Porsche 918 Spyder: Putting the grrrr into Green

A morning lapping Hampton Downs’ race circuit in Porsche’s vaunted hypercar, the 918 Spyder. No pressure – it’s just another $1.4 million car, right?


LAP one was electrifying – literally – and every other one that followed was even moreso because, even when this car is taken to just maybe half of its performance potential, it’s laying in an unbelievable amount of wallop.

Wilkommen to the Porsche 918 Spyder, a two-seater high-tech road-tuned racer that sits in a very select spot within the supercar sector, with the McLaren P1 and Ferrari’s LaFerrari, because all three are built around carbon tubs and augment their traditional supercar powertrains with hybrid power.

Actually, supercar is not the true descriptive: Cars of this ilk have coined a new word. This is a ‘hypercar,’ a vehicle so fast, so exotic, so pure, so advanced it changes every perception.

The electric drive aspect is the big change. A necessity to meet increasingly relevant Green-sensitivities.

But even though this car’s ability to creep around silently entirely on electric power alone – yeah, like a BMW i3 and Mitsubishi Outlander – for up 40 kilometres makes it eligible for access into inner-city Green zones that exclude petrol cars, it’s still a Porsche.

That means it is all about kapow: That’s why it’s been engineered to run at 150kmh – way faster than any other range extender – when drawing off that battery bank.

Add in the impetus from the V8 petrol engine and the optimum speed doubles – and then some. But, again, it’s a Porsche. Fast is mandated even for a car that can out-eco a Prius.

The whole package is built to go fast. Drawing technically if not stylistically from the 919 World Endurance Championship racer - as driven by Kiwis Brendon Hartley and Earl Bamber to, respectively, a WEC title and Le Mans win in 2015 – Stuttgart’s menacing missile runs a 453kW 4.6-litre V8 petrol derived from the mill in Porsche RS Spyder racer, revving to 9150rpm and running through a seven-speed automated manual.

This alone would provide quite a thrill, but the urgency is enhanced significantly by it being in marriage to a pair of electric motors, one per axle – for the 918 is four-wheel-drive – that produce a combined 210kW.

The resultant overall output of 661kW and 1280Nm has massive effect on a car that, while roughly taking up about the same road space as a Ford Mondeo weighs, as result of a severe kilo-saving regime sacrificed tilt adjustment for the steering column (because the 600g it would have added was determined to be unjustifiable), a touch less than a Fiesta.

Such power, such a light weight adds up to something quite astounding: Porsche quotes a top speed of around 340kmh and says it will take care of 0-100kmh in 2.6 seconds, 0-200kmh in 7.2s and 0-300kmh in 19.9s. Go deeper than half throttle – ensuring first the car is tracking straight – and the thrust is truly wild. Having ridden backseat in a jet trainer and driven some quick race cars I imagined I knew what to expect … but, no, as it happens, I wasn’t.

How much? The retail price of $1.4 million, $200,000 less than that for a P1 and around $1m short of the ask for a LaFerrari,  is more than 50 percent greater than the asking sticker on any Porsche sold by the New Zealand distributor, but inconsequential because it has proved to be an appreciating asset, one trading hands recently for over $2 million.

That’s impressive because, again, while this model was built in a limited run of – yes, you guessed it, 918 units – that count was three times that for the McLaren or Ferrari.

All were left-hand-drive, all have found homes and all but one ended up in all the places around the world you would expect to find a hypercar. The exception is, of course, the one here; the owner is a New Zealand national and car nut who prefers not to be identified.

What to do with a 918? It’s a challenge, no question. Porsche didn’t mess about; the first act of aggression with this technology showpiece was to advertise its potential by promptly using one to reset the Nurburgring Nordschliefe production car lap record at 6m 57s.

That perhaps takes pressure off owners to act overtly, which might be a blessing: This car is a huge handful.

Doubtless some cars have been tucked away in air conditioned cocoons, but apparently it’s not uncommon to see them being driven on the road – including in big cities, because it has an eco-friendly electric only operation, and on race tracks, though not in competition – the car is not homologated for that.

Waikato’s Hampton Downs is especially familiar to the NZ example; it was there a couple of weeks ago for the Porsche festival and I thought that was as close as I would get to it. Being invited to experience that explosiveness from behind the wheel was one of those ‘pinch me, I’m dreaming’ moments.

The reality that any owner would even allow anyone else to sit behind the wheel, let alone to drive the thing around a circuit at significant speed, really didn’t impact until after those six laps were over.

Yes, there were rules that had to be obeyed – like keep out of the Race and ultra-performance, driver-talent-reliant ‘Hot Lap’ mode, and no removing the roof panels (yes, it’s a convertible) which would make the car less snug - and high-performance driving instructor and former Porsche racer Tim Martin sat alongside as a minder to keep us focused, but … gee … you have to admire the owner’s pluck and extreme generosity.

With cars such as this, every component is pretty much made out of eye-wateringly expensive unobtainium, and though it seemed the exercise was covered by insurance ... well, if the table were turned and I was the owner, I don't think I'd have the guts to undertake this. 

You’re not going to get a lap-by-lap descriptive – that’s what the accompanying video is for. What I can say is that all that tech is overwhelming but, even so, it doesn’t make it any less enthralling to drive? If you required a one-word encapsulation it would be … well, ‘wow’ works.

Overseas comment about the 918 Spyder being brilliant at matching whatever environment it is in is wholly true. Starting out from the pits in full EV mode reminded how cool, quiet and electric it is in cities; switching to the initial Hybrid setting and bringing the engine (and front electric motor) to life changed made it feel more alert, for sure, but also smooth ands manageable. Sport, which engages the rear electric motor and brings in a lot more of the V8’s savagery, is so phenomenally, thrustingly intoxicating you wonder how much wilder Race and Hot Lap would be. 

And it feels just as you’d imagine a hypercar would. The cabin is not easy to slip into when you are long of leg and – er – stout of waist and one-piece moulded seats are rather firm and upright, but despite the high-end elements – like an entire centre console that’s a single curved piece of glass, made by the same people who do Samsung’s phones – it feels utterly Porsche pure and very seriously racy. Not a car that’d you use for a supermarket excursion, though, and – from my experience – not one that you’d always want to drive in everyday traffic, because it’s so enclosed.

Everything is very direct and highly communicative, not least the steering which, while electric, seems to be direct-connected to your cerebral cortex. The ride quality is firm even on a smooth track, the carbon ceramic brakes, despite some lack of feel due to the brake regeneration effect, are massively effective. The handling balance, aided by four-wheel steering that mimics the stability of a longer wheelbase, is uncannily natural. The grip and traction are such that, even when taking corners at what felt like twice the speed I’ve ever achieved in other road cars around here, I was still be urged to go faster by Tim.

The punch is incredible. When it works in isolation, you can really feel the front electric motor pulling when accelerating, even in a high gear. With those twin exhaust pipes exiting above your head the V8 makes a huge sound and it’s the right kind of noise. Going between the drive modes requires nothing more than turning a tiny rotary controller on the right side of the steering wheel. Race mode is as easy to reach as the softer settings; the red button in the dial’s centre is full Armageddon. Call me a coward, but I wasn’t tempted: the car felt feral enough in Sport.

All this and it also emits 72 grams per kilometre. Amazing.

So how good is the 918 Spyder? Put it this way: Immediately after I drove it, I did some laps in a Cayman GT4, the ultimate, track-focused Cayman and a hugely desirable car. After the 918, it almost seemed as tame as my mum’s old Corolla … well, for the first lap anyway. After that, its true thoroughbred form came through.