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Even those who don't love the Porsche Cayenne should be impressed by its dynamic ability

It’s taken a little time but for those who said at its introduction in 2002 that the Porsche Cayenne would destroy the brand, the humble pie is all over their face.

You can see why the doubters doubted: after over half a century building nothing other than two door sports cars, Porsche had now lent its name to a two-and-a-bit-tonne SUV developed in conjunction with Volkswagen.

Even those who don't love the Cayenne should be impressed by its dynamic ability

But if life with the Porsche Cayenne was unimaginable then, it is even harder now to conceive of Porsche without it. When soon after its launch it became Porsche’s best-selling car, many believed it would not last: that the undeniable novelty value of the car would soon wear off. But it never did. So strong it remained that the smaller Porsche Macan followed in 2014.

Today the Cayenne is the most important car in the entire Porsche range, still the best seller and the model Porsche could least do without. Now we see the Cayenne at the centre of the Porsche hub with the once one and only Porsche 911 relegated with the Porsche Boxster, Porsche Cayman and Porsche Panamera to the role of mere spokes.

For the first month of 2017, the Porsche Macan trumped the Cayenne on the sales front in the US, with 600 more smaller Porsche SUVs shifted than the bigger Cayenne. However, even so 1350 were sold in January a mere 45 less than in 2016. So not all is lost.

You may be a Porsche purist and as a result loathe the Cayenne with the same strength of feeling as you might love a Porsche 911 GT3 RS; if so it is worth reflecting that without the former, the latter would almost certainly not even exist.

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DESIGN & STYLING

Porsche Cayenne rear

Now and at last fully fledged, the Cayenne range offers a simple step-through menu of models, each distinguished not by some trim-related model badge, but a bespoke powertrain specification.

The range starts with the diesel models, with the entry-level Cayenne Diesel powered by an oilburning 3.0-litre V6 churning out 258bhp while the Cayenne S Diesel gets a 4.2-litre V8 producing 379bhp.

The current Cayenne’s platform is a heavily modified version of the previous one

The middle of the range is punctuated by a 3.6-litre V6 petrol motor and a petrol-hybrid known as the S E-Hybrid powered by a 3.0-litre V6 engine paired to an electric motor and punching out 410bhp combined.

The most sporting Cayenne comes next in the form of the 434bhp GTS but if it’s real steam you’re after, Porsche completes the range with a couple of Turbos, a standard 512bhp model and a ridiculous 562bhp Turbo S fast enough to blow various Boxsters, Panameras and Caymans clean off the road.

Interestingly, while 80 percent of Cayennes sold in the UK are diesel powered, that means 20 percent are not, an impressive statistic when you consider all other rivals only offer petrol power as tiny volume flagship models.

These engines, all driven through eight speed automatic gearboxes with either steering wheel mounted buttons or paddle shifters, all direct their urge in four different directions via an electro-mechanical centre diff capable of directing up to 100 percent of the power to either axle.

A torque vectoring electronic rear diff that actively varies the power split between the rear wheels is an option. Otherwise it’s down to the ESP sensors and their ability to individually brake a wheel that’s lost traction to ensure smooth progress in bad conditions. Even since the second generation was introduced in 2010, no low range transfer box has been available.

Structurally the Cayenne is now what it has always been: closely related to the Volkswagen Touareg and, more distantly, to the Audi Q7. Double wishbone suspension looks after wheel articulation at the front while a multi-link arrangement provides dependable location for the rear axle.

Visually the Cayenne is one of few cars that’s got prettier over time, which is as well given the highly challenging style of the original. Perhaps it has been most successful in using softer, more sculpted lines to make a car that’s grown substantially in every direction in the latest generation look substantially smaller than its predecessor.

INTERIOR

Porsche Cayenne interior

The entry-level Cayenne Diesel gets a permanent four-wheel drive system, post collision braking system, 18in alloy wheels, bi-xenon headlights, LED day-running-lights, electrically adjustable, folding and heated wing mirrors, dual-zone climate control, electrically adjustable front seats, cruise control, parking sensors, a leather upholstery and Porsche's Communication Management infotainment system complete with sat nav, Bluetooth, USB connectivity, DAB radio and a 7.0in touchscreen display.

Upgrading to Cayenne S or S Diesel adds stainless steel pedals, a quad-exhaust system and Porsche's active four-wheel drive system, while the Cayenne S E-Hybrid gets various hybrid management technology and software and adaptive suspension. The sporty looking GTS gains an Alcantara upholstery, a sporty bodykit, 20in alloy wheels, adaptive bi-xenon headlights and LED foglights.

