PORSCHE 918 SPYDER The waiting is finally over as we get to try the production version of Porsche’s hybrid supercar on road and track.
Sometimes the launch of a new car is as much about the people you meet as the car you drive. The Porsche 918 Spyder press event in Spain is just such an occasion. After an unconvincing drive of a prototype at Porsche’s Leipzig test track back in the summer – and having written a few uncomplimentary stories as a result – there’s a bit of an awkward moment when the evening’s dinner table plan reveals I’m sat with ‘Mr 918’, Dr Frank- Steffen Walliser. Thankfully, instead of reading my name-badge and shoving my king prawn entrée where the sun don’t shine, Walliser smiles, shakes my hand and engages in one of the most candid conversations I’ve had with a senior engineer in a very long time.
You won’t be surprised to learn that Walliser is fully convinced by the concept of hybrids. Not because of the tree-hugging credentials (although they are a factor), but because the 918 is a faster car with the batteries and electric motors than without. What you might be surprised to know is that in the beginning, he and many of his team struggled with the things many of us are struggling with today: the move away from manual transmissions, the adoption of heavy hybrid technology and the need to make the very highest echelon of road car performance as socially acceptable as a city car.
Tantalisingly, he mentions a very early concept for the Carrera GT’s successor, which followed a far more conventional approach: a bit lighter, a bit more powerful and a bit faster, but in essence a car born of conventional late-20th-century thinking. The plan for that car now languishes in a drawer, its genesis nipped in the bud by rapid advances in technology and shifts in social and political attitudes. Much as I’d love to know what might have been, it’s now clear that if Porsche had fielded that car against the LaFerrari and the McLaren P1 it would have been like engaging in modern warfare with a bow and arrow. Instead Porsche took a deep breath and embarked on building the most sophisticated supercar the world has ever seen.
In return, I confess my concern that in clinging to a purist attitude and questioning the need for a plug-in hybrid hypercar, I’m coming to the 918 Spyder with too much emotional baggage. Is my judgement being clouded by a love of what we’ve had and a reluctance to accept what the future holds? Walliser nods understandingly, pausing for a moment before offering me a refreshingly simple piece of advice: ‘Forget the past. Forget the future. Just drive the car tomorrow and tell me what you think.’
Next morning, those words are ringing in m years, not least because despite my best efforts to park all prejudicial worship of bygone supercars, the presence of a Carrera GT on display in the pitlane is a painful reminder of what progress is leaving behind. Then I clap eyes on the phalanx of 918 Spyders and things don’t seem so bad. Much like the CGT, the Spyder lacks the extreme visual drama of the LaFerrari and the P1, but in finished form (and without the race-car aping stickers of the Weissach Package specification) it must be said that it shares the CGT’s graceful restraint. Whatever you think of the high-tech hybrid powertrain beneath its carbonfibre skin, there’s no question that the 918 Spyder is a conventionally beautiful car.
Before we get behind the wheel, there’s a press briefing. You already know much of what’s discussed: the 6:57 Nürburgring lap time, the 875bhp total power output and 944lb ft of torque, the Veyron-chasing 2.6sec 0-62mph, 7.2sec to 124mph and 19.9sec to 186mph acceleration times, and that Prius-bashing 70g/km CO2 figure. What’s most impressive is the buggy-like test mule that sits silently before us in the auditorium: three parts Back to the Future, two parts Mad Max, with a pinch of Scrapheap Challenge for good measure, it’s almost inconceivable that this semi-naked prototype was the state of play less than two years ago. A lot of midnight oil has clearly been burnt at Weissach.
Frustratingly, this press event does not allow any time in its schedule to take a car away and explore the excellent mountain roads that lie within an hour of Valencia. Instead we have an intense six-lap track session in which we’ll get to drive the Spyder as hard as we dare, followed by a guided convoy drive through the centre of Valencia to showcase the performance and functionality of the electric and hybrid modes.
