Porsche Cayenne ups its game

November 30, 2010, 10:27 PM UTC

The 2011 Cayenne looks better, specs out better, and drives better than its disappointing forbear.

When the first Cayenne SUV came out in 2002, unlike most Porsche purists, I was immediately attracted by the idea of a Porsche with four doors. It was the family man’s Porsche; the addition of the usable back seat meant it wouldn’t be restricted to drives on Sunday afternoon.

But I, along with the purists, was appalled when we saw the vehicle. The exterior was awkward and unresolved, and it lacked any charming quirks or personality.

The interior was cold and crude, while the instrument panel looked as if it had been laid on with a trowel. Worst of all, the original Cayenne was grossly overweight at nearly two-and-a-half tons.

Despite the typically potent Porsche powerplant, every ounce of that tonnage could be felt while accelerating and cornering.

Since then, another four-door, the Panamera, has been added to the Porsche lineup, so the bar has been raised for the second generation Cayenne. Mere utility won’t be sufficient; the Cayenne has to be good on its merits.

The 2011 Cayenne is better than that. If the Cayenne were an athlete, you would say it has raised the level of its game. It looks better, specs out better, and drives better.

All the old trouble spots have been eliminated. The exterior is more refined and better integrated, with muscular curves replacing angular compromises.
The finely-crafted interior is finally equal to the Porsche’s $63,700 base sticker price, while the controls and switches, lifted from the Panamera, correct a traditional Porsche weakness and are models of functionality.

Most remarkably, the 2011 Cayenne is nearly 500 pounds lighter than the 2010, thanks to the judicious application of aluminum in the doors, hood, and chassis.

Not only does the Cayenne feel lighter on its feet, it gets a welcome boost in fuel economy, from 13 miles per gallon city/19 highway to 16 mpg city/22 highway.

The jet black metallic test car sat poised in my driveway, coiled with latent energy and ready for takeoff. According to usually reliable sources, 60 miles per hour was available just 5.6 seconds away.

The car came festooned with the usual overpriced Porsche options, including $3,655 for the leather interior and $3,120 for the “RS Spyder Design Wheels.”

There was no extra charge for the summer performance tires, but they came with the warning that “performance tires are not recommended for winter driving.”

With memories still fresh of a harrowing drive through a blizzard in a Cayenne Turbo with summer tires, it made me glad that winter had not yet arrived in the Northeast.

On dry pavement, the Cayenne delivered seamless, nearly unlimited power, superb ergonomics, and a reassuring feeling of control over high-performing machinery. It should significantly enlarge the number of Cayenne enthusiasts.

By now, the Cayenne’s sales story has become well-known: How it has helped Porsche over the sports-car drought of the past several years on its way to becoming the company’s best-selling model. The Cayenne outsells the 911 in the U.S. and, in a good year, accounts for more than one-third of all Porsche sales.

Porsche’s future has gotten a little more complicated in recent months, as Volkswagen wrestled with legal and tax issues involved in its Porsche takeover, and various ideas have been floated for additions to the product line.

The Cayenne could be affected. On Monday, Porsche announce it would build a second, smaller SUV called the Cajun.

The Cajun will likely share parts with VW and Audi, in as much as the Cayenne already shares parts with VW’s Touareg and Audis A7. If too much parts sharing takes hold at Porsche, those purists who were so affronted by the first generation Cayenne may start referring to the 2011 model as “the last genuine Cayenne.”