Hybrid Porsche Introduces Art of Highway ‘Sailing’ for $68,000

Porsche Exterior
The exterior of the 2011 Porsche Cayenne S Hybrid. Source: Porsche via Bloomberg

Almost a decade ago Porsche fashioned a bunch of its parts into the Cayenne sports utility vehicle, turning around the company’s bottom line and transforming purists into an angry mob. Today, with some 280,000 Cayennes around the world, most people will easily identify it as a Porsche.

For the 2011 model year we get a redesigned Cayenne inside and out, including a first-ever hybrid powertrain. Showing the breadth of choices, buyers can spend just under $50,000 to more than $100,000.

The Cayenne does appear more Porsche-like. The original design was a serious compromise between SUV proportions and a Porsche’s inherent trimness, like a Napoleon-sized bodybuilder.

While changes are nuanced, this design flows better, especially on the hood, where the high side wings and the size and position of the headlights mimic the iconic 911. The horizontal grill looks less off-road burly. Even the shape of the roof and the camber of the rear glass more resemble a coupe.

While it seems smaller, the Cayenne has grown in size. Both the length and wheelbase have increased. The most serious upgrade is the new interior, patterned after the sumptuousness of the Panamera sedan. The leather work is excellent and the center console is seriously handsome.

Gas Savings

The big difference between the 2003 and the 2011 Cayenne is the company’s forceful eye toward gas savings and lower CO2 emissions. So in addition to the Cayenne, Cayenne S and Cayenne Turbo, there is the Cayenne S Hybrid.

The S Hybrid has a recommended price of $67,700, a modest bump over the S’s $63,700. The company says it’s the cleanest vehicle it offers.

Outfitted with the same 3.0-liter supercharged V-6 found in the Audi S4 sedan and a 34 kW electric motor, the S Hybrid has the kick of a V-8 with the relative economy of a V-6. Total horsepower is 380, with 428 pound-feet of torque available from low engine speeds.

Gas savings? Well, sure. At 21 mpg, city driving is where the savings show up most noticeably. Highway is 25 mpg. By comparison, the regular and less-powerful Cayenne manages 16 and 23 mpg. It seems a lot of fuss for modest gains, but the first step is always the hardest.

Cayenne Kick

If you’re going a short distance to the local convenience store, electric power will get you there as long as you stay under 40 mph. The electric motor will also kick in when you punch the gas, giving extra power.

I tested the Hybrid around Birmingham, Alabama. The first thing I noticed was the subtlety of the badging. It says “hybrid” in small-case, cursive letters on the front fender, and nowhere else. I’ll grant you that Porsche lovers are a humble group, but owners might as well reap whatever eco credit due. It should shout hybrid in DayGlo.

Starting up the Cayenne without a resulting Porsche growl is disconcerting, but the supercharged V-6 makes a good noise when you put your foot into it. It reaches 60 mph in 6.1 seconds, only a bit slower than the all-petrol-powered Cayenne S, which has 400 horses and gets there in 5.6 seconds.

The hybrid technology and nickel-metal-hydride battery pack add weight -- 385 pounds over the Cayenne S -- so the SUV is more oafish in the corners. Nobody will mistake it for the best-performing Porsche in the fleet. Nonetheless, it’s a sports machine and not a Dodge Caravan, as I’m reminded when tilting through tight corners with the gas pedal flat.

Silent Sailing

The other noticeable difference is in the feel of the brakes, which capture energy as you slow and channels it back to the batteries. Like most hybrids, they are slightly spongy and not as John Wayne-confident as most Porsches.

Get up to highway speeds and the gas engine will sometimes shut completely off for a short time -- allowing the vehicle to simply coast as if in neutral. Porsche is calling this feature “sailing” and it’s very fun to go 80 mph and have the SUV go suddenly silent.

Porsche really is trying to squeeze every bit of gas savings. Across the Cayenne line, the transmissions get a new, higher gear, so you’ll find yourself in eighth on the highway. Plus a “start-stop” function can be activated: When stopped the engine will automatically shut off and reactivate as soon as you depress the gas pedal.

While the company worked hard on weight savings, it ignored the most obvious -- dumping the off-road capability. While it can legitimately go off-road, the added technology and equipment adds needless pounds. No serious off-roader would buy the long-nosed Cayenne, nor have I ever seen a Porsche owner scuffing his up on the Rubicon Trail.

What we will start seeing, however, is more hybrid Porsches. Including, presumably, the kind of hot-blooded sports cars that even purists can get behind.

The 2011 Porsche Cayenne S Hybrid at a Glance

Engine: 3.0-liter supercharged V-6 and electric motor for a combined 380 hp.

Transmission: 8-speed automatic.

Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 6.1 seconds.

Gas mileage per gallon: 21 city; 25 highway.

Price as tested: $81,870.

Best feature: It’s the cleanest Porsche on the market.

Worst feature: It’s also one of the heaviest.

Target buyer: The Porsche lover who wants to suffer less guilt.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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