Strongly feel that Porsche should stick to sports cars? Personally, I’m willing to cut Zuffenhausen a little slack. Sports car sales, with their boom-and-bust cycles, don’t provide a sound foundation for corporate financial health. A more reasonable test: does Porsche’s entry look and drive unlike any other, in a manner consistent with the marque? Though not pretty, the Panamera passed this test. And the Cayenne SUV?
The initial outlook isn’t good. While the Cayenne’s front end strongly resembles those of other Porsche models, the rest of the exterior can easily be mistaken for an Audi or even a Volkswagen. In fact, the first time I saw the redesigned-for-2011 second-generation Cayenne I thought it was an Audi Q5. One reason: while the Panamera is closely related to no other car, the Cayenne retains close ties with the Volkswagen Touareg, which it also resembles. This isn’t entirely a bad thing. Like the second-generation VW, the 2011 Cayenne is sleeker, better-proportioned, and altogether more attractive than its predecessor.
The Cayenne’s interior is more distinctive than its exterior. Whether by actual dimensional differences or by visual trickery, the instrument panel seems significantly lower and more compact in the Cayenne than in the Touareg. As in the Panamera, the IP rests directly atop an upward-sloping center console (its many buttons closer at hand than they would be in a vertical center stack) to form a subtly tapered “T.” The center console’s upward-angled grab handles (why would the driver need one?) are now mirrored by the door pulls (though the latter are mounted farther forward). Put it all together, and the Cayenne seems sportier from the driver seat than any other SUV. Yet, unlike in the Panamera, there’s no sense that you’re actually in a sports car. The seats (and entire vehicle) would have to be much closer to the ground for that.
Porsche’s interiors have come a long way over the past decade, but the new Cayenne’s still includes too much hard plastic that cannot be mistaken for anything else—even when fitted with the tested car’s upholstered instrument panel and center console. One surprising oversight that provides a poor early impression: the artful door pulls flex and creak when put to their intended use. Form clearly took precedence over function.
The Cayenne’s base front buckets are cushier than the German norm. Though they provide some lateral support, anyone planning to drive this Porsche like a Porsche should pony up another $1,815 for the 18-way power-adjustable sport seats. As in the Touareg, the comfortably high rear seat slides and reclines. In its rearmost position there’s plenty of legroom for all but the tallest adults—but the same can be said of many smaller, lighter compact crossovers. Cargo volume is similarly beyond sufficient but well short of outstanding.
As in the Panamera, engine choices include a 300-horsepower V6, 333-horsepower supercharged hybrid V6, 400-horsepower V8 “S”, and 500-horsepower turbocharged V8 “Turbo.” In the Panamera, the V8 takes the car to an entirely different level. With the Cayenne I sampled only the V8, but drove a Touareg with the V6 in 280-horsepoweer tune immediately beforehand. While the V8 is quicker and more sonorous than the V6, it doesn’t transform the Cayenne like it does the Panamera. Blame two factors. First, while the 4,553-pound 2011 Cayenne S is, commendably, 400 pounds lighter than the 2010 and 740 pounds lighter than the similarly-dimensioned BMW X5 xDrive50i, it remains ten percent heavier than the Panamera. About 70 pounds went with the no-longer-offered two-speed transfer case—Porsche figured out that few owners ventured far off the tarmac. Second, while the V8 is paired with a seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual in the big hatchback, it’s hooked up to a conventional eight-speed automatic in the SUV. Though the Aisin box is perhaps the best of its kind, with quick, nearly imperceptible shifts, the PDK shifts even more quickly and provides a manual-like direct, mechanical connection. Bottom line: in the SUV, the turbo is needed to kick the tail out at will and quicken one’s pulse. The reduced curb weight and additional transmission ratios do significantly improve fuel economy, bumping the V8’s EPA ratings from a dismal 13/19 to a respectable 16/22.
The Cayenne is too large (though not too heavy) to feel as chuckable as compact SUVs like the Audi Q5 and BMW X3 (the upcoming Cajun will target these), but too small to have the road presence of a Cadillac Escalade or Infiniti Q56. The boxes not checked affect its braking and handling. Options include ceramic brakes ($8,150), adaptive dampers ($1,990), air springs (another $1,990), active stabilizer bars ($3,510), torque vectoring ($1,490), and ultra-low-profile ultra-high-performance tires ($1,560-$4,875). The tested Cayenne S had none of these. So perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that it didn’t steer or handle dramatically better than the Touareg. Yes, the steering was quicker and more communicative, there was less lean in hard turns, and body motions were more tightly controlled, but the difference was a matter of degree, not of kind. As in the VW, you don’t forget you’re driving a tall, heavy vehicle. And so nothing like the difference between the Panamera and its competitors. By the same token, though, the standard suspension Cayenne S only rides a little more firmly than the Touareg, so it’s more day-to-day livable than the hatchback.
You’re not getting an entirely bespoke vehicle with the Cayenne, and its price does reflect this. Outfit a 2011 Cayenne S with Convenience Package (nav, xenons, Bose audio, heated seats, auto-dimming mirrors), obstacle detection, and full-leather interior, and it lists for $71,780. A similarly-equipped Panamera S lists for nearly $95,000. But even relatively inexpensive Porsches are far from cheap. A BMW xDrive50i with the same bits lists for $65,125, and adjusting for remaining feature differences using TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool adds another grand to the heftier, truckier BMW’s price advantage, for a total over $7,500.
In the end, the tested 2011 Porsche Cayenne S doesn’t quite pass my test. From most angles it’s too easily mistaken for an Audi or even a VW. It handles better than competing SUVs, but not dramatically so. The turbocharged V8 and chassis options might well make a big difference. But if one or more of these are needed to render the Cayenne worthy of the Porsche crest, then why offer the SUV without them?
Scott Vollink of Suburban Porsche in Farmington Hills, MI, provided the car. He can be reached at 248-741-7980.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data