"The Porsche Cayenne is a deeply misunderstood machine," RF told me before my test drive. "It's one of the world's fastest off-roaders, not a house-broken truck." Huh? Why would a world famous sports car maker (if not THE world famous sports car maker) tempt infamy by making a kick-ass mud plugger instead of a FX-style sports-car-on-stilts? The answer, I'm told, lies deep in Porsche's DNA. In the late eighties, Porsche jacked-up their 959 supercar and entered it in the grueling Paris – Dakar rally. In their second attempt, the German automaker scooped first, second and sixth places. "Take the entry level V6 off road," RF commanded. "Thrash it without mercy. THEN tell me what you think." Sounded like a plan.
So, as the concierge squealed around the corner, he gunned the Cayenne's engine. An attractive V6 rasp echoed off the concrete parking garage walls at the Wynn Las Vegas. Crisply creased with unnaturally angry Porsche eyes, the Midnight Black Metallic model created a strong initial impression. And then, it turned towards the side, and I shuddered. The Cayenne's rear is displeasingly plump and oddly rounded. The new blacked-out glass at the bottom of the rear window is a rare example of Porsche de-evolution; its angularity makes a bad design worse.
Our tester's interior was overwhelmingly beige. Only a black center stack– with a stereo face from 1986– relieved the Saharan color scheme. Sisters VW Touareg and Audi Q7 both have the Cayenne licked in terms of switchgear, material choices and general cabin appeal. That Porsche can still offer a vehicle at this price point without Bluetooth or iPod connectivity is testimony to the brand's snob appeal, rather than Porsche's ability to compete head-on with its upmarket peers.
Once you get used to the Cayenne's monotone color scheme and lack of toys, you begin to appreciate Stuttgartian subtleties. The Cayenne's buttons, knobs, and dials may be annoyingly small and fiddly, but they're all ideally situated for performance-oriented pilots. Better yet, there's nothing overly-complicated to distract you the business at hand– although saddling-up on expensive options might solve that "problem."
On the road, the base Cayenne proved stable and agile, just like the much cheaper VW Touareg. The Porsche's 3.6-liter direct injection 290bhp V6 motivated the 4949 lbs. truck adequately; the zero to 60 sprint takes only 7.5 seconds. Porsche tuned the exhaust to mimic their flat sixes, but they only receive a participation ribbon in that regard.
The Cayenne's long pedal travel and delayed throttle response added to the building suspicion I was driving an expensive VW, not a [relatively] cheap Porsche. The Cayenne's mileage-seeking tranny always started in second gear, guaranteeing a take-off reminiscent of a Wagoneer (or an over-loaded 727). You can select first gear from the Tiptronic. In traffic, that gets old real quick.
In general, on road, the Cayenne feels like it was designed with only a vague memory of the 911, as if the icon were a faded poster in the closet of the Porsche SUV department.
Leaving Las Vegas, I headed to Tikaboo Valley. Rumbling over the guard rail entrance to the 22.5 mile trail, I doubted Porsche's lumbering lummox could redeem itself. By the end of the first mile, I was looking in the glove box for a Papal dispensation.
The Cayenne's delayed throttle response made power modulation on bumps and sand a doddle; I could feed the six the perfect amount of gas at the perfect pace. Porsche Traction Management and the Cayenne's steel spring multi-link suspension made short work of washboard surfaces, deep sand, scree and dead jackrabbits. Flying down dirt roads, the Cayenne's six-speed transmission was always in the right gear. I was no longer a prat with a Bluetooth earpiece; I was Stig Blomqvist in the Dakar.
The harder and faster you pushed the Cayenne on the fast dirt sections, the more sure-footed it became. The Cayenne is as unflappable in the dirt as a Cayman is on the track. In the really rough sections, the Cayenne's low-range with the lockable differentials allowed absurd bouldering shenanigans. Climbing to the top of Tikaboo Peak, the Cayenne could do no wrong.
Mission accomplished. Point taken. The Porsche Cayenne, even in its simplest form, embodies all the passion and engineering skill of a 911. But it's a fervor rooted in the deserts, plains and mountains of Africa, not the middle of the Nürburgring. The Cayenne's fast and fun on dirt roads, and poised and capable scrambling over river washes and steep climbs. It's a damn shame the vast majority of Cayenne owners will never discover this vehicle's true essence. Because otherwise, cash cow or not, the Cayenne makes no sense.