Driving a $900,000 Porsche 918 Spyder to the future

It’s more than just its inherent speed, or the whooshing noise that fills the cabin like a school choir jamming with James Hetfield. It’s what it represents in an industry full of skeptics. It’s a portal into the future – a time capsule left by some mad scientists born decades too soon. It’s something that shouldn’t exist.

And yet it does.

How do you take three independent power units and make them work in harmony? I guess that’s why I’m not an engineer, but I get the impression even the folks in Stuttgart can’t believe what they’ve achieved.

Imagine the memo: “We are going to create a new halo supercar. It will be a plug-in hybrid, capable of traveling further than a Toyota Prius in all-electric mode. And yet it will lap the Nurburgring faster than any production car before it.”

Enter the Porsche 918 Spyder: The most technologically advanced car of our time.

Electrification is a murky word among car enthusiasts. “Instant torque” is a term that’s gaining traction, but the weight shackled to heavy batteries adds a dampener in many purists’ eyes.

Mine too. Mechanical, lightweight, simplistic missiles – like a Ferrari F40 or even a TVR Sagaris – are what I dream of at night, and the 918 isn’t any of those things.

It was once said, “You can always tell who the pioneers are because they have arrows in their back and are lying face down in the dirt.” During the early stages of its development, many – including myself – believed Porsche had gone mad. Why would you focus on plug-in hybrid technology – which adds around 600 lbs. of mass – when aiming to build the ultimate supercar?

The fact is that electric power makes cars quicker, if it can be applied correctly. This is no Prius, or Volt, or an overpriced Cadillac ELR. Yes, it musters 67-mpg in electric mode and can travel up to 12 miles without an engine. And the 22-mpg EPA combined rating is mighty impressive when you consider all 887 mystical unicorns at play. But the electric motors’ primary purpose is to fill the torque gap while the combustion V-8 spools up. 

This means instant, crushing, devastating power whenever your foot grazes the throttle pedal. On the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas, it made a 560 hp Porsche 911 Turbo S look like Betty White driving a Geo Metro. It could keep up with Fernando Alonso in a Ferrari 458 Speciale while you listen to Enigma and sip a caramel macchiato. I didn’t try that last part, but I assure you, it could.

And that’s how the 918 managed a 6 minute 57 second lap around the Nurburgring, becoming the first ever production car to go sub-seven. McLaren was the next to achieve such a feat with its P1 – the 918’s archrival along with TheFerrari.

However McLaren won’t release the exact time. Is that because it couldn’t beat Porsche? Not necessarily, according to McLaren. It says it doesn’t want to fuel a dangerous speed war between the leading supercar makers. And that’s very noble.

McLaren, Porsche and Ferrari all use electricity to increase speed, only Porsche has taken the “plug-in hybrid” aspect far more seriously. And it has to, because hybridization is a technology that will – thanks to EPA mandates – one day grace our Boxsters, Caymans and, yes, our 911s. Porsche is investing in the future, not in the present.

And that’s what makes the 918 so special. It doesn’t feel like a closed book.

I haven’t driven the P1 (and no one has reviewed the daftly named Ferrari) but all indications point to it being a faster supercar than the 918. The complexity behind Porsche’s engineering, however, is arguably greater.

After driving the 918 on both road and track, I found myself incredibly contemplative – like spending an afternoon with a bottle of Mouton Rothschild and William Gibson.

The speed is biblically fast – 0-60 mph in 2.5 seconds; 0-186 mph in 19.9 seconds; and a top speed of 214 mph.

This derives from a 608 hp, 4.6-liter V-8 powering the rear axle, lifted from a Le Mans prototype. A 115 kW electric motor bolted to the transmission, good for 156 hp, works in harmony with the V-8, although it can decouple if necessary (like in all-electric mode). Finally, an independent 95 kW 129 hp electric motor turns the front axle.

The delivery of said power is smooth and consistent, and in Race mode, when both electric motors are used purely to fill torque gaps, there’s no way of deciphering when the electric torque is applied, and to what wheel. It’s just there. Power. All of the time.

Despite this, the throttle isn’t quite as responsive as I’d envisaged. I expected a rush of electricity pulsating through the pedal. Don’t get more wrong, unless you’ve driven a P1, you won’t have experienced a throttle response like it, but it’s not a new world. It merely feels like the power is activated whenever you summon it.

