Versus the competiton:
Editor’s note: This review was written in August 2010 about the 2011 Porsche Cayenne. Little of substance has changed with this year’s model. To see what’s new for 2012, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
In its first full redesign since the model’s 2003 debut, the 2011 Porsche Cayenne is quicker, larger, roomier, more efficient and richer than the previous version — and it is still very much a Porsche, on both road and track. Along with new exterior and interior styling, the Cayenne comes with a sliding backseat, increased power and, according to Porsche, better mileage in all versions. Compare the new and old generations here.
V-8-powered Cayenne S and Turbo versions are arriving at dealerships now, and the V-6 version will return this fall along with a new addition: the Cayenne Hybrid S. I’ll evaluate the hybrid in a future review; here I concentrate on the Cayenne S and Turbo, which I tested. The V-6 is still in development and wasn’t available to drive.
In 2003 I thought the very idea of a Porsche SUV was ill-advised. When the company made it a hefty off-road-capable model rather than a lightweight autobahn-stormer, my outlook became more dire. Wrongo: In short order, the Cayenne became Porsche’s best-selling model. A year later, when Porsche announced it would sell a version powered by a six-cylinder engine — from Volkswagen, no less — again I foresaw disaster. The prospect of staring at the taillights of “lesser” models like the Infiniti FX45 and Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 would certainly keep buyers away. Wrong again! In its first six model years, the six-cylinder Cayenne has accounted for 33.8 percent of sales, second to the Cayenne S at 46.4 percent. The high-performance Turbo and Turbo S have made up the rest.
The model’s success is a testament to the strength of Porsche’s brand and its ability to make a relatively heavy vehicle perform well. For 2011, the Cayenne has shed nearly 400 pounds — that’s a lot in car terms — a chunk of it from the elimination of the previous generation’s two-speed transfer case. Porsche recognized that the additional crawl gear appealed to too few owners to justify its inclusion, and the new eight-speed automatic transmission allows for a very short 1st gear. This change, plus a new multiplate clutch in the standard all-wheel drive, gives the Cayenne all the off-road capability it needs, Porsche says.
As in the 2010, a 3.6-liter V-6 powers the base Cayenne, now with 300 horsepower, up from 290 hp. The S version has a 4.8-liter V-8 and 400 hp, up from 385 hp. The turbocharged version of this engine produces 500 hp, unchanged from 2010, though Porsche says all trim levels are roughly 20 percent more efficient based on the European mileage test cycle. (U.S. figures aren’t available as of this writing.) The base Cayenne is the only model offered with a manual transmission, a six-speed, and it’s standard equipment there.
The Cayenne definitely feels lighter. Its tires don’t have to work as hard to control lateral inertia, and its reflexes seem sharper. I wouldn’t say it feels light, though. This is still a substantial, large vehicle that may surprise you with its athleticism, but it’s not a car. Porsche cites a zero-to-60 mph time of 5.6 seconds for the Cayenne S, which is nothing to sneeze at, yet it felt — of all things — a bit underpowered on the track at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala. Perhaps it’s the impressive suspension refinement that made the V-8 feel like it wasn’t keeping up. Maybe it’s the quietness inside the cabin, or the generous runoff space at Barber — as well as the wide-open Alabama countryside — that made this urban dweller feel like he was hardly moving.
Yet the Cayenne Turbo didn’t give this sensation. It simply goes like mad, with a throatier exhaust note and a satisfying blat with each upshift when under full throttle. Porsche cites the zero-to-60 time as 4.4 seconds, and it hustles from turn to turn, easily reined in by strong brakes with six-piston front and four-piston rear calipers. With each successive trim level, the brake discs get larger, and I was fortunate to take to the track in a loaded Turbo with the ultimate: ceramic composite brake discs, which are optional on all three trim levels for a staggering $8,150 to $8,840, depending on the trim. The Turbo’s standard brakes, which I also tested, do the job, but the ceramics seem to maintain their stopping power time after time with no noticeable brake fade.
This model was also equipped with the optional Porsche Torque Vectoring Plus system. Available on all trim levels, PTV Plus varies torque between the rear wheels and employs a computer-controlled limited-slip differential. By braking the inside rear wheel, the system essentially overdrives the outside wheel, not unlike Acura’s Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive. Compared with the stock Cayenne Turbo, this one cut corners more sharply, hugged the inside of hairpins and felt more balanced, front to rear, than all other versions, even though the Turbo has the most weight up front — 55.5 percent, according to Porsche. The Cayenne S has 55.0 percent in front and the V-6 will have 54.2 percent with the automatic and 53.9 percent with the six-speed manual.
Though the Cayenne is beyond competent on the track, PTV Plus makes any driver faster by allowing a tighter line. Where some electronic nannies are too intrusive, this one doesn’t seem to cost you any speed — or at least not more than it ultimately makes up for. I thought I could sense that brake nibbling away at the inside rear wheel, but it wasn’t pronounced and it never interrupted my progress.
