Porsche 918 Spyder: Million Dollar Kinetic Sculpture


We'll leave the discussion of the rationale of driving a near million dollar race car on city streets to another day. But before we examine the vehicle’s technical merits, let's consider the motivation for building it.


I asked Dr. Frank Walliser, the director of the Porsche 918 Spyder project, that question as we stood in front of the vehicle at the LA Auto Show in November 2013. Why did Porsche build this car? His answer was remarkably candid: "Because we had to show that sports cars will exist in the future."  


As we discussed the increasingly stringent European and US emission and fuel consumption regulations the extent of the challenge became more clear. Porsche saw an existential threat in the new standards: would it be possible to deliver the performance car experience within the new fuel consumption and emissions requirements? 


Dr. Walliser continued to underscore the fundamental premise: "We believe in the future of sports cars. That was our main motivation." As he continued, I began to gain a better appreciation of the difficulty of incorporating the new electrical drive train components. There were not just technological problems to solve, but cultural and philosophical hurdles to overcome. It’s not just auto marketers that talk about "emotional appeal," the designers and engineers who create cars also have deep understanding of the need to produce products that are more than simply functional, but that inspire and create a deep desire to own and identify with.   


One of Porsche's goals was showing that usually diametrically opposed principles of performance and reduction of fuel consumption and CO2 emissions could be harmonized. Another was demonstrating how electric traction motors could create a better, higher performance, emotionally appealing driving experience. Walliser emphasized that the hybrid components should not be viewed as a disadvantage: "It makes it better. It is a better sports car with an electric motor on-board. It’s really high end."


Indeed, the 918 is the highest performance street legal car that Porsche has ever produced, world-wide. Walliser continued: "The price of the car is high. But it shows that if you have some engineering freedom you can create an amazing car." The 918 has the distinction of being the world’s first plug-in hybrid super sports car. Other exotic automakers have followed with their own conceptions of plug-in hybrids, but arguably none exhibit the level of sophistication of the Spyder. 


When the car was proposed to the Board of Directors for approval, the performance target was defined as wanting "to be the fastest street legal car on the Nurburgring race track, under 7.22 lap time." The 918 accomplished that with a 6:57 actual time, beating the previous record by fourteen seconds. It was the first street legal car to make the lap under 7 minutes on street tires. Andrew Wendler of Car & Driver has said of Nurburgring: "record-chasing runs are a universally accepted, objective measure of a car’s performance."  


As we reviewed the technical capability and specifications of the car, my comprehension of the extent of the accomplishment grew far beyond what I had been able to glean from a thorough review of the available documentation and watching Chris Harris hoon around the racetrack. (Of all the excellent Porsche 918 drive videos Chris Harris’ paean is by far the best and well worth watching). 


The parallel hybrid consists of two electric motors, front and rear in a "P2" configuration, supplying torque vectoring all wheel drive. The front motor is capable of 95 kW, the rear 115 kW. A 4.6 liter naturally aspirated V8 internal combustion engine is positioned amidships and is connected through a clutch to the rear motor, which connects to the seven speed PDK gearbox. The electric-only output is 210 kW. A total of  887 bhp is delivered under full throttle. There is no mechanical connection between the front and rear motors, the output balance is computer controlled. 


The Porsche-designed and assembled traction battery is 104 series 3 parallel design with Samsung 5.9 amp hour cells. It is capable of providing 230kW, the most powerful battery available in a production car according to Porsche. Electric only acceleration is 6.2 seconds 0-60, with a top speed of 98 mph in all-electric mode. The 365v battery, placed below centerline to give the car a very low center of gravity, stores a total of 6.8 kWh, enough to provide between 10-16 miles of all-electric range.


When the V8 kicks in and revs towards 9,150, the 0-60 time drops to 2.5 seconds with a top speed of 211 mph according to Porsche official specs, among the dimension of Formula One, NASCAR and Indy cars. Car and Driver is on record as having accomplished an instrumented 2.2 second 0-60 time. 


The main impetus of the hybrid drive train of course, is that fuel consumption is extremely good and emissions correspondingly low. Porsche’s target was just 3 liters per 100 kilometers on the European driving cycle, and CO2 emissions of just 70 grams per kilometer, which Walliser characterized as "an extremely tough target." Comparing the Spyder to the competition, he acknowledged that the McLaren P1 had good track times but not as fast as the 918 and much higher fuel consumption, 8 liters per 100 kilometers, off-track. 