It’s only human nature to immediately want what you can’t have, in this case a day to ourselves on fast, challenging roads. But given the media lockdown surrounding the LaFerrari and McLaren P1, the fact we’re getting any meaningful access to the 918 Spyder at all is great news. That the order book remains open (around half of the production run of 918 cars has been sold) is undoubtedly a factor, but right now, sat low and snug in a Martini Racing-liveried 918 with Weissach Package (where a full-body film wrap instead of paint, plus magnesium wheels and various extra carbon bits inside and out make for a 40kg saving on the regular car), I’m not complaining.
The Circuit Ricardo Tormo is Valencia’s ‘other’ racetrack. Overshadowed by the dockside street circuit used by Formula 1 for five years and now abandoned, it’s your typical modern, soulless circuit built in scrubland on the grotty side of town. On the plus side it has a decent straight, big braking areas and some seriously challenging combinations of corners, cambers and radii that somehow manage to flow but that still look more than ready to tie a compromised car in knots.
Our pace car is a new 991 Turbo S, not a machine noted for its lack of speed. As it powers onto the circuit I resist the temptation to bury the Spyder into its wake, instead zipping onto the circuit and negotiating the first few corners in pure electric mode. It’s a brilliant sensation, where the whirring of the electric motors, rustling of the slipstream and insistent squeeze of G-force are the fresh sensory reference points for a new kind of supercar driving experience.
The plan is to work through to the more aggressive of the five driving modes, first turning the rotary control from ‘E’ for E-Power to ‘H’ for Hybrid and ‘S’ for Sport Hybrid for a few laps, followed by ‘R’ for Race Hybrid and finally pushing the little red button that engages Hot Lap for an all-out battery-depleting hoon. As soon as the switch clicks to ‘S’, the 4.6-litre V8 res in an instant, its hard, ballsy blare erupting from the top-exit exhausts that protrude through the mesh engine cover. We’re already travelling at a proper pace: enough for me to want to work just the throttle and steering, while still letting the PDK ’box make its own decisions on gear selection so that I have more mental capacity free to learn the track. The PDK is annoyingly good, punching up and down the seven speeds with precision and spookily making up- and downshifts exactly at the moment the very same thought crosses your mind.
I can’t think of another press drive where I’ve been encouraged to push such a potent car so hard so soon. Literally within a mile I’m chasing the balance of the car, feeling it shift from neutral to the faintest hint of stabilising understeer if I turn in too fast, or getting a gentle shimmy of oversteer as the rear Michelins yield to the assault of all that torque. As the pace car driver pushes ever harder and the circuit begins to make sense, I dig deeper into the Spyder’s reserves of performance, braking later and harder, turning in with more commitment and getting back on the power sooner and with more insistence. The deeper I dig, the more I unleash, quickly devouring the fresh air between the 9 18 and the Turbo S ahead.
This is a very accomplished car on track. It’s hugely impressive and, to my relief, really enjoyable. It also has far more finesse and re in its belly than the earlier development prototype I drove. The brakes especially are hugely improved, performing in a manner a world away from the horrible, dangerously inconsistent stoppers that I was disappointed by at the Leipzig test. You can still feel there’s more than one thing going on when you press the pedal, but the way the job of slowing the car is switched between regenerative braking (up to 0.5G purely using the resistance of the motors when you back off the power) and the PCCB discs and calipers is pretty miraculous. Brake feel isn’t absolutely perfect, but it’s nothing you can’t compensate for with familiarity and sensitivity. That McLaren chose not to attempt to incorporate regen braking into the P1 hints at the scale of the technical challenge it presents.
