Payne: Porsche Cayenne a rhino in ballet slippers
You know you're not in a normal SUV when you have six — count 'em, six — grab handles in the cockpit. In layman's terms: "Oh, crap! handles." You usually find them in the shot-gun seat of powerful sports cars (the new Corvette Stingray has two) for those moments when the driver pushes the envelope and the surprised passenger's instincts are to scream — "Oh, crap!" — and grab for something to hold on to. Rollercoasters are festooned with grab handles.
But why are they in a midsize, four-door family ute? Because it's a 2015 Porsche Cayenne S.
You'll need them, believe me. Because at some point while you're cruising down the road in your comfy, luxe ute — Mom dozing off in front and the kids playing smartphone games in back — Dad is going to be possessed with the Ghost of Racing Legends Past that haunt every Porsche. He'll be overcome with the desire to test the limits of the Teutonic handling and horsepower that lurks beneath.
And there is plenty beneath the Cayenne S. A twin-turbo V-6 with 420-horsepower and bless-my-soul 406 pound-feet of torque. Sport mode-damped suspension. Sophisticated sub-frame. Torque-vectoring, electronic center diff. All-wheel drive grip.
Here comes an ess curve. The ghost seizes Dad. His eyes glaze red. His chest swells. Shirt buttons pop. Hair grows like ivy up his forearms. He grips the wheel. Floors the throttle. RHAAAWWWRRRRGHH! Goes the V-6. And the great Cayenne surges like Ndamukong Suh seeing an unprotected quarterback.
The family grabs for all six handles. Inexplicably, even the driver gets two (lest the steering wheel snaps off in Dad's Hulk-sized hands, I can only suppose). I have witnessed this possession. A good friend — a brilliant, law-abiding Lansing economist — emails me audio files revving his Cayenne in his garage.
The Porsche ute is pure automotive brilliance.
For 2015 Porsche Cayenne engines have been upgraded and optimized to consume less fuel than their immediate predecessors while offering improved performance. Max Ortiz
It represents a manufacturer executing its brand to perfection. Marketing 101 listen up. Porsche built a racing dynasty that ruled the Earth from the 1960s-90s. The Porsche 907, 908 (which I still race), 935, 962. The alpha male of them all, the Porsche 917, won everything in sight, becoming so dominant that sports car racing had to change the rules to give everyone else a chance. Porsche translated that racing expertise to the best production sport cars on the street: 911, Cayman, Boxster.
Then Porsche took that special sauce and mixed it with family vehicles — the Cayenne and Macan SUVs and Panamera sedan — that collectively make more money than God. In the last decade, a once 15,000-a-year sports car manufacturer has seen sales triple riding sales of $70,000 SUVs in a U.S. market that craves crossovers.
The Cayenne is the best-selling Porsche. Ever. It defines luxury SUV performance. Its little brother Macan — introduced last year — will surely surpass it in sales. Porsche made so much dough in the last decade that it made a run at buying its parent Volkswagen, for goodness sake. With Macan sales, Porsche might buy Rhode Island.
But the Cayenne isn't just a show horse (though most will only drive it as such). The Cayenne lineup has been upgraded — base V-6, turbodiesel V-6, S, S E-hybrid, and Turbo — in a mid-production cycle refresh, adopting the same chassis steroids found in elite GTS and Turbo models.
For those who think utes lack personality, the Cayenne S begs to differ.
Sure, the S has sacrificed its V-8's throaty roar to the green police for a more fuel-efficient, twin-turbo V-6. But there is no sacrifice in performance as the V-6 gains 20 horsepower and more low-end torque. Step on it out of a stoplight and zero-60 goes by in just 5.2 seconds. Oh, craaaaap!
This 4,600-pound beast is a rhino in ballet slippers. I tested it in the Cuyamaca Mountains east of San Diego. On the same serpentine roads I conquered with the hot hatch VW Golf R just a month before. Surely these roads would humble the Porsche SUV. How could 21/2 tons of ute navigate evil switchbacks and diving hairpins? By defying the laws of physics apparently.
Like a hot hatch on stilts, the Cayenne attacked the twisties. Credit the torque-vectoring AWD system which transfers grip wherever it's needed, allowing me to rotate the rhino with confidence. Superb electronics and an eight-speed tranny helped control the beast's girth, minimizing body roll and allowing early application of the turbo's awesome power to leap from turn to turn.
All-wheel drive. Don't leave home without it.
Aesthetically too, the Cayenne is true to its roots. Though that's not always a good thing. The Cayenne slavishly follows the 911's timeless, tear-drop shape making it look like a jacked-up 911 prepared for a Ford Field monster truck rally. Raked body lines — the Cadillac SRX or BMW X6 come to mind — would give the body a more crouched look. For 2015, Porsche did make changes — a widened hood line here, spread tail pipes there — to give the appearance of a wider stance. It works.
The interior changes little. It's handsome. Athletic. Multi-gauge, 911-like instruments with dedicated navi-map display. Button-assisted touchscreen. The 175-mph top speed tac. Yeah, it's a Porsche all right. A multitude of button functions spill down the long, narrow center console like tattoos down LeBron James' arm. They are space eaters (where can I store a phone?) but, in keeping with the sporty brand, they are at your fingertips. No searching through touch-screen menus to find performance essentials.
Porsche even eschews a push button starter. Turn the key just like the legends of old.
For all of the testosterone, what surprises about the Cayenne is its utility. At 6-foot-5-inches I can sit behind myself in a rear seat that shames Delta coach class. This isn't your typical, Porsche dark back-seat hole but a pleasant, airy space with cupped seats, headroom and available, full-cabin sunroof. Want to load up cross-country skis or a couple of snowmobiles for a day at the state park? The 60-40 rear seats fold flat, and the rhino will haul up to 7,700 pounds.
Snowmobiles? Fun, no doubt. But I'll take the warmth of the Cayenne cabin with heated, leather seats and a twisty rural road. Hold on to those oh, crap! handles, kids.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne.
2015 Porsche Cayenne S
Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, five-passenger sport ute
Price: $59,295 base ($94,550 as tested)
Power plant: 3.6-liter, twin turbo 6-cylinder
Power: 420 horsepower, 406 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: eight-speed automatic
Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.2 seconds (manufacturer)
Weight: 4,579 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA 17 mpg city/24 mpg highway/20 mpg combined
Highs: The standard for SUV performance; Twin turbos
Lows: 911 design language loses something in ute translation; V-8 withdrawal