Porsche's Spicy Cayenne

Porsche now sells more Cayennes than the Boxster and 911 combined. With its speed and utility it's easy to see why

Porsche's Cayenne SUV has by all accounts been a success, but there are still those who grumble. Longtime Porschefiles saw it—and still do—as polluting the longtime sports car maker's purity of purpose. On this continent, Porsche now sells more Cayennes than its other two sports car lines (Boxster and 911) combined. Those sports car fans will have to admit, too, that it's helped save the company; Porsche has been doing so well financially that it's currently in the midst of upping its stake in Volkswagen, with which the automaker jointly developed the Cayenne.

Here in the U.S., the V-8 Cayenne was received well, helping to bring new customers to the brand and have more repeat buyers, but the value-leader Cayenne V-6 was seen as a weak link, a bit of a poseur; it was arguably a bit short on power for the nearly 5000-pound SUV—especially if your daily driving involved hilly terrain.

For 2008, each of the Cayenne models get substantial power boosts, thanks to the incorporation of direct injection across the line of engines, but it's in real-world driving with the V-6 that this difference is most dramatic. With a larger, 3.6-liter narrow-angle V-6 engine making 290 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque, up 43 hp and 44 lb-ft from the 2006 model, the base Cayenne can reach 60 mph in 7.9 seconds with the automatic, more than a second shorter than before.

In case you're wondering, yes, this is basically same engine installed in the VW Passat—and the Touareg, with which the Cayenne shares its platform. But for those who drove the V-6 Cayenne before, realized it was too underpowered (or rather, underpowered for a Porsche), and then raised their eyebrows at the price of the V-8, you should seriously give the V-6 another try.

V-6 makes a performance leap

The V-6 isn't scorching off the line, but it can fairly be called quite sprightly rather than just adequate, with a much meatier, useful mid-range that cuts down on the need for downshifts and makes overall drivability much better.

What makes this package even more attractive is that the base V-6 is still quite affordably priced, starting at $43,400. That's $2200 less than the Boxster and competitive with the Acura MDX, BMW X5, Mercedes-Benz ML350, and Infiniti FX35, among others.

The V-6 model is still the only one available with either a six-speed manual transmission or Tiptronic automatic, while the V-8 and Turbo come only with the Tiptronic.

Both V-8 models see similar improvements in power, and adopt VarioCam Plus variable valve timing, which gives infinite variability to valve timing and lift on the intake side. They also get a new variable oil pump for the dry-sump lubrication system to help make sure there's a steady supply in high-g cornering. But since the V-8s were both already so quick, it's not as apparent of a real-world change as with the V-6.

The middle model—and the one that Porsche estimates will remain the most popular—is the Cayenne S, with its V-8 now up to 4.8 liters from 4.5. The new engine makes 385 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque, up 45 hp and 59 lb-ft respectively, and can bring the Cayenneto 60 mph in 6.4 seconds and a top speed of 155 miles per hour. The S starts at $57,900—competing with the V-8 variants of the aforementioned FX, ML-Class, and X5—and Porsche ventures to say that it will remain the most popular Cayenne.

At the top is the powerful Cayenne Turbo, which brings a twin-turbocharged 4.8-liter V-8 that makes a whopping 500 hp and 516 lb-ft of torque, enough to propel it to 60 mph in just 4.9 seconds and on to a top speed of 171 mph. Starting at $93,700, it's in a much more exclusive, high-performance league, competing with the Mercedes ML63 AMG.

Acceleration with either of the V-8s is, as you might imagine, very rapid and satisfying for those who crave a little more power. The Cayenne S has more than enough oomph to easily charge to extra-legal speeds. It's still not like some of the larger-displacement American V-8s off the line, but through a wide range of revs the engine is torquey and responsive, with no need for downshifts.

Turbo model begs for the track

Step up to the Cayenne Turbo, and you'll truly need some track time to feel its capabilities without being thrown in the slammer. The engine is punchy from a standing start, and really hits its stride when the turbos spool up to their potential (there's a slight lag). If you've kept your foot mashed, your neck is still being pulled firmly back well into triple-digit speeds; the fun peaks at an official top speed of 171, if you're so lucky to be on a closed track or a very lonely road.

Overall, the Cayenne feels agile and frisky behind the wheel, and most of the time you won't realize that you're in such a tall, heavy vehicle. With more power than before, the V-6 is now much more satisfying to drive, and if you live in one of the flatter areas of the country, you'll probably get along just fine with it. Otherwise, the V-8 Cayenne S handles just as well and its torque seems especially well-matched for the 70- to 90-mph range, with rather effortless partial-throttle passes and especially relaxed cruising.

All three of the Cayenne models have a full-time all-wheel drive system that sends 62 percent of its power to the rear wheels in normal road driving but can when needed send 100 percent to either the front or the rear wheels.

There's also a low-range for off-road use; that might come as a surprise and not many will take the Cayenne away from pavement, but Porsche's logic is that just as it builds sports cars that excel on the racetrack, when it builds an SUV it will excel off-road. Approach and departure angles are competitive with some of the best SUVs with rugged reputations, and it can ford up to 19 inches of water.

The 2008 Cayenne doesn't look radically different; some might not even know the difference. Those more familiar will be able to spot the new front and rear-end styling, including a redesigned front air dam, widened bumpers, and a more 'swept back' headlight style in front, along with broader, more defined wheel arches, new mirrors, and an improved roof spoiler from the side, and wider-set, more sharply contoured taillamps that are illuminated with LEDs on the Turbo.