The current Cayenne's cockpit is far more successful than the original's

The range-topping Turbo model gets 19in alloy wheels, LED headlights, automatic dimming mirrors, 18-way adjustable sports seats, adaptive air suspension front and rear heated seats and a Bose sound system, while the boombastic Cayenne Turbo S gets adaptive LED headlights, a two-tone leather upholstery, numerous carbon fibre interior touches, a torque vectoring system and dynamic chassis control. 

When Porsche introduced the Panamera so too did it introduce a new design template for all its interiors that has been applied to every product produced since then, but probably never with more success than in the Cayenne.

In fact while the old Cayenne was let down by both the quality and the ergonomics of its cabin, the current car interior is far from disappointing. Even so it’s still a long way from perfect with an analogue speedometer sufficiently hard to read for Porsche to provide a digital alternative and a driving position in right hand drive cars that provides very little resting space for your redundant left leg.

Also, while Porsche navigation has progressed to the point where the current touch screen arrangement is a wild improvement over the old system it still seems pretty clunky compared to rival systems from any of BMW, Audi or Mercedes.

Nevertheless you’ll not fault the quality of the materials now used on even the cheapest Cayenne, the lofty view afforded by the elevated driving position or the class and logical layout of the laid out on the upward sloping centre console, ahead and aft of the gear shift selector.

There are many reasons to choose a Cayenne over any other full size SUV, but interior space is not one of them. It’s not cramped in here, but nor is there vastly more space than you’ll find in typical five door large family hatch like a Ford Mondeo.

The rear seat is comfortable and blessed with decent headroom, but legroom is not better than adequate by the class standard and you might even say poor given Porsche has had to make no provision or compromise for a sixth and seven seat in the boot. It seems a Porsche with three rows of seats remains a step too far, for now at least.

Nor is the boot especially capacious: it’s big enough to let you stow more than most conventional estates like the BMW 5 Series Touring and Audi A6 Avant (but not the Mercedes-Benz E-Class Estate), but other SUVs, the Audi Q7 among them, are substantially more effective family hold-alls.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Porsche Cayenne side profile

You can have as much or as little of it as your wallet can bear. Most however want the Cayenne more for the pride of being able to drive a Porsche and value the range, economy and tax efficiency of the standard diesel far more than they’ll lament a 0-62mph of 7.6sec which we feel is still pretty perky, at least until you realise the V8 diesel will get there in a magnificent 5.7sec, matching exactly the time of a uber-sporting Cayenne GTS.

In fact the Diesel S motor with its colossal torque is actually a far more appropriate source of power than the highly strung petrol V8 in the GTS. It’s fun to punt down a decent road and makes a lovely noise, but in the heavily trafficked, slow and dull driving that makes up most of our lives on the road, you’d take the twitch of a toe torque of the big diesel every time.

The highlight of the Cayenne range remains the Turbo

Nor can we make any kind of case for the hybrid powertrain, at least in the UK. It delivers reasonable performance but at the cost of massive weight, a less than usually smooth power deliver and unappetising noise from its Audi-sourced 3-litre supercharged V6.

By contrast, there will always be a case for the Turbos. Even the 512bhp Turbo will outrun a standard 911 to 62mph while the Turbo S will even keep pace with the Carrera S. These are titanic powerplants imbuing the Cayenne with a sense of effortless urge and indomitability, core attractions for those drawn to SUV with the dynamic might to match their physical presence.

Unlike all other two pedal Porsches (save the diesel and hybrid Panameras) all Cayennes use a conventional 8-speed automatic transmission in place of Porsche’s own PDK gearbox. In gentle driving it’s a far smoother means of changing gear even if it’s nothing like as snappy under full load. On balance though, and given the kind of car this is, we feel Porsche has made the right choice.

You can choose either iron or, at vast additional cost, ceramic brakes for your Cayenne. Our advice is to stick to the conventional stoppers which work perfectly well, are easier to modulate and will mitigate depreciation.

RIDE & HANDLING

Porsche Cayenne cornering

No car can defy the laws of physics and with even the lightest Cayenne (the 4.8-litre V8 S petrol, not the 3-litre diesel) weighing 2065kg and the heaviest (the Hybrid, not the Turbo) tipping the scales at 2315kg, not even Porsche can disguise the fact that this is a high and heavy SUV. But it’s had a damn good go.

