Porsche's Spicy Cayenne Turbo

The Cayenne Turbo is the fastest SUV on the planetand now the 2008 model handles better than ever

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Incredibly fast; tons of room; excellent handling; very comfortable

The Bad: Porsche-like price

The Bottom Line: The perfect family car for speed demons who already own a 911

Up Front

I have now had the chance to test-drive all versions of the Porsche Cayenne: the basic model, the S, and the Turbo. And, yes, the Turbo is the most fun.

With an MSRP of $93,700, it is also the most expensive. In fact, it is the second-most expensive production SUV currently on the North American market after the Mercedes-Benz G55 AMG, which has an MSRP of $108,275. However, fully loaded the Turbo can cost as much as $134,000, depending on options, while the G55 only climbs to around $110,000. The tester that I drove, which had such options as 21-in. sport wheels and dynamic chassis control, was priced at a relatively modest $106,595.

The Porsche (PSHG_P), however, is faster. It can go from zero to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds (in manual mode), whereas the squat G55, which has the aerodynamics of a brick, does it in 5.4 seconds. The Turbo's 500-horsepower turbocharged V-8 is faster to 60 mph than both the Porsche Cayman and Porsche Boxster. That's because it also has Porsche's second-most powerful production engine after the Carrera GT. And, unlike those two coupes, it can comfortably seat four passengers, several pieces of luggage, and a golden retriever.

Uniquely Impressive

It is important to begin any discussion about the Cayenne Turbo by mentioning its superlative features because, frankly, these are the only reasons to buy it. Don't get me wrong, the basic and S versions of the Cayenne are pretty sweet. But the Turbo is a different order of magnitude entirely. If one simply wanted a luxury SUV, it would be possible to choose any number of other makes. Or if all one wanted was a fast car, again, there are plenty on the market. What makes the Cayenne Turbo so uniquely impressive is that it offers the size and practicality of an SUV with the driving performance of a sports car.

When the redesigned, more muscular 2008 Cayenne was introduced in March this year, the model was coming off a one-year hiatus during which Porsche had given it a total makeover. The rethink appears to be a hit with consumers. Despite the general malaise affecting the SUV market these days, Cayenne sales in May were up in North America and Canada to 8.7%, or 1,198 units, over the same month last year. Year to date, sales of the Cayenne are down 4%, to 4,753 units. While that can be explained by the fact that the 2008 model didn't hit showrooms until March, overall sales are still down from their highs in 2003 and 2004 when the Cayenne averaged around 1,700 units per month.

Of course, in 2003 and 2004, the Cayenne enjoyed the sales surge that often accompanies significant new product releases. Many first adapters and cognoscenti, eager to try a new product, especially one from a brand such as Porsche, made the first-model years a huge success. By 2005 sales began to slow as the original design required updating. When gas prices rose above $2 per gallon last year, sales fell even harder.

Key Part of Porsche Lineup

Nevertheless, so far this year the Cayenne is a relatively bright spot in Porsche's lineup. According to Automotive News, sales of the Boxster are down 31.4% through the end of May, to 1,544; and the Cayman is off 25.3%, to 2,480, for the same period. The only bona fide success is the hardy 911, which is up 12.7%, to 5,811.

The questions for Porsche now are whether the Cayenne can continue to be a meaningful revenue generator and if the model can boost sales back to glory-day levels. Certainly, the Stuttgart (Germany)-based automaker is already contemplating future iterations. At the 2005 Frankfurt Auto Show it announced plans to release a hybrid Cayenne, based on the Audi Q7 hybrid concept, by the end of the decade (Porsche has a 30.9% stake in Volkswagen (VLKAY), which owns Audi, and the Cayenne is built on the same platform as the Q7 and VW Touareg).

The odds are, however, that the same people who would contemplate laying out $100,000 or more for a turbocharged Cayenne are not the same as those who would shop for the hybrid version.

But then again, the Turbo is priced in such a way that it will never be a high-volume seller. Nevertheless, its speed and sophistication will no doubt appeal to many. To find out if you could be one of those drivers, read on.

Behind the Wheel

One of the smart—although blindingly obvious— things that Porsche did when it designed the Cayenne was to borrow as many design cues as possible from the 911. But despite the insectoid headlights, sloping hood, and left-hand ignition—a relic from the early days of Le Mans, which allowed drivers to insert the key and grab the gear shift simultaneously—one has to step up to enter the Cayenne. That plus a full-sized second row of seats and a cargo area is proof that an SUV can mimic a sports car only just so far.