The 918 has extremely sophisticated electronic traction and stability control. Those systems are complimented by a four-wheel active rear electric steering system. At low speeds the rear wheels turn in the opposite direction to the front wheels. At high speeds, the rear wheels turn in the same direction the front wheels for greater stability. A rear wing and under-body flaps are automatically repositioned based on driving speed. The car has electric regenerative braking that in conjunction with the extra large carbon-ceramic brakes can bring the 918 from 70 MPH to a standstill in 142 feet. 


When asked what technologies we might see migrate from the 918 to other Porsche products, Walliser pointed out that the Panamera and the 918 were developed at the same time and that the engineering teams routinely exchanged ideas. The knowledge sets, he explained, went beyond engineering into the production environment: "You need a production system that can handle high voltage" he deadpanned with a look that appeared to convey special emphasis. Duly noted. 


Porsche’s aim for the ultimate in street-legal driving performance appears to have hit the mark: Porsche’s entire 918-unit production run, with a base price of $845,000 each, is now sold out.


Exploring new dimensions of speed and fun at The Thermal Club


Growing up with transportation design has equipped me with an enthusiasm for classic automotive excellence, though I generally leave new car reviews up to the established experts. But I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to drive the Porsche 918 Spyder at the Thermal race track near Palms Springs California.


Upon arrival I was immediately impressed with the trackside hospitality area. Porsche does everything with such refinement; even their reception space, featuring clean right angles, zen floral accents and indirect lighting extends their brand language. Everything excellent while minimal – thoughtfully elegant. Central to the installation a 918 was on display with its AC power plugged, reminding guests of its hybrid propulsion. I took a moment to appreciate its lines. 


I rarely find as much joy studying the sculptural expression and form language of a modern car compared to its ancestors. As a consultant on the acquisition of historic race and collectible cars I’m accustomed to investigating machines of an era when voluptuous, dynamic shapes were the norm. New cars are so moderated by the maturity of their industry. The 918 Spyder has that level of rawness that feels anthropomorphic, like intelligent machinery wrapped in crouching curves.


It's serious German technical achievement in every sense of the tradition, not an ounce of fat or gimmick below its muscular surface. The 918 Spyder defies the challenges of compliance, surpasses every technical requirement, and embodies iconic supercar status, even pushing it to new heights. It extends Porsche DNA. It is a mature, balanced, while celebratory expression of its heritage. Every bit a track carving tool, the 918’s hyper-accurate responsiveness invites highly focused play. 


I lowered myself into the cockpit after donning a helmet for the track. Like some small airplanes, the fixed-position seat does not adjust – more evident with the helmet on – the engine bay will not cede any of that volume. Ergonomics were rapidly forgotten on entering the track. I could see and sense everything that was needed.


Silently leaving the pit like a shark, a punch of the throttle pedal brought the V8 to life and with a throaty roar from the machine I was underway. The 918 seemed alive, thinking, reacting, managing power expertly at all four wheels in a way I hadn’t felt before. 


Threading through turns, the machine’s strength, agility and intelligence offered the sensation of an exaggerated extension of one’s own mobility; thought controlled flying. Under full acceleration, its quickness narrowed the sensation of time. Its responsiveness expects full attention without adding any concerns like under or over steer. Despite its weight it is agile and accurate. The 918 could be intimidating, but Porsche’s experienced instructor in the right seat loaned confidence. The torque vectoring all wheel steering with traction and stability give the car rare capabilities even in less than expert hands. 


If you are thinking of hybrid power as a trendy chore of the day, rethink. It's not just pious anymore. The power band of the electric motor is instant, hard torque. The subtle and sublime notes of the electric motor force replaced by the 918’s Can Am inspired internal combustion top pipes emitting a business-like note as the breathing 8 cylinders steadily exhale in the upper power band. 


Too soon we were silently gliding back into the pit, the laps having passed so quickly it almost seemed a dimensional shift. I felt an incredible lightness as I stepped out, as if returning to a single G force in the vertical direction was a new experience. This was FUN on a level only previously achieved in spartan racing machines. Doing so in a streel legal, eminently drivable supercar sculpture was an entirely new peak experience.


This article originally appeared in the Q1 2015 issue of Electric Car Insider. The current print magazine is available on independent newsstands throughout the U.S. and Canada including Barnes & Noble, Hastings and Chapters Indigo. Never miss an issue by subscribing.

Reviews Categories

Electric Car Guest Drive Ad