If Ferdinand Piëch hadn't set his engineers on a course for 1,000 horsepower and 250 mph (Hello? Bugatti Veyron?), sports-car science projects like the Porsche 918 Spyder might not exist today. But he did, and it does. What's the 918 like to drive? Let's find out.
(Full disclosure: Porsche wanted us to drive the 918 Spyder so bad, they flew me to Austin, Texas for a few laps around the Circuit of The Americas and some road driving. The laps were led by factory driver Patrick Long in a 911 Turbo S. Later on, there was brisket.)
An impossible turmoil of activity is going on beneath the Porsche 918 Spyder's skin. Sensors are gathering data. Microprocessors are firing. Countless lines of software code are cascading like great, nerdy waterfalls. Actuators are sorting out instructions and converting energy into motion.
And we haven't even left pit lane.
It's hard to conceptualize the Porsche 918 Spyder as a car at all. A few years ago, a vehicle with this engineering spec would have been like the Mars rover, or a napkin scribble in the pocket of a science-fiction novelist.
Think about this. The 918 gets from 0 to 125 quicker than it took a Porsche 944 to get to 60. It has a plug-in, hybrid-electric power puzzle that's taken 50 engineers half a decade to solve. And the only production car quicker than the Porsche 918 Spyder around the Nürburgring — at 6 minutes 57 seconds — is a race car with turn signals pasted on. This car, if you haven't heard, is something very special.
As we roll out on to the COTA tarmac in all-electric mode, there's a moment when the whirring of the motor suggests we've merged into Logan's Run. I'm enjoying the torque and a pleasant 1970s sci-fi reverie, but that ends abruptly as the accelerator reaches half-way to the floor. That's when a piercing roar erupts behind my head and I'm back in the present. "Oh, right," I say to Dr. Frank Walliser — development team leader behind the 918 — who's riding right seat, "It has one of those."
Yes it does have one of those — a short-stroke, dry sump 4.6-liter direct-injection V8 related to the one that once powered the RS Spyder Le Mans prototype, producing 608 horsepower at 8600 rpm (the redline's at 9150). It also has two electric drive systems, a hybrid module bolted to the transmission producing 154 hp and an electric motor on the front axle, producing 127 hp. Both motors can decouple from the drivetrain, with the front motor clutching out at 146 mph to prevent the single-ratio gearing from overspeeding. It took thousands of development hours and years of testing and tuning to get those discrepant power sources to work together so well as a unit, the motors filling in torque as the V8 revs up to peak.
Walliser's deep-water calm and boundless knowledge of the 918's systems are welcome for these hot laps, during which we'll test out the 918 in all drivetrain modes. We're hunting down Porsche factory driver Patrick Long, who's leading in a 911 Turbo S, itself no slouch in the acceleration department. There's a lot here to wrap my head around, not the least of which is how the hell I keep ending up crawling into the tailpipe of a Le Mans winner in a really fast car.
There are new terms to learn, like "motor generator units" and "energy management systems" and "power scheduling" — the optimal combination of electric and internal combustion power for a given performance level. Measurements like kilowatt-hours and mega joules and number of drivetrain data labels. "Snuggle up to my CAN bus," the 918 seems to say, "You'll be intellectually enriched by the pillow talk."
The Porsche 918 has 40,000 types of powertrain data running through a massive quantity of ECUs; all together, around three times as many as a typical Porsche car, or about twice as many as the Panamera S E-Hybrid, with which the 918 shares a powertrain methodology, if not its actual parts.
We've left E-Power mode — where the electric motor takes precedence, and the active aerodynamics fold up for the least amount of drag — and are now in Hybrid mode. The engine and motors are working alternately with fuel economy in mind. As we move to Hybrid Sport mode, the engine and motors are now working together, with the V8 taking the lead and the e-motors providing torque fill-in and boost, while balancing regeneration to keep a constant state of charge. When we go to Race Hybrid mode, all the stops come off, the motors provide maximum output and the V8 charges the battery more intensely. The active aero bits, like the rear wing and diffuser channels underneath the body deploy for highest downforce.
