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The art of understatement is evidently not lost on the good people of Porsche. Quietly under-promising and then spectacularly over-delivering is a surefire way to produce very satisfied customers. Always has been; always will be.

It has worked a charm for Stuttgart’s sports car specialist for decades and continues to with the (whisper it) incredible 918 Spyder.

The Carrera GT of 2004 is the 918's most recent ancestor

The word ‘hypercar’ doesn’t appear anywhere in the press kit for this car – not on Porsche’s website or in any of its promotional material.

Here is a car with hybrid-carbonfibre construction, a combustion engine and suspension set-up donated by a prototype racing car, and a petrol-electric ‘plug-in’ powertrain the likes of which the world has never seen.

Its ancestors are some of the greatest production and motorsport cars in history. From a conceptual point of view, the car is a descendent of the Carrera GT, the mid-engined supercar launched a decade ago. Before that, there was the street-legal version of the 911 GT1 built in tiny numbers during the 1990s.

Porsche’s use of plug-in tech in cars is much more recent. Only the Panamera E-Hybrid precedes the 918 in series production, although Porsche has spent the past few years dabbling in Williams-developed KERS systems for racing cars.

And yet, despite all of the above, we are to believe that this isn’t a rival for LaFerrari and McLaren’s P1?

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Don’t believe it. The 918’s plug-in hybrid concept may make it a different ownership proposition from its million-pound rivals but, as you’re about to read, it’ll match them and more – on speed, grip, soul and thrill – in its wilder moments. Here’s how.


Porsche 918 Spyder rear

Laying eyes on the 918’s evocative styling puts an emphatic end to any argument about the car’s intended stature. Rather than be slavishly functional, the shape of the car’s carbonfibre-reinforced plastic bodywork pays homage to just about every important racing Porsche of the past half century. The 917, 935, 906, RS Spyder – all are acknowledged in places. You don’t do justice to cars like that by setting out with qualified commitment to the performance cause.

Neither is this car the product of lesser ambition. It may weigh almost 200kg more than a McLaren P1 – 1740kg on MIRA’s scales – but its lithium-ion battery is twice the size of the P1’s (6.8kWh), its electric motors supply much more propulsive assistance, and the car has 50 per cent more overall torque.

There's no option on wheel sizes – it's 20 inches on the front and 21 inches on the rear by default

The 918’s underbody consists of a stressed monocoque tub and attached engine carrier subframe made entirely of carbonfibre-reinforced plastic. The body panels and doors are CFRP, too, the bumpers flexible polyurethane. So the car is both necessarily heavy but about as light as it could possibly be.

The suspension and engine are both adapted from what you’ll find in Porsche’s 2005 RS Spyder race car. That means a 4.6-litre V8 made of aluminium, titanium and steel is mounted midships, developing 599bhp, revving to more than 9000rpm and weighing just 135kg.

Suspension is by forged aluminium wishbones and links, with PASM adaptive dampers as standard. The electro-mechanical rear-steer system from the ‘997’ GT3 also features.

The electrified portion of the car’s propulsion system, meanwhile, consists of one permanently excited electric motor per axle, producing a maximum 282bhp and 431lb ft of torque between them. While the rear motor-generator drives through the same PDK transmission as the combustion engine, the front motor drives via a single speed and is deliberately under-geared to run out of revs and decouple at 165mph. But not before it has contributed to the crankshaft-equivalent of 944lb ft of peak torque, as well as 874bhp at 8500rpm. Top speed is 214mph. EU-tested CO2 emissions are 70g/km.

The 918, then, probably has more power than a 2015 Honda-engined F1 car, and yet it emits less CO2 than a Honda Insight economy saloon.

Also offered is the Weissach Pack. Adding 10 per cent to the price of a £780k hypercar for a weight-saving options package made up primarily of deletions from the car’s standard equipment looks, on the face of it, like profiteering. But Porsche has learned from the criticism that it received about the Cayman R and will allow you to pick and choose the bits you want to keep and to remove from your 918 if you do commit to the Weissach Pack.

And there aren’t only deletions but also glorious substitutions to consider. Ceramic wheel bearings save only 700g over steel ones but you’ll want them once you know they’re on offer. Magnesium alloy wheels are the biggest individual weight saving on the list (14.9kg). Among the smallest are carbonfibre shift paddles (200g) and leather loop interior door openers (200g).

But it’s the sense that Porsche has left no stone unturned in saving mass — 41kg in all — that really convinces. How many other supercars have a carbonfibre-reinforced plastic bonnet stay, after all? And how many other supercar makers would tell you that it’s worth 500g in place of the normal one?


Porsche 918 Spyder dashboard

The Porsche 918’s simplest distinguishing sales advantage compared with rival highest-echelon performance machines is given away by its name: Spyder. You can unclip its two CFRP roof panels easily, stow them in moments in purpose-built slots in the under-bonnet cargo compartment, and enjoy all the refreshing benefits of driving in the open air.

You expect a slightly tricky entry routine to the low seat and you get it because of the shortness of the door aperture, and the need to fold your knees up under your chin before swinging your legs in. Conventional doors make for less kerbside theatre than scissors or ‘wings’, but are a more sensible solution in day-to-day use.

This isn't the world's most wieldy car, but frontal visibility is okay and there is a reversing camera

The fascia is dripping in carbon and neatly sectioned off into two zones: a primary one for driver controls grouped around the steering wheel; and a secondary one dominated by the rising ‘black panel’ centre console reminiscent of the one from the Carrera GT. This division brings perfect clarity to the ergonomic layout, but you have to get used to it. The gear selector is not on the transmission tunnel but just behind the right-hand shift paddle. Likewise, the drive mode selector – sited on the tunnel in other Porsches – nestles on the bottom-right quadrant of the steering wheel.

The secondary systems are navigated via two colour information screens: one portrait, at the head of the centre console; and one landscape, recessed into the upper fascia above it. It’s a clever combination because the screens are flexible enough to be configurable. So you can have the sat-nav mapping up top and music tracks down below when cruising long distance, or a power flow meter and a trip computer function on display when out for a blast. Either way, you seldom need to change mode to see the information you need.

The quality and function of systems is top-notch as well. The mapping is typically detailed and clear, and the Bluetooth phone easy to pair up and clear. Despite being a Weissach Pack car, our test example had the Burmester audio, with its 600-watt output and surround-sound functionality. It sounded as potent as you’d expect. But the 599bhp V8 sounds better.

Rich, obvious material quality goes hand in hand with wonderful technical sophistication in here and the effect is more intoxicating than in a P1 or LaFerrari. The 918’s cabin, like so much else about it, appeals as much for what it is as what it does. And given what it does, that’s no mean compliment.


Porsche 918 Spyder cornering

We can afford to be forensic because performance, above anything, is at the heart of the 918. It doesn’t disappoint.

The 918’s in-gear performance is unrivalled. What’s so astonishing is not just the pace but also the flexibility afforded by its rampant electric motors’ instant torque. To accelerate from both 20mph to 40mph and 30mph to 50mph in second gear, a 918 Spyder needs 1.0sec. A P1 wants 1.3sec and 1.1sec over the same marks.

The 918 has 280lb ft more than a McLaren P1. It's 25 per cent quicker than the McLaren from 30-70mph in 4th gear

A P1 pulls out a couple of tenths here or there over each 20mph increment towards the top end of their respective rev ranges – partly because the P1 is shorter geared and partly because the 918 is heavier. But even so, the 918 is hardly outclassed: a P1 will go from 110mph to 130mph in fourth gear in 1.9sec, the 918 in 2.2sec. And whereas a P1 will then bang on its limiter before reaching 140mph, the 918 goes on to more than 160mph.

Through the gears, the two are more closely matched still. The pair record an identical standing quarter mile of 10.2sec and standing km of 18.2sec – only 0.1sec and 0.2sec respectively slower than a Bugatti Veyron Super Sport. But the Porsche’s all-wheel-drive traction allows it to match the Veyron’s 0-60mph time, which it reaches in 2.6sec.

At 535bhp per tonne, the 918 might look (relatively) limp besides a P1 (606bhp per tonne) or Super Sport (644bhp per tonne). But be in no doubt: it walks tall, even in the highest of performance leagues.

Its power delivery impresses, too. This thinly veiled RS Spyder engine has a response – and makes a noise – that’s the envy of its turbocharged rivals, and the electric motor chimes in with just the right kind of whinnies and whistles. And in EV mode only, the 918 can cover 0-60mph in 6.6sec.


