Early March. Cape Town. The tactile qualities of the push button on the center console don’t seem quite right. And the transition between second and third gear is clearly still too stiff. The
Franschhoek. A delightful wine-producing region not far from Cape Town, at the foot of the Drakenstein Mountains. Driving up the winding road to the pass, the Panamera accelerates out of a curve to the orchestral acoustics of its new V8 bi-turbo engine. Four thousand cc of displacement generate not only a sound befitting its commanding presence, but also a boundless desire to perform. The lightly camouflaged black car maneuvers effortlessly through the slalom of curves toward the peak, powering at more than 4,000 rpm without a pause for breath. Then the driver pulls a fast one; to be precise, he slams on the ultramodern ceramic brakes. Just seconds later, we hear the relaxed bass tones of the eight-cylinder engine in repose—the very picture of calm. Test passed.
Dr. Gernot Döllner, the director of the
Hermanus. This coastal town in the province of Western Cape is one of the best places in South Africa for winter whale-watching. While the first vacationers head out for a cliff walk, the
At the stop in Hermanus, the cars are fueled and the next part of the route is discussed in painstaking detail. Test director Christian Kunkel ensures that the radio system is in flawless order and that the measuring gauges and data logs in the trunks are all ready for action. Then the engines start up again. For the past two weeks, every day has followed the same routine. Today’s agenda calls for 600 kilometers on country roads. South African roads can have extremely different conditions in quick succession. Rough asphalt with frequent, sudden drops due to washouts. Curves with tight radiuses. Climatic conditions spanning the Atlantic and Indian oceans.
Mountain passes at altitudes of over 3,000 meters, rock-hard gravel roads through blazing stretches of desert—all with the ever-present hazard of roaming animals. For the engineers, South Africa poses challenges that can be simulated on test benches in Weissach but ultimately only mastered with complete certainty in practice. “Driving is the only way to determine that all of the components work together perfectly,” says Dr. Oliver Seifert, distilling the comprehensive task of the South African crew into a single sentence. Seifert is responsible for the complex development field of electrical and electronic engineering. This area is subject to ever-shorter development cycles—and a rapidly expanding range of applications. The new adaptive cruise control (ACC) system alone communicates with thirteen control units. In terms of materials, the
The exterior dimensions of the sports sedan have hardly changed from those of its predecessor, but the new car body seems lower, thanks to artful work by the design department. The upper edge of the windshield takes about 10 millimeters off the top, whereas the flyline extends more than 20 millimeters deeper at the rear. The C pillars also extend farther toward the back. This coupe-like impression gives the new
The Little Karoo, a semi-desert plateau and one of the most scenic destinations in South Africa. The
While Döllner is still extolling the precision of the new electric steering system, Kunkel comes on the radio: “Driver swap! Ten-minute break for an update.” The engineers pull into a parking bay and spread black neoprene covers over the dashboards, consoles, and door panels. The new interior is still top secret and has to be protected from the potential gaze of paparazzi. Kunkel takes Döllner aside to discuss a hitch in the electrical steering system noted a few minutes earlier: a drop in support when the engine is idling after having been warmed up. Seifert adds his expertise to the exchange and suggests that the cause lies in different software updates for the relevant components. After another quick software update, the problem is gone. Kunkel gives the order to start up again. The afternoon break is coming up, but not for another 240 kilometers.
Following its run through the mountains, the
In fact, when the driver steps off the gas, the engine starts idling. The
Afternoon break. The crew uses their rest to discuss the results. Are they satisfied thus far? Everyone smiles. The benefits of a two-week series of test-drives can hardly be exaggerated—it’s invaluable to be out on the road with so many expert colleagues at once. The shared driving experience is extremely productive in everyone’s eyes. While components can be developed in isolation, their interplay is perfected in just such situations. Many things can be accomplished more quickly out here. Sometimes the change in surroundings can help in addressing questions and analyzing problems with an open mind. “To find the truth, hit the road” is a simple but accurate saying among developers. More complex issues are delegated to the developers in Weissach to work on during the night, and their recommendations often arrive by the next day. The engineers speak from the heart when they note that “proposals on paper back at the office will produce more disagreements than the unambiguous results of a test-drive.”
The report from Weissach says that work is already underway on producing a more pleasant tactile response from the switch on the center console, which the boss had criticized that morning. Here in South Africa, the engineers continue to drive their fleet along dusty roads littered with rocks. Enormous potholes plague the pneumatic suspensions and low-profile tires. Sharp impacts resound again and again on the underbody. No one casts a glance at the rugged landscape; all eyes are focused on the road ahead. The denser the dust, the rarer the communication among the test cars. When the road becomes paved again, a short break is taken to remove the dust from the inner wheel rims and brake discs. Kunkel hands out bottles of water. Someone brushes the dust from his clothes. “Hardly any of our customers will be driving on roads like this,” says Kunkel. “Still, the roads are good for sounding out any potential weaknesses in the materials.”
Riversdale, a small town in the farming region between Cape Town and George. The convoy is now heading for its quarters, anticipation seeming to heighten the pace. Official authorization has been secured for the test cars to drive at speeds above the legal limit. The authorization allows higher speeds for test purposes, but requires responsible behavior. Only about 250 kilometers separate the drivers from the very appealing prospect of a shower. It is nearly nine in the evening when the dirt-covered fleet of
The long day has come to an end after a dusty tour that required every driver to drink at least four liters of water. But Döllner will still go through the reports from his crew once more in peace and retrace the tour in his mind—constantly in search of the last little detail that might not be quite right.
By Jürgen Zöllter
Photos by Tim Adler