While the Cayenne S can be driven fast, the Turbo begs to be. And for all its capability, it doesn’t give up much in terms of comfort. The standard adaptive suspension has Comfort, Normal and Sport modes, and all three provide decent ride quality of their kind. The Cayenne S models I drove also had this system as an option, along with the air springs that come in handy when it’s time for off-roading — or easing entry, exit or loading by squatting closer to the ground. So equipped, the Cayenne S provided a bit more ride comfort than the Turbo, but I can’t comment on the standard suspension, which necessarily makes a compromise between comfort and sport.
The Cayenne S and Turbo now have a feature that’s rare outside of hybrid vehicles: Auto Start Stop. The system can automatically turn off the engine when you come to a stop — like at a traffic light — and then restart it when you take your foot off the brake. It’s practically seamless, and impressive. If you’re not impressed, you can turn it off, or, technically, never turn it on from the default off position. Whatever you choose, it will remember your preference every time you start the car. (A centrally located on/off button allows a spouse to change it easily if the better half likes it the other way.)
Along with this functionality comes another hallmark of hybrids: regeneration of electricity, or, as Porsche calls it, recuperation. In lieu of a simple alternator, there’s a motor/generator, as well as a higher-capacity battery with more deep-cycle characteristics than the typical car battery. This allows the Cayenne to generate electricity when it’s coasting or cruising. Unlike hybrids, this isn’t regenerative braking. The brake pedal doesn’t trigger an increase in generation, but the system will take advantage of states like deceleration, coasting and downhill descent, all under automatic control. According to Porsche, the provisions above are good for 1 or 2 percent of efficiency gain in the European test cycle. Here in the U.S., it could be less.
Though Porsche assures me the brakes have no regenerative function outside of the Cayenne S Hybrid, I have to say I was disappointed by the brake-pedal feel. In both trim levels it felt a little numb and nonlinear on release.
The new eight-speed is well-behaved in Drive and Sport modes, though I thought it upshifted a bit soft under full throttle and occasionally hesitated on the downshift. Overall, though, you have to pay pretty close attention in normal driving to even know it’s there.
If you opt to shift manually, using the gear selector or the steering-wheel buttons, you’ll find the transmission kicks down with reasonable speed, but it’s not nearly as quick as Porsche’s dual-clutch automated manual. The Cayenne uses a more conventional Tiptronic transmission to provide the off-road capability and high towing capacity: The V-6 model’s maximum is healthy, at 5,952 pounds, and the S and Turbo can handle 7,716 pounds. The latter capacity matches the Land Rover Range Rover Sport exactly and beats the V-8-powered BMW X5 xDrive48i (6,000 pounds) and Infiniti FX50 (3,500 pounds).
The interior is as extensively upgraded as the exterior. Rich materials, including convincing faux metals, replace surfaces that had been substandard since the model’s debut. Authentic materials like brushed aluminum, various woods and carbon fiber are optional, as are expanded leather packages that upholster everything from the dashboard to the steering column.
The 2011 combines the previous version’s signature center-mounted grab handles with a high center console that rises upward to meet the dashboard, a design adopted from the Panamera sedan. The center-mounted gear selector is delightfully conventional: It goes from P to R to N to D and stays wherever you put it — unlike the regrettable floppy-toggle approach BMW has adopted.
The front seats are roomy and supportive. Sport seats are standard in the Turbo and optional on the lower trim levels. The number of power adjustments also varies with trim, topping out with optional adaptive sport seats that let you adjust the bottom-cushion length as well as the low and high side bolsters. It makes for quite the cluster of switches on the seat, but Porsche wisely moved the seat-memory buttons to the door, where they’re easily reached.
Backseat roominess is increased, thanks in part to seats that slide forward and back 6.3 inches, allowing passengers to choose copious legroom with less cargo volume behind the backseat, or less legroom with more cargo volume than was available in the 2010 model (23.7 cubic feet, up from 19.1). The 60/40-split backrests also recline now, in three increments. It’s a much more pleasant place to spend time, with or without the optional twin-screen video displays.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety hasn’t crash-tested the Cayenne — or any other Porsche — apparently ever. Low-volume models typically go untested, and Porsche, as a brand, is low-volume. The European New Car Assessment Program, whose stringent tests provide some indication of an American model’s crashworthiness, also hasn’t tested any Porsches. Though we find the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s five-star program of limited value, it’s not relevant. That organization hasn’t tested the Cayenne either.
The Cayenne’s front occupants get frontal, knee and seat-mounted side-impact airbags. There are also side curtain airbags for the front and rear seats, antilock disc brakes and an electronic stability system with traction control. A new blind spot warning system option indicates when another vehicle is in the Cayenne’s blind spot on either side. For a list of all the Cayenne’s standard safety features, see the Safety and Security section on the Standard Equip. & Specs page.
The Cayenne seemed a terrible idea to many, and it proved us wrong. Even though the greater movement is away from SUVs, there’s still plenty of interest in crossovers, though those are increasingly hard to define. If it can tow and go off-road like the Cayenne and is relatively inefficient, can you call it a crossover just because it has a unibody platform? Ultimately it doesn’t matter what you call it. As a brand that encompasses both luxury and performance, Porsche can overcome the drift toward more efficient vehicles — especially with this substantially improved Cayenne. For anyone who’s not tied to brand names, though, there are affordable sporty choices in the market, too. Now more than ever this is the case in all vehicle classes, but it doesn’t seem to be hurting Porsche.