Review: Is the WaterCar Panther better as a car or as a boat?

“Things that try to be two things tend not to be as good at either thing”
by TopGear.com | Jul 24, 2021
PHOTO: TopGear.com

Welcome to the world of WaterCar, a company founded in California (where else?) at the end of the 20th century with a worthy mission: to build the fastest amphibious car on the planet.

After two decades of toil, this noble feat was achieved with the one-off, purpose-built WaterCar Python, after which someone had a great idea. Something along the lines of, ‘Why don’t we build some more with a V6 instead of a V8, and sell them to the general public?’ In 2013, 27 patents later, the WaterCar Panther was born. It’s a street-legal, off-roading convertible powerboat, obviously.

How fast is this record-breaker?

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With dry land under its tires, it’s good for 110-130kph. It’s tricky to get a definitive answer on that, and I wouldn’t recommend trying to find out.

On open water, the Panther’s V6-powered ‘Panther Jet’ will rocket it up to a heady 38 knots. That’s 70kph, and that makes the Panther technically a speedboat. This is the only amphibious car in the world that’s quick enough to tow a waterskier.

As anyone who’s ever ridden a banana-boat or been tugged along in one of those inflatable donut rubber ring things will attest, 65kph on water feels a lot, lot faster than 65kph on terra firma.

Is it expensive?

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In a word, yes. In more words, yes, it’s very expensive indeed. But it’s also a multi-multi-multipurpose vehicle. Most cars only try to be one thing: a car. Some try to be a car and an off-roader, or a car with a roof that comes off. But this is an off-roading four-seater soft-top that floats. And rides waves. And can start your very own lakeside extreme sports business. So, $198,000 (P9.94 million) is probably a bargain.

This particular Panther is the best example in the world, because it’s had three years of fettling from British engineering and racing team Prodrive.

Yep, the very same folks who conquered the World Rally Championship with Subaru, set up Aston Martin’s Le Mans cars, and are in charge of the Extreme E Odyssey field. Their CV glitters so brightly that if you look directly at their LinkedIn page, you’ll go blind.

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What’s it doing here?

The company’s founder David Richards (spot him in the passenger seat during our voyage) came across a Panther while on holiday in Los Angeles a few years ago. Being a fan of stuff that goes fast and makes lots of noise (and also nursing a penchant for boats), he bravely decided to import one to Britain with an eye on selling them, and promptly set Prodrive’s engineers the task of buffing it up for the European market.

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But fate is cruel. Having been comprehensively honed, the American mothership has gone bust and there won’t be any more Panthers unless someone else buys the tooling. So, this Anglicized orphan is now for sale. Before it finds an eccentric owner, Prodrive invited Top Gear to take it for a spin. And a dip.

On the road...and waters

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As anyone who’s ever tried to eat a disappointing campsite breakfast with a spork will tell you, things that try to be two things tend not to be as good at either thing as things that concentrate on being one thing alone.

Case in point: the WaterCar Panther. To drive, frankly, it’s a bit of a tugboat. You know how seals and penguins look graceful and balletic in water, but hopelessly awkward on the shore? This is the wallowy, wayward four-wheeled equivalent.

Prodrive’s quest to polish this rough diamond has mainly centered around improving the engine cooling and the fiberglass hull’s various seals to stop it from, you know, getting filled with water and sinking faster than a Jeep Wrangler in quicksand. What they’ve not been able to counter is the Panther’s arse-heavy weight distribution.

What’s actually powering it?

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In the back, behind the rear axle, lies a 3.7-liter Honda V6 used in US-market Acuras. Because both it and the ‘Panther’ jet drive for water-borne propulsion are tacked on the rear, the Panther rears up if asked to accelerate briskly. Prodrive’s engineers say it’ll actually pull wheelies, particularly when the front-mounted fuel tank starts to drain. I believe them.

The engine, good for about 300hp, starts on a diminutive key and sounds fierce. There’s an ever-present aroma of unburned fuel vapors wafting around. This being normally aspirated, throttle response is zippy, the V6 rasp deafening. The four-on-the-floor gearbox is hopelessly vague, but luckily, there’s enough torque for you to just set up camp in third and pretty much leave it alone.

Is it any good on the road?

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No. This is not a car to drive briskly.

Those enormous Barbie Jeep wheel arches are invisible from the sit-up-and-beg captain’s chair, so you’ve got to remember the thing is a heck of a lot wider than the extremities you can actually see. Though it’s relatively light for its size at 1,338kg, it behaves with the slow-motion reflexes of something that weighs over two tons.

Lawd knows how cumbersome it was before a world-class motorsport fraternity gave it the Rule Britannia once-over, but suffice to say the combination of knobby marshmallow tires and surprisingly direct, heavy steering makes cornering (or should that be ‘attempts to change course’) rather lively. This isn’t really a car in which you can rest an elbow on the door top and cruise. You’ve got to babysit it.

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Special mention for absolute terror goes to the brakes. Through the wheel spokes, you read ‘Wilwood Racing’ on the front calipers (the rears are off a Hyundai, with bigger pads) and you think, ‘Mmm, pedigree.’ But you’d be better off raising a mainsail and hoping for a headwind if you need to come to an abrupt halt.

Prodrive’s engineers are well aware of this. They freely admit that this isn’t a car you’d drive long distances in, packed up for the family holiday. It’s more of a convenience if you live near a river, a lake, or the sea. Instead of having to lash your boat to a trailer, pass your towing test, and go through all that pesky unloading, the WaterCar can simply be pottered down to your nearest slipway or beach and driven straight out into the water, to the utter amazement and audible distress of anybody spectating.