To understand the Cayenne’s performance in this category, you have to exclude the Hybrid whose excessive avoirdupois and unpleasant electric steering is no kind of advert for Porsche handling at all. It’s just not a very nice car to drive, which is not something we’d say about any other Porsche on sale right now.

It takes little effort to balance the Cayenne through high-speed corners despite its height and dimensions.

So with the unpleasantness dealt with, the good news is that every other Cayenne offers fine body control, accurate and well weighted steering and surprising grip. Even the diesel is a fluent and pleasant companion on a decent road, though you’d stop some distance short of calling it actively fun to drive.

All Cayennes are better in fast constant radius bends where they can settle on their suspension than tight hairpins which tend to induce understeer, and will offer some tightening of line according to throttle setting. The GTS on its bespoke settings is hilarious, summoning monster grip and liking nothing more than to be lobbed into a curve on a trailing throttle whereupon it’ll adopt a neutral to mildly oversteering stance until you hit the gas and thereby instruct the Porsche Traction Management all-wheel drive system to haul you straight.

But there are still decisions to be made. Do you spec Porsche’s PASM active ride control and/or its air suspension because both only come as standard on the Turbos. For a car like this we’d incline towards saving the money and doing without the PASM but for those who do distances the air sprung suspension (which also provides adjustable ride height in the unlikely event you find yourself offroad) should prove a worthwhile investment.

Unlike early steel sprung Cayennes which had frankly awful ride quality, today’s cars are comfortable enough even without air (with the exception of the very firm GTS), but if you want really excellent comfort and almost no deterioration in either ride or handling regardless of load, only an air sprung car can provide it.

Off road Cayennes are now less capable than they were back in 2002 because they lack the low ratio transfer boxes that were standard in all versions of the first generation cars.

Even so given the largely unambitious rock-hopping aspirations of those spending many tens of thousands of pounds on a family SUV, it’s more than good enough offering all the approach and departure angles you could reasonably hope for from such a car and a decent wading depth.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Porsche Cayenne

You have to learn how to read the official numbers and, having learned, realise how little they are to be relied upon. Don’t do this and you’ll believe a 562bhp Turbo S really is only 2.5mpg more thirsty than a 414bhp S, which is a nonsense. Likewise the Hybrid and Diesel S are apparently almost identically frugal despite the latter having a lot more power and almost twice the torque of the former.

So back in the real world, the only Cayenne that can be described as remotely frugal is the basic diesel, which really will do 35mpg if you’re gentle with it. The Turbos are terrifyingly easy to get into the teens and will only do the 24.6mpg claimed for them if driven like Miss Daisy on the chauffeur’s day off.

Choose carefully or the true ravages of depreciation might be felt

The others are all strung between these poles and none of them, not even the hybrid, offering better than mediocre consumption. At least all UK cars benefit from a massive 100 litre fuel tank, in Europe it’s standard only on the Turbos with a barely adequate 85 litres for the rest.

Be sensible with the specification and a Cayenne will prove one of the slowest depreciating cars of any kind you can currently buy. A standard diesel with nav, full leather seats and not much else from the options list will cling to its value like a barnacle to the bottom of a boat.

But if you buy a Turbo S (already a six figure investment) and spend a lot on extras and accessories, you can still expect pain when you come to sell the car.

VERDICT

4 star Porsche Cayenne

Over the years the Cayenne has faced an increasingly consistent challenge to its claim to be the SUV for anyone also interested in driving and, indeed, hot versions of the Mercedes-Benz GLS, BMW X5 and Range Rover Sport have encroached on the turf of the Turbo to a greater than ever extent though none has yet comprehensively dislodged it from place at the head of the table.

But over 80 percent of Cayennes sold in the UK are diesels and as a thing to drive, these remain a world apart from cooking versions of other SUVs to which it can be compared. They may be more spacious or frugal or both, but if you need an SUV but want to drive, the Cayenne remains the best the market currently has to offer.

The Porsche Cayenne is a seriously impressive performance SUV, although the hybrid model disappoints

In fact we can make a case for most of them: the diesel as the ultimate all rounder, the GTS as the most sporting full sized SUV on the market and the Turbos as the most gloriously excessive.

Even the S has its place, offering 90 percent of the performance and ability of the Turbo S but for little more than half the money. Only the hybrid leaves us scratching our heads: heavy, unrefined and neither that fast or frugal, if it makes sense at all it is in a country other than ours.

Otherwise the Porsche Cayenne is what it has always been: the only full sized SUV with an across the board credible claim to being a real driver’s car too.

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Porsche Cayenne 2010-2017 First drives