hatchback liftback has never been very well-received by American buyers. Yet Porsche intends to buck that trend with some 20,000 projected annual sales of its new Panamera, a grand touring sports saloon that's been talked about for months as Porsche has coyly leaked cryptic photos.
From the Chevy Citation to the Chevy Malibu Maxx (not to single out Chevrolet), Americans seem to perceive the hatchback as a frumpy style more suited to economy cars than sleek sports sedans. And as such, they haven't really stuck around in the U.S. marketplace. Is it any wonder that other sporting sedans in the luxury territory offer a proper trunk? The sumptuous Maserati Quattroporte, brazen new Lamborghini Estoque, Bentley Continental Flying Spur, and sleek four-door "coupes" like the Mercedes CLS and new Volkswagen CC all feature a traditional trunk. Even the Infiniti J30 had a trunk, though its dramatically sloping rear end won it few accolades in the styling department and mediocre sales on the dealership floor.
Our first impression is that Porsche is taking a pretty hefty risk here. Yes, the sloping rear profile keeps Porsche's heritage departure view intact (i.e. 911, Cayman), but the overall effect of the truncated rear on a four-door vehicle is a bit odd, especially from the side profile. From the rear it looks quite pleasant, but oddly like Infiniti's new EX35 Crossover, hardly the stuff of adrenaline and sweaty palms. Hmm.
Will Americans buy such an unconventional design with a massive, vision-obscuring C-pillar? Porsche has been successful with the Cayenne, the hefty SUV that aficionados feared would water down the Porsche brand and garner dismal sales. But the Cayenne is different enough from the rest of the automaker's sportscar stable. The Panamera seeks to replicate the Porsche sportscar magic in four-door form, but takes another risk with a front-mounted engine, another realm where Porsche has had limited success in the past. Throw in the hatchback, and we're just not sure.
None of this is to say that we wouldn't love to drive one. With direct-injected V-6 and V-8 engines ranging from 300 to 500 hp, Porsche promises us swiftness and efficiency, and we don't doubt it. Transmitting power from engine to wheel will be a six-speed manual or their new seven-speed PDK (dual-clutch automated manual).
The new model goes on sale in the United States in the spring 2009, at which point sales and interest will tell the rest of the story. We don't envy any automaker releasing a high-priced sportscar in this dismal market, but perhaps the rare air of the Porsche buyer is unaffected by market whims and world crises.--Colin Mathews