Sensibly stupid: from Porsche 959 to 918 Spyder

16 May 2012

1987 Porsche 959 rear view

In the 1980s sports car maker Porsche produced a limited-edition £150,000 supercar called the 959. Its appearance was deceptive – it looked like an overinflated Porsche 911, but under the bulbous bodywork lurked running gear that had taken a very big stride beyond the contemporary air-cooled car.

All four wheels were driven, for example, while the body was made of aluminium and lightweight composites. The rear-mounted flat-six engine featured two sequentially-staged turbos, and new-fangled computers were put in charge of the car’s dynamics. Electronic aids intervened to optimise braking, control ride height and to send torque to the wheels with most grip.

Almost all of the above was rocket-science in 1987, when the roadgoing 959 debuted, and indeed the car went like a missile too. It was one of the first production cars to reach 60mph in under four seconds, and could almost touch 200mph – officially flat out was 197mph.

The 959 wasn’t what you might call green, though. Official consumption was 22.6mpg and while CO2 output wasn’t a concern at the time it would probably have been at least 300g/km.

What I find particularly interesting about the 959 was the pace with which its cutting-edge technology became commonplace. By 1995, a four-wheel-drive 911 Turbo would give the 959 a run for its money both in performance and cleverness, while costing substantially less in real terms at £90,000. And today, 25 years after the 959, you can find twin turbos and a host of electronic driver aids in £10,000 city cars.

2012 Porsche 918 Spyder front view

Today, Porsche is finalising a sort of 959 for the 2010s. Like its 1980s predecessor, the 918 Spyder is about as advanced a road car as the company’s engineers can contrive.

Due to go into production in the autumn next year, the 918 Spyder is a plug-in hybrid supercar. A mid-mounted 4.6-litre petrol V8 produces 570bhp, supplemented by two electric motors, one supplying 90kW (121bhp) to the front axle and another spooning out 80kW (107bhp) at the rear. The combined peak output of 770bhp is clearly more than anybody actually needs and will send the 918 to 62mph in under three seconds.

Top speed will be 201mph this time, and the 918 will even hit 93mph on electric motors alone, powered by a 6.8kWh lithium-ion battery. Don’t imagine it will go far on batteries at 90mph, mind – the battery is not much bigger than the one fitted to a Renault Twizy. Onboard reserves will be topped up by regenerative braking, and a full recharge should take less than four hours from a domestic plug.

If you’re prepared to measure electricity’s contribution in gallons, which I personally feel is a bit bizarre, the combined cycle economy should be about 94mpg and the CO2 score under 70g/km.

2012 Porsche 918 Spyder rear view

Whatever the numbers say, I admire the principles at play here. Even the most ardent turbo nutter can’t use a supercar’s potential all of the time. It makes good sense to have a car that can avoid delivering sub-20mpg consumption 95% of the time, just to have power on tap for those few moments when you might actually put your foot to the floor. A hybrid – particularly one that can drive on batteries alone – is a great way to add some common sense into the otherwise nonsensical world of 770bhp motoring.

And I’m optimistic that the technology on display in the 918 Spyder will trickle down before we know it. In the relatively near future we’ll all be buying hybrids or electric cars, I believe, and the 918 Spyder may have a small but important part to play in bringing that about.

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