12/14/04 — Of course it’s the sports car of SUVs

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Of course it’s the sports car of SUVs

Porsche Cayenne S (2005)

He scratched his head in a “I don’t believe it” posture as he walked around the Porsche Cayenne S in the parking lot of our townhome community.

Our townhome maintenance guy knows that Porsche has built sports cars for many years. And he knows that Chevrolet and Ford build trucks. He drives a pickup every day. And he probably knows that most automakers build some sort of SUV these days.

Porsche Cayenne S, 2005

But a Porsche sport utility vehicle had him pondering the order of the universe. Never mind that the Cayenne is entering its third model year of production. There are probably a considerable number of people who drive Chevy trucks who don’t yet know that Porsche makes a sport utility vehicle.

Porsche was criticized for venturing into the SUV market. Even today, a Porsche SUV is a good example of an oxymoron to many people.

But a niche carmaker with just two basic sports car platforms — the Boxster and the 911 — needed more product, so the thinking went among Porsche executives. It’s hard to survive as a small independent automaker in these times when giant auto conglomerates dominate the industry.

We attended the Porsche Boxster S introduction several years ago and a sport utility product was being discussed then. Many of the journalists at that time were dubious that Porsche could pull it off, fearing an SUV would water down its sports car image.

The critics did not deter Porsche, however.

Prosche at that time had already reached an agreement with Volkswagen to develop an SUV. The joint venture was designed to help defray the enormous cost of building a vehicle from scratch. After the heavy work was done, the two companies split off to develop the individual personalities of the Volkswagen Toureag and the Porsche Cayenne.

And there’s no mistaking the two. Identical twins they are not.

Now Porsche is showing up its critics, especially when sales numbers for the past two years are factored into its controversial decision.

The sport utility is doing exactly what Porsche wanted it to do in terms of boosting the company’s bottom line. Nearly 13,000 Cayennes were sold in 2003 pushing Porsche sales up nearly 83 percent over the previous year. And Porsche is on track to sell nearly 17,000 copies in 2004, which would represent about half of the company’s total production.

How do you spell success?

Maybe more amazing is that the Cayenne fits neatly into the Porsche image. It is indeed the sports car of sport utilities, if you must compartmentalize it within the segment.

We spent a week in a 2005 Cayenne S, our first experience with the SUV, and we were amazed at its sports-car attributes including its neck-snapping performance and amazing road-holding attributes.

There’s a number of sports cars on the market that would eat the dust of this high-riding vehicle should they encounter it on a race track. Incredible.

Of course, if you want a sports car, buy a sports car. But if you need the space and the go-anywhere demeanor of a sport utility, but don’t want to sacrifice performance and handling, then the Cayenne may be your ticket to happiness.

The Cayenne comes in three flavors, all outfitted with a 6-speed Tiptronic transmission. The Cayenne S comes with a 4.5-liter V-8 rated at 340 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque and the Cayenne Turbo, dubbed the fastest sport utility in the world, comes with a twin-turbocharged V-8 generating 450 horsepower and 460 pound feet of torque.

A V-6 model was added for 2004. It uses a 3.2-liter engine generating 250 horsepower and 228 pound-feet of torque. Although the V-6 is a bit un-Porsche-like in acceleration (0 to 60 in around 8 seconds) it gives the person with a smaller pocketbook entry into the brand. It starts at about $44,000.

Both V-8 editions are fast and pricey, but that’s to be expected if it has Porsche written on it. The Cayenne S starts at $57,143 for 2005. It can take you from 0 to 60 in 6.8 seconds, according to Porsche statistics. That’s a noteworthy feat considering the vehicle’s prodigious 5,000 pound curb weight.

The turbocharged model, starting at around $90,000, can climb to 60 in a Mustang GT-like 5.4 seconds.

The Cayenne, we discovered, can carve up back roads and when its time to reel it in, can stop very quickly.

Our test SUV felt incredibly solid and planted. Steering was right on. A heavy right foot sent the Porsche into a maniacal rush forward.

And those who have taken the Cayenne off road, say it is extremely adept at getting to places that only the most capable can go.

The Cayenne comes with an electronically controlled four-wheel drive system with a low range and a locking center differential. How the power is apportioned is not determined by traction alone, but also by sensors measuring the road speed and driver imputes.

The Cayenne comes with a hill holder feature that allows the driver to stop on a grade of up to 45 degrees and drive off again without the use of the brakes. It also has a hill decent control that allows a slow, steady decent on steep slopes or icy roads by the use of engine braking on speeds up to 12.5 miles per hour.

A high-level air intake and transmission ventilation allows the Cayenne to wade through water up to 19.7 inches deep.

An optional air suspension system on the Cayenne S allows for a range of ride heights spanning 4.5 inches.

The styling takes some getting used to. It has the look of a mid-sized station wagon on stilts. The steep rake of the windshield, the big Porsche-style air intakes on the front and the large 18-inch wheels spell sports car.

The instrumentation, including the gauges in overlapping circles, is standard Porsche. Even the ignition switch remains on the left side of the steering wheel.

On the downside, the climate and stereo controls at first glance are a complicated assortment of buttons and levers. It takes a few trips around the block to become acquainted with the setup.

The seats are comfortable and the driving position is excellent. Storage space is acceptable for a mid-sized sport utility with 19 cubic feet behind the second-row and 62.5 cubic feet with the seats folded.

As you would expect with a vehicle in this price range, standard equipment abounds.

In the safety department, front side airbags and side-curtain airbags are standard. Other standard features on our S model included leather seating, a 14-speaker 350-watt Bose sound system, automatic climate control, 12-way power driver’s seat and keyless entry.

For most people, the Porsche name brings to mind a great driving experience. And this Porsche certainly doesn’t disappoint.

The Cayenne is classified as a sports utility vehicle. It could also be classified as a sports car that has no boundaries.

By Jim Meachen
Published in Car Reviews on December 14, 2004 2:07 PM