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Flexible Flyer

Porsche’s split-personality touring sedan takes San Sebastián



MY FIRST OBJECTIVE in driving a Porsche from Madrid to San Sebastián wasn’t to experience German engineering at its finest or to lay tracks at 200 mph with the wind blowing my hair straight back. It was to impress our doorman, Antonio. As we were free-spirited Americans living in the often-formal Spanish capital, our casual style and rowdy children had given Antonio doubts as to whether we belonged in his buttoned-down building. I had the idea that gliding up in a white, outrageously gorgeous Panamera, Porsche’s touring car, might change all that. In America, the Panamera would look big. In Spain, a country of pocket-sized cars, it looked like the Concorde redesigned by Gaudí.

After I pulled around the block three times, then parked, Antonio came running over, eyes wide.

“Muy bonita, Señor Talty. Es está su coche?”

“Sí, Antonio.”

First objective met. Once the car was loaded with two children and a wife, I got to judge it not as a symbol, but as an automobile. And from the first mile, it killed. Driving it actually did feel like piloting a Concorde, giving the sensation of floating through space while enclosed in rich leather and audiophile sound. Which isn’t to say it can’t still mash some pavement — just engage the sport suspension and the car seems to suction itself to the road.

As I piloted it farther north, the barren landscape around Madrid gave way to a vista of white-foamed seas on our left and dramatic rock slopes angling down on our right. The highway signs suddenly changed to Basque. Then, as we came out of a dark tunnel, San Sebastián popped glamorously into view on our left.

If you’re looking for the ideal European seaside town, San Sebastián has things that glossy Monte Carlo or even the seriously nautical Santander, down the coast, just can’t match. It has the stunning natural gem of its bay, La Concha, lined with open-air seafood restaurants and tony shops. But there’s real grit here, too: When we parked the Panamera and strolled toward the world-class aquarium, a huge fishing trawler glided up, just yards away. The ship’s crane lifted glittering trays of mackerel onto the dock, where they were quickly wheeled away. San Sebastián isn’t like some Potemkin summer village. It’s real. It works. It sweats and dances.

We reboarded the Panamera and I guided it toward the old town, Parte Vieja. Traveling over cobblestone streets that reflected a thousand years of love and war, we passed by the Gothic spire of the soaring Catedral del Buen Pastor San Sebastián and ended up at Plaza de la Constitución, the heart of the city, full of amorous locals evaluating the new crop of tourists. In past centuries this stone courtyard was a bullring; Spaniards would rent rooms in the surrounding hotels and hang over balconies to watch toreadors. And, in true Spanish fashion, criticize their work.

As the sun burned in the sky, I steered the Panamera toward the water. The beaches of San Sebastián — from the people-watching Playa de la Concha to the quieter Ondarreta — are big and broad. We chose Ondarreta for the castle-making consistency of its sand, and from our beach towels watched sailboats glint in the sparkling water. Two men in black wetsuits holding spearguns emerged, dripping, out of the bay and marched casually down the beach, joining the socialites in their Chanel bikinis. Nobody batted an eye.

Night fell, and the sunbathers streamed up the stone ramps, away from the beach, and San Sebastián slowly turned into a diamond necklace. Lights appeared all along the harbor, a loop of white sparks in the black night. We strolled the boardwalk, and did as the Spaniards do: gossiped, bar-hopped and picked freshly made tapas from their silver platters. The Panamera may be German, but it delivered us to Spain at its most Spanish: San Sebastián at dusk, swarming with those who eat life.

Before leaving Madrid for New York, STEPHAN TALTY relished his new status in the eyes of his doorman.

The bells and whistles

Starting Price: $136,700

Engine: The front-mounted 4.8-liter V-8 engine pumps out 500 horsepower and 516 foot-pounds of torque.

Performance: The Panamera features an elegantly split personality. It’s both a smooth family sedan when you want to haul everyone to the beach, and a rip-snorting German racer that’s heavier than the 911 but just as ferocious.

Perks: The seamless seven-speed PDK transmission lets you go from manual to automatic in a split second, while the walnut dashboard and creamy leather make you feel like Gatsby motoring his way out to East Egg (hastily).

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