On the last lap, I plunge the "Hot Lap" button, and every drop of juice zaps the motors. There's an unreal sense of space-time collapse, as we take a moment before the COTA back straight to give Long some distance, then punch it and catch his Turbo S by mid-wall at 165. There are no words.
The systems work together precisely; I'm only conscious of the accelerator and brake, not the internal machinations, and how intensely fast and strangely nimble this space capsule is, and how it seems to leap off a slow corner. It's an entirely new realm of speed, and yet there are no new modulations for a driver to learn. Still, there's a sensation that lots of things are happening somewhere. Things that are helping. Things mortals don't need to know about.
The 918 performs flawlessly in that all-important track test: How long after taking an orientation lap around an unfamiliar track does it take for a driver to feel comfortable banging on it? The answer is two laps. By the third, we're a getting a more consistent view of the Turbo S's tail, hanging it out a little to feel the limits of the mechanical grip and how easy it is to merely countersteer and get back in line.
You really have to empathize with a driver like Long. A ferocious competitor and racing tactician, he's had to put up with the indignity of hack journalistos throwing away corners, then screaming up on his tail down the next straight. As astoundingly quick as the Turbo S is in the hands of a pro, the 918 truly is in another stratosphere.
The late Carroll Smith, a demigod among racing technologists, famously wrote, "The racing car is not a technical exercise. It is not an art object. The racing car is simply a tool for the racing driver." The best sports cars have always hewed within reason to the same principle.
In fact, the Porsche 918 is a technical exercise and an art object, and a very enjoyable high-performance automobile. It, and its Le Mans prototype cousin, the Porsche 919, would probably have had Smith quitting motorsports for badminton.
But while the Porsche 918 may not be a pure sports car, in the Smithian sense, it is an astoundingly well-executed engineering effort that combines a range of technologies that make us faster, safer drivers, and energizes the conversation about how sports cars, and motorsports broadly, fit into a future in which reducing carbon energy use and emissions are sacrosanct. That's no small feat.
And of course, it'll make your stomach implode.
The 918 looks great in high-tech silvery hues, but its design really resonates in more pedestrian colors, like plain old dark blue. It's got clean, unfussy lines, gorgeously curvy wheel arches at the front and rear and a tight, muscular stance. It's the least design-forward among its peers, but in a good way.
Consider too the design in context of packaging: Fitting in all the systems and subsystems, dealing with the extra weight of motors and battery packs, and having the finished product look like a sports car, not a mail truck. It's a win.
Don't expect ultra luxury inside the 918. This place is about functionality and saving weight. The gauges need some getting used to, considering the amount of information they're conveying. (It's always fun to see the tach pinned at zero during electric-only driving.) As typical for Porsche, it's clean and tidy and functional and not dressy. Want a custom Italian kidskin interior? That's what custom orders are for.
One cool option is a more natural style of leather (shown) that gives the 918 an oddly classic, 1960s look and feel. Go ahead. What's another $6500?
Describing the feeling of the 918 leaping off the line or rocketing off a slow corner, it's easy to fall back on cliches. The sensation in the pit of the stomach during a traction-control launch is like a deep gut implosion matched with instant panic. It's probably a lot like BASE jumping, only sitting in a chair. The 918 hooks up and blasts forward with such violence, it's as if the world is ending, and it's taking physics with it.
Also, it should be noted that getting all those diverse systems to work together in a cohesive unit. It's a massive undertaking, but it worked.
One of the amazing things about these practically-production test cars is their calibration. Any concerns about and awkward threshold of braking force between hydraulic and energy recuperation have been addressed by smart kids with laptops. The algorithmic blending of systems, as the electric motors provide 0.5g of braking force off-throttle and up to 240 kW of regenerative power, works so well that there's nothing but good pedal feel and nice sharp braking force on the track. On the road, you have to get used to hearing new sounds — scratching and pinging and blooping — but the feel and action is natural.
The most astonishing thing about the 918 out on public roads is how unremarkable it feels. In fact, in hybrid mode, with Porsche's PASM active suspension handling real highway conditions, the 918 feels almost too much like a regular car. Unless you plant the accelerator and wake up that Le Mans engine, or start making wide swings on the steering wheel, there's no clue the 918 is a super-sports car at all. If you're looking for a street car that pings your sensors, this isn't it. But creeping along silently through the streets of a city that demands stiff congestion charges? This is your supercar.
