Politically correct automotive wisdom insists Porsche has no business in the SUV business.
Almost since the day it was known management at Porsche AG had green-lighted an SUV, the preferred sport of automotive writers and Porsche faithful became trashing the new Cayenne as a sellout by the deified sportscar maker.
Be careful, though, about labeling the '03 Cayenne an SUV, because it's certainly no truck — Cayenne is built on an all-new unibody platform shared with Volkswagen AG's Touareg and sits decidedly on the “crossover” end of the spectrum (Ward's classifies Cayenne as a cross/utility vehicle).
Cayenne also manages to escalate the class-warfare emotion some argue is at the root of ongoing anti-SUV sentiment: The base Cayenne S is $55,900 — in itself not so outrageous, particularly when judged in light of its BMW X5 4.6i, Mercedes ML55 and Range Rover competitors — but the Cayenne Turbo starts at a thundering $88,900 and wallows blithely into six-figure pricing when just a few of the numerous options are fitted.
Accept the fait accompli of a Porsche SUV, though, and here's the only question that matters: Is Cayenne worthy of the Porsche crest? Yes — with reservations, of course.
Probably the most overwhelming revelation after the first drive-in-earnest of the Cayenne is its shocking dynamic prowess: This thing steers and corners — to deliberately use a cliche — like a sports car. The variable-ratio power steering actually transmits some feel for what the front tires are doing and the body stays eerily flat and free from pitch or squat during the most audacious steering or braking inputs.
It should be mentioned this impression is imparted based on driving only Cayennes fitted with the superb “air” suspension system that incorporates Porsche Active Suspension Management, just one of the Cayenne's dizzying array of available acronymed technologies. In the case of PASM (standard for Turbo, optional at $4,480 for the Cayenne S), the suspension isn't really pneumatic at all, instead relying on dampers that employ magnetorheologic fluid to control body motion. This technology — soon to be seen on various Cadillacs and already available on Chevrolet's 50th Anniversary Corvette — delivers astonishing levels of body control.
The Cayenne body simply doesn't roll, nor does it suffer the acceleration squat or braking dive that makes energetic driving in lesser SUVs so tiresome. Hammering along the pitted asphalt single-lane roads of the Lookout Mountain Parkway near Birmingham, AL, the Cayenne seemingly sails over every nasty surface and swallows tight switchback curves that would bring plenty of sport sedans to their knees.
Any true Porsche must have something going in the engine bay, too, and for the Cayenne, Porsche engineered an all-new, all-aluminum 4.5L DOHC V-8. It's a generally agreeable brute, summoning its 340 hp at a lofty 6,000 rpm — or about 1,000 rpm after it all gets a bit thrashy.
The $33,000 stretch to the Cayenne Turbo parks underhood a twin-turbocharged variant of the new V-8, and the numbers are Homeric: 450 hp and 457 lb.-ft. (620 Nm) of torque. Its sneaky thrust is evidenced both in the 5.6-second 0-60 mph (97 km/h) run and in the nonchalant way the Turbo snaps from 70 mph (113 km/h) to 120 mph (193 km/h).
Either V-8 is backed by an Aisin AW-made 6-speed automatic with Porsche's signature Tiptronic control. No manual.
The brakes, 6-piston calipers with pie-plate 13.8-in. (35-cm) rotors up front and 4-piston, 13-in. (33-cm) jobs at the rear, are animalistic in their stopping ability, but the long, hard pedal depressions required to halt the Cayenne Turbo point out one of this platform's few weaknesses: cast-in-lead curb weights. The Turbo is 5,192 lbs. (2,356 kg), and we find this unconscionable for a newly developed, 5-seat semi-SUV when beasts like the Infiniti FX45 — which essentially is the same package, right down to the 4.5L V-8 — weigh almost a half-ton less.
Without fault is Porsche Traction Management, the full-time AWD setup that uses a multi-plate clutch-pack center differential to apportion torque to the front or rear axles; the “normal” split is 62% rear-biased, but PTM can send 100% power to either axle if needed. Rounding out the traction package is automatic slip regulation (traction control) and Porsche's superb Porsche Stability Management stability control. You just won't find a more stable or secure chassis in any SUV or crossover.
We can't answer that ultimate question of whether Porsche has tarnished its brand with Cayenne. Consider, rather, the perspective of Fred Schwab, the soon-to-be-retired CEO of Porsche Cars North America, when asked why Porsche risked its heritage to develop an SUV: “To generate revenue,” is the deadpan reply.
Schwab is not cavalier about Porsche's reputation. Instead, he's realistic about the industry environment. Schwab and Porsche management in Germany insist the revenue Cayenne will generate will allow Porsche to stay independent — the 50,000-plus worldwide sales (23,000 in North America) will double Porsche's output and, presumably, fill the coffers sufficiently to ensure Porsche doesn't any time soon end up in the clutches of a General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co., or even Volkswagen AG or Toyota Motor Corp.
If Cayenne is the necessary evil that ensures Porsche can continue doing 911s and Boxsters the way it sees fit, then Porsche zealots should welcome it with open arms.