The verdict: The Cayenne impresses on the road with fantastic performance credentials, but SUVs need to do more than that, and its control scheme is confounding.
Versus the competition: Though the Cayenne can drive circles around much of its competition, other vehicles offer more family-friendly features at lower prices.
The 2019 Porsche Cayenne is a full redesign, marking the third generation of the mid-size SUV. Most changes are found in the Cayenne’s engine compartment and interior. When it made its debut at the Frankfurt International Motor Show, Porsche said “the new Cayenne retains a strong visual connection to its predecessors” — a fun way of saying the styling (at least on the outside) isn’t changing much. And that’s fine, because the Cayenne still looks plenty unique; when you see one on the road, you know exactly what it is. The same is true of the new one, but it’ll be a little bit hard to tell if it’s the new generation. The easiest way is to spot the larger front air intakes or the new design of the LED headlights and taillights.
As much as things look the same on the outside, the experience behind the wheel is completely different thanks to new engines and a comprehensively redesigned and outfitted cabin. Some of the changes seem to be for the better (the engines), while others are mixed (the interior). Compare the new Cayenne with its 2018 predecessor.
It’s rare for me to drive two variants of a vehicle for a review, but in this case it seemed warranted because there’s quite a gap between the two in terms of both price and power. I drove a base Cayenne as well as a Cayenne Turbo, which sits below only the Cayenne Turbo S E-Hybrid in the Cayenne hierarchy. There was a difference of 206 horsepower and $58,900 between the two vehicles, and after driving each over an approximately 700-mile road trip, I found …
The Base Is Good
I started out in the base Cayenne. The engines are all turbocharged for 2019, replacing the 2018’s naturally aspirated base V-6 with a turbocharged 3.0-liter V-6 that makes 335 hp and 332 pounds-feet of torque. It’s mated to a Tiptronic S eight-speed automatic transmission and standard all-wheel drive. My test vehicle was also outfitted with an adaptive air suspension ($4,160), Off-Road Package and Sport Chrono Package. The latter adds additional sport modes and controls, including a configurable Individual mode, launch control that makes the Cayenne quicker off the line, an additional stability system mode, and both analog and digital stopwatches.
For a base engine, this powertrain is more than adequate. It adds power quickly and smoothly in a near telepathic fashion. The transmission helps in that regard, knocking off shifts quickly and — more importantly — only when you want it to. It holds gears in corners when pushed (especially in Sport or Sport Plus drive modes) and doesn’t misstep on passing maneuvers.
The Cayenne’s suspension is also fairly remarkable considering it’s a pretty high-riding SUV with some heft to it (4,377 pounds). My test vehicle rode on 21-inch wheels to boot, which usually means the ride is going to get choppy. Though firmer than most SUVs, it doesn’t beat you up over broken pavement or even a short stint down a gravel road, and that pays off as the road gets twisty. The Cayenne makes its way around a corner better than it has any right to; body roll is present but feels controlled and predictable. For a base model, the Cayenne is rather impressive, but then …
… More Turbo Is Better
I hopped next into the Turbo, which jumps from a V-6 up to a twin-turbocharged 4.0-liter V-8 that pumps out 541 hp and 568 pounds-feet of torque with the same eight-speed transmission.
How much difference does 206 hp make? A lot.
If the base Cayenne’s engine is adequate, the Turbo’s is delightfully excessive. With Sport Chrono, as mine had, the Cayenne Turbo dashes from zero to 60 mph in just 3.7 seconds, with a top speed of 177 mph, Porsche says. That’s in an SUV. Speed doesn’t pour on so much as it’s dumped on top of your head as if from a bucket. In a straight line, the Cayenne Turbo exists as a nondescript dragster with plenty of room for five in its SUV body. To put this into perspective, the BMW M4 and Ford Mustang GT (with Performance Pack 2) that we tested in 2018 posted 0-60 times of 4.15 and 4.25 seconds, respectively, which means the Cayenne Turbo would easily walk away from both of them.
My test vehicle also added Dynamic Chassis Control ($3,590) and a torque-vectoring rear differential ($1,500) on top of its standard air suspension with active suspension management. It cornered harder and faster than the base Cayenne, and even with all that power underfoot, it shot from bend to bend with nary a misstep. It’s strange to feel so confident driving such a large vehicle quickly, but on dry California roads with summer tires and a suspension working overtime underneath me, the Cayenne Turbo was a delight. If I had one nit to pick, it’s that the suspension is doing so much work that you might feel a touch detached from the road beneath you. That’s the price of keeping everything so tidy.
