The big end of town


Wanna get high? Forget illegal drugs. Forget winning the grand final. And forget the first – or last – time you got lucky. Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac, and have I got the power trip for you. It’s not cheap, but it’s worth it. Trust me, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Think super sedans. Fast four doors. Ridiculously quick and with all the fancy trappings to make leaders of industry and power brokers salivate with anticipation. We’ve got three fearsomely potent four-doors that could shake the dead from their slumber. They’re among the most powerful, most opulent four-seaters in Australia, and you won’t have to tell the kids in the back to be quiet – they’ll be mute with amazement as the world warps by.

Normally, you’ve got to be a CEO or a multi-millionaire to take this trip. It helps if you’re a sports star, or you invented Facebook or Google, and have an insatiable lust for power in every facet of your life. Today, however, we’re going to drive a mile in their cars. Quite a few miles.

In the Wheels world, these people don’t bother with a chauffeur. Why work so hard and then pay someone else to have all the fun? But what to drive? A luxury car is not enough, though they most likely have one or two. A high-performance sports car, too, isn’t enough, though they may even have a couple of those. These three cars – the Audi RS6, the Maserati Quattroporte Sport GT S and the Porsche Panamera Turbo – deliver a heady brew of both opulence and vigour.

These three executive sledgehammers are the automotive embodiment of power in all its forms. Their muscular flanks and aggressive stances exude visual power, their engines shake with physical power, and their exclusivity and stratospheric price tags advertise the considerable power of their owners. These three are the last word in four-door sports luxury.

The trigger for this three-way clash is the Porsche Panamera. This seriously quick sedan-cum-hatch is the fourth new car-line from Zuffenhausen in little more than a decade. The company that once rose and fell with the fortunes of the 911 now harvests just 20 percent of its sales from that rear-engined staple.

Making up the other two-thirds of our three-way drive to four-door heaven are the Audi RS6 and Maserati Quattroporte Sport GT S. Together this flotilla costs $1.1 million, has 1117kW and 1910Nm, and can blast to 100km/h in five seconds or less. It’s the kind of comparo that makes Wheels’ insurance man quake at the knees.

The Panamera is offered in three guises (S, 4S and Turbo), all with a 4.8-litre V8 up front. There are V6 and hybrid versions on the way, but even so the Panamera is not expected to be a volume seller for the brand. It has been positioned to complement the polarising yet lucrative Cayenne SUV, which is priced from $100K to $270K. The Panamera’s current V8-only range starts at $265K and stretches to $365K for the Turbo model we’re testing. That’s the starting point; in typical Porsche fashion the options amount to an HSV Clubsport, and take the driveaway price north of $420,000.

For that, the front-engine Panamera puts 368kW of twin-turbocharged V8 on tap, metered out to all four wheels through a cutting-edge PDK seven-speed double-clutch transmission. The Panamera Turbo will pamper you and three passengers in luxury unrivalled by any other Porsche, and protect you with the best safety and technology the factory has yet devised.

The Audi RS6 sedan is unique in this company because it’s based on a more mundane volume model, the A6. But the RS makeover is all-encompassing. From its bespoke, muscular body panels to its rampant 426kW twin-turbocharged V10 engine, the RS6 is the most potent model Audi makes – more powerful than even the R8 V10 sports coupe that is considered the brand’s flagship.

In this company, however, the three-box Audi fades into the background against two such visually arresting entities, despite its blistered wheel arches and road-hugging bodykit.

No country does exotica like Italy. The tempestuous Mediterranean nation that gave the world both Monica Bellucci and Alessandro Volta knows intimately about beauty and power. And Maserati is the only one of Italy’s supercar triumvirate to package power and passion in a four-door. Yes, the Quattroporte Sport GT S has by far the most sultry, evocative lines of our three combatants.

Styling is an important facet of our trio’s allure. But is it better to look gorgeous or expensive? Lust or envy? Either way the Maserati takes best-in-show. Its curvaceous lines tempt your eyes with every swell and sweep, and that gaping maw practically tattoos the marque’s trident on appreciative retinas. The Maserati’s interior shouts opulence, too, with its creamy leather and warm wood. Unlike the Maserati, the Panamera’s lines aren’t pretty.

The Panamera is imposing; its styling is more about substance and strength than beauty. A handful of 911 cues link it to the Porsche family, though they don’t sit comfortably on a car almost as long as the 5.1m Maserati, but wider and lower. It looks heavier too, though at 1970kg it is the lightest of our trio – just.