The 918 also features rear-wheel steering, much like that on the 991 GT3. It certainly gives you a sense of hyper-agility without the need for super-quick Ferrari-style steering, the Spyder changing direction without hesitation. You get a very slight suggestion of oversteer through the seat of your pants as you initiate your steering input, but once you learn that that’s just a split-second phase, you relax into it and let the car find its own stance and balance. Likewise, you feel the motor on the front axle come into play when you push beyond a certain point in the throttle’s travel (there’s a motor for each axle, while the V8 drives the rear only), but again it’s an almost imperceptible phase and certainly doesn’t interrupt your flow or unsettle the car. In fact it’s quite the opposite, for with practice you can use it to augment the Spyder’s poise and traction from apex to corner exit. It’s a feeling reminiscent of the early 997 GT3 R Hybrid race car, and you can certainly see why the 918 is such an effective machine around the Nordschleife. It also feels like a car that will reward those who take the time to get to know it. There are clearly secrets to learn and new techniques to master if you’re to get the best from the car and exploit the full capabilities of its drivetrain.
By the time we’re in Hot Lap mode, the Turbo S driver is totally ‘on it’, the 991 dancing through the long, cresting off- camber lefthander that leads into the final 90-degree left prior to the start-finish straight. Throttle pinned, V8 screaming its heart out and electric motors whirring for all they’re worth, the 918 lunges out of the tight corner, catching the Turbo S before the midway point of the 800-metre pit straight like it’s a Golf GTI. It’s a mind-warping demonstration of relative performance and, if my parched mouth and pounding heart are anything to go by, proof that when it comes to delivering a good old-fashioned adrenalin rush, the 918 Spyder is up there with the best of them.
And that comes despite, or maybe even thanks to, all-wheel drive, PDK and 315kg of batteries and hybrid hardware. When I say as much to Walliser, there’s no ‘told you so’ smugness: just a genuine pride that his car has communicated its ability and appeal more eloquently than any technical or press briefing ever could.
After the fury of the track session, the chaperoned tour of Valencia sounds like an all- too-sedate and rather contrived exercise to distract us from the fact that we can’t do any proper road driving. True, I’d rather be charging through open Spanish countryside, but as the urban odyssey unfolds we get a fascinating and worthwhile insight into the other side of the 918 Spyder’s character. On top of that, we’ve swapped the Weissach Package-equipped car for a ‘regular’ 918, although from a driving environment perspective the plusher, less race-biased seats (no six-point harnesses here) are the only significant difference.
With the roof panels removed and stowed in the luggage compartment at the front, the contrast between E-Power mode and the times when the V8 is running couldn’t be more marked. This test car has its lithium-ion batteries fully charged, making it no problem to power up to 70mph on the motorway and then cruise on into town without using the V8. It’s a magical sensation and it also underlines how complete this car’s abilities are. The seamlessness with which it can segue from electric to hybrid to pure internal combustion and back again is remarkable. God only knows how hard it’s been to fine tune the calibration of all the different control software to make this possible, but it works brilliantly. If there’s an issue, it’s that once you’ve driven on urban roads in near-silence, you rather begrudge the moment when you have to switch the raucous V8 on to generate some more juice. Heresy, I know, but there you are. A fully muffled exhaust mode would help, if only to make the Spyder more discreet in urban surroundings and less like a boisterous drunk shouting outside the pub at closing time.
To be honest, I never thought I wanted or needed a supercar that could drive silently through town, but now I’ve driven one I’m not sure things will quite be the same again. I love the way a fast, exuberant and noisy supercar stirs your soul and tickles your adrenal glands. But to experience how relaxing it is to cut the engine and surge through a city for up to20miles on electric power alone, while watching expressions of wonder and bemusement from passers-by, makes those life-affirming moments when you wind the race-bred V8 to its 9150rpm limit all the sweeter.
How will it feel on a ‘proper’ road? It’s always dangerous to speculate, but there’s no doubt the combination of petrol and electric propulsion will make for a pretty epic experience. Go as slow as the car will allow in seventh gear, select Hot Lap mode and floor the throttle and you are treated to the most extraordinary sensation of other worldly acceleration, as if you’re being fired down the road by an invisible catapult. This is torque like you’ve never felt it before, and as we all know, it’s torque-to-weight, not power-to-weight, that counts more of the time. It’s a big car physically so it’ll feel a bit unwieldy on narrower roads, and the limits of grip are so high and the electronic driver aids so honed that it won’t feel edgy and alive like a Carrera GT, but thanks to the well-judged steering and rear-wheel steering it shouldn’t feel inert. Ride-wise it appears to have all the compliance and control you could wish for – Marc Lieb didn’t even use the Sport damping mode for his Ring record – so it should work brilliantly on smooth and bumpy surfaces alike. And when it comes to disguising its weight, the 918 Spyder is a magician, so although the spec sheet quotes a kerb weight of over 1600kg for either version, your brain says it’s 300kg lighter.
