I like to think I know what’s going on in the car world.
I read Octane, among others, and all the blogs. But then I saw the new hybrid Porsche 918 on the cover of a magazine, and I was immediately in shock. Why hadn’t I heard about this before it happened?!
As I consider myself a petrolhead, I was a little taken aback. But that’s just the way Porsche does things. So many manufacturers leak information. How many times have you heard there’s a new supercar on the way and it’s going to do this and that, it’s going to beat the Veyron… Of course, it never gets produced or it comes out in another form. The classic example would be the Jaguar XJ220. Here was a car that – wow! – was going to have a V12, but ended up with a twin-turbo V6. So much had been leaked about it, there was so much expectation, nothing could have lived up to the hype.
I love the fact that Porsche will build a car in secret and then here it is. Here’s the working, driving prototype. It beat the Carrera GT on the Nürburgring by more than a few seconds. And it has been done in exactly the right way. I’ve probably said in this column before that for new technology to succeed it can’t be equal – it’s got to be better. And that’s what makes the 918 great.
What most brands do, when they make an electric version of an existing car, is make it slower and heavier. It takes fewer passengers or less cargo, and it costs more. So what’s the advantage of this, other than wanting to save the planet if you’ve got the money to spend to do that? And most people don’t. What makes the 918 an outstanding automobile to me – and I don’t consider myself a hybrid person – is that here is the best car you can get and it just happens to be a hybrid. It’s said to do 78mpg. Whether it does or doesn’t – and even if it gets half that – it’s still pretty amazing for a car that was quicker than a Carrera GT around the Nürburgring.
This isn’t the first time alternative-fuel vehicles have been tried. My friend Dick Guldstrand is a Corvette racer extraordinaire. About 15 years ago he released a ’Vette that ran on compressed natural gas. I thought it was brilliant. It didn’t pollute and it didn’t use any gasoline. It was faster than the existing Corvette, but I think trying to find natural gas to fill it was more complicated than people wanted to deal with. Yet it was certainly on the right track. And that’s what I love about the 918.
Here’s the secret. The first thing is the performance. The second is the handling. The third is the styling. And the last thing is probably the economy. Yet here is a car that beats existing models in all those areas. I also think it’s one of the best-looking new Porsches in quite a while. The claimed mileage is extraordinary, and performance-wise it is the fastest car Porsche has built. So what’s the downside? Obviously it’ll be very expensive, but otherwise there’s really no downside. Apart from the Tesla, which is a very nice car, electricity will always take you halfway you want to go. The nice thing about the 918 is you can drive it as
a normal car and do all the things you normally could, except you’ll be greener.
The SLS electric is interesting but its range is 80 miles. If something is fun to drive, 80 miles go by in a heartbeat. When I get a car in a road test, I put 400 miles on it in an afternoon just having fun. If that was an electric I’d be out there for 45 minutes and then I’m down for nine hours.
We weren’t allowed to open the hood of the 918 and look inside the car, but I asked them to move it. They started it up and it sounded wonderful. A raucous sort of V8 with a loud bark. And then they shut off the gas engine, went into electric mode and moved the car around, and it was dead quiet. It’s the perfect machine for sneaking away at the weekend if you want to get up at 6am without bothering the neighbors. You pull out on electric and once you get on the open road, boom, off you go.
Something that always annoyed me as a kid was that you’d go to an autoshow and they showed you some vehicle with no motor inside – it was a styling exercise and you could see it wasn’t going to work. I’d be like, ‘Look how low that roof slopes, you could never fit in there!’ But Porsche built a functioning prototype, and that’s amazing. I think this is the most impressive car of the new millennium.