Porsche 918 Spyder: The first ride in the future game changerMon, 19 Mar 2012 00:00:00 -0700
Faster than the iconic Carrera GT yet more economical than parent company Volkswagen's frugal new Up supermini, Porsche's next supercar, the 762-hp gasoline-electric powered 918 Spyder, promises to offer the best of both worlds—scorching performance and ultralow consumption. Autoweek joins Porsche's engineering team for the very first test of the car that is already causing headaches in Maranello and Sant'Agata.
For all of its intense promise and awesome potential, the very first running prototype of the upcoming Porsche 918 Spyder looks suspiciously like a refugee from a shadowy postapocalyptic movie set as it glides silently into view across the vast expanse of bitumen at the Nardo test track in southern Italy.
The squat two-seater—with its ill-fitting bodywork and two extravagant top-exiting tailpipes pointing skyward out of the engine bay at the rear like homemade rocket launchers—appears like anything but a multimillion-dollar precursor to what possibly will be the world's most advanced supercar when it begins rolling off a dedicated production line at Porsche's Zuffenhausen factory in Germany on Sept. 18, 2013.
The one and only 918 Spyder prototype in existence right now—clothed in a combination of modified 911 panels and, it seems, anything else that was lying around the workshop floor at the time of its construction in early January—is described as a rolling chassis, whose role is to test the advanced hybrid-drive components. The aim now is to discover whether they operate reliably and within the intended performance parameters in the tight confines of the new car.
Prototype No. 1 was built exclusively for test-track work traditionally carried out in private away from the scrutiny of the public eye, so little or no attention was paid to the usual legalities required for the actual road-going registration process or, for that matter, stylistic considerations.
“Ignore the appearance and concentrate on its mechanical and electrical package,” says a beaming Wolfgang Hatz, head of Porsche's R&D operation, when it appears, adding, “it is purely a workhorse for engineering purposes.”
Hatz, who inherited the 918 Spyder project from his predecessor, Wolfgang Duerheimer, now boss of sister Volkswagen Group company Bentley, when he joined Porsche last year is itching to demonstrate what it'll do, and Autoweek was chosen as the first U.S.-based car magazine to find out. Although it was first revealed in concept-car guise at the 2010 Geneva motor show, today is the first time that an actual running prototype of the future Porsche supercar has been seen by anyone outside the German carmaker—and best of all, we're going to be able to ride in it, too.
Once Porsche is totally satisfied the reliability of the 918 Spyder's uniquely designed gasoline engine, twin electric motors and battery pack, and all of the various electronic units are sound, Porsche will begin the process of constructing a further brace of prototypes complete with production-based body panels and interior appointments. About 23 prototypes are planned, the majority of which are earmarked for durability testing on public roads.
At least three will meet their demise against an offset barrier as part of the intensive crash-test approval process each and every series-production Porsche goes through.
The initial impression is of the ultralow height when the future range-topping Porsche model nears and finally comes to a stop in front of me. It looks tiny, partly because it is not wearing any rear bodywork except for an aluminum box housing the computer processing unit for its hybrid system and a cut-down bumper assembly from the 911. But as I walk around the new car attempting to imagine what it will look like wearing the slickly styled bodywork of the earlier concept, it becomes clear that it follows the trend of other recent high-end supercars in boasting considerable width. Even at this early stage, it is clear that the production car is going to have a terrific four-square stance.
At 182.8 inches in length, 76.4 inches in width and just 45.9 inches in height, the 918 Spyder is a mere 1.2 inches longer, 0.7 inch wider and the same height as the Carrera GT—a car with which it shares nothing, not even its wheels nuts, according to Hatz. It also rides on the same 107.5-inch wheelbase as its direct predecessor. The added dimensions were put to good use, according to the man heading up the engineering team tasked with its development, Frank Walliser, who says its interior is slightly roomier than that of its predecessor, with greater levels of legroom, shoulder room and headroom. There's also a small 3.5-cubic-foot cubby hole set up front for a minimal amount of luggage.
