Four years after its introduction, the Porsche Cayenne has become part of the automotive landscape. The car-buying public has demonstrated its appreciation of the Porsche brand beyond the company's familiar sports cars by purchasing them in numbers far beyond expectation.
The five-passenger SUV is technically slick and remarkably fast, as Porsches are supposed to be, with on-road handling that belies (though does not defy) its mass. The Cayenne also delivers what most SUV buyers demand: more cargo space than the typical sedan, more than enough capability for off-highway use and impressive towing capacity. For style, pure performance and a balance of sport-utility virtues, the Porsche Cayenne is tough to beat.
Porsche didn't sit still after the Cayenne's launch in 2003, adding a V6 drivetrain that opened the model to a larger group of buyers and more useful standard equipment and option packages. For 2006, in synch with its philosophy of adding even more power during a model's life cycle, Porsche offers the 510-horsepower Cayenne Turbo S, which takes the concept of a SUV muscle car to a highly rewarding extreme.
New features for 2006 include a new ignition key with separate lock and unlock buttons; new front airbag technology; an electronic logbook; an update to the Porsche Communication Management system that allows it to play MP3-encoded CDs; and a cellphone module that hooks into PCM. Optional equipment includes Offroad Navigation that lets drivers trace their way back to a starting point, even when the area doesn't appear on the nav's system's internal map. Wider rear 20-inch SportTechno wheels, an independent interior pre-heating and pre-ventilation system, new Dark Olive Metallic exterior paint, a new Sand Beige leather-wrapped steering wheel and seats with the Porsche crest embossed on the headrests are among other new options.
Like many Porsches, the Porsche of SUVs can be very expensive. An abundance of options means a fully loaded Cayenne Turbo S cracks the $125,000 barrier, and even the V6's fully equipped price reaches far beyond its $42,200 base price. Yet whichever powertrain sits beneath the bodywork, the Cayenne will be truly appreciated by those SUV buyers with exacting demands or unshakable brand loyalty.
The Porsche of SUVs is what those familiar with the brand probably expect from the Cayenne. If you pay close attention, you can feel most of the mechanical components working, each doing its own job, yet it all blends together in a smooth, synchronous whole. The Cayenne is fast, satisfying and, even in the things it does least efficiently, utterly competent. It stops with more energy and precision that any SUV we can name. The V6 runs well, but it's the V8 engines that separate Cayenne from others in the SUV pack.
Want Porsche? Sit still in the Cayenne's driver seat and gently blip the accelerator pedal (just like the guy in the commercial). These are not the sounds emanating from the typical SUV. The Cayenne's exhaust rumbles a bit louder, maybe, but mostly deeper. Even at idle, the burble of low-restriction mufflers, the cams and the suck of intake air remind us of the late, great Porsche 928, a V8-powered GT that swallowed chunks of pavement at an alarming rate. Yet this is an SUV, and the thought can be difficult for longtime Porsche enthusiasts to get their arms around. Perhaps Cayenne more appropriately invokes images of the Porsche 959s that won the grueling Paris-Dakar Rally through North Africa, skimming over giant dunes in the Sahara at 140 mph.
The Sahara we couldn't arrange, but we have mucked a Cayenne through a muddy off-road course in the south of Spain. This was not a boulder-laden wilderness trail like the Rubicon, but it included axle-deep mud and steep, low-grip 50-yard grades. Up, down and across, the Cayenne performed flawlessly with little sweat for the driver. In most cases the onboard electronics did the heavy lifting, and the driver had to simply, lightly, modulate the throttle or brake in low range. When introduced, Cayenne's back country performance impressed even the jaded, and it supported Porsche's assertion that it has more off-road capability than the BMW X5 or Mercedes M-Class, which we've driven in similar conditions. Cayenne has a maximum ground clearance of 8.5 inches, or 10.7 inches with the optional air suspension, and a water fording depth of nearly 22 inches. The Advanced Offroad Package adds skid plates to protect the underbody and a locking rear differential. We drove a Turbo S with these options on the desert sands of Dubai and were astounded by the vehicle's prowess in such difficult conditions.
We also got some lessons off road in the operation of Cayenne's permanent all-wheel-drive system, and how it might affect performance on pavement, where most owners are more likely to drive. This system, with its variable-rate center differential managed by multiple clutch plates, is similar to that used on all-wheel-drive versions of the Porsche 911, with two Cayenne enhancements: a low range for off-roading and a locking center differential. It's managed by Porsche's latest stability- and traction-control electronics, modified to handle the special needs of off-road driving.
Cayenne's AWD can vary the amount of engine power distributed to the front and rear wheels, sending more or less power in one direction depending on available traction and other conditions. In many luxury SUVs, the default torque distribution is as much as 70 percent front wheels, 30 percent rear and this can make them drive like a front-drive minivan. The Cayenne has a default power split of 38 percent front, 62 percent rear, so the rear wheels clearly rule. This more closely replicates the rear-drive characteristics of a sports car.
On the road, the Cayenne handles crisply, but it isn't a Porsche 911. Its 4800-pound curb weight, which ballons to 5192 pounds in the Turbo S (and over 5800 pounds when fully optioned), rears its head in transient maneuvers. It performs these maneuvers better than an SUV, but there's no getting around the physics of all that mass when pushed hard in tight cornering situations. That said, it offers excellent grip in ste
Impossible to imagine 10 years ago, but true: The Porsche Cayenne is a 150-mph-plus high-performance machine that will fit a family of five, haul a small washing machine, tow a large boat and get you carefully through the woods when there's no road. It's a 5000-pound speed-sled that can handle rugged trails. Do rapid acceleration, excellent brakes and the right sounds add up to a Porsche? If you can get beyond the idea that the company should build only sports cars, the answer is a resounding yes.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Greg Brown reported from Dubai on the Arabian Peninsula; J.P. Vettraino reported from Detroit, with Mitch McCullough in Los Angeles.