But the gearbox. Never have I been more impressed with a paddle shift transmission. Porsche has taken its 7-speed PDK and turned it upside down (literally) and reworked the coding. The shifts are somehow beyond instantaneous, featuring an engaging yet subtle kick to the head. It’s easy to lament over the loss of the manual, but in the 918, it wouldn’t make sense. It’d be like bringing a keg of beer to the Queen's garden party.

At one point on CoTA’s back straight I hit 180 mph. The next bend was a sharp hairpin. Each time I hit the brakes, I clenched, and expected to be on the edge of adhesion at corner entry. And yet I routinely over-slowed the car. What’s perhaps more amazing about that is, as is typical with hybrids, the car uses regenerative braking to help capture energy to recharge its batteries. This makes for an artificial sensation as the hydraulics and energy recuperation work in tandem. There’s a vague step in the pedal and you feel completely disconnected from the process. But man does it stop well.

At 3,692 lbs. (3,602 lbs. with the Weissach package) the 918 isn’t slim. In fact, for a car made seemingly of carbon fiber and air, it’s decidedly hefty. It’s 600 lbs. heavier than the McLaren P1, and you can sense that mass under a deep synthetic layer of mechanical algorithms. During maximum cornering load, the Michelin tires give way. That’s not to be unexpected, but it’s like the car is connected to a magnetic force field on the outside of the corner. It pulls itself over the tire’s sidewalls, despite the many computers working to mask the fat. But in in the vaguest of senses, you're aware it's there.

However, cornering grip is astounding. The balance borders on oversteer, but its clever rear wheel steer – which turns the rear wheels up to 3 degrees – helps balance high speed situations. Its active aerodynamics push it to the tarmac, and the faster you go, the more it grips. It’s a new level of cornering ability for a production vehicle – at least in terms of the cars I’ve driven.

Only you leave the pit lane in utter silence. You can drive around town in comfort, as if you're behind the wheel of any other hybrid vehicle. You can search the Internet on the infotainment center by swiping the screen as if on an iPad. You can post to Facebook. Or tweet. (You can't do that in your stripped out P1.)

And then you switch from Electric mode, to Hybrid, to Sport, to Race and then to Hot Lap. And you explode into dust, like nothing on earth. Your near-$900,000 futuristic spaceship hits hyper drive and does things you never before thought possible.

But it makes you wonder. What would it be like without the 600 lb. electric motors, batteries and various corresponding control units? The V-8 from the RS Spyder Le Mans car is exquisite, and plenty sufficient. Do you really need all this electric madness? Or would a light, fast, simple modern sports car be exactly what this industry needs?

The answer is no. This is the future (the P1 – and to a lesser degree LaFerrari – must be included in that statement too, despite it being less of a serious hybrid). Its technology is applicable to upcoming vehicles in search of fuel efficiency mixed with punishing speed. It’s unimaginably complex, and the 918 is a technological showcase as much as it is an outright performer. But it proves that you can take the technology made famous by the dreaded Prius and create a hypercar that laps the Nurburgring faster than anything before it. And it can take you to work and back without using its engine.

It has over 80 ECUs and 40,000 types of powertrain data, more than three times that of a typical Porsche. It took 50 engineers over five years to create, with most of those years littered with problems trying to get all three motors to work in sync. In the words of the 918’s test driver Timo Kluck, at times, “it was un-drivable.”

And yet here we are. In a car so well sorted you’d never know of its difficult upbringing. Sure, it’s not perfect. Around the Nurburgring, the added weight costs 13 seconds per lap, but the electric motors claw back 17 seconds. What will cars like this be like in 10 years when battery mass drops to a more acceptable level?

Maybe it isn’t as quick as a McLaren – having not driven one, I can’t comment; it's certainly no less a masterpiece. But with the 918, I sense that I was driving something significant. Something that may ultimately shape an entire industry. Something that mattered.

This will be your BMW M3. Your Miata. Your Corvette. No, the 918 is not a closed book. It’s the blueprint that foresees the future.

 

Full disclosure: The manufacturer provided meals, air transportation and lodging for this review

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