The Porsche may be imposing, but if you want the world to watch as you drive past, buy the Maserati. The Italians know all about the theatre of a performance car. The Quattroporte’s voluptuous styling is one example, its delicious soundtrack another.

The Maserati’s 4.7-litre V8 produces the Pavarotti of engine notes, and has a bi-modal exhaust specifically to unleash what is one of the automotive world’s greatest and most captivating symphonies. Even revving in neutral, it is Dolby-demonic and full of blood-pumping virility. Under load, it is embellished with a seriously rumbling undertone. In a tunnel it reverberates with menace and makes your heart skip a beat.

In isolation, the Maserati is an enthralling car to drive. The V8 engine’s reworked 323kW (an extra 8kW) gives it a renewed vigour that’s beautifully teamed with the ZF six-speed automatic gearbox. Its natural aspiration gives it an immediacy the Germans can’t match, adding to its addictive qualities.

The Quattroporte Sport GT S is capable of accelerating from 0-100km/h in just 5.5 seconds, and keeps on swinging until the second hundred is a distant memory. With the sport button depressed there’s a lustiness about the engine that’s genuinely inspiring, especially so when it comes with that dramatic soundtrack.

But the Maserati is caught between two worlds, and falls short in outright performance. Ballsy engine, great sound, but in this company it is more than a second off the fastest in 0-100km/h time. The transmission is smooth and refined, and has a nodding acquaintance with sporting discipline, but stubbornly refuses to short-shift via the paddles – and those paddles don’t turn with the wheel, making it difficult to grab a new gear mid-corner. The Quattroporte’s ZF also has the disconcerting habit of lurching on downchanges, mimicking the dipped clutch of a manual, which upsets stability under brakes.

The Maserati is the only one of our trio not to offer adjustable suspension – something other Quattroporte models have. Instead, one setting must provide the comfort of a grand tourer (it does) and the body control of a sports sedan (it doesn’t). The Quattroporte leans heavily in corners and is ponderous on change of direction, despite having the sharpest steering and quickest rack of the three.

But all these niggles get blown away by the Maserati’s soaring sound. It is sublime. By contrast the Audi sounds like a whooshing whirlwind and the Porsche like a fart in a phone booth. But, as if making up for their tepid tonal qualities, they both haul in the horizon with a ferocity the Maserati cannot match.

Whichever Audi engineer thought that a Lamborghini V10 could do with a couple of turbos (Audi makes the blocks for Lamborghini), then decided to cram it into the A6’s modest engine bay (along with seven radiators and four cooling fans) is most likely insane … and ingenious. The Audi’s 426kW leaves the other two behind on paper, whether you measure it outright, or divide by engine displacement or vehicle kerb weight.

In typical Audi style there’s no fuss or complex courting ritual (a la BMW M cars) to extract the RS6’s full motive force. Just turn the key and warp! The V10 RS6 leaps off the mark without a skerrick of wheelspin – even though it’s not until 4000rpm that the engine truly feels on fire – and the pace at which it devours both distance and the remaining rev range is mind-numbingly rapid.

Then the brutality takes another step up at 5500rpm, and everything you knew about speed goes out the window. It feels as though there could be another surge again, beyond the 7000rpm redline, if only for that pesky rev limiter.

A quick snick on the alloy paddle and the next of six ZF gears slots precisely, and the Audi thrusts forward with renewed vigour. Off the line, the RS6 is an unstoppable force, ticking off the tonne in 4.5 seconds and blitzing the 0-400m in 12.5sec.

On flowing roads, the RS6 is scary fast; feeling as if it could rip up and down mountains forever and never get tired or tiring. And, for such a potent sedan, it’s benign, especially if the three-mode suspension is set to ‘dynamic’. The RS6 sits flat through corners and doesn’t see-saw under power or brakes. The quattro AWD delivers monstrous grip, and its rear bias reduces nose-lifting understeer on throttle.

But the RS6 never feels as malleable as the Porsche or the Maserati. Light steering at slow speeds weights up considerably at pace, and it takes muscle and commitment to manipulate the car. Watching it in the Porsche’s rearview mirror, the RS6 looks low and mean. But slowly the gap builds.

Despite giving a 58kW advantage to the Audi, the Panamera is quicker and even more savage, though you wouldn’t know it on first acquaintance. For example, the steering isn’t as quick as the Audi’s, and the throttle defaults to numb urban mode to avoid unexpectedly vigorous lunges which could leave a bus on your bonnet.

Better by far to wake the Porsche from its coma by invoking Sport mode every time you enter its A380-esque cockpit, and acclimatise to its razor-sharp reflexes. The throttle sharpens appreciably, the PDK seven-speed transmission chooses a more responsive gearchange map and the adjustable damping slips into something less comfortable but so much more capable.

