Johannesburg - In December four Porsche 918 Spyders were brought to South Africa for hot-weather testing, and we managed to get a spin in one of these rare machines on the last leg of their trip.
They weren’t official press cars but pre-production units, and my trip was a fairly short hop from Porsche SA’s Fourways headquarters to O.R.Tambo airport before they were loaded onto aircraft to be flown back to Germany. But when you’re offered a spin in one of the world’s most exclusive supercars – with only 918 units to be produced in left-hand drive only at R10-million a pop – even a brief acquaintance will do.
The 918 Spyder, which made its world debut at September’s Frankfurt motor show and is reaching its first customers as you read this, is the fastest and most powerful road-legal Porsche yet, taking over that mantle from the Carrera GT produced between 2004 and 2007. The 918 has the distinction of recently becoming the first production car to break the mythical seven-minute laptime around Germany’s Nurburgring circuit, that iconic determiner of sportscar pecking order. Stunningly, its 6 min 57 secs laptime was nearly half a minute faster than the Pagani Zonda and Ferrari Enzo.
The mid-engined two-seater employs petrol-electric hybrid power, a technology that Porsche is also using in its long-awaited comeback to the top category of Le Mans this year with the Porsche 919 racecar.
Hybrids usually conjure images of boring, planet-saving cars of the Prius and Leaf ilk. But in the 918 the electric power’s paired with a fire-spitting 4.6-litre V8 petrol engine that delivers head-spinning performance.
One electric motor drives the rear wheels in parallel with the engine via a 7-speed PDK gearbox, with another electric motor directly driving the front axle (an electric clutch decouples the motor when not in use). The 918 Spyder offers five different running modes: E-Drive allows the car to run under battery power alone for up to 32km; three hybrid modes (Hybrid, Sport and Race) use both the engine and electric motors; while Hot Lap mode liberates the full gnashing, spitting frenzy.
Forget what you know about hybrids. The 918’s electric power isn’t just a fuel-saving stand in, and on battery power alone the car accelerates like a cheetah with its tail on fire and gets to a top speed of 150km/h. And it’s not the hushed and soulless experience you might expect of electric power, as the car whines like a fighter jet taxiing down the runway.
V8 WAR CRY
Of course, for the full experience of accelerative violence and vocals, the V8 needs to come into play. When you select the hybrid mode and both the electric and combustion power’s singing from the same 652kW and 1 275Nm hymn sheet, you get the full-throated V8 war cry along with chest-compressing acceleration. By the way my body was pummelled into the bucket seat I could easily believe Porsche’s claim of a sub three-second 0-100km/h blitz. There was no chance to test the 350km/h top speed on our public roads, but I can attest that the acceleration’s about as subtle as a wrecking ball.
The lithium-ion battery’s charged by regenerative braking, excess output from the engine when the car is coasting, or by plugging the car into a wall socket. Porsche claims a remarkably economical 3.3 litre per 100km consumption figure, which I don’t for a minute believe. But one of the Porsche test drivers told me the 918s were averaging around 9.5 litres during their South African sojourn – which is still exceptionally frugal for a car with this kind of power. Some supercars are easily twice as thirsty as that.
The 918 has racing genes, and its monocoque is made of lightweight carbonfibre-reinforced polymer which helps to counter the weight of the heavy batteries, and keeps the 918 Spyder’s mass down to a relatively light 1 640kg.
There’s rear-wheel steering to assist handling, retractable spoilers to assist downforce, and a full suite of electronic driver aids, although our drive was too brief and straight to really test the direction-changing abilities. Like the acceleration, the hard ride’s not subtle and the 918 feels every pebble it drives over.
Nope, this isn’t a 911-like experience where you get a track-attack car that doubles as a comfy commuter. Although there are nods to comfort in its plush air-conditioned cabin, the 918 Spyder is uncompromising as a loud, livid, hardcore sportscar for loud, livid and hardcore driving enthusiasts, with a track as the preferred playground. It’s about setting lap records while others stand back in awe.