The 918 only begins to hint at its 3,692-lb curb weight (the Weissach edition drops this to 3,602 lbs) in COTA's esses — where it accomplishes the quick right-left-right transitions flat and sweatless — and in unweighted moments, like at the top of the top of Turn 1, a hairpin that starts winding up at the crest of a 133-foot climb off the start/finish straight. But the potent combination of active rear steering, torque vectoring, massive front grip and a staggeringly low polar moment of inertia produce phenomenal turn-initiation response in slow corners and simply unreal stability in 120 mph, off-camber bends.
It's not a pure experience, but it's so well calibrated and sorted, you get all the right feelings as a driver, but at a level far above what you'd be doing in a straight mechanical beast. High-speed corners can be taken quicker than you'd think, with plenty of downforce and mechanical grip from the bespoke Michelins (265 front, 325 rear). Corrections are easily controlled with throttle and countersteer. Well done, engineers.
Porsche's seven-speed PDK remains the state of the art in dual-clutch transmissions. In automatic mode, it predicts the proper gear on track alarmingly well. Shifting manually while in sport or race mode, you get very quick shifts, and the joy of hearing the V8 scream up from 8,000 to 9,000 in a magnificent motoring moment. This is a car in which a manual just doesn't make technological sense. And when you're in the moment, with sparks flying and engine wailing and arms flailing, you don't miss it.
There's so much to play with in the 918, messing with it all is like doing Disney World in one day. There are new kinds of gauges to learn, with LEDs surrounding the tach to indicate power flow and delivery. There are the power modes, themselves, that warrant constant futzing. You can tune in multifunction displays to watch the interplay of engine and motor and battery, G meters, plus music and apps and smartphone integration with a good looking HTML5 interface. This is a nerd's paradise.
The $6000 Burmester stereo system seems like a bit of an indulgence in a 911, but in a 918, it's de rigueur. It sounds warm and detail-rich if you're noodling around town, though when the aggro V8 bursts through the cabin, it's pretty much a complete takeover. The engine itself is a bit too gravelly to make the list of best-sounding V8s.
How do you determine "value" for a $900,000 super-sports car? Let's break it down. If you're judging value by the sheer amount of materials science, mechanical and electrical engineering, motorsports know-how and software calibration that's gone into making the 918 a cohesive performance vehicle, I think you're getting away cheap.
If you're judging how well Porsche engineers executed an engineering brief that unites seemingly at-odds goals — fuel efficiency, road manners, high-performance capability and visceral excitement — then again, you're getting your money's worth, though you'd have to want to see those goals united.
If you're judging value on the manner in which the 918 places absolutely stupefying track performance in the hands of an amateur driver, again you win. Of course, if you're isolating performance-per-dollar, perhaps it's a wash, considering you could put a 911 Turbo S, a Ferrari 458 Speciale, a Tesla Model S and every 911 GT3 version going back three generations in your garage for the same outlay.
Indeed, the value of the 918 reflects the herculean engineering effort that went into building it. Blue-sky projects are important for the advance of technology, especially in automotive, but unlike in aerospace — where public money pays for the moonshots — it's car buyers with the income and interest that must pick up the tab. For them, the combination of tech and streetability and batshit performance could be the ultimate draw.
Engine: 4.6-liter V8; rear hybrid module with electric motor and decoupler; front electric motor with decoupler and gear unit on front axle
Power: 887 HP (combined); 608 HP @ 8,600 (V8 engine); 154 HP (rear) 127 HP (front)
Torque: 940 LB-FT (combined, calculated at the crankshaft in 7th gear); 390 LB-FT @ 6,600 (V8 engine)
Transmission: Seven-speed PDK (dual clutch)
0-60 Time: 2.8 seconds (estimated); 7.0 seconds in electric mode.
Top Speed: 214
Drivetrain: All-Wheel Drive
Curb Weight: 3,692 pounds
Seating: 2 people