“No!” the fan boys whine. “Our brand is being diluted!” Uh oh. Time to call 9-wah-wah, better roll the whambulance. In case you’re unfamiliar, and just to lay all the cards out on the table, the dogma goes like this. Porsche builds sports cars. Specifically rear-engined, air-cooled two+two sports cars. Obviously, we’re talking about the much more than legendary 911. Via countless on-track (and back road) victories the 911 – like the Jeep, the Mustang and a handful of other cars – is a true icon. Free from compromise and loaded out back with a boxer-six, the 911 defines the brand. Except for the fact that the front-engine, four-door lux-yacht Panamera just outsold every other car Porsche makes.
Of course, like all myths, the 911’s story starts to look shaky under intense light. One can always go back to the fact that the basic design for the 911 is the lowly Volkswagen Beetle. We’d be derelict if we didn’t point out that Hitler and Dr. Porsche, shall we say borrowed, the VW Bug design from Tatra and Hans Ledwinka, with Hitler assuring the good doctor that the Reich would take care of the patents. Never forget that Volkswagen had to pay Tatra 3 million Deutschmarks in 1961 because the Nazis flat out stole the T97 from the Czechoslovakian firm. Regardless of all that, the 911 was a modern interpretation of the original Porsche, the 356.
And man did people love the 356. A quick leaf through Peter Morgan’s Porsche 911 Collector’s Originality Guide reveals that when the prototype 901 (Peugeot successfully got Porsche to change the name to 911) was revealed on September 12, 1963 at the Frankfurt Motor Show, “The cry was heard… It’s not a real Porsche.” The book continues, “For some people, therefore, the company had lost its way with the 901 by building a bigger, more powerful and more luxurious car.” Sound familiar?
But even if Porsche’s early history isn’t as pure as the Aryan snow, surely the middle part of the story explains why the rear-engined 911 is held in such high regard. Well, yes, sure, but also not totally. In the 1960s and early 1970s most of Porsche’s racing time and effort went into mid-engine competitors such as the 904, 908 and eventually the totally dominant 917 Can-Am cars. Ferdinand Piech, arguably Porsche’s brightest engineer and eventual Volkswagen Group chairman/silverback gorilla, focused not on the 911 but instead on the mid-engined superstars. In fact, a Piech-tweaked (and mid as opposed to rear-engined) 914 won the GTS class at Le Mans and finished sixth overall, the same year the 914 won our Import Car of the Year award.
The above is not to disparage the 911 – its story is secure – but instead to point out that while it was indeed Porsche’s volume car, the money it generated allowed Stuttgart to go and race the higher-tech mid-engine cars. As well as begin planning other models. By the 1970s however, sales of the 911 had started to tank, especially with Unsafe at Any Speed hysteria forcing Congress to think about outlawing rear-engined cars altogether. Hence, the 924 and 928 (though not in that order – the 928 made it to market first), the thinking being that they would eventually have to eliminate the moribund 911. Obviously, that never happened.
Again, the point of all this is not to attack the 911. We love, you love, I love, everyone loves the 911. There are few cars as reliably excellent both on the track and deep into your favorite canyon. Brilliant, really. Of course the Boxster/Cayman is equally gifted ripping around a circuit and/or tearing up a back road, though a touch slower. Just to belabor this last point, Porsche “purists” also barked and hollered when the mid-engine Boxster debuted in 1996. Of course, back then, email was still something only your kids understood. Meaning that the howling masses didn’t yet have the ability to instantly register their disgust throughout the world.
Then came the anti-Christ, the Cayenne. Brand killer, a sellout, a cynical way to rake in buckets full of cash by taking advantage of America’s love affair with the SUV. Never mind the fact that businesses are supposed to make money. Or that as far as SUVs go, the Cayenne is nearly flawless on road and just about as competent off. Hell, we just named the totally new 2.0 version our 2011 SUV of the Year. Also, the haters seem to forever ignore the fact that the filthy lucre generated by the Cayenne helps keep the 911 up to date, relevant and most importantly, fabulous.
Which leads us to the fascinating success of the Panamera. Why fascinating? For one thing, Porsche launched the Panamera during the height of the Great Depression 2.0 and like all four-wheeled objects from Stuttgart, it ain’t cheap. The base price is $74,400 – and that’s for the V-6! Allow me to continue harping on money for a moment, the Panamera 4S with AWD and a 400 hp V-8 will set you back $94,700. Want to jump up to the 500 hp Turbo? $135,500. Again, ain’t cheap.
So how on earth is the controversial looking five-door hatch Porsche’s sales leader?
Ready for the answer? The Panamera’s a fantastic car. Yes, it resembles a Tatra T87, but that’s not why well-heeled folks are flocking to it. The Panamera drives wonderfully, is supremely comfortable, highly luxurious and incredibly practical. Trust me on that last bit – my wife and I honeymooned in one. Before we left she made the comment, “I can’t decide what to bring, so I’m bringing everything.” The Panamera handled every item of clothing she owns, no problem.
Here’s the larger point – as long as Porsche continues its tradition of building excellent vehicles, do you really care what segment they slot into? Really?
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