'Porsche’s original SUV turns sweet 16. We join the party in Oman,' writes Lance Branquinho as he drives the third-generation Cayenne.
Dubai - Some things are worth waiting for. In 1989, Ferry Porsche had a notion that luxury off-road station wagons, with limousine-like driving characteristics, would be the future. He said: "If we built an off-road vehicle according to our standards of quality, and it had a Porsche crest on the front, people would buy it."
Ferry never saw his vision become reality, having passed away in 1998, before the Cayenne debuted four years later. But he would not be at all surprised that it has become the vehicle to conquer new markets for the fabled German sportscar brand he chaired, having converted many new customers to the unusual lure of a Porsche with dune climbing and river crossing ability.
The Cayenne was initially dismissed as disappointing commercialism by existing Porsche owners when first revealed. It was felt that Porsche was merely following Mercedes (ML) and BMW (X5) into a luxury SUV segment which sacrificed the foremost Porsche values: driving pleasure and dynamic balance.
Sixteen years and 770 000 Cayennes later, it’s now simply regarded as a Porsche like any other, with the unusual talent of being effortlessly capable on off-road terrain when required.
Image: Wheels24 / Lance Branquinho
Subtle design tweaks
This year brings the third-generation of Cayenne to market and by June, you’ll see them at Porsche dealers and in traffic around South Africa. The design evolution over the second-generation Cayenne is very slight, so subtle that many will wonder if this new Cayenne isn’t merely a facelift.
Those who obsess about all things Porsche will notice the quad-LED headlights (originally seen on the Mission E prototype) and a new rear horizontal strip light, but there’s not much to differentiate third-generation Cayenne as all-new.
Porsche claims it is a comprehensively re-engineered car, about 65kg lighter and with some very trick aerodynamics and dynamic chassis geometry.
The range totals three engine options, two V6s and a V8. The two smaller differ quite a bit, entry level Cayenne powered by a 3-litre single-turbo V6 (250kW), whilst the Cayenne S is powered by a 2.9-litre bi-turbo (324kW).
Porsche adds two cylinders to this Cayenne S engine block to create the Turbo version’s 4-litre V8, which boosts to 404kW. A confusing naming strategy to name the range-topping car ‘Turbo’ when all three variants are boosted? Possibly, but it’s a Porsche heritage thing.
The really interesting exterior bits of new Cayenne are its font grille and the rear boot lid spoiler. To aid high-speed aerodynamic efficiency, active slats close the grille and at the back, that spoiler can raise to 40mm and variable angles of attack, generating rear-axle downforce.
Cleverest of all is the airbrake function, where emergency braking triggers a sensor which extends the spoiler to 80mm and its most aggressive angle of attack, creating an airbrake which Porsche claims will stop you 2m shorter from 250km/h to rest. And those two meters can be the difference between a close call, and a collision.
Image: Wheels24 / Lance Branquinho
Turning a 2t Porsche
Despite its new aluminium body saving 65kg of mass, Cayenne remains a spacious luxury SUV and as such, it’s not a lightweight sportscar. Kerb weight ranges between just under to a touch over 2000kg for the three derivatives and you don’t expect an agile and rewarding driving experience with 240mm of ground clearance of 2t of mass to move around a high centre of gravity.
Porsche’s engineers are always keen to disprove conventional perceptions and deliver cars which owners drive for the reward of experience, instead of merely being seen in. With Cayenne they’ve done two radical things to make it understeer a whole lot less. The rear track is narrower than the front, and made up the difference in width at the rear with a 20mm increase in tyre width each side.
More rubber rolling at the edges of the rear axle back means it can absorb most of the engine torque, with the front wheels rarely burdened to transferring power and mostly occupied with making a 2t Cayenne respond as the driver intends. And making the new Cayenne react with greater turn-in discipline than any 2t SUV should, is a steering rack ratio of 13.3:1.
To put that into perspective, an Q7’s steering ratio is 18% slower. More grip at the back, quicker steering up front, you get the idea where Porsche’s thinking was regarding these changes.
Is it a proper Porsche?
Typical of a company obsessed by engineering and motorsport, Cayenne numerous technical upgrades can only be understood when experienced in harmony – which means driving it fast, on open roads and testing gravel. A day of driving Cayenne deep into Oman, on sweeping and undulating tar roads and through rock strewn and boulder littered valleys, provided insights into Porsche’s profit pony and its claims of improved performance.
All three new Cayennes feature ZF’s eight-speed automatic transmission, which is perfectly calibrated to match torque output to the throttle demand. Sure, Porsche’s PDK dual-clutch would make Cayenne that last tenth more responsive to drive on-road, but the torque converter of a traditional automatic transmission equals a more linear response – which is better suited to sensitive throttle application required in technical off-road terrain. The automatic also gifts Cayenne a 3.5t towing capacity.
Two things define the new Cayenne driving experience. First of those is its dynamic driving ergonomics. Unlike many other SUVs, you’re seated low, in a driving position more akin to that of a sportscar, instead of an SUV. Second, is the tree-chamber, intelligent air suspension system.
Cayenne isn’t a light vehicle, but the air-suspension is always altering compression pressure at all four wheels, countering bodyroll when the big Porsche SUV is being wielded around tight radius corners, and countering pitch during emergency braking.
It flows beautifully and as a credit to the Porsche, feels like a smaller, more agile car you quicker you go. Capable of searing performance, especially the Turbo with its 0-100km/h of capability of 3.9 seconds and a 286km/h top speed.
If you use all the performance, you’ll quickly run out of road, but that’s when the Cayenne’s prodigious gravel travel ability reveals itself: 240mm of ground clearance ensures you can get most places others can’t, and the air-suspension system absorbed even the sharpest rock edges and extended gravel road corrugations, never disturbing the serenity of Cayenne’s cabin with thuds or terrain shock.
The slightly conservative appearance belies its immense abilities. For some, that lack of outrageous styling details, will only add to Cayenne’s appeal. In its third iteration, Cayenne is closest yet to what Ferry Porsche imagined an off-road Porsche should be.