But, really, Porsche couldn't have done it any better. As stated, the Turbo is blazingly fast with its water-cooled, eight-cylinder, aluminum alloy, 4.8-liter, twin-turbocharged engine. Some purists may find it a bit heretical that the Turbo comes with a standard automatic transmission. But drivers who may have had to swap in their 911s for something more practical in which to carry the kids will be pleasantly surprised by the Tiptronic transmission, which is available on most Porsches. Mated with an automatic transmission, the Tiptronic, which Porsche also licenses to Audi, allows drivers in manual mode to use the rocker paddles on the steering wheel to shift gears. This makes for more of a racing feel when driving, but also provides sensors that better distribute power when accelerating uphill or when braking hard.

But what is really impressive about the Turbo is how well it handles. That is thanks to its advanced Porsche Active Suspension Management system, which allows drivers to select one of three different driving modes: comfort, normal, and sport. Further enhancing its performance is the optional $3,510 Porsche Dynamic Chassis Control, which employs active antiroll bars on the front and rear axles to significantly reduce lateral body movement during cornering maneuvers. (The Cayenne features a front axle with a fully independent double-wishbone suspension and a rear axle with fully independent multilink suspension.) The PDCC automatically calculates the angle of the vehicle when cornering, and provides a stabilizing counterforce to reduce swaying and improve contact with the road.

Still an SUV

The result is that drivers will find the Turbo almost car-like in its handling, despite its weight and bulk. It is important to note, however, that even with all this advanced engineering, drivers should remind themselves that the Cayenne is still an SUV, with an SUV's higher center of gravity, and that it will never be able to cut through curves with the sure-footedness of a coupe.

In fact, I also have recently driven the Boxster, and the two are incomparable in terms of the driving experience. Yes, the Cayenne is faster but the Boxster feels faster because of its traditional design—it hugs the turns better, it is lower to the ground, it is more elemental, and, frankly, more fun.

Of course, the Cayenne is far more practical than the Lilliputian Boxster, which offers a bachelor disregard for such concerns as backseats and cargo volume. While this should come as no surprise, what may actually interest potential buyers is that despite its awesome power, the Turbo is only slightly less fuel-efficient than either the basic or Cayenne S models. That is because the Turbo uses direct injection technology, which also results in greater engine performance, extra torque, and fewer harmful emissions.

Speaking of fuel economy, the Cayenne gets 12 miles per gallon in the city and 19 mpg on the highway, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. While it won't be winning any awards from Greenpeace any time soon, for a car this big—it weighs in at 5,192 pounds—and this powerful, the Cayenne offers better gas mileage than nearly every other SUV in its class. (The only ones that do better are, in fact, the Cayenne and the Cayenne S.)

Another somewhat surprising thing about the Turbo is that, like all Cayennes, it actually has pretty good off-road capabilities. That's not to say we would drive it through the Amazon, but thanks to its traction management system and stability control—standard on the Turbo and optional on the other versions—the Cayenne can go just about anywhere anyone would want to drive a $100,000 car. Additionally, the Cayenne can drive up gradients of up to 45 degrees and has a special air suspension system that raises the vehicle two inches, for 10.67 inches of ground clearance.

Buy It or Bag It?

As anyone who has ever driven a Porsche 911 knows, it is not a family car. There is hardly any space for passengers, let alone luggage, and the thought of spilled juice boxes on that beautiful leather is almost too painful to bear. This is where the Cayenne comes in. It is the perfect family car for the person who already owns a 911—or a Boxster or Cayman—but doesn't want to stop driving a Porsche.

The catch, of course, is that very few people would ever actually want to stop driving a Porsche; it is just that so few of us can afford to drive a Porsche. For most, the idea of buying a $100,000 car is a moot point. For those who can afford it, however, the question isn't, should you buy a Cayenne, but rather, which Cayenne should you buy?

All three models are terrific, fuel economy notwithstanding. Nevertheless, if money is no object and you still ferry your kids to soccer practice or a country house, the Turbo would be my first choice. If speed, good looks, luxury, and utility are what you want, nothing else even comes close.

See more of the 2008 Porsche Cayenne Turbo in BusinessWeek's slide show.

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