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Porsche’s Entry in the Science Fair
Most auto engineers spend their lives on short leashes, constantly straining against the limitations of cost and market acceptance and whispering questions that begin with, “What if...?”

As in, what if Porsche, a German brand with a 75-year pedigree of building winning racers and delightful sports cars, threw into a single vehicle everything it knows about advanced materials, hybrid-electric powertrains, sophisticated electronics and the shaping of car bodies both to appease the wind and to get wealthy buyers to drop to their knees.

The forthcoming Porsche 918 Spyder, an $846,000 gasoline-electric hybrid supercar with all-wheel drive and 4-wheel steering, scheduled to arrive at dealers next year, is what can happen when management lets its white-coated geniuses run loose. Production is to begin on Sept. 18 — as in 9/18 — and a total of 918 are to be built.

The rakish two-seater is both a technical reach and a business risk for Porsche. Though the Toyota Prius and others have proved the quotidian reliability of hybrids, no automaker has yet put such a powerful hybrid on the road. The 918’s 4.6-liter gasoline V-8 has a redline of 9,000 r.p.m. and pairs with two electric motors, one driving the front axle and one between the midmounted engine and its 7-speed automated gearbox.

The combined horsepower is 887, which should propel the car to 60 m.p.h. in about 2.6 seconds and take it to a top speed of 211 m.p.h.

The mostly carbon-fiber 918 will travel up to 18 miles on electric power, at speeds up to 93 m.p.h., Porsche says. On European fuel economy tests, the car has achieved 71 m.p.g. while running in its most efficient mode.

Even among the many stupendous rewards that signal their owners’ financial success, the 918 will be a standout.

Though Porsche’s self-imposed technical challenges were formidable, the company had no other choice if the 918 is to have a hope of success. The market for cars over $250,000 is extremely small, and it’s increasingly hard to bedazzle the few highly jaded buyers at the high end. With up to 1,200 horsepower, the Bugatti Veyron 16.4, priced around $2 million, has already established the likely upper power limit for street-legal cars.

So instead of brute force, Porsche, as well as rivals like Mclaren with its planned P1, Ferrari with its limited-edition LaFerrari and even Honda with its forthcoming Acura NSX, have turned to lightweight construction and hybrid technology.

The reasons to go hybrid now include social acceptance in Europe, where reducing carbon emissions is a priority, and the expectation that more localities will join cities like London, Berlin and Stockholm in having zones open only to low- or zero-emissions vehicles. A 918 running in electric mode would qualify.

Also, new rules for Formula One racing, which mandate smaller hybrid engines in 2014, will help to link the technology with a sporting image.

The 918’s hybrid hardware also lets engineers better control power distribution to the wheels to aid handling. In the 918, which has about 50 microprocessors onboard, the front-axle motor can vary its torque side to side, which along with the 4-wheel steering helps aim the car at corners and makes it more stable under braking and acceleration.

But Porsche’s success with the 918 is hardly guaranteed. While the costs of developing such tech flagships are high, the sales can be fleeting. Porsche’s last foray into the market’s upper stratosphere was the $448,000 Carrera GT, a 605-horsepower roadster with a V-10 engine. That car was canceled in 2007 after 1,270 were built — well short of the sales goal of 1,500.

Porsche is a known risk-taker, having twice gambled its reputation on unexpected products, first with the Cayenne S.U.V. and then with the Panamera sedan. Both have paid off richly. The Cayenne quickly became Porsche’s best-selling vehicle worldwide, and it positioned the brand for growth in Asia. The Panamera has also exceeded sales expectations, helping Porsche to its best sales year ever in 2012.

Still, an $846,000 toy from a brand that is considered only near-exotic may prove a stretch. When the required $250,000 deposits came in at a slower pace than expected, Porsche began inundating the media with teaser photos and “preview ride” opportunities for journalists. The company says it now has more than 400 deposits.

What if the 918 never makes its sales target? With the car still almost a year away, Porsche isn’t ready to ponder that possibility.
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