Andrew MacLean gets behind the wheel of Porsche's earth-shattering supercar.
Slap! Crunch! Grind! That's the sound generated by a Porsche 918 Spyder.
Thankfully, it's not from the car itself – because crashing the only $1.5 million hybrid hypercar ever to land in Australia would be an absolute tragedy. And hugely humiliating.
Nope, that is the sound of my jaw dropping and scraping on the concrete as I exit the cockpit after five of the fastest, eye-opening laps I have ever driven around the challenging Phillip Island grand prix circuit.
Beyond the imaginable
Quite simply, the 918 Spyder is staggeringly quick. So quick in fact Porsche required me to warm up with five laps each in a 911 Turbo S and GT3 – the fastest of its mainstream models – before jumping behind the wheel. And when I do, it called in its most successful race driver, five-time Carrera Cup champion Craig Baird, to set the pace in one of the company's latest 911 GT3 Cup cars, a thoroughbred race machine that runs slick tyres and is faster than a V8 Supercar around the high-speed circuit.
The 918 Spyder is beyond the imaginable. But it is here today, showcasing just how far current technology can stretch the boundaries of petrol-electric propulsion and providing a sneak peek at what to expect when Porsche cascades it down the model tree to more affordable models in the future.
The car I drove is in Australia on a promotional tour that began at last month's Australian Formula One Grand Prix where Porsche's Le Mans leader, Mark Webber, cut a handful of demonstration laps before it travels around the country on a series of dealership visits. The car – S GO 9184 – is one of 30-odd pre-production units still on Porsche's official fleet, and features the optional Weissach pack that includes unpainted carbon fibre elements, Alcantara interior trim instead of leather, reduced sound insulation in the body and magnesium is used for the wheels, chassis bolts and supports to reduce weight by 41kg while additional aerodynamic add-ons generate extra downforce.
Technical tour de force
Underneath its retro-painted carbon fibre skin, the 918 Spyder is a technical tour de force. Nestled behind the two-seater cockpit is a 4.6-litre naturally aspirated V8 that, on its own, produces 447kw at a dizzying 8700rpm and 540Nm of torque at 6700rpm. The engine is directly related to that used in its RS Spyder LPM2 Le Mans-type sportscar – the predecessor to Webber's current 919 Hybrid – and features a flat plane crankshaft, titanium conrods and beltless auxiliaries. Porsche claims it has the highest specific power output and is the lightest of any road-going naturally aspirated V8.
Sandwiched between the V8 and its seven-speed dual-clutch transmission is a 115kW/375Nm electric motor while an additional 95kW/210Nm electric motor drives the front axles. All together, the 918 Spyder has a total power output of 652kW and can deliver up to 1280Nm of torque in certain gears, which is enough to propel it from 0-100km/h in a maximum (yes, you read that right … a maximum) 2.6 seconds before reaching a top speed of 345km/h.
While that legitimately puts it in the upper echelon of hypercars, the 918 Spyder is about so much more than speed. Its 6.8kW/h battery pack provides it with up to 31km of emission-free motoring and can be recharged from a mains power supply, which helps it achieve a combined average fuel consumption of just 3.0L/100km on the European test cycle.
Behind the wheel
With only a limited time behind the wheel at Phillip Island, I slip into its tightly bolstered carbon bucket seat, twist the key and flick the stubby little gear lever on the right-side of the steering wheel down to engage drive and set out from pitlane in the default E-mode – just to try it out. And it's a weird, eerie sensation as it effortlessly surges forward with the kind of acceleration you'd get from a genuine hot hatch but with a soundtrack from a science fiction movie. It's certainly nowhere near as silent as you'd expect from an electric car, with plenty of whirring and whizzing entering the cabin from the front axle, but it quickly builds up speed to beyond our legal road limits before I even enter the circuit proper.
In E-mode, the throttle has a haptic detent that ensures you stay under electric power, but you can kick through it to ignite the petrol engine for rapid overtakes. Or at least it does so until I reach its 150km/h speed limit, when it automatically switches to hybrid mode and the petrol engine seamlessly fires into life with a cacophony of noise emanating from its top-mounted exhaust pipes.
With less than half a lap completed and no time to waste as Baird picks up the pace ahead, I twirl the gorgeous anodised dial on the steering wheel through Sport to full-on Race mode and tap into the full potential of the 918's combined powertrain, which calls on maximum boost all the time, increases the angle of the rear wing by 14 degrees for optimum downforce and reduces the shift times in the gearbox to a lightning quick 50milliseconds.
I expected the 918 to be quick, but nothing could prepare me for the sensation of speed it generates when I bury the throttle into the firewall for the first time down the main straight. With the engine screaming towards its 9150rpm redline and the electric motors at full boost, it feels as though my face is being peeled backwards as it rapidly charges towards the back wing of the Carrera Cup racer halfway down the front straight. I'm not game to look at the speedo as I back off well before the braking area so as not to create a $2 million rear-ender, but, looking at video footage later, the 918 was pulling well over 280km/h and didn't feel as though it was slowing down at all.
What's as equally impressive is how easy is to drive quickly. Supercars at this level are generally intimidating beasts that are difficult to tame. But the 918 isn't like that.
The integration of the petrol and electric motors is faultless, the torque vectoring transfer of power ensures maximum traction is delivered without too much histrionics and the dual-clutch gearbox is so intuitive and quick that you don't even need to use its paddle shifters.
The steering is light, but communicative and precise while its rear-wheel steering plays an almost invisible role in aiding stability at high speeds and agility in tighter turns. Not surprisingly, it doesn't hang around in the corners either, sitting flat through the high speed bends as it is forced into the tarmac by its active aerodynamic elements, working in unison with masses of lateral grip on offer from its sticky Michelin tyres and taut suspension settings.
And it is just as impressive under brakes, using race-bred 410mm front and 360mm rear carbon composite discs with the regenerative force of the electric motors to force the wind from your lungs under full deceleration.
'Staggering on every level'
The 918 Spyder is staggering on every level and re-sets my personal benchmarks for performance. While it will, sadly, never be sold in Australia due to being made in left-hand drive only (and all 918 production cars are already accounted for anyway), this review is far from being a moot point. If the 918 is any indication of how Porsche plans to integrate hybrid propulsion into its more affordable models – including the iconic 911 eventually – then bring it on!
If anything, it showcases that not all hybrids are created equally. And are certainly no longer the exclusive domain of greenwashed hipsters and tree huggers.
Even days later my jaw is still aching. But I'm not sure if that's from the face-peeling speed it generated, the metaphoric jaw-dropping moment or the smile that still can't be extinguished. Whatever the case, there's seemingly no cure. And that's OK with me.
Porsche 918 Spyder Weissach Pack
Price: $1.5 million (estimated)
Engine: 4.6-litre V8, electric motors
Power: 652kW at 8500rpm
Torque: 1280Nm (maximum)
Transmission: 7-spd dual-clutch automatic, AWD