2014 Porsche 918 Spyder Hybrid Ride-Along
Porsche Is Reinventing the Supercar
This passenger ride in Porsche's soon-to-be supercar is not conducted on the Nordschleife, but on the public road. We buckle in and cruise out of the famous T13 Industry Pool gates onto the street in silent electric mode. It's a clever trick because it demonstrates something absolutely core to an appreciation of the 2014 Porsche 918 Spyder.
If you can drag yourself away from the fact that its raw numbers aren't as mesmerizing as perhaps we'd hoped, once you creep away from a roundabout and hit 80 mph in complete silence, with the rev-counter needle hanging limply over its dial, you realize this really is something completely and profoundly new.
In pure electric mode, the 918 will hit 93 mph and run for 15.5 miles. You have to experience the otherworldly silence and serenity of this kind of departure to begin to understand what Porsche is trying to achieve with this car.
In a world where noise and flamboyance don't necessarily engender good feelings in your fellow human beings, the 918 cuts an entirely new character: It looks like it just left a racetrack, but it glides like a Tesla. Only not for as long.
We Ride Again
Back in March we were invited to Nardo for a brief ride in some rolling 918 powertrain test beds. Today at the Nürburgring we will be riding in three of the 20 prototypes that are littered around the planet with German people trying to break them.
These cars are running the carbon tub, the correct engine and carry the lithium-ion batteries. They are in no way production ready, but given that Porsche intends to begin production a year from now, we can be sure that the final specification will not be profoundly different.
More details of the 918's raw numbers are now filtering into the public domain, most memorably a combined power output of 795 horsepower, of which 580 hp comes from a new V8 that shares no components with the LMP2 RS Spyder motor.
The performance claims are understandably strong: zero to 60 mph in under 3 seconds and zero to 125 mph in under 9 seconds. Just don't mention the Porsche 911 GT2 RS, which is probably nearly as fast for one-fifth of the money.
But you really can't take this attitude into the cabin of the 2014 Porsche 918 Spyder — to do so is to build an impregnable barrier between yourself and some of the most interesting vehicle engineering seen in decades.
Really Worth It?
I will at this point show my hand: I am a 918 skeptic.
I see the point of the experiment and I understand the reasons for investigating alternative forms of propulsion. I'm just not sure a Porsche hypercar is the correct home for them — especially when the performance of the car is so obviously hindered by the weight of the hybrid components.
I present the argument against the 918 in its current form by asking a simple question: Who wouldn't prefer a 918 that weighed 2,200 pounds and had a 600-hp V8? Everyone I have asked prefers the simple approach.
But the project was unveiled in 2010 and the boss as the time, Dr. Durheimer, pledged to build the car as a hybrid and under the new boss Mr. Hatz, they are doing just that. The price will be $845,000.
It's a massive undertaking involving a completely new carbon tub with a rear structure also fabricated from the same CFRP (carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic). The powertrain consists of a 95kW hybrid module at the rear axle and an 85kW motor for the front wheels. The calibration exercise to make these support and work independently of the gasoline V8 is vast and ongoing.
It is perhaps this exercise that defines the 918 and draws even skeptics like me into the project. Above any other car company, Porsche has form in this field: The 959 was viewed as an inferior driving device to Ferrari's F40, but 12 years later Porsche was producing a volume sports car, the 996 Turbo, whose specification was very similar to the 959.
Its experimentation had been worthwhile. Accordingly, the 2014 Porsche 918 Spyder previews a new world of electric-hybrid sports cars. Right now, that concept still terrifies me.
I think it still terrifies Porsche, too, and that's why it is so keen to squeeze us in among the cables and gaffer tape to sample hybrid propulsion in a very high-performance car.
An Evil Side
The main trouble with electric drive, as we all know, is that the lack of noise not only robs a car of personality, it releases a squalid orchestra of noises normally suppressed by pistons and connecting rods. This being a development hack, we can't judge the thing in such terms, but it's notable that the thing doesn't rattle and squeak the way I'd expected.