Then, in Sport Plus, a full-throttle launch in the all-wheel drive Panamera Turbo is an assault on your senses. Left foot hard on the brake, right foot hard on the accelerator, hard enough to go beyond the initial detent. The launch control system dials up 4000rpm, waiting for your next move. Then simply step off the brake … and prepare for the onslaught.

Though you may be curled forward against the impending force, the ferocity with which its four-wheel grip turns 770Nm (Sport Plus offers an overboost for an extra 70Nm) into motion overpowers neck muscles and slams your head back in the heavily bolstered seat.

The savagery is momentarily disorienting, but while you’re trying to recover the seven-speed ’box dumps in the next ratio, and the next, and obliterates the 100km/h mark in 4.23 seconds. That’s a full three-tenths quicker than the RS6 – and there were, apparently, two gearchanges along the way.

The Panamera’s Jekyll and Hyde duality delivers conflicting ideals without confusion. Outside Sport mode, the Panamera is distant, its responses lethargic and flat. Take off from the lights and the seven-speed PDK will hurry through the ratios to reach seventh at little more than 90km/h, then sit on a lazy 1500rpm at 110km/h. With Sport mode in play, however, the Porsche feels alive, like an eager puppy straining on the leash. It drops gears and is ready with more revs in an instant. The air suspension stiffens to keep the body flat in corners and more stable on change of direction.

Engage Sport Plus mode and the Panamera becomes laser-focused and expects the driver to do the same. The PDK’s most aggressive mapping ensures up-changes don’t happen below 6500rpm regardless of throttle pressure – embarrassing if you’re in a school zone pulling 6000rpm in first, but ideal for a back-country blast. And downchanges under brakes are so perfectly orchestrated there’s no point battling with the naff rocker switches mounted on the steering wheel spokes.

Sport Plus mode makes the Panamera feel lighter, too, as if it shed 500kg when the button was pushed. This is Mr Hyde mode, and it trades all comfort-based pretence for a show of force beyond even the Audi’s impressive reach. The Panamera becomes hyper-sensitive to inputs, ruthlessly quick to respond and incredibly nimble. It dances hypnotically through the bends, making full use of the prodigious Michelin grip at its disposal. In this hyper-reality mode the Panamera is at its most communicative, too, with superb feel through the steering wheel. With a large lump of V8 just behind the front axle, it’s no 911 in terms of steering feel; not even Porsche’s engineers are that good.

Invoke Mr Hyde mode if you will, but with absolute power comes responsibility. Anything less than full commitment and competence from the driver and the Porsche feels clumsy. Throttle response is immediate and an unsure right foot makes the Panamera leap and stumble. Show backbone and the result is intense, heightened aggression – the turbo V8 is just so strong and so encouragingly rev-happy. It feels so right and somehow so naughty, like a teenager discovering the key to dad’s booze cabinet.

The optional ceramic brakes fitted to our test car are the perfect counterbalance to the lurid ferocity of the powerplant. In concert with the enormous 20-inch Michelin Pilot Sport tyres, the brakes tear stones from hard-baked tarmac and hurl them pinging against the wheel arches. But their efficiency comes at a cost, because what they deliver in tenacity they surrender in tactility. It can be hard to judge brake pedal pressure, and softer applications can deliver frustratingly inconsistent retardation. Ceramic brakes are a strange and pricey ($20,490) option on a car that’s less likely to see track days than, say, a 911, Cayman or even a Boxster.

Ultimately, though, the Porsche and the Audi lack a supercar essential: that sound. Both are ridiculously quick and ruthlessly efficient, and both will deliver an adrenaline rush that should be illegal, or bottled. But, despite their exotic engine configurations, neither has the spirited sound of the Maserati. Imagine an AC/DC concert with the volume turned down. Sure, you’ll see the show and your neck will hurt like hell, but it’s just not the same…

Power trip over. Time to come down and decide which one delivers nirvana. The world awaits the car maker that can combine the Porsche’s mind-altering performance with the Maserati’s sound and style and the Audi’s price tag and practicality. The RS6 represents (relatively) good value. That this V10 sledgehammer hits almost as savagely as the Panamera and costs $100,000 less is significant.

But do CEOs and captains of industry strive to save a dollar, or a hundred thousand? Or do they want the best, money be damned? If so, take the Panamera, and prepare to have your mind altered permanently. But be warned, every time you hear a Quattroporte Sport GT S drive by, you’ll wonder if you made the right choice.

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