The sports-car SUV enters its second generation this month. It's the 2008 Porsche Cayenne, the vehicle that gives consumers the most fun you can have driving a family vehicle.

Just the fact that the little German sports-car maker would even have considered creating a sport utility vehicle is surprising. But the company did just that with the launch of the first generation of the Cayenne for 2003.

And as Porsche vehicles go, it has been quite successful. In fact, more than 150,000 of them have been sold since production began in the Leipzig, Germany, factory in 2002 - 60,000 of those in North America alone. That makes the Cayenne the best-selling Porsche model, allowing the company to set sales records in the United States for three years in a row.

Now comes the second generation of the Cayenne, with some stylish exterior changes, including new headlights and LED taillights; more interior comfort and conveniences; new safety features; and, of course, more performance.

And did I mention - better fuel efficiency, too.

The Cayenne isn't cheap, of course. But there are three models to choose from, with prices ranging from almost affordable to quite outrageous.

For $43,400, the entry-level model, called just the Cayenne, offers a 3.6-liter V-6 engine that produces 290 horsepower and 283 foot-pounds of torque. That's an increase of 40 horsepower from the 2006 model that the '08 version replaces. (Porsche did not produce a 2007 model.)

While this engine might not have the thrilling power of the next two models up the ladder, it can go from zero to 60 mph in 7.5 seconds, and has a top track speed of 141 mph.

During the recent international media introduction of the Cayenne in San Antonio and at the Continental Tire Co. proving grounds near Uvalde, I was able to put the Cayenne models though their paces at a closed test facility, as well as driving them over some rather fun Hill Country roads.

Even the base Cayenne has a suspension is tuned like that of a sports car, allowing the vehicle to hug the pavement quite well on the curves. The Cayenne has the feel of a low-slung sports car, something you won't find on other SUVs.

EPA fuel-economy ratings for the V-6 model are 14 miles per gallon in the city and 20 mpg on the highway, which puts this vehicle on par with most of the midsize SUVs on the market. These ratings are based on the EPA's new testing criteria that take effect for model year 2008, so they can't be compared directly with the 2007 ratings of competitive vehicles, which will be lower next year.

The 2006 Cayenne with the 240-horsepower engine was rated at 15 city/20 highway, but those figures would be lower than those of the '08 model using the new criteria. The mileage estimates are the same with either the six-speed manual or six-speed automatic gearbox.

Next is the S model, which comes with a normally aspirated 4.8-liter V-8 engine producing 385 horsepower and 369 foot-pounds of torque. That's up 45 horsepower from the 2006 model. List price is $57,900.

This one can go from zero to 60 mph in 6.5 seconds, and has a top speed of 155 mph. EPA ratings are 13 mpg city/19 highway.

The ultra-high-performance model is the Cayenne Turbo, which lists for $93,700. It has a twin-turbo version of the 4.8-liter V-8 engine, rated at 500 horsepower and 516 foot-pounds of torque. EPA estimates are 12 mpg city/19 highway -- quite respectable for this much power.

This model can reach 60 mph in just 4.9 seconds, and has a top speed of 171 mph. Helping to improve power and fuel-efficiency on the new models is Porsche's all-new direct fuel injection technology for the Cayenne. It's standard on all three models. The Cayenne is a rather heavy SUV that can carry five adults and all of their luggage, so the performance figures are quite impressive. Curb weights range from 4,762 pounds for the V-6 with manual gearbox to 5,191 pounds for the Turbo model.

The manual gearbox is offered only with the V-6 engine; the S and Turbo models come only with the six-speed Tiptronic S automatic, which is optional on the base Cayenne.

For those who want to get the best performance out of the Cayenne, the Tiptronic transmission offers manual shifting without having to worry about a clutch. Paddles on each side of the steering wheel allow for quick up- and downshifts.

The car also comes with a "sport" mode that lowers the automatic transmission's shift points for quicker acceleration.

With all of that weight and power, brakes are important, and Porsche doesn't scrimp on them. The brake calipers and discs are larger than those of competing premium SUVs. The biggest and best brakes are on the Turbo model, and are designed to handle the extra horsepower and torque of that vehicle.

The brake calipers are painted bright red, and are fully visible through the sport wheels. A computer-controlled antilock system is standard, of course, as is electronic brake assist.

Also new this year is the optional Porsche Dynamic Chassis Control system, which features "active anti-roll bars that almost completely offset body roll in turns, improving handling, comfort and active safety on-road while providing enhanced off-pavement traction," the automaker says.

Adaptive headlights are another new feature. They turn slightly in the direction the car is turning, allowing for better forward vision. The system is standard on the Turbo and optional on the other models.

Included on all models is electronic stability control, a safety feature that is becoming standard throughout the SUV realm, and also is being added to many cars, as well. The Cayenne's system, called Porsche Stability Management, brings such new functions as pre-loading of the braking system when needed, trailer stability control, and off-road antilock braking. The vehicle can tow trailers weighing up to 7,716 pounds.

The new Cayennes also come with a rollover sensor that locks the seatbelt latches and deploys the side-curtain air bags if the vehicle begins to roll.

A key option on the Cayenne is the air suspension system (standard on the Turbo), which raises the vehicle to as high as 10.67 inches above the ground for clearing rocks and other obstacles while driving off-road. The regular suspension offers 8.58 inches of ground clearance, which close to that of the base Jeep Wrangler.

That brings us to another dimension of the Cayenne that is quite surprising for a vehicle that drives like other Porsche sports cars on paved highways. Unlike those other Porsches, the Cayenne can go off-road, too.

While it lacks low-range gearing for the most-serious off-roading the Cayenne can tackle most trails - especially when equipped with the air suspension.

The stability management system with its traction-control features help keep the vehicle under control on dirt roads, something I found out while testing it on an off-road course at the Continental proving grounds.

In normal driving, the four-wheel-drive system sends 62 percent of the power to the rear wheels, but the ratio changes automatically if wheel-slipping is detected. Power is sent automatically to the wheels that have the best grip.

Other new features for 2008 include a standard power rear lift gate, optional 21-inch sport wheels, a rail-mounted cargo management system, and XM satellite radio.