The Cayenne Turbo is a true performance SUV, taking the competence of the base model and dialing everything up, especially the acceleration. I particularly liked that the Turbo’s performance remains … reasonable; it doesn’t feel like too much, which sometimes happens with these types of vehicles. Though the cabin remains calm, you know you’re leaving a raucous V-8 din outside and a cloud of dust in your wake.
Out of Control
Inside, the five-seat Cayenne has plenty of room for passengers. On one trip, I put three adults in the backseat and didn’t hear any complaints or have to deal with a mutiny after a five-hour drive. Even the middle seat is usable, though the floor hump is quite sizable, so outer passengers must share their footwells. The Cayenne also does one of my favorite things for backseat passengers: put air vents in the B-pillars so you’re not just getting air from the center console.
Up front, there’s a new multimedia system and a redesigned center console. These changes echo the ones found in the Porsche Panamera, and the layout looks great. All the smooth, glossy black panels lead to a 12.3-inch touchscreen, and the whole setup looks very modern and clean. A welcome addition: The screen itself is large and clear with a quick response time, and it even has sensors that can detect when your hand is approaching to bring up a menu of shortcut buttons.
There are some problems, though. Some simple tasks take way too long, such as changing the radio station. You can’t even move to the next favorite station on your list in one action; you’ll have to pull up the favorites menu and sift through it, using either the touchscreen or a small dial below it. If you use the dial, it starts you not at the station you’re on, but at the beginning of your list. There’s no mechanical button to go to the next track, and the programmable button on the steering wheel simply jumps to the next station on the dial rather than among your presets. These kinds of small oversights add up and get frustrating.
The touch-sensitive panels on the center console also get a mixed response from me. Each “spot” does require you to press down fairly firmly to activate the control, so you won’t accidentally turn them on or off simply by brushing them with your hand. But the panel itself is a fingerprint magnet; every touch leaves evidence behind. It also works as a kind of mirror, so you might look down and feel like you’re staring directly at the sun if it’s in just the right (or wrong) spot. One final annoyance: In sunlight, you can see labels under the panel for functions your Cayenne may not have.
Thankfully, the Cayenne retains physical controls for the volume and basic climate functions, which are easier to use and require less time with your eyes off the road. The Porsche setup isn’t as difficult to use as the dual-screen system in Land Rover and Jaguar products, but it could be made easier with a few updates.
Unfortunately, the Porsche Cayenne has not been crash-tested, which is typical of low-volume luxury vehicles.
The Cayenne has few standard active-safety features, limited to automatic forward emergency braking with pedestrian detection, front and rear parking sensors and a backup camera. That’s it. No adaptive cruise control, blind spot warnings, lane keep assist or 360-degree camera systems. All are available either as individual options or as part of safety packages, but those boxes weren’t checked on either of my test vehicles save for a blind spot warning system on the Cayenne Turbo that came as part of another package.
Given the high price of both vehicles, I expected more on the safety front. Perhaps driving all those highway miles without adaptive cruise control and lane keep assist just left me a little cranky, but I do find it ridiculous for features that are increasingly standard on more affordable cars to be left off on the luxury side.
The Cayenne starts at $66,750 (including a $1,050 destination charge), but my test vehicle jumped all the way up to $82,780 with options, mostly on the performance side. The Cayenne Turbo also comes with quite a price tag, starting at $125,850 (with a $1,250 destination charge). My test vehicle rung up at $146,590 — the biggest culprit being the carbon-ceramic brakes, which were $5,580 all by themselves.
These Cayennes aren’t cheap, and what you’re paying for is their on-road proficiency — which is, admittedly, very impressive. So much so, in fact, that at times it made me forget my frustrations with the control scheme or the lack of standard safety tech. It really is a fun SUV to drive, and Porsche’s determination to not lose driving feel or precision even in its larger vehicles is laudable. But in real-world situations, where you’re not ripping the Cayenne around, those other issues pop up over and over, and I came away wishing the rest of the vehicle had been given the same attention to detail.
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