Four-Door Freak Of Nature
The 17th hole at Harbour Town Golf Links on Hilton Head Island.
The double takes start right away as I roll to a stop at a traffic light a mile from Porsche's North American headquarters in Atlanta, on my way to Hilton Head Island for the weekend.
There's no mistaking Porsche's new Panamera from the front. The crocodile snout with the prominent oval headlamps is basically the same one that has graced tens of thousands of iconic 911 sports cars since 1963. It's the side view that causes disorientation.
The Panamera just keeps going, literally and figuratively. It's a king-size, 911-flavored, 400-horsepower sedan, with two more doors, a real back seat and an honest-to-goodness hatchback in the rear. It even has a functional spoiler bolted on the tail that extends when you're going fast enough to need it. And you will.
For the first time, Porsche has built a car that shows it cares about what happens to the people in the second row. Size-wise, the Panamera fits between a 5-series and 7-series BMW. Duck through the wide-but-low rear doors and there's Town Car-like head- and legroom, swathed in Bentley-quality leather and carpet. But, true to the marque, it's the person sitting in the front-left seat who will have the most fun.
The family-resemblance thing? It's more than just sheet metal. With some technological heavy lifting in the form of automated chassis and suspension-control systems, Porsche has hidden the Panamera's two-ton weight better than a triple-XL sweatshirt the day after Thanksgiving.
Disengage the stability control -- one of the eleventy-thousand switches on the intimidating, jetliner-style center console -- lock the brakes with your left foot, stand on the accelerator with your right, then let go with your left and the Panamera's computer brain automatically hurls 4,500 pounds of steel, titanium, plastic and human flesh through the gears to 60 miles per hour in 4.8 seconds. For $30,000 more, the Turbo version does it in 3.8 -- faster than a Lamborghini Gallardo. Porsche bundles this pink-slip protection program with an analog chronometer built into the dash and calls it Launch Control. It's one of the most pointlessly cool big-car options in automotive history.
Sports-car purists might scoff at the shape -- its dimensions have inspired plenty of love-hate talk on all the Porsche message boards -- but off the line you can embarrass virtually every other Porsche ever made. In loafers. With three passengers and two golf bags and a full complement of luggage under the remote-controlled rear hatch.
Heading toward Hilton Head in the pouring rain, the front-engine, all-wheel-drive Panamera devoured wet pavement with zero drama, unlike its more temperamental rear-engined ancestors. The cockpit is set up like a sports car, with grippy seats, a low driving position and abundant luxury touches, like separate passenger climate controls and air-conditioned seats.
Bypassing the Interstate, we angled up through college town Athens, Ga. (stopping for lunch and a microbrew at The Globe, a block from the University of Georgia campus), then cut across the state through Augusta and into South Carolina.
Hilton Head Island is in the southern corner of the state, 100 miles southwest of Charleston and across the border from Savannah, Ga. The golf boom hit here earlier than in Myrtle Beach -- Pete Dye built Harbour Town Golf Links
in the late 1960s -- and high property values protected it from some of the sprawl (and eventual contraction).
Harbour Town was first, and it's still the best for a long golf weekend. In addition to the Golf Links -- a PGA Tour stop since 1969 -- and two other courses, the Sea Pines Resort
has hotel-style rooms in the Inn at Harbour Town and a wide selection of houses and villas for rent. You can get a four-bedroom villa near the water for less than $300 a night in February or March and play three rounds in comfortable low-60s weather.
Playing a PGA Tour course isn't easy -- only about a dozen are public access, and none of them is on the schedule because of how forgiving they are for the 20-handicapper. Harbour Town is certainly hard -- it only feels like the oaks on both sides of the par-5 15th reach across the fairway and touch each other, and the 3,000-square-foot green looks like a throw rug.
Regardless of where your tee shot ends up, you'll feel like a tour player walking up 18, with Calibogue Sound on the left and the familiar candy-striped lighthouse behind the green. Getting into the luxe Panamera in the lot afterward, you'll look like one, too.
No trophy spouse required.