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The makers recommend entering the water at no more than 15mph (24kph). Hah, good one. Try 1.5mph (2kph). It’s a truly bizarre feeling to be sat in a car, with a rearview mirror and a steering wheel and a gear lever, only to deliberately drive it straight into a body of water. Avoid a bow wave washing up over the hood and, once you’re safely bobbing, it’s time to convert into boat mode.

How do you get ready to go motorboating?

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First things first, select neutral. Then, hold a button marked ‘wheels up’ until there’s a beep. This hydraulically lifts all four wheels and tucks them up into the arches so they’re not dragging along in the water. The reason selecting neutral is so important is this process will otherwise bend the driveshafts. Yikes.

Next, prod the button for lowering the trim planes. We’ll come back to what those are for, but trust me, it’s important. Finally, tug a lever next to the handbrake to engage jet drive. This activates a power take-off from the V6, which is now running the water propulsion jet. No more than 15sec after wading into the drink, the Panther is now ready to swim.

Is it better at being a boat than a car?

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Emphatically. It’s absolutely magic. And delightfully simple: Just mash the throttle. The trick is to hold the revs at 6,000rpm as the craft accelerates, then feather it down to 5,000rpm once the boat comes ‘on plane.’ In water-speak, the fins you lowered earlier are now acting as submerged wings.

This hydrodynamic lift overcomes the car’s buoyancy and lifts much of the hull out of the water, decreasing drag and allowing more maneuverability. And speed. The sense of the Panther rising up off the surface and then skipping along the top at 30 knots is tremendous. Suddenly, this ungainly car-goyle is a picture of grace and balance.

Apparently, this engine is bulletproof. It feels alien—if you have a molecule of mechanical sympathy—to keep your foot planted with the revs singing away at 5,000rpm, but Prodrive promises it has flooded this motor and kept it pinned to the redline until it’s smoking, and it stubbornly refused to break down. It’s idiotproof, Top Gear can confirm.

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Handling? Well, that’ll be familiar if you’ve ever done any slippery-surface ice driving. You gracefully swing from one ‘drift’ to the next, constantly countersteering into the ‘slide.’ Except when you lift off the throttle, instead of spinning out, you drop ‘off plane’ and settle down back into the water like a crocodile.

At this point, any water that’s collected under the hood will slosh forward into the hot radiator, and conceal the Panther in a furious hiss of steam. Consider it an impromptu smokescreen, like an old battleship evading aircraft fire. This is a feature the market has been sorely lacking since the domestic British car industry folded.

The Panther gets what true boatswains technically term ‘a right-old lean on’ if a hard-to-port/hard-a-starboard zigzag is ordered. Prodrive does warn of ‘some stability issues’ inherent to the sledgehammer-ish weight distribution, but for a complete novice, it’s no harder to commandeer than a jet ski. We didn’t sink once.

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Some habits—like stabbing the brake pedal when the shore looms close and wondering why you’re still on a collision course with Oxfordshire—take a little while to unlearn. Keeping the wipers on is a top tip. And try not to run over your own wake—the Panther will pull a wheelie in choppy waters as well, as it turns out.

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To end your voyage, perform the same button presses in reverse. Disengage the jet drive lever, raise the planes, don’t forget to drop the wheels to prevent embarrassing graunches, and then gingerly slot in first gear. Get lined up with the slipway and you’ll execute a flawless dismount from the deep and straight onto the shore with the coolness of Sir Roger Moore and the swagger of Captain Jack Sparrow.

On the inside

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Permission to come aboard, skipper? Et cetera. Actually, kitsch wannabe-boat detailing is conspicuous by its absence. The steering wheel, for instance, doesn’t have a load of wooden handles sticking out of the rim. There’s no well-oiled teak decking, no buoys dangling from the sides. You can’t even sunbathe on the hood.

It’s a functional, no-nonsense interior, with a rubberized watertight covering over the radio, chunky buttons and switches for operating the various machinery, and some rather unsupportive waterproof seats. The rears are about as welcoming as the seats you’ll find in a Porsche 911, only with more headroom.

How much equipment do I get?

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Forget Apple CarPlay or radar-guided cruise control: The Panther’s cockpit is like a trip back to the ’90s. You get a radio, some dials, and that’s about it. The mirrors adjust electrically, but no automatic headlights.

Do you care? Thought not. It’s difficult to nitpick over equipment when you’ve got so many rare and unusual switches inside, marked ‘Engage Jet Drive’ and ‘Wheels Up/Wheels Down.’

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Of particular amusement is the triplet of switches for discharging the bilge tanks—these fire trapped water out of drains in the car’s flanks. Especially useful when a cyclist is about to cut you up or run a red light, that one.

Because the rear is full of engine, the trunk is actually under the hood, which is held down by fastening pins. In here, you’ll find enough room for a small grocery shop or a couple of lifejackets. Maybe some flares. And an uninflated raft.

Final thoughts

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By any measure, the Panther is a dreadful car. It’s uncomfortable and unwieldy, and if the brakes or the handling don’t get you, the fug of gasoline fumes surely will. It’s pricey, impractical, loud, and eye-wateringly ugly. Tricky to park, too.

But—it’s also a boat. And no car that’s capable of catching air and riding a wave while a V6 shouts itself hoarse in the background can possibly be anything other than a huge laugh.

Allegedly, the Panther is a staple in the car collections of Middle East royalty and West Coast glitterati, alongside McLarens and Paganis. So what if it’s not a very good car? It’s a brilliant toy, and there’s simply nothing else like it. Its have-a-go attitude of try-anything versatility is hilarious. And there’s no ignoring the fact that it’s rapid on land and downright quick in the water.

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If you need an amphibious car in your life, you need the quickest one out there.

NOTE: This article first appeared on TopGear.com. Minor edits have been made.

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