The ride quality is supple — much more absorbent than expected — and the nose bobs like a Boxster's. Just as I'm wondering what spring rates a 3,747-pound carbon-tubbed supercar needs to run, Holger Bartels, the calibration guru behind the last few GT3s whispers over the silence, "Now we try Sport Hybrid mode."
He twiddles the large rotary dial on the right-hand-spoke of the steering wheel and instantly a hard blare of flat-plane V8 crashes into the cabin.
Again, it defies categorization because I've never before trundled along using electric motors and then had what is best described as a racecar engine suddenly join the party.
The noise is all racecar: high-pitched, yelping, energetic. Holger pins the throttle in a manner I probably wouldn't, given the value of the machine and the width of the road, but I remember being told a few years back that his driving standards match his calibration skills, so I sit back and try to learn something more about this strange machine.
Does it feel fast? Of course it does. We're a long way from a finished relationship between electric and fossil-fueled drive, but already it feels seamless — Holger's job is to have electricity support the V8's paucity of low-end power, then allow the engine to sing to 9,000 rpm. It all works through a seven-speed PDK gearbox derived from the 911 Turbo, but flipped upside down and around enough to mean it's effectively new.
The idea is that drivers will control the 918 through wheel, pedal and paddles just the way they would a 911 Turbo. The complex interaction of various ECUs will control everything else. It's the most complicated calibration exercise ever undertaken for a road car, so I'm forced to ask an appropriately adult question:
"Will you be able to turn the ESP off and do massive skids?"
"Of course," says Holger with a reassuring grin.
Complicated and Clever
There are five driving modes: E-Power, Hybrid, Sport Hybrid, Race Hybrid and Hot Lap. The first and third we've just covered. Normal Hybrid exists to maximize fuel efficiency in normal driving using the gasoline engine, whereas Race Hybrid uses a faster gearshift, deploys the active aerodynamics for maximum downforce and uses the engine to charge the batteries in short, intense bursts. The Hot Lap function builds on this by depleting the battery to empty for short periods.
It's all exceptionally complicated and clever. For example, the active aero closes the front air intakes in the first two modes to reduce the drag figure, but the closed slats would look funny when parked, so they always whirr open when you shut down.
It's a sad reflection on the market's obsession with electric motors that the 4.6-liter internal combustion engine in this car is almost a forgotten component, and yet it is mouthwatering in its compactness and performance.
Project leader Frank Walliser recalls sending the specification of the crankshaft to the supplier and receiving an e-mail asking which racecar it was to be used in.
V8 for the Ages
The difference in weight between the engine and the gearbox is just 35 pounds, the engine being the heavier of the two at 309 pounds. With so much electrical power available for auxiliary use, the engine is beltless and frankly tiny.
It revs to 9,000 rpm thanks to titanium rods and all manner of mechanical trickery: low-pressure casting on the crankcase and cylinder heads, a lightweight crankshaft and the entire intake system made from carbon fiber. Specific output is 126 hp per liter, where the Carrera GT's V10 was 106 hp per liter.
And those signature exhausts? They exit up top for a good reason: keeping the inner gizzards of the engine bay as cool as possible.
In some respects it's the engine that I keep coming back to in this car. The adjectives I find myself using to describe the cleverness of the hybrid drive system are all founded in notions of respect. But the engine is something else — to the point that it simply underlines my frustration that I will never know what it would be like in a package that weighed 2,200 pounds.
Don't Miss the Point
The 2014 Porsche 918 Spyder Hybrid is a technology showcase like nothing else we've seen before. It has already lapped the Nordschleife in 7 minutes, 14 seconds, thanks in part to a new Michelin tire that is far stickier than the wider rubber fitted to the Carrera GT, all the while offering the rolling friction of something you'd expect to find on a Prius. Every detail of the car has been optimized. The manpower being thrown at the project is mind-bending.
You can't fail to admire Porsche for not doing the obvious thing — knocking out a simple sport coupe would have been kindergarten stuff compared to the 918. It has knowingly given itself an almost impossible set of targets and it surely knows that many voices will simply compare the 918 to conventionally powered machines and dismiss it as too heavy and not fast enough.
They, and perhaps I, will in many ways be missing the point of the 918.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.