Our first drive of the production 918 raises more questions than it answers, but this time around it has gone a long way to silencing sceptics and critics in sparkling fashion. Combining blistering performance and dazzling dynamics with hybrid and battery-only modes that genuinely add another dimension to your enjoyment of the car at low and high speeds, it’s a fresh and unforgettable experience. It’s true that such head-spinning sophistication comes at the expense of old-school purity and it’s certainly a very different experience to that which we’re used to, but in championing the 918 Spyder, Porsche isn’t asking that we renounce our love of cars like the Carrera GT, just that we look forward rather than back.
We need to get to know the Spyder on proper roads to be truly definitive about where it sits in the pantheon of supercars, but it’s clearly an absolutely mighty thing. As purists, we can rail against the added weight and complexity, and scoff at the minute contribution its green credentials make to curing the world’s environmental malaise, but that rather misses the point. Walliser and his team didn’t build the 918 Spyder to save the planet, they did it to save the supercar. Accept that and you’ll find solace in understanding that this is a new beginning, not the end.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 2014 Porsche 918 Spyder Weissach Package
Engine V8, 4593cc, plus 95kW (front) and 115kW (rear) electric motors CO2 72g/km( 70g/km with Weissach Package)
Max power 875bhp @ 8500rpm / DIN
Max Torque 944lb ft @ 6600rpm / DIN
Transmission Seven-speed PDK gearbox, four-wheel drive, limited-slip diff, PTV
Front suspension Double wishbones, coil springs, PASM dampers, anti-roll bar
Rear suspension Multi-link, coil springs, PASM dampers, anti-roll bar
Brakes Carbon-ceramic discs, 410mm front, 390mm rear, ABS, EBD, PCCB
Wheels 9.5 x 20in front, 12.5 x 21in rear
Tyres 265/35 ZR20 front, 325/30 ZR21 rear
Weight (kerb) 1674kg (1634kgWeissach)
Power-to-weight 531bhp/ton (544bhp/ton Weissach)
0-62mph 2.6sec (claimed)
Top speed 214mph (claimed, 215mph Weissach)
Basic price c£647,000
Drive-My rating: 5.0
‘THE SPYDER LACKS THE EXTREME VISUAL DRAMA OF THE LaFERRARI AND THE P1, BUT IT SHARES THE CARRERA GT’S GRACEFUL RESTRAINT’
‘THE PDK IS ANNOYINGLY GOOD, PUNCHING UP AND DOWN THE SEVEN SPEEDS WITH PRECISION’
‘IF MY PARCHED MOUTH IS ANYTHING TO GO BY, WHEN IT COMES TO DELIVERING A GOOD OLD-FASHIONED ADRENALIN RUSH, THE 918 SPYDER IS UP THERE WITH THE BEST OF THEM’
‘THIS TIME AROUND THE 918 HAS GONE A LONG WAY TO SILENCING SCEPTICS AND CRITICS IN SPARKLING FASHION’
Above: rear aeroblades are Among Weissach Package addenda. Right: V8’s output goes to the rear axle only and is supported by an electric motor, so oversteer is always an option. Right: hybrid system makes for a claimed 91mpg; huge 410mm discs stop front-wheels. Far left : Meaden also drove the non- Weissach 918 Spyder on track, but only for photography, not for hot laps. Below: speaking of which… red button on wheel engages Hot Lap mode. Right: carbon-clad seats come with six-point harnesses in Weissach Package-equipped cars.