It's a heavy, targa-topped plug-in hybrid. And that's just the way it should be.
Hop onto any car forum these days that deals with Porsches—or, if you prefer the Luddite approach, walk in on a conversation at a Cars & Coffee—and odds are good that, before too long, you’ll hear somebody complaining about the new Porsche 918 Spyder. “They should just junk all that hybrid gear,” these armchair engineers and Monday morning marketing planners say. “It’d be such a better car if they cut out the weight of the batteries and strapped some turbos onto the engine instead.” Or they’ll act like they’re the 918 Spyder’s psychiatrist. “If they could just stick in a manual transmission, crank up the output of the engine, and leave out the gas-saving bits, then they’d really get to the soul of the car.” Or, best of all, they’ll act like they know better than Porsche. “Porsche made a huge mistake making this car a hybrid, they made a huge mistake making it a targa, and they made a huge mistake revealing the car so early. They’ll never sell 918 examples. It’s a huge flop, and they don’t even know it.” Well, personally, I'm starting to get a little irritated with all these folks bitching about the 918 Spyder—and the perceived flaws of a car nobody has even driven yet in final form. I know, I know, everybody's entitled to his or her opinion...but so am I. And unlike most people on the Internet, I’m paid to express my opinion every now and again. All those folks complaining about the 918 Spyder’s apparent flaws—the plug-in hybrid powertrain, the trick rear-wheel steering, the PDK transmission—are missing the point of the car. The 918 Spyder is a supercar, not a street-legal race car. Supercars aren't necessarily about the rawest possible driving experience—they're about being loud (visually and sonically), fast, and outrageous. And they're also a chance for car companies to show off the technologies they plan on using in the future.
Porsche is basically using the 918 Spyder as a development program for the technologies of tomorrow's "ordinary" Porsches. Yes, it's silly to demand that a limited run of less than 1,000 supercars conform to emissions standards when Ford sells 650,000 F-Series pickups every year in the U.S. alone. But Porsche isn't developing performance hybrid technology just for the 918 918 Spyder owners; it's for the hundreds of thousands of people who will buy Panameras and Cayennes and 911s and Caymans and Boxsters in the next decade. And on that scale, saving fuel and cutting down on emissions starts to make sense. Supercars aren't just sports cars for the super-rich. They're proving grounds for the sports cars of tomorrow for everyone else, too. Just ask the 959. This isn't to say I'm one of those people who thinks people who want a "raw driving experience" are Luddites who need to join the modern day, mind you. I'm still pissed that Porsche isn't offering a stick shift on the new GT3 and Turbo. Two of my favorite cars are the new Shelby GT500 and the Scion FR-S, specifically because they're so raw, direct and uncultured. I love a pure sports car that minimizes the distance between vehicle and driver. But that's not what an $845,000 Porsche should be. That's what the GT2 and GT3 and Cayman R should be, but not the 918 Spyder. It should be what it is—a technological wünderwagen that advances the state of automotive performance by any and every means available. That includes lightweight construction, advanced materials, clever packaging, active aerodynamics—and yes, even batteries and electric motors.
Because there are some distinct performance benefits to electric motors. They fill in the lower end of a high-revving engine's torque curve astoundingly well—which is what LaFerrari and the P1 use them for, too. They provide instant supplementary power without the lag of a turbocharger or the energy drain of a supercharger. They can be recharged by the act of driving itself, unlike nitrous oxide, and can save wear and tear on the brakes by absorbing and reusing some of that stopping energy. Porsche has built a car that weighs 3,700 pounds, yet can still lap the Nordschleife in about seven minutes flat, if Walter Röhrl is to be believed. That's astounding. They've made a single car that can drive 15 miles without using a drop of gasoline and blast from 0-60 in 2.8 seconds on the way to a 211 mph top speed. If Porsche stripped all the electric bits out of it, yes, it'd be a few hundred pounds lighter and a couple hundred grand cheaper—but it probably wouldn't be anywhere nearly as quick as it is. At which point, we'd be asking, "Why pay $500,000 for this car when a new 911 GT3 is just as fast and just as fun for a quarter of the price?" Cutting it down to the proverbial wheel, motor and stick shift would produce a car that wasn't nearly as fast nor as flexible as the 918 Spyder (or P1 or LaFerrari). It wouldn't lap the 'Ring in seven minutes with Jesus behind the wheel, let alone Walter Röhrl. It would be a more involving, more direct driving experience, true. And I'd love to drive the piss out of that car. Until I stacked it into an oak tree. Because that car would be a nightmare to control, unless you were a professional racing driver. And even Zebby Vettel wouldn't be able to go as fast on a regular road in that hypothetical Porsche as he would in a 918.
Besides, most supercar owners will never come close pushing the car as hard as a racing driver, or even some true blue hoon like you or me. Because most supercar buyers are not like us. They do not want the rawest, rarest, most untamed driving experience. They will never push their cars to 10/10ths in the turns, never take them on track, never intentionally balance on the knife's edge between controlled oversteer and uncontrolled ohcrapisteer. They want a car that accelerates like a bat out of hell, draws attention like a Jessica Alba nip-slip, can take a corner really hard that one time every few months when they're showing off for their friends, and can win every bench-race a jag at the hotel bar can throw at it. And yes, there are a lot of supercar buyers out there who don't care how much gasoline their cars burn. But there are also a lot of supercar buyers who are very public people with very public perceptions they want to maintain and egos that require adulation (or self-esteem issues that mean they react poorly to disapproval), for whom the idea of a plug-in hybrid supercar that looks amazing, is incredibly fast and gets 50-90 mpg while cruising through Beverly Hills is a very appealing car indeed. Porsche is not staffed by idiots. We wouldn’t trust them if they were. They made a GT3 RS, they made a GT3 RS 4.0, and then they turned out a 991-series GT3 without a stick shift. They clearly didn't do this in a vacuum. They talked with their engineers and conducted interviews with buyers and thought long and hard about it. And they went with a choice that made the car both faster, more efficient and easier to use, even knowing that it would piss people off. And that was just with a 911 variant that’s pretty cheap to build once you’ve got the 911 assembly line turning. Imagine the time, energy and deep thought they put into making a run of 918 unique cars that cost $845,000 a pop. The 918 Spyder is what it's supposed to be: a supercar. Supercars aren't supposed to be entirely logical. They're supposed to be wild, expensive, fast as hell...and futuristic. It should be packed with every high-tech go-fast weapon a car maker can legally and financially cram under its shapely skin. And that's just what Porsche has done with the 918 Spyder. So instead of griping and groaning about how you wish it was a million-dollar Cayman with a 700 horsepower V8 or the second coming of the 911 GT3 RS 4.0—stop, take a breath, and appreciate the electromechanical magic, the uncompromising pursuit of performance, the melding of environmental responsibility and earth-shattering power that is the Porsche 918 Spyder. Then shut up.