I approach the passenger door, painted matte black like the rest of the sparse bodywork, and gingerly pull on the door handle, being conscious not to apply too much pressure and, in my eagerness at becoming one of select few to be granted a ride in what is perhaps the most anticipated Porsche of all time, rip the thing off completely in my haste.
Peering inside the two-seat cabin, you instantly get an idea at the level of technology that Porsche is set to provide its future flagship model. Electronic wiring, lots of it in all sorts of different colors, covers just about every niche. Not all of it is meant for the production car, though. As evidenced by a large screen smack in the middle of the dashboard and a load of VGA sockets in the place usually occupied by the passenger-side kick plate, there is a whole raft of monitoring equipment used as part of the development process on board as well. Even so, you quickly come to appreciate the gargantuan job Porsche has in developing the 918 Spyder to its typical high production standards. To think that it plans to present the first production version of the new car in just 18 months is remarkable.
Getting in is, for now at least, not that easy. First, there is a wide carbon-fiber sill that forms part of the car's carbon-fiber monocoque to negotiate. Then, as I thread my legs down into the footwell, there's the sight of all of those seemingly delicate wires and other electric devices littering the cabin to consider. I manage to support my weight by grabbing onto the center console before setting my backside down without taking any of the wires with me. The lightly padded seat, makeshift and borrowed from the 911 GT3 complete with a six-point harness, is positioned just 10.6 inches above the ground—exactly the same as that planned for the production car. It is lower even than that used in the Carrera GT, which boasted one of the lowest seats in the business.
Once settled, I'm conscious of the relatively low height of the dashboard, the three-spoke 911 steering wheel with paddle shifters, the Boxster-sourced instrument panel, the wide center console that, as on the latest Boxster and 911 rises upwards toward the fascia, the stubby gear lever, the extreme tapering of the windscreen and the almost complete lack of rearward vision. In a nod to tradition, the ignition lock is sited outboard, or to the left. The rest of the cabin is pretty much improvised at this stage, created purely to ensure that the prototype is driveable. Overhead, there is a roof fixed firmly in place. As with the initial concept car, though, all planned 918 production versions of the 918 Spyder to be built from 2013 through to 2016 will offer a targa-style removable roof panel.
My chauffeur, Porsche development engineer Holger Bartels, occupies himself with the monitoring equipment, tightening the connections of the central-mounted monitor, before checking to see whether my belts are tightened and engaging in a bit of small talk about the new car's five individual driving modes.
Then, without so much as a warning, we're off with a heavy application of his right foot. First sensation: torque, and lots of it. It might weigh close to 3,748 pounds, or 881 pounds more than the car it was conceived to replace, but this new Porsche bolts out of the blocks with all of the abandon if not quite with the same aural intensity as the Carrera GT.
The mid-mounted 4.6-liter V8 engine, a development of the smaller 3.4-liter engine Porsche used in its highly successful LMP2 race car, and two electric motors serve up more than 762 hp and 552 lb-ft of torque in total, making it the most powerful road-going car Porsche has ever attempted to place into series production. The heady reserves are channeled through a combination direct drive (on the front axle) and a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox (on the rear axle) to either the rear wheels or to all four wheels, towering 20-inch center-lock items up front and 21-inchers at the rear shod with 265/35 and 325/30 profile Michelin Pilot Sport tires, respectively, depending on your driving style and conditions.
Initially we're propelled along in silence, but as the prototype rapidly picks up speed, a whirring sound from the two electric motors—one set up front and the other at the rear—dulls as stones are thrown up into the naked carbon-fiber wheel houses and the assault of wind against the makeshift exterior mirrors all begins to fill the cabin. Traction feels incredibly strong from a standing start at full tilt, but it is the ever-rising rate of acceleration that really grabs my attention. There's no letup in force. The digital readout within the monitor busily ticks over . . . 60, 70, 80, 90, 100 kph—yes, it's all done in metric.
Before we reach the end of the long straight, the 918 Spyder's naturally aspirated gasoline engine automatically kicks into life with a muted but welcome roar. That's more like it, I remember thinking to myself as we continued to fling toward a row of shrubs lining the track off in to the distance. Those signature top pipes, which I'm assured will be shorter and considerably more stylized on the production car, exit directly behind the rollover hoops integrated into the monocoque less than an arm's length away, so it is never anything but loud within the cabin when the gasoline engine is on song.
