Porsche. Iconic sportscar brand. Most successful Le Mans racing marque in history. Manufacturer of the 911, which also happens to be the winningest racing car in history too.
Suffice to say, for a brand with such phenomenal competition history the question of building an SUV has always been troubling. But it shouldn’t be. Porsche’s got more gravel travel racing heritage than most. In 1986 it did the unthinkable and won the Paris-Dakar with is 959 supercar. Take that achievement into account and the notion of Porsche offering a performance SUV with off-road ability isn’t nearly that absurd.
Since 2002 its marketed a luxury off-roader, and in 2018, the year of Cayenne’s sweet sixteenth birthday, it has evolved into a third-generation vehicle with closer traits to Porsche’s coupes, than ever before. The new Cayenne doesn’t look dramatically different from its predecessor (quad front LEDs and new horizontal bar lighting at the back), but it’s mechanically a vastly more advanced offering than any Porsche SUV before.
The clever bits are almost unnoticeable. Like its asymmetric tyres. Part of the secret to Porsche’s amazingly agile 911s and 718s, are the fact that they run wider tyres at the rear, this enables a traction bias to the aft axle, freeing-up those front tyres to angle sharper turn-in, usually in partnership with a very keenly geared steering rack.
Cayenne now features a narrower rear tack, with 20mm wider tyres at each side, which means that although it’s a permanently all-wheel drive SUV, Porsche’s intuitive centre-differential biases most of the power rearwards. Up front, there’s radically reshaped suspension geometry, assisting a steering rack geared to 12.3:1, which makes Cayenne about 15-20% faster steering than most rival performance SUVs.
Despite reworked aluminium body panels netting a 65kg weight loss, Cayenne still isn’t a light vehicle. Across the three derivates you are looking at a mass spread of a few kilograms under and just over 2000kg. This is usually the undoing of any SUV with ample power: a high centre of gravity and lots of weight mean ungainly bodyroll and unsettling pitch movements under severe braking. Porsche’s counter is an intelligent air-suspension system, with three-chamber capacity and software controlling the compression of air into all those chambers at all four wheel corners. Part limousine quality ride, but also part imitation active coil-over track suspension.
Powering Cayenne are three different engines, though two of them are quite similar. The headlining Turbo model runs a 4-litre bi-turbo good for 404kW, whilst a smaller version of this, minus two cylinders, is the 324kW 3-litre Cayenne S. A 250kW, single-turbo 3-litre V6 powers the entry-level Cayenne. Interestingly, there are no PDK transmissions, ZF’s eight-speed automatic has been preferred to Porsche PDK dual-clutch gearbox for its more linear, and less frantic, nature. The presence of a torque-converter on the ZF ensures that Porsche can offer a 3.5t tow-rating with the Cayenne and makes it a lot more predictable to crawl over technical obstacles off-road.
What’s it like to drive? First impressions are that the traditional Porsche driving position, low and offering the driver perfect steering and pedal contact, has been transferred to Cayenne. There aren’t other SUVs where you sit in such an undiluted cabin, with ergonomics and controls focussed on easing the task of driving enthusiastically, instead of merely being made comfortable for the task of absorbing digital infotainment behind the wheel.
Whichever of the three engine options you select, throttle response is smooth, but power deliver urgent. It’s the interplay between excellently calibrated ZF gearbox software and virtually lag-free, wholesome, turbocharged engines. You’re never at a loss for thrust in any new Cayenne.
Most impressive, though, is the agility. It’s a larger, heavy, car – but Cayenne feels smaller and more agile the quicker you go. Porsche 4D chassis management system is remarkable, offering astonishingly comfortable ride quality, even on gravel roads and over rock-strewn valleys. It’s never too soft either, allowing the Cayenne to float through dips in the roads, without the sacrifice of alarmingly bodyroll when tightening the line through high-speed sweeps. Cayenne is not merely composed at the very swift speeds it is capable of, it welcomes you to sustain a pace that would be uncomfortable in most other vehicles of its size and mass.
After a day’s exhaustive testing in the Omani desert, traversing gravel roads the calibre of which 959 did in 1986, and speeding along on unforgivingly serpentine ribbons of tarmac, Cayenne 3.0 was completely unbothered. It’s effortlessly accomplished. Everywhere. Kind of like that 1986 Dakar winning 959 was.
Cayenne R1 131 000
Cayenne S R1 272 000
Cayenne Turbo R2 064 000