re the same width as the 20-inchers, but with less sidewall. They’re also a bit heavier, but light for their size. Tire choices are shared with the Turbo models.

The GTS features the firmest suspension available in a Panamera. According to Schafer, in all three settings — Normal, Sport and Sport Plus — the suspension is 5-10 percent firmer than the suspensions settings of all other Panamera models, including the Turbo. But comfort isn’t an issue on Bahrain’s smooth blacktop, and on the street the Normal setting is firm enough, even for spirited driving. Sport mode increases the spring rate about 40 percent, and in Sport Plus mode the rate is nearly tripled compared to Normal mode. Sport Plus mode also lowers the car 1.1 inches in the front and 0.8 inch in the rear. Part of the air suspension’s magic is its long travel, with 3.5 inches of compression and rebound in the front and 3.9 inches of compression and 4.3 inches of rebound in the rear. That’s considerably more than there is in the 911.

2019 Porsche Panamera GTS

On Bahrain’s Formula 1 racetrack, which held it first race in 2004, the Panamera GTS is essentially idiot-proof with the PSM system on. It rotates on the brakes and it will start to slide on the power, but just for an instant, then the stability control system straightens things out before you make a mistake or even have to counter steer.

But the Panamera’s stability control software, unique to the GTS, will allow you to powerslide the big five-door — up to 5-8 percent slip angle. Armin Kopoke, the Panamera’s manager of driving dynamics, says with a smile, “In Sport Plus you can hold it at a 45-degree slide angle.” Steering is quick at a fixed ratio of 15.4:1. The assist varies, however, decreasing radically at high speeds to aid stability and feel. At 124 mph, there’s 20-30 percent less assist than at 18 mph.

With long straights and many late apexes, the Bahrain International Circuit is hard on brakes. At the end of Bahrain’s long front straight, the GTS enters the braking zone at the top of fifth gear at 143 mph and scrubs about 100 mph for turn one, a hard right hairpin. This is where the GTS’s optional ceramic composite brakes, with 10-piston front calipers, earn their $9,000 keep. Despite brake temperatures of 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit several times a lap, fade just isn’t a problem even in the heat of the day. Even the standard iron rotors are massive, measuring 15.4 inches in the front — paired to six-piston calipers — and 14.4 inches in the rear. Brembo supplies both systems.

Another cool feature handed down from the Turbo is the Sport Response Button, which is mounted in the middle of the mode switch on the steering wheel. It’s like a boost button, delivering maximum power potential for 20 seconds, quickening the engine’s response. The PDK also switches to an even more dynamic shifting map than the Sport Plus mode.

2019 Porsche Panamera GTS

Coming back in after our track time is up, the inescapable conclusion is that the Panamera GTS is both an impressive driver’s car and a luxurious hot rod, enjoyable on the street and capable on the racetrack. It’s a great value compared to the far more expensive Panamera Turbo. The Sport Turismo is also the only hatchback in this class, at least until the new Audi RS7 hits — not only that, it looks captivating.

Unfortunately for Porsche, the new Panamera GTS falls short of the performance-per-dollar standards already set by the BMW M5 and the Mercedes E63 S, which cost $25,000 less than the GTS. Like the Panamera, both have all-wheel drive and twin-turbo V8s, but the BMW and the Benz are also packing 600 hp. As a result, they’ll smoke the Panamera GTS in a drag race, and probably on most racetracks. Both seat five, which the GTS sedan cannot, and their all-wheel drive systems offer rear-wheel drive modes for maximum tire shredding.

That said, if you live in the Kingdom of Bahrain, don’t even bother. There, you can go just as fast in a Toyota Corolla.

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