The 918 Spyder will serve as a halo car for Porsche's road-car efforts.
The engine, Hatz reveals, was tuned to rev to more than 9,200 rpm in production trim, so it's safe to say that the 918 Spyder will possess all of the razor-sharp throttle response of the Carrera GT along with a solid slab of shove thanks to its generous torque loading. Right now, though, the prototype has a much more conservative redline of 7,000 rpm in the interests of reliability. The exhaust tuning, which was made easier than the rear-exiting system by the ultrashort plumbing, is also yet to be fully sorted. The expectant shrill at higher revs is replaced by a slight disappointing baritone woofle, although I suspect it won't be long before Porsche sends in its sound engineers and puts it right.
Second sensation: It doesn't lack for stopping power. As we near the end of the straight, Holger finally lifts off the throttle and puts big weight behind the brakes—combination garbage-bin-lid-size carbon-ceramic discs grabbed by eight -piston and six-piston caliper—as my body strains against the belt holding it firmly in place. Despite big levels of retardation and considerable curb weight there's no apparent lockup or cycling of the ABS antilock system, the 918 Spyder coming to a halt firmly and resolutely without any obvious antics or need to correct the lock of its electric steering system, which not only operates on the front wheels but those in back.
There is a good reason for such abrupt braking, of course. With a high-tech recuperation system that Porsche describes as being three times more efficient than any existing arrangement applied to a road-going car used to collect kinetic energy, it pays to hammer the stoppers to keep the lithium-ion battery, sited low down behind the rear bulkhead, at a reasonable charge. The overall electric range is put at 16 miles with a limited speed of 93 mph. But at the speeds we've just hit, the charge level is quickly drained.
With a 180-degree turn and a whiff of tail-out oversteer as all of that torque developed by the gasoline-electric hybrid system is once again unleashed, we head back in the opposite direction.
Third sensation: The ride, while firm, offers sufficient compliance to cope with expansion joints without being overly harsh. Unlike the Carrera GT, which used a race-car-style suspension complete with pushrod-style spring and dampers attached to the monocoque, Porsche has opted for a more conventional arrangement on the 918 Spyder, and even now, with the basic engineering complete and the 18-month test process to come, it seems to produce greater levels of comfort than its predecessor ever did.
Picking up speed again, we negotiate a long right-hander and belt up a second long straight, with the monitor indicating that all three power sources are in operation. The 918 Spyder negotiates the corner in a flat and calm manner. Despite its early state of development, the dynamics are remarkably mature—the result, Hatz confides, of continuous chassis testing and tuning over the past six months on Porsche's high-tech hydropulse test rigs back at Weissach, the very same rigs used to tune the latest Boxster and 911 models.
Near the end of our lap there is a row of strategically placed bright orange witch's hats, which we thread through slalom style. Scything left and then right, there is next to no lean. But with such a low height and with all of the components weighing more than 110 pounds mounted below the car's center line to keep its crucial center of gravity as low as possible, I'd sort of expected that. The front end also grips resolutely without any hint at a loss of purchase.
Sensation four: The overall agility is hugely impressive. Even from the passenger seat, you can sense the inherent directness built into the chassis, thanks, I figure, to the addition of rear-wheel steer. It is both inviting and exciting in equal measure. What's it going to be like with a full aerodynamic package adding greater levels of downforce, I wonder.
Then as quickly as it had begun, my ride in the 918 Spyder comes to an all-too-early end as we motor back to the staging area, which is littered with Porsche engineers. As I sit discussing the car's huge potential and my admiration for Porsche's engineering efforts with Bartels, the automatic stop/start cuts in to preserve fuel levels. Once again there is silence, but this time it is interspersed with the odd tick of heat dissipation.
Sensation five: It might not look like much at the moment, but there are encouraging signs that this new Porsche is well on the way to being a talented all-rounder and a more useful every day car than its predecessor, the Carrera GT. Right now, Sept. 18 2013 (9/18 . . . get it), is shaping up as a landmark day, not only for Porsche but for the history of the supercar.
By Greg Kable