Payne: Porsche Cayenne gets brains with its brawn
I shouldn’t be able to go this quickly in a big ute.
Through the writhing, undulating valley roads of northern California, I whipped the all-new 2019 Porsche Cayenne five-door steed. The 10-piston brakes pulled the eyeballs out from my head. The laser-like steering placed the beast — there! — at the apex. Ample torque to all four wheels helped power-drift on exit.
Cayenne’s sports car-like handling comes naturally. After all, its father is the Porsche 911, the best-handling supercar on the planet.
Payne, have you gone mad? Flogging a 4,300-pound SUV through the wilderness?
Well, the world has gone crazy for a while now. Blame Stuttgart, which in 2003 went off the sports-car reservation (some thought off its rocker) and invented the Cayenne, a midsize performance SUV. Like driving each new generation of the $100,000 Porsche 911, I make it a point to get in the latest Cayenne cyborg because, for two decades it has been the standard by which all performance SUVs are judged.
The uber-ute was infused with Porsche DNA reaching back to the famous LeMans-winning 906 and 908 prototypes I once piloted on the vintage racing circuit. The Cayenne was big, heavy ... but unmistakably the Porsche of its class.
Customers gobbled it up.
The more consumers grinned, the more the executive suite smiled. The Cayenne made Porsche sustainable by expanding its demographic beyond hard-core sports car enthusiasts — and providing a steady stream of income to fuel the brand’s essential, brand-defining motorsports efforts.
Over the last 15 years, nearly every performance brand has followed Porsche’s lead. Jaguar, Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Lamborghini, Ferrari. Your humble News columnist has urged Corvette to build utes.
But most of the aforementioned brands have built compact SUVs to help craft an automotive oxymoron: nimble SUV. Even Porsche, which in 2012 introduced the compact Macan (the brand’s best-seller in the best-selling luxury segment).
Which makes the Cayenne in my hands all the more remarkable. This is a midsize SUV built on the same platform as Audi’s three-row Q7, for goodness sake.
The first-generation Cayenne was a pig in tennis shoes. At a rotund 4,800 pounds (the same weight as a base Ford F-150) it was a locomotive in a straight line — but also was a heavy locomotive in the corners. Porsche had engineered the Cayenne with the rugged outdoors in mind, a place customers rarely ventured. So for Gen 2 it concentrated on Porsche’s core principle: handling.
Job One became reduced mass and Cayenne 2.0 went on a 300-pound diet. I drove the all-wheel drive, 2015 Cayenne S back-to-back with an all-wheel drive VW Golf R hatchback and came away stupefied at how well it handled twisty mountain roads.
Cayenne 3.0 has further reduced the weight gap between the 3,300-pound Golf R by shedding another 120 pounds while maintaining the same wheelbase so my 6-foot-5-inch frame can slip comfortably into the rear seat. That’s still a lot of mass, but under its typically conservative exterior upgrade (save for the thin, horizontal tail lamp, the SUV is virtually indistinguishable from Cayenne 2.0), Porsche has brought major engineering improvements.
The mostly-tin skin now covers a 47-percent aluminum chassis. The front suspension has evolved to a sophisticated, multi-link setup to assist that precision e-steering, and the V-6 engine has been turbocharged to a healthy 340 horses and 331 pound-feet of torque (up 15 percent).
Speed freaks will get access to even more asphalt-gobbling toys when the Cayenne S and Turbo models come out next year: toys like four-wheel steering and 450- and 550-horsepower turbocharged mills and serious performance rubber.
But some of this sci-fi weaponry is also available on the base $68,000 V-6: Gadgets like the Sport Chrono package found on the Boxster and 911 speed demons.
Embedded in the steering column like Iron Man’s arc reactor, the Sport Chrono button glows red. Push it and the digital instrument panel begins a 20-second countdown. Countdown to do what?
Luffing along behind a semi-truck in sixth gear through the curvy Alexander Valley, a brief, dotted center-line straight stretch opens up. Push the button. Tiptronic tranny instantly shifts from sixth to third gear. Floor the throttle.
I am past the semi in a flash — with 15 seconds more boost if I want to ingest other cars ahead. Call it push-to-pass like the Formula One technology. On the 550-horse Turbo I imagine it will take me across Michigan in about 30 minutes.
The arc reactor can also be used for standing-start launch control. Rotate its rim dial to Sport Plus. Floor brake and throttle simultaneously. Revs peg to 3,000. Release brake. Zot!
The Cayenne also has a toy for stopping: the 10-piston brake caliper. Stretching across the brake disc like a partial solar eclipse, the huge caliper provides instant stopping power for the 4,300-pound projectile.
In typical Porsche fashion, these accessories come alone — $1,200 for the Sports Chrono, $3,500 for the brakes. With sales of just 15,000 a year — roughly the same number as Ford F-150 Raptor sales — Porsche’s ethic is not unlike a high-end restaurant. Order fast food and choose your package — I’ll have No. 3 with two sides, drink and dessert, please. Order from Porsche Bistro and it is a la carte. Even adaptive cruise control. Happily, steering wheel is standard.
Porsche brings more innovation inside, though the results are mixed.
The performance brand long coasted on signature interior touches like left-hand key (just like the LeMans-winning racers!) and a console sleeve of performance buttons. But the electronic age has forced Porsche to catch up and it does so with stunning, digital, 10-inch and 12.3-inch color instrument and console displays with endless layers of customizable features.
My favorite is Auto Rest, which will channel the residual heat from your engine into the cabin so you can stay warm for 20 minutes in the parking lot even after the engine’s been turned off.
Ergonomics do not match the engineering. Haptic-screen control buttons are located awkwardly behind the monostable shifter. And 20th-century audio commands control the 21st-century features.
Overall, however, the machine’s pure joy on the road overcomes such minor grievances. For 80-grand, it is the Porsche of performance utes.
And if that’s too rich for your blood, then check out the similarly sized, $40,000 Ford Edge ST funbox. Another spawn of Porsche’s performance SUV revolution. Danke schön, Stuttgart.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.
2019 Porsche Cayenne
Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, five-passenger SUV
Price: $66,750 base including $1,050 destination fee ($84,240 as tested)
Powerplant: 3.0-liter, turbocharged V-6
Power: 335 horsepower, 332 pound-feet torque
Transmission: 8-speed automatic with paddle shifters
Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.6 seconds (mfr.); Tow capacity: 7,750
Weight: 4,377 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA: 19 city/23 highway/21 combined
Highs: I-can't-believe-it's-a-ute handling; tech-tastic features
Lows: Awkward console ergonomics; poor voice commands
Overall: 4 stars