It's the dawn of a new age of supercars. That’s the drama I sensed as I made the various connections to Valencia, Spain, and the off-season test circuit used by Formula 1 squads where I would drive the Porsche 918 Spyder.
It's the first of an evil trio of wild exoticars emerging from Europe in the coming months, with Germany's $845,000 Spyder followed by the $1.2 million McLaren P1 from England, and Italy’s $1.2-million Ferrari LaFerrari. In-depth comparisons between the three are already being made, some even choosing a favorite and a fastest just on paper and from photos. While inevitable, I say avoid it because all three of them are fabulous and beautiful cars, each with its own approach, priorities, and warp-speed thrills.
This new age of utterly über drives is also meant to be a relatively green one in a clear nod to pollution-choked Chinese cities. But, make no mistake, the greener P1 is bound to be quicker and more drivable than the notorious F1 before it; likewise the LaFerrari versus the Enzo, and ditto if we put this 918 Spyder up against its predecessor the Carrera GT. How extremely far these particular hairy monsters of the road have come in their sheer quickness and sophistication can convert even the most staunch retro grump. The European rating for miles per U.S. gallon for the 918 reads an average 78.4 mpg combined city and highway from the 18.5-gallon tank, though our EPA figures are always lower.
The risk with any Porsche test is getting kidnapped into a litany of facts and decimal points, but I want to minimize that. I was feeling childlike and nervous because I wanted to just drive the sucker on this heady track. Knowing all the points on the 918 where titanium bolts have shaved off grams of weight could wait. The plan: five fast laps of the 2.5-mile circuit with the middle three being the fastest. The guys at Porsche just told me not to risk dinging their very expensive pre-production 918s and to use the laps at will as an opportunity to try out the five driving modes selectable with the "map switch" at the lower right of the steering wheel. I was at no time to get sneaky and switch off the electronic stability control nor the traction control. (Maybe next time.)
But the 918's complicated power sources do need a brief explainer. The 918 Spyder is a true plug-in electric hybrid, with the fuel cap at the left rear cabin pillar and the electric plug-in outlet at the right rear pillar. A new 4.6-liter naturally aspirated V-8 sucking down high-test gas from behind the two passengers churns 599 hp at a high 8,700 rpm, and 398 lb.-ft. of torque that drops off at 6,700 rpm. The gas-powered engine rarely runs alone, thanks to two electric motors: one 127-hp unit in front with a single gear ratio acting solely on the front axle up to 165 miles per hour, and a 154-hp motor at the back axle that boosts rear-wheel power and torque right up to the 214-mph top speed directly via the seven-speed Porsche dual-clutch transmission. Total power therefore equals 875 hp, while available torque ranges between 590 and 944 lb.-ft. The hefty 3,691-lb. 918 can accelerate to 60 mph in 2.5 seconds, according to Porsche's official statistics.
I guarantee you that that figure is sandbagging.
How you interact with this three-pronged drive-/powertrain depends on the flavor you choose from the map switch: E-Power, Hybrid, Sport Hybrid, Race Hybrid and Hot Lap. In pure electric E-Power mode, the 918 can reach 93 mph for sustained periods; lawfully driven, the 918 can travel 19 miles on electrons alone. As you’ll be needing these e-boost bursts most while in either E-Power or Hot Lap, it is in these two extremes where the regenerative engine braking and actual brake pedal regen of the Porsche carbon-ceramic brakes are at their height. You can thus fully recharge the 304-lb., 6.8-kWh lithium-ion battery assembly in 25 minutes or less under the proper conditions, the same time it takes to do so at a DC quick-charge station while parked.
The car I drove all day and which you see here in white with a flame livery up front — referred to as the Salzburg livery and commemorating the paint scheme from one of the company’s Le Mans winning 917 racecars of the 1970s — has all the toys to maximize any track day. This optional Weissach Package — named after Porsche’s hallowed research center in the town of Weissach — takes some 90 pounds off the car, from a multitude of significant carbon fiber touches to magnesium wheels that save 33 pounds per set. Cost to you is $84,000, or the base sticker price of a new 911 Carrera.
On the first “easy” lap out of the pits, I was in E-Power mode and the way all of that immediate e-motor torque front and rear pulls the 918 along would honestly offer more than enough for most people. My car wagged its tail prettily and never out of control through the early tightest turns on cold tires, and I have never yet felt that much momentum in an EV. Hybrid mode is what most owners will use outside of city centers, and it is fairly familiar in its behavior — just that here you’re moving faster and are thinking faster as curves rush up to the nose of the car. The system’s chief goal here is to conserve fuel and recoup energy for the battery, so the engine runs sparingly. Transitions between engine-on and engine-off in the E-Power and Hybrid modes arrive sweetly, without any shunt or hesitation, while making a great noise.
Sport Hybrid is where the drama really ignites, as the 4.6-liter V8 is on at all times and the electric motors are serving the V-8 to evenly boost performance as needed. Then, rotating the map switch to the "R" of Race Hybrid, throttle response and shifts from the PDK gearbox truly pop and the boost from the e-motors takes on more peak moments to punch you ahead exactly when you need it. And finally, Hot Lap is accessed via the red button at the center of the map switch only if you are in Race Hybrid mode. The 918 here grabs everything all three players of the powertrain can give. In Hot Lap, the driver can fully drain the lithium-ion battery stack if required — a risky strategy for long-term battery health, but hey, it’s Hot Lap time!
The chief addictions for me of the 918 Spyder start with the unbelievable grip provided by the special Michelin UHP tires — 20-inch front and wide 21-inch rear – and the remarkably faithful electronic steering. Then there are the sounds happening all around me in full-tilt Race or Hot Lap mode, the popping of the PDK gearbox, and the song of what is perhaps Porsche’s most outstanding exhaust system.
And when I’m at the track and set loose, these myriad sounds and mechanical symphonies never stop, and I do not want them to stop. Those twin exhaust pipes pooching out behind the occupants’ heads? Total badass. The sound is as close as a civilian will ever get to that of the racing Porsche RS Spyder.
Besides the ongoing stereophonics of the drive, a separate impressive constant was the ride of the adaptive chassis over both smooth asphalt and rough stuff. This version of Porsche Active Suspension Management on such an over-engineered stiff chassis is the best I have yet felt on Porsche’s new generation of products. The single-piece carbon fiber reinforced plastic bucket seats give ideal lateral support, though it would be good to include some sort of bladder system for more lower back support; I was feeling too forcibly hunched forward.
What's more revelatory was how the front electric motor puts urgency into the front axle — smoothly yanking the 918 out of every hard curve. It's a new sensation, and I know that if other all-wheel supercars do not provide me with this great feeling, I’ll probably whine about it. Between the participatory front axle, the electronically activated locking rear differential, a 43/57 front/rear weight split, and rear-wheel steering, the total agility pumping through the loins of the 918 is what enthusiastic drivers dream of. We want to feel it doing what it does for us.
Production of the first 918 Spyder started on September 18 in Stuttgart and the 918th 918 is scheduled to be finished at the end of February 2015. Just over half of the production run has been sold with a significant uptick after the production 918’s unveiling at last September’s Frankfurt motor show and the announcement of the record 6:57 lapping of the Nürburgring Nordschleife.
What would a 918 Spyder be like, though, with a charged version of the 4.6-liter V-8 and that fantastic front-axle e-motor using a dedicated much smaller lithium-ion battery stack, losing roughly 500 pounds of equipment? It’s an irresponsible, inefficient thought I got in my head while dreaming between curves. The greatest performers always leave you wanting more.
Full disclosure: The manufacturer provided meals, air transportation and lodging for this review