Review: 2010 Porsche Cayenne S Transsyberia

Up Front

As I type these words, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., are buried under nearly three feet of snow, Dallas (which enjoyed its first white Christmas in 83 years) has just gotten nearly a foot of white stuff, and snowball fights have recently broken out in Pensacola, Fla. All of which raises a question: What's the hottest vehicle on the market that can easily negotiate heavy snow and slush?

My vote would go to the 2010 Porsche Cayenne S Transsyberia, the off-road version of its predominantly on-road SUV. The Transsyberia has stats that make it sound more like a Range Rover than a German sport vehicle: maximum ground clearance of nearly 11 inches, towing capacity of 7,716 lbs., the ability to ford a 21-in.-deep stream, etc. Yet it retains the speed and handling of a Porsche.

It also could soon be a collector's item. As automakers retrench and pare down their product lines, there will be fewer and fewer oddball models like the Transsyberia. With Volkswagen (VOWG) now in control of Porsche, my guess is that the Transsyberia will be dropped as a variant when the new 2011 Cayenne comes out this summer, though off-roading capabilities will continue to be offered as an option. If that happens, it would be worth considering hunting down one of the remaining Transsyberias on the market. For the money, it's the most versatile and fun-to-drive SUV Porsche has made to date.

The Transsyberia is named after a two-week, 4,000-mile-plus Russian race that traverses the rugged reaches of Mongolia and Siberia. Modified Porsche Cayennes have dominated the race in recent years, and the new model is a production version of the vehicles used in the race.

What sets the Transsyberia apart is its combination of a powerful engine and off-roading gear at (for Porsche) a reasonable price. The Transsyberia is powered by the same direct-injected engine found in the sporty Cayenne GTS, a 4.8-liter, 405 horsepower V8, coupled with a six-speed Tiptronic automatic. Off-roading enhancements include an air suspension system that raises and lowers the chassis, front and rear stainless-steel skid plates to protect the undercarriage, and a modified version of Porsche's Permanent all-wheel-drive system that directs 62% of the engine's power to the back wheels for better traction in difficult driving conditions. In addition, there's a $2,640 option package that includes reinforced rock rails, extra protection for the engine, gasoline tank, and rear axle, and a variable and lockable rear differential.

At no extra cost you also can jazz up the Transsyberia's styling with a black or silver paint job with orange trim, exterior decals, and a rail of roof lights. I'm not a fan of the orange trim, which makes the vehicle look as if it's decked out for Halloween, but there are also versions of the Transsyberia that look like any other suburban people-hauler. You can ditch the roof lights, go with a moonroof instead, and opt for either black paint with metallic gray highlights or metallic gray with silver highlights.

The Transsyberia starts at $71,775, or 10 grand more than a Cayenne S and $1,600 less than a Cayenne GTS. It's available with the usual raft of luxury features, from heated front and rear seats to a height-programmable power rear hatch. The options are on the pricey side—a Bose surround-sound system costs $1,690, the satellite radio $750, and a trailer hitch $650—and the price rises rapidly as you choose from the list.

The 2010 Cayenne doesn't yet have government crash-test ratings. Safety equipment—such as front, side, and side curtain airbags, seatbelt pretensioners, and stability and traction control—is standard.

The Cayenne remains Porsche's top-selling model, but not by much. Despite new variants such as the Transsyberia, sales fell 31% last year, to 7,735, only 900 units more than the total sales last year of the flagship Porsche 911 sports car.

Behind the Wheel

The Transsyberia's cabin looks pretty much like any other Cayenne's, with seating for five and rear seats that fold down in a 60/40 pattern. The main distinctive features are a wrapped steering wheel and standard sport seats. Also, if you go with the black- or silver-and-orange exterior paint job, the color scheme (including wild-looking orange trim) is carried over into the interior.

Once you're behind the wheel, the Transsyberia has a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality. I took my test vehicle off-road into a river bottom covered with about 5 inches of snow and had a wonderful time fishtailing around and bouncing over rugged terrain. Then I pulled back onto the highway and immediately clocked the same vehicle at just 6.5 seconds in accelerating from 0 to 60—on slippery pavement.

The company says that under normal driving conditions, the Transsyberia will do zero to 60 in a mere 6.1 seconds, three 10ths of a second quicker than the Cayenne S—partly because the Transsyberia's engine has 20 more horses than the S's. Little wonder that there was a sticker on the dash of my test Transsyberia warning the driver not to exceed 150 mph.

For everyday driving, the Transsyberia's suspension has "comfort," "normal," and "sport" settings. The first two offer a noticeably different driving experience than "sport," which automatically shifts the control systems toward "greater agility and driving performance," as the owner's manual puts it, reducing body roll, lowering the chassis, causing the Tiptronic automatic transmission to shift later and downshift earlier, making the accelerator touchier, and setting the engine on a sportier tuning. If you want, you can set the suspension on a comfortable setting while keeping the engine and transmission on the sporty setting.

"Normal" ground clearance is 8.5 inches, but the air suspension system raises or lowers the chassis depending on the situation. In fast driving (over 78 mph), the vehicle automatically drops down by about one inch for better aerodynamics and rises again when the speedometer reading falls under about 25 mph. There's also a "Loading Level" that drops the chassis down about 2.1 inches to make loading cargo easier and raises it up again once you start driving.

For off-road driving, the stability control system has an off-road setting that makes it less sensitive and enhances traction. The air suspension system has a "Terrain Level" setting (selected using toggle switches on the center console) that raises the chassis by about an inch, to 9.5 inches, as well as a "Special Terrain Level" that raises ground clearance to nearly 11 inches. In the Special Terrain setting, you can climb some pretty significant inclines: The ramp angle is 24.7 degrees, the front overhang angle 31.8 degrees, and the rear overhang 25.4 degrees.

The off-road/on-road driving program is also controlled via toggle switches. There's a high range for normal driving, a low range for off-roading, and a low range with center differential lock for rugged going. The latter setting ensures that all four wheels turn at the same speed. If, say, both front wheels lose all traction on glare ice, the rear wheels continue to propel the vehicle forward. My test car didn't have the optional rear differential lock, but it drops the system down into low range and keeps the vehicle clawing forward in really heavy muck.

Buy It or Bag It?

I love the Transsyberia, but I wouldn't buy one until we see the stats on the new 2011 Cayenne. Rumors are, those will be announced just before the Geneva Auto Show, which begins on Mar. 4. Porsche won't comment, but my guess is the company will drop the Transsyberia from the 2011 lineup while continuing to offer off-roading options on most Cayenne models. If that happens, the Transsyberia will become an instant rarity: It was new for the 2010 model year, and only a few hundred were exported to this side of the Atlantic.

There's no competing vehicle quite like the Transsyberia. The closest rivals I can think of are the Toyota Land Cruiser (which starts at $66,770, five grand less than the Transsyberia) and the Land Rover Range Rover SE (starting price: $79,275). Neither, however, can match the Transsyberia's on-road quickness and handling. If you're looking for a hot snow vehicle, the Transsyberia may be the best there is.

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