The result not only looks cleaner and more athletic; Porsche confirms it translates to significantly improved aerodynamics. The coefficient of drag is down to 0.35 across the line, unusually good for an SUV, from 0.38 or 0.39 for the previous models, which helps reduce wind noise and improve highway gas mileage. Thanks to that, and to the direct-injection technology, fuel economy rises slightly for the V-6 and brings a 15-percent real-world improvement for the V-8s, Porsche says.

Wheels seem to be especially important in bringing out the best in the Cayenne's proportions. Seventeen-inch wheels are standard on the V-6, but they don't do the whole package justice. The standard 18-inchers on the V-8s do it better, but the Cayenne's look is best accented with one of several optional wheel designs that range up to 21-inch.

Keeping cool—and smooth—when you turn up the heat

The other big news for 2008 is a technical feature called Porsche Dynamic Chassis Control (PDDC). The system uses very high hydraulic pressure—supplied by a pump that's shared with the power steering unit—to actively and quickly tune the stabilizer bars' response over bumps and during cornering. The system uses sensors measuring the level of each wheel, along with sensors for body movement, lateral acceleration, steering wheel angle, and speed. On-road, PDDC can keep the body level up to 0.65 g (your passengers will appreciate it), and off-road, PDDC allows the stabilizer bars to move more freely with the wheels for a better ride and improved contact with the trail surface.

PDDC is a $3510 option on all Cayennes, but, simply put, it's worth the money for most Cayenne shoppers as it improves handling while also improving ride—effectively by detaching the stabilizer bar when not cornering. It especially improves the suspension's response to sudden jarring bumps, such as over potholes, frost heaves, or through off-road terrain.

As before, an air suspension with Porsche Active Suspension Management (PASM) is standard on the Turbo (optional on Cayenne and Cayenne S for $2990) and automatically adjusts the damper response to the road surface and the style of driving. It also has several automatic ride-height adjustments, including for off-road and high-speed driving.

While PASM and PDDC bring three separate settings for ride: 'comfort', 'sport', and 'normal', all Cayennes get a new 'sport' button on the center console, which changes the way the powertrain responds to the gas pedal. In 'sport', power comes on faster and more aggressively, while the transmission holds lower gears to higher speeds and downshifts earlier. The 'sport' button is also used to activate the more vocal sport exhaust system that's optional on Cayenne S, and the sport mode for PASM and PDCC if so equipped.

Porsche is known to place a high priority on braking—it's one of the few automakers that develops its own brake systems—and this year the Cayenne's braking system has been redesigned for improved resistance to fade, with a claimed ten-percent improvement in long-term brake performance. The new front air dam has integrated brake-cooling ducts, especially helpful in keeping brake hardware cool while descending long highway grades. All Cayennes get powerful six-piston front calipers and four-piston calipers in back, and Turbos get, besides especially large discs, extra hardware to stiffen the calipers and dissipate heat from high-speed stops. The anti-lock braking system now has improved stopping power with more finesse on loose surfaces such as those encountered when off-roading, or on snow

Interior still not family-friendly

The interior feels more sports-car-inspired than most luxury SUVs, but it still doesn't feel quite as lavishly appointed inside as others in this price range. Seats are firm, supportive, and well upholstered, and a simple cluster of round gauges is in the center of the instrument panel.

Depending on what your priorities are, interior space could be a deal-breaker. Take a look around; there's comfortable seating for four and decent cargo space, but the Cayenne doesn't feel as roomy as the models you might cross-shop it with and it's surprisingly small inside for a nearly 5000-pound SUV. And if you want a third-row seat or nifty cargo configurations, you'll need to look elsewhere.

All Cayennes come pretty well equipped though, with a standard alarm system, central locking, onboard trip computer, air conditioning, power windows, a twelve-speaker CD audio system, and cruise control. A power liftgate system, with obstacle detector and customized opening height, is now standard on all Cayennes.

As you might expect, there are plenty of luxury features and appointments available, though the bottom line price really adds up. Examples that spice up the interior are upgraded interior trim ($3170), wood trim ($1385), heated seats and steering wheel ($560), a DVD-based navigation system ($3070) with 'breadcrumb' mode to prevent you from getting lost off-road, and a 350-watt Bose Surround Sound System with 14 speakers ($1665). There's also an available Panorama Roof, which brings four glass panels (three slide open) that extend over the front and back seats.

As before, the Cayenne comes with front-seat side airbags, along with side-curtain airbags that cover front and rear outward occupants, but it now also adds sensors that assess the risk of rollover, activating the seatbelt tensioners and side curtain bags in the event. New Dynamic Curve Lights, which help illuminate into corners, are standard on the Turbo and optional on other models; and unlike some other systems, it works with both the high and low bi-xenon beams.

Overall, with the boost in power, chassis improvements, and slightly more macho appearance, we're predicting that the new Cayenne will be an even more solid hit than the original, even if it doesn't have a completely fresh face. It now feels even more like a sports car, and a Porsche, without sacrificing utility or comfort.

2008 Porsche Cayenne

Base price: $43,400

Engine: 3.6-liter V-6, 290 hp/273 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed manual or six-speed automatic, all-wheel drive

Length x width x height: 188.9 x 75.9 x 66.9 in

Wheelbase: 112.4 in

Curb weight: 4784 lb

Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 14/20 mpg

Major standard features: Air conditioning; rain-sensing wipers; fog lamps; power tailgate latch; power windows and locks; power heated retractable mirrors; power front bucket seats, cruise control, keyless entry with immobilizer/alarm

Safety features: Stability control, front side-impact airbags, full-length side-curtain airbags, anti-lock brakes

Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles (est.)

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