Will the 918 Spyder Burst the Porsche Bubble?

The 911 has always been the untouchable ultimate sports car. Has the 918 Spyder knocked the 911—and Porsche itself—off its own throne?

Tycoons like Martin Winterkorn are rarely speechless. But the chairman of Volkswagen AG, Porche’s parent company, was without words the first time he got behind the wheel of a 918 Spyder prototype.

“For 20 minutes he said nothing. He was just driving,” says Franz-Steffen Walliser, chief engineer of the $845,000 plug-in-hybrid sports car. But finally Winterkorn did speak up. “He said, ‘This will change the world.’”

The 918 Spyder is an 893-horsepower reset button, not only for Porsche but perhaps for the entire auto industry. Every car the German company makes from now on will bear its influence. It unseats the iconic 911 as the pinnacle of Porsche engineering. In fact, it obliterates it, forever relegating the 911 to the realm of quaint—if revolutionary—automotive relics.

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But curiously, the 918 Spyder is one big rolling contradiction.

It sprints from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 2.5 seconds, yet it can drive about 19 miles emissions-free using its two electric motors, one on each axle. With a price approaching $1 million, it has technology never seen before, such as the most power-dense lithium-ion battery cells of any vehicle, which can charge and discharge at record rates. (It’s nearly impossible to drain them completely when the turbocharged V-8 gasoline engine is running.)

Yet, in the interest of saving weight, the 918 Spyder lacks creature comforts like power-adjustable seats and robust sound insulation found on cars that cost one twentieth the price. That’s one reason it feels so much like a race car on the road. At low speeds, you can hear brake calipers clamping the massive rotors. On the highway, road and wind noise flood the cabin.

It’s all part of the unique experience, which starts even before the 918 Spyder turns on. The carbon-fiber bucket seats cup your whole body. They don’t tilt, so you’re forced to sit bolt upright. The steering wheel doesn’t adjust up and down, either—one of the numerous compromises made to keep total weight at just under 3,700 pounds, Walliser says.

In many ways, the 918 Spyder, of which only 918 will be built, really is a street-legal race car at its core—by turns aggressive and docile. “It’s a really wonderful car to drive slowly in rush hour traffic,” says Hurley Haywood, who has won more endurance races than any other American race car driver, mostly while behind the wheel of Porsches. “Yet when you hammer it, it just explodes into this missile of brutal force.”

But unlike the Carrera GT, it’s not scary to drive, he says. It’s a paradox: “A very refined brutal force.”

Hurley’s right. For a car putting out nearly 900 horsepower, the 918 Spyder seems almost too easy to drive. It was no problem keeping up with him as he lead a group of us journalists in 918 Spyders around Laguna Seca. Granted, he was in a Porsche 911 Turbo, which is a slower car. But still…

The car is just so intuitive. Porsche factory driver Patrick Long explains why: “There’s almost zero transition time between when I release the brake and I go to throttle. I’m not waiting for the car to stop understeering or oversteering or squealing the tires or pick up grip. It’s sort of brake, turn and go, which is very race-car-like. Nothing with a license plate that I’ve ever driven has transition times like this.”

Power delivery is also seamless, regardless of which of the four modes—electric, hybrid, sport, or race—the car is in. Making it so effortless to drive took staggering feats of engineering.

For example, just getting the electrically driven front wheels to always spin in synch with the rear wheels, which can be powered by the gas engine or its own electric motor or both, was a challenge, Walliser says. That’s because the front and rear wheels aren’t connected by a drive shaft like on virtually every other four-wheel-drive vehicle.

But none of this even enters your mind while blasting down a straightaway at full speed. “You are in a capsule, there is a sports car around you and, after some laps, you are one with the car,” Walliser says.

It boggles the mind: One moment you’re getting the wind knocked out of you after trying the launch control, which enables the fastest possible acceleration from a standstill. The next moment you’re cruising placidly in electric mode at 80 miles per on the highway.

The contradictions never seem to end in the Porsche 918 Spyder. And that’s why it’s so revolutionary.

“I feel like I’m in the future when I drive out in a supercar in electric-only mode,” Long says. “And then, of course, as soon as the engine rips to life—that’s an engine that was in one of my race cars for three years—it’s a throaty, loud, high-revving V-8. And I love that we still have that old-school original lineage in the car.”

Photos by Uli Deck / Corbis