For all the intense promise and awesome potential of the upcoming Porsche 918 Spyder, the very first running prototype looks a mess as it hoves silently into sight across the Nardo test track in southern Italy.
The squat two-seater, with two extravagant top-exiting tailpipes pointing skywards out of the engine bay at the rear, could be mistaken for a home-built project rather than a multi-million-pound precursor to what’s likely to be the world’s most advanced supercar.
This is the only 918 Spyder prototype in existence, clothed in a mix of modified 911 panels and, it seems, anything else laying around the workshop floor. It’s a rolling chassis to test the petrol-electric hybrid drive components to see if they operate reliably in the tight confines of the new car.
Once Porsche is satisfied the engine, motors, battery and other electronic units achieve reliability standards, it will begin to construct more production-ready prototypes. Most are earmarked for durability testing, but some will end their lives against an offset barrier as part of crash testing.
The initial impression of the 918 Spyder is its ultra-low height. It looks tiny, but it quickly becomes clear it follows the trend of other recent wide, high-end supercars. At 4643mm long, 1940mm wide and just 1167mm high, the 918 Spyder is 30mm longer, 19mm wider and the same height as the Porsche Carrera GT. It rides on the same 2730mm wheelbase but, even at this early stage, it is clear the production car will have a four-square stance.
Inside the two-seat cabin, wiring runs everywhere and getting in isn’t easy. There’s a wide carbonfibre sill, wires and other electric devices littering the cabin. The 911 GT3 seat and six-point harness, is positioned just 270mm above the ground – the same as for the production car. It is lower than the Carrera GT, which boasted one of the lowest seats in the business.
Once settled, I can take in the low dashboard, 911 steering wheel, Boxster instrument binnacle, wide centre console, stubby gearlever, extreme windscreen and limited rearward vision. The cabin is pretty improvised at this stage and created to ensure the prototype is driveable. This prototype has a fixed roof, but production models will have a removable roof panel.
My chauffeur, Porsche development engineer Holger Bartels applies his right foot heavily.
First sensation? Torque, and lots of it. It weighs nearly 1700kg – 400kg more than the car it replaces – but the 918 bolts out of the blocks with all the abandon of the Carrera GT, if not quite the same aural intensity.
Le Mans-derived V8
The mid-mounted 4.6-litre V8 – related to the 3.4-litre unit from Porsche’s LMP2 racer – and two electric motors serve up 762bhp and 552lb ft in total. The 918 Spyder is the most powerful road-going car Porsche ever. The reserves are channelled through a combination of direct drive (on the front axle) and seven-speed, dual-clutch gearbox (on the rear axle) to either the rear wheels or all four wheels together.
According to Porsche’s simulations, the 918 Spyder will cover 0-62mph in 2.8sec, 0-124mph in 8.9sec and 0-186mph in 26.7sec. Porsche claims it will return 94mpg on the current European cycle – in pure electric mode.
The car pulls away silently. As speed builds, the two electric motors whirr and there’s a ping of stones flicked into the carbonfibre wheel houses. Traction feels incredible from a standing start, but it is the relentless acceleration that grabs my attention.
Before the end of the straight, the 918 Spyder’s naturally aspirated engine kicks into life with a suppressed roar. Those signature pipes, which will be shorter and more styled on the production car, exit behind the rollover hoops less than an arm’s length away.