Silly American Takes Rugged Porsche Diesel SUV on Tuscan Idyll

There were many things I expected during a road trip around Tuscany, but the need for a high-clearance vehicle wasn’t one of them. I like to get off the beaten path, and the road to La Bandita, a guest villa in the rolling hills near Siena, was beaten up indeed, with dirt, suspension-snagging rocks and steep inclines.

A $56,600 Porsche sport utility vehicle suddenly didn’t seem like such a ridiculous vehicle in Europe after all. I shot up the broken path in the Cayenne Diesel like a rally driver.

Testing cars occasionally takes me to Italy -- after all, it’s the home of Ferrari and its exotic ilk -- and I have come to know its great roads, especially around the hills of Tuscany.

I’ve also come to know the jealousy of my spouse, work trips or no. (“I’m not having any fun, really!”) It was high time for a summertime road trip with the family.

My first thought was to procure an Alfa Romeo 4C, a new Fiat SpA two-seat, mid-engine sports car that’s coming to the U.S. But the fact that my 2-year-old son would also be coming put the kibosh on that. Where would my wife sit?

Instead I settled on a family-appropriate vehicle I’ve actually considered buying, the diesel version of the Porsche Cayenne, which has an EPA rating of 29 miles per gallon on the highway and is still good fun on back roads.

European Delivery

And if I were to buy the Cayenne, I would surely opt for the European delivery, a little-known program that lets purchasers drive around Europe in their very own new car. European delivery is offered by a number of automakers, including Volkswagen AG’s Audi, Bayerische Motoren Werke AG, Volvo Car Group and Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz.

After ordering from your home dealership, you fly to the automaker’s factory in Europe, take the keys and drive your new car around Europe, forgoing the price of a rental car. (Many automakers offer incentives, such as a free hotel stay or even airfare.) At the trip’s end, you drop it off at a prearranged destination, where it’s transported to the U.S. by ship.

Porsche has a particularly robust program, and you can fly to Stuttgart, Germany, where the Volkswagen unit is based, or to Leipzig, Germany, to pick up your vehicle.

The Cayenne is made in Leipzig, and the diesel variant has a 3-liter turbo-diesel V-6 with 240 horsepower and 406 pound-feet of torque. It’s not as fast off the line as most Porsches, but the torque will get you up the highest mountains without breaking a sweat. And it would cost us much less in fuel stops, especially important considering the price of diesel in Europe.

Italian Hills

My suggestion: take that new Porsche and head for the Italian hills. We started our road trip from Florence. With luggage, boy, wife and car seat transferred to the Porsche, we blasted west on the Autostrada to Lucca. It’s a lovely old walled city, touristed with being touristy, and the food easily lives up to lofty expectations.

My first problem: parking. The apartment we rented came with an underground space, but there was only one spot, between a wall and a column. I could park, but I couldn’t exit using the doors. Pronto: I popped the rear hatch and climbed (inelegantly) from the rear. A well-dressed family standing nearby pointed and giggled at the silly American and his bloated SUV.

Several pasta-fueled days later, we began the road trip in earnest, leaving Lucca and heading south toward the beaches of Castiglione della Pescaia. Some 250 kilometers (155 miles) into our travels and the fuel gauge barely moved. In fact, over more than 400 miles in all, we filled up just once and that was only because I didn’t want to return the vehicle a quarter full. One wishes we Americans would truly embrace the delights of diesel.

Wine Country

Eventually we headed inland to the countryside I loved best: the robust wine country dominated by the hill towns of Montepulciano and Montalcino. We stopped at both, but our true goal was to get lost on the region’s squiggