It's fast, it's rare and it's astonishingly expensive — but the 2014 Porsche Cayenne Turbo S is also extremely capable, the apparent answer to the question of what the ultimate Porsche station wagon would look like.
The moaning and wailing from purists was palpable when sports car brand Porsche introduced the five-seat Cayenne SUV, but given that the truck has become Porsche's most popular seller and has allowed the German automaker to continue to produce the road rockets that everyone with a pulse enjoys driving, the appropriateness of the idea of a Porsche SUV is no longer a valid discussion.
Suffice it to say that the popular Cayenne has done wonders for Porsche's bottom line, so we sampled one to see what all the fuss was about. Our test vehicle was a 2014 Porsche Cayenne Turbo S, a top-of-the-line model with the most powerful engine available, the strongest brakes available and the model's most opulent interior. It comes with an opulent price tag, as well: $177,305, including the destination charge. The Cayenne received some mild revisions for 2014, including a new eight-speed automatic transmission (compare the 2013 and 2014 models here).
Exterior & Styling
It certainly doesn't look like a Volkswagen Touareg — the big SUV with which the Cayenne shares its basic structure — except perhaps around the doors, which are the only shared sheet metal between the two. The front end looks distinctively Porsche, with big, round headlights flanking a low and gaping grille opening. The taillights are also suitably Porsche-like, and the whole truck is easily identifiable as part of the Porsche family. The Turbo S adds a few sportier trim options, like gloss-black air intakes and headlight and mirror housings, while the wheels are upgraded to standard 21-inch gloss-black units with full-color Porsche crests. My test car was decked out in white paint but still managed to turn heads thanks to a combination of black wheels, yellow brake calipers and a bright red interior. You can have a more subtle color combination, but when spending this kind of money, why would you?
How It Drives
The Cayenne has a surprising number of available powertrains, including a base 300-horsepower, 3.6-liter V-6; a 240-hp, diesel 3.0-liter V-6; three variants of a 4.8-liter V-8; and, at the top of the line, the 550-hp, twin-turbocharged 4.8-liter V-8 that was in our Turbo S. That engine is mated to a standard eight-speed automatic that sends power to all four wheels.
The combination rockets the Cayenne Turbo S from zero to 60 mph in just 4.3 seconds on its way to a 178 mph top speed — astonishing performance for a big vehicle that weighs more than 4,800 pounds. A Sport mode button changes various settings to allow for even more aggressive performance, with more immediate shifts and a more sensitive throttle as well, but leaving it in Normal mode is perfectly acceptable given the car's impressive power reserves. Acceleration is extraordinarily strong, downshifts are quick and snappy, and at no point is there any lag or wait for the turbos to spool up. Put your foot down, and you're gone.
Handling is not quite as Porsche-direct as in the company's sports cars, but for a big SUV it's more than acceptable. The Cayenne Turbo S feels like a large sport sedan, with flat cornering and decent feedback through the steering wheel to let you know what the tires are doing. Ride quality is outstanding only when in Normal mode — click into Sport mode, and the suspension stiffens up considerably. It would be best for twisty canyon commuting in the Los Angeles mountains, but in the Midwest's typical straight, flat, long-distance highway driving, Normal mode is the way to go. My only quibble with the Cayenne Turbo S' performance involves the brakes — massive carbon-ceramic composite units that do indeed stop the Cayenne with authority and considerable force. In normal operation, though, they make an unbelievable amount of noise — these are racing brakes, best suited to cars that see more use on a track than on a grocery run. They're questionable on any kind of street car, but they're patently ridiculous on an expensive SUV that's never going to be driven in anger around a racetrack. Unless they're broiling hot and being subjected to hard lap after hard lap, they're eventually going to do what they did on my test vehicle — squeal like a poorly maintained city bus. Stopping at every light became an exercise in modulating the pedal to try to avoid the noise, as its considerable volume would invariably attract unwanted, annoyed stares and rattle my passengers. The standard brakes on the Cayenne — even the Turbo S — are conventional steel rotors. Save yourself $8,840 and stick with those rather than opting for the carbon-ceramic composite kit.
The Cayenne's competitors also go after premium SUV buyers searching for performance capability along with passenger utility. The Land Rover Range Rover Autobiography has a supercharged 5.0-liter V-8 that makes a similar 510 hp; it also features an eight-speed automatic transmission and an opulent interior. Its recent all-aluminum redo means it's considerably lighter than it used to be, but it still weighs nearly 440 pounds more than the Porsche, making it slower and skewed more toward opulent luxury than performance. The Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG, however, has performance in spades, featuring a 550-hp, twin-turbocharged 5.5-liter V-8 and the sport suspension, brakes and trim pieces needed to make use of it. It seats five, like the Porsche, but is considerably less expensive.
If forced induction motors aren't your thing — and you think there's just no replacement for displacement — have a go at the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT with its naturally aspirated 6.4-liter Hemi V-8. It pumps out only 470 hp, but it weighs less than the Range Rover and makes a basso soundtrack that none of its competitors can replicate. While not as sophisticated as the Cayenne Turbo S, it's also a fraction of that SUV's cost and very nearly as fast.
Fuel economy for the Turbo S model is predictably poor: it's rated 14/20/16 mpg city/highway/combined, and that jives with the 16.2 mpg I saw in a week of mixed use that included several hundred highway miles. If you're worried about fuel economy, go for the Cayenne Diesel, featuring a turbocharged V-6 diesel engine good for 20/29/23 mpg, or the Cayenne S Hybrid, rated 20/24/21 mpg. For what it's worth, the Cayenne Turbo S fares better than most competitors' sporty SUVs, besting the ML63 AMG's 13/17/15 mpg and the Grand Cherokee SRT's 13/19/15 mpg, and barely edging out the Range Rover's 14/19/16 mpg.
Whatever your opinion of the exterior styling, the interior silences all critics. It is a truly stunning piece of art, vastly different from the VW Touareg. Sculpted forms in the dash use real aluminum trim to evoke the idea of exposed metal structure, and combined with the fantastic deep-red, two-tone leather and contrasting stitching, the cabin looks like a modern, appealing and thoroughly sporty environment.
Outward visibility is good, thanks to the high seating position. Space up front is plentiful, with front passengers having no shortage of room to spread out in multi-adjustable, heavily bolstered sport seats. Backseat space, though, is surprisingly cramped for such a big vehicle, with leg and hip room feeling comparable to a compact car. The seats do slide forward and back, allowing parents easier access to little ones in child-safety seats there. Fully individual four-place climate control comes standard in the Turbo S, meaning there's a raft of buttons for the backseat as well.
Some of the competition is bigger on the inside than the Cayenne — most notably the Range Rover, whose long-wheelbase model has 47.5 inches of second-row legroom that beats all competitors (Porsche does not publish rear-seat dimensions for the Cayenne).
Ergonomics & Electronics
Apparently, Porsche doesn't believe in the latest trend of using menus in the multimedia system to control functions, and that's OK by me; I prefer having a dedicated switch whose position and function I can learn to having to hunt through menus using a rotary knob or touch-screen. The problem is that there's an almost unbelievable number of buttons on the dash and center console — I counted more than 50 buttons, switches, knobs and toggles. They operate everything from climate control to various suspension and engine settings. Finding what you need at a glance isn't going to happen, so you'd best study the arrangement before you go anywhere.
The Cayenne's multimedia system works well but is not the most intuitive to use. The optional Burmester sound system is impressive, with excellent adjustability for various music types. Multimedia voice commands are old-school, however — very basic and menu-specific: You can't give a navigation command if the system display is on the audio screen, for example, and changing radio bands is a mystery I was never able to figure out.
Cargo & Storage
Just as this isn't the most spacious SUV for passengers, neither is it the biggest cargo-hauler. With the seats up, the Cayenne features 23.7 cubic feet of cargo room, expandable to 62.9 cubic feet with the backseat folded. The Range Rover beats that with 32.1 cubic feet of space, expandable to 82.8 cubic feet thanks to that long wheelbase, but even the standard-length Range Rover comes with 71.7 cubic feet of total room (space behind the second row is unchanged). The latest Grand Cherokee SRT is bigger than one might expect, featuring 35.1 cubic feet of cargo space behind the backseat, with a maximum of 68.7 cubic feet, while the ML63 AMG features the most rear cargo space, at 38.2 cubic feet that's expandable to 80.3 cubic feet — almost as much as the LWB Range Rover.
The Porsche Cayenne has not been crash-tested. A decent list of safety equipment is optional, however, including lane departure warning, automatic cruise control with full autonomous braking, front and rear park assist with a backup camera, and the Porsche Dynamic Lighting System, which creates an optimum headlight illumination pattern. See the full list of Porsche Cayenne standard equipment here.
Value in Its Class
The Cayenne has a considerable price range, starting at $50,595, including destination, for a base V-6 model and stretching up to an eye-popping $146,995 (excluding options) for the Turbo S model we drove. But being a Porsche, its sticker price doesn't end there. A laundry list of leather-wrapped, custom-painted or carbon-fiber-trimmed options can be specified, with my test car including items such as $800 ventilated front seats, $1,090 illuminated carbon-fiber door sills, $2,690 active cruise control, the $3,990 Burmester sound system and an $8,840 ceramic composite brake option. The grand total for this well-equipped Cayenne Turbo S: an astonishing $177,305. Choose your own options for the Cayenne here.
As high as this seems, it's possible to option up competitors to similar levels. The Range Rover Autobiography model with a supercharged V-8 starts at $137,675, climbing to $143,025 for the LWB model. That's pretty much loaded, however, with only a couple of options, like lane departure warning, to add to the price. Slightly less expensive but no less capable is the Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG, starting at $98,175 and climbing to more than $115,000 if you tick all the options. The performance bargain of the group is the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT. With its massive V-8 engine, brutal speed and comfortable accommodations for five, it's a bargain at just $65,375 to start or $75,840 if you load it up with a panoramic roof and fancy leather seats. Compare all four here.