Payne, Q&Auto: ‘Good ol’ days right now for Porsche’

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

“It’s the good ol’ days right now for Porsche enthusiasts,” says Joe Lawrence from the Detroit auto show floor, reflecting on Porsche’s record 51,756 in US sales in 201

5. “The Macan significantly expanded the model range and yet it was an amazing year for the sports car because we had the GT3 RS and the GT4 and the Boxster Spyder. And to top it off, we won LeMans.”

Lawrence should know. He’s living the enthusiast’s dream.

He grew up in his father’s Gemini Blue 1973 Porsche 911T. Car magazines were his bible. He drives his own kids to hockey games in a Porsche 911, and ... oh yeah, he’s chief operating officer for Porsche North America.

Lawrence, 47, knows what all we Porsche fanatics should know: That the brand’s explosive sales growth (from 15,000 units just a decade ago) is being fueled by SUVs with the resulting revenue tsunami getting plowed back into what made the brand famous: racing. It’s a neat loop, but it also comes with a more complicated customer demographic as well as more exposure to green government regulations that are forcing automakers – even Porsche – to downsize engines. This year the Boxster and Cayman will add – hold on to your seat – four-bangers to their engine lineup.

Can Porsche maintain its momentum? I sat down with the Texas native in Cobo to talk turbos, geeks and California.

Q. How long have you had the car disease?

A. Oh, my god. From an early age. I had every issue of every U.S. car magazine – plus I was a British car mag enthusiast. I had boxes in my basement. My wife finally said: “When are you getting rid of all this?” I was really a German enthusiast – Porsches, BMWs, Mercedes. To prove my car geekdom: In my wallet in high school – instead of a girlfriend – I had a picture of a diamond-blue Porsche 944 Turbo.

Q. What do you drive now?

A. I’ve got a beautiful 2016 GTS 911. Stick shift. Ducktail. And what I have rediscovered living in Atlanta ( Porsche’s U.S .headquarters) is driving for fun again because there are amazing, twisty roads.

Q. Now that the base 911 is turbocharged, what distinguishes the new Turbo/Turbo S shown at the Detroit show?

A. We’ve already dealt with that issue in other models ranges – for instance, the Cayenne S. The Turbo has always been – not just a turbocharged 911 – but also the top of the range. We think they live in harmony (with the) 911 Carrera and Carrera S powered by 3.0-liter twin-turbos. You have the 3.8-liter twin-turbo – much larger engine, variable turbine technology, lots of different specifications and features – that make it the top-of-the-line 911.

Q. How much is turbo is driven by regulation? How much by your customer?

A. No question that, industrywide, there is a trend toward downsizing displacement of engines and we’re not immune to that. Our goal is always to bring out a new generation of product and always be able to talk about – not only enhanced performance, but also enhanced efficiency. Downsizing of petrol engines regulations have something to do with that. Intelligent performance is our motto – to find the most intelligent solutions. Our customers absolutely love (the new turbo, 3.0-liter flat 6) engine – it has fantastic sound and incredible responsiveness.

Q. California is now mandating technologies – electric and hydrogen vehicles. Does that apply to Porsche as well as parent Volkswagen?

A. We’re committed to meeting those regulations independently. That’s why you’re seeing the push in hybridization. We’re the first luxury maker with three plug-in hybrids on the market. Obviously, the Mission E which we look to by the end of the decade. California is a quarter of our U.S. sales. (In that) market it’s very important you have that powertrain not just from a regulatory perspective but for customer demand. We’re finding good success, especially with the Cayenne E-hybrid. If we look at the statistics we did nearly 1,600 hybrids across the country. That represents .7 percent of the total hybrid market in the U.S., whereas our total sales are .3 percent of market. We’re over-proportional in terms of hybrid advancement.

Q. Tesla is struggling to make money. Can you make money on EVs?

A. It’s got to happen. We have some time. I think there will be a lot of advancements and economies of scale. It’s a challenge, but ultimately it can be done.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.