Driving through the hills above Malibu in an electric Porsche prototype
I’m liquidly gliding through the winding corners in the hills above Malibu. To my right is Stefan Weckbach, Porsche’s EV mastermind behind the Mission E Cross Turismo I’m driving—which happens to be the exact same development mule that made its debut on the show stand in Geneva. We’re doing about 45 mph, sandwiched by an escort of light-bar cop cars to shield us from the churning 5 p.m. Friday traffic. Our windows are down because the Mission E’s huge glass canopy has no UV protection—and, well, there’s no AC, either. But at the moment, I’m oblivious because Weckbach is explaining something about the all-electric Mission E that absolutely fascinates me.
He’s talking about its sound. No, not the noise this car is making right now—which is the usual thin soar of high-pitched tones when my right ankle extends and the car surges toward that black-and-white’s back bumper in front of me. Rather, it’s something that’ll be entirely original once the Mission E reaches production.
But first, let’s climb down one branch of this car’s family tree and get a clearer perspective on the Mission E’s brief lineage (it’s a placeholder name, by the way). We originally encountered its reptilian menace at the 2015 Frankfurt show. That one was a squat four-door coupe with impractical suicide doors and whopping rear haunches; its raised, rounded-rectangle headlight nacelles were composed of a quartet of slitlike beams at its corners, these framed by vertically stretched bracket symbols that drop below the bumper to define twin cooling intakes. Adequate cooling is a big deal for Weckbach. When we lapped Laguna Seca in that electric sedan from Brand T, it depowered before the checkered flag in fear of rising drivetrain temps. The Mission E’s cooling is being scaled to allow a full-power Nürburgring Nordschliefe lap. When I asked Weckbach to describe it, he just replied, “It’s very complicated,” and smiled.
The new J1 chassis holds a few particles of Panamera DNA but is genetically engineered to carry a 90-kW-hr battery in a Tesla-like slab under the floor. At either end of it are front and rear motors that combine for about 600 hp capable of spitting the car to 100 kph in under 3.5 seconds (I’m guessing 3.2 to 60 mph, as Porsche’s performance stats are crazy conservative). Weckbach assures me that the rear motor will have the louder voice in the relationship, lending it a decidedly rear-drive personality.
In reality, though, this particular Cross Turismo is actually a sort of mechanical and electrical approximation. The combined power here is less than 600 hp, its battery pack isn’t correct, the whole car’s a couple hundred pounds overweight, and the frunk for carrying cargo up front is temporarily filled with prototype electronics. The car we’re in is a four-seater, but the production model should also see five-seat variants. The first time I shut the door, a Porsche handler winced and asked that I please close it more gently (a power door closure sucks it in the final few millimeters). This is a brittle test mule. Nonetheless, it’s packed with promising clues. Its lateral torque vectoring, Model S–like center of gravity, and 911-ish four-wheel steering give it a responsiveness to steering inputs that’s more like a giant shifter kart than a chunky-tire all-terrainer; despite the extra pounds and missing horsepower, my moments of acceleration are smile-stretching previews of coming rail-gun attractions.
The Cross Turismo has been brought here to Malibu—rather than us to Zuffenhausen (a lot easier logistics)—to act as a giant thermometer: take the temperature of consumers (and the press) in the land of Teslas valeted at every steakhouse and sushi place. Should they greenlight this mild crossover?
Ah, what’s there to debate? The Mission E’s platform was expected to spawn multiple EV variants, and what’s a more obvious one than a sort of sporty/lifestyle crossover?
At the moment, there’s an open garage door for this car in the premium EV neighborhood. (It’s expected to be priced in Panamera territory.) It’s shorter, about 6 inches longer, and 30 percent more powerful than the Jaguar I-Pace. The Model X may be Tesla’s crossover, but the Cross Turismo is really more like a half-foot-shorter, butched-up, dual-motor Model S with husky all-terrain tires to slightly elevate its stance; there’s off-roady black eyelids over the wheel arches and a (presumably) optional roof rack and bike carrier on the back. Compared to the four-door coupe, the Cross Turismo’s extended roofline—à la the Panamera Turismo—expands interior space a bit. And a sweet idea that you don’t see often enough in lower-stance EVs is a battery cutout for rear foot room—what Weckbach calls the “foot garage.” It sacrifices a few kW-hrs but lowers the rear passengers’ knee height while raising their happiness, plenty.
One of Tesla’s strongest cards has always been its Supercharger system; for several years, it has been the world’s only credible mass-scale, truly fast-charging network. By the end of next year, though, Porsche thinks it’ll have a trump card: a constellation of more than 650 U.S. sites, some with up to 150-kW rates, all courtesy of Electrify America—and really Volkswagen, who reluctantly financed this almost public-works-scale project as part of their Dieselgate settlement. More threatening to Tesla, more than 300 of these will be intercity stations capable of supporting—get this—“Turbo Charging” (take that, mere Superchargers). Many of these, prepared for 800 volts and 350 kW, will be intense enough to replenish 250 miles (402 km) of the Mission E’s 300-plus miles (483-plus km) of range in 15 minutes. (Superchargers are now 120 kW.) Finishing off its check-every-box approach to charging, Porsche intends to let you individualize your home charging rate between 11 and 22 kW and eventually offer non-contact induction charging for, well, I guess, lazy people, too. Oddly enough, the word “Turbo” is being considered to also specify its alpha version of the Mission E (trading on its implication of peak performance trim, not the pinwheel thing that makes more horsepower).
But—oh—I forgot about my conversation with Weckbach about the Mission E’s sound.
I compliment him on how deftly the Mission E’s dash teleports the early 911’s iconic wraparound, five-gauge instrument cluster into a hi-res-screen-everywhere-you-look tomorrow. But how can a Porsche be exciting and nearly silent at the same time?
Weckbach answers that there’ll be a button. Press it, and microphones on the drivetrain will modify and amplify the actual drivetrain sound. I tell him of an early interaction I had with Tesla about the Model S’ absence of a noise-masking combustion engine. On a fanciful whim, I emailed their PR person, “In its place, how about a mild, artificial soundtrack that subtly calms or focuses your mood?” I got back a reply: “Elon doesn’t like your idea. He says Teslas should be completely silent.” Henry Ford didn’t like my suggestion of blue Model Ts, either. Weckbach laughs.
Then he stresses that this won’t be a prerecord sound or the digital rumble of a fake gas engine. Instead, it’ll be an enhanced sound, more authentic than the pops and snarls sometimes electronically overlaid on an ICE.
Sounds good to me.