Porsche 918 Spyder rear cornering

It might seem superfluous to say this but, given that the 918’s mechanical specification is so different from other models in its maker’s range, it bears spelling out: to drive, the 918 feels like a Porsche. It rides like one, steers like one and, mostly, handles like one.

The 918’s ride is more 911 GT3 than Cayman-on-tall-sidewalls, but given that it tightens the 918’s body control – and because of the weight, it needs to be well tied down – that’s a price worth paying. The adaptive dampers serve to knock the edges from the harshest surfaces.

The ESP system is very well judged. Or there's 'off', which means off

There’s relative heft to the steering – a common Porsche trait – which retains a Germanic stability and solidity around straight-ahead. A touch more weight comes in as lock builds with total consistency.

There’s less oiliness to it than a P1’s delicate rack and real weight to it nearer the limit. But at all speeds, it’s loaded with road feel, albeit marginally less satisfying, our testers thought, than the more agile, natural-feeling P1.

The 918’s tight body control, though, plus its responsive steering, make it an enjoyable road car even at sensible speeds. The engine is always engaging, the gearshifts quick. The 918 has its own variant of the Ferrari-style manettino, and the engine and gearbox increase their intent as you flick through them; but somehow it’s always preferable in manual mode.

On a circuit, meanwhile, the 918 is astonishing, displaying the same kind of all-day-long indefatigability of a 911 GT3 but at a pace beyond a lot of racing cars. There’s extraordinary traction, terrific grip and a willingness to change direction on the throttle. The brakes are sensational, too. In the dry, it stops from 70mph in just 37.8m. That’s 3.1m shorter than a P1 takes. Terrific pedal feel is offered and there's precious little dive from the body. Bleeding them off on the way towards the apex feels entirely natural and quells any initial understeer. So far, so Porsche.

What happens next isn’t like any other production Porsche although, in some ways, there’s a blend of Carrera 4 S traction, Cayman adjustability and Porsche Macan weight — all thrown in with some GT3-style motorsport feel and, at 1.21g, an astonishing grip level.

Mid-bend, where a P1 would respond to a big prod of throttle by lighting up its rear tyres and pushing sideways, the 918’s line barely tightens as the front motor does its work, and it exits the corner at an extraordinary lick. Indeed, the 918 Spyder lapped our dry circuit 1.1sec quicker than a P1.

The 918 isn’t just about raw pace, though. Apply fast steering inputs on turn-in and the rear unsticks quite readily. And even though it has four-wheel drive, there’s so much engine power that powerslides are, from then onwards, very much on the agenda.


Porsche 918 Spyder

In the P1’s review, we noted that its £866,000 sticker price and very low volume actually represented reasonable value when you factor in the car’s development cost and the sophisticated technology employed in its construction.

Porsche will build slightly more 918s (918 of them in fact) and start selling them for slightly less, at £781,155 – but we’d suggest that the same argument applies.

'Liquid-metal' nine-coat paint is a £38,400 option; a front axle lift system is also offered for £7150

If the model eventually enjoys the same high reputation and notoriously buoyant prices of its predecessor, the Carrera GT, then the outlay will be made to look like a sage investment.

Running costs, of course, are impressively core to the 918’s brief, but not in any way that would directly affect how many are sold.

We recorded 28.9mpg as an average and 44.2mpg at a constant cruise. Those numbers are freakishly good, yielding a 400-mile-plus range.

For the record, that’s another area of performance where the 918 trumps its UK rival.


5 star Porsche 918 Spyder

There was a chance that the 918 Spyder would look like a poor relation next to the McLaren P1 and LaFerrari.

With a horsepower figure that started with merely an eight and a quoted weight some 200kg heavier than a P1’s, there was a chance that the horsepower race would have left it behind.

As worthy a follow-up to the Carrera GT as the P1 is to the McLaren F1

But we should have known. This is a Porsche and Porsche is rarely caught out. Accelerating in gears, through gears, on the road and on a circuit, the 918 Spyder has nothing to fear from any other car in its class.

If we were being picky – and we can be – we’d say that most of our testers would prefer to drive a P1 hard, and the McLaren also has a slightly more purposeful interior. Does that prevent the 918 being considered a technical triumph and gaining five stars? It does not.

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Porsche 918 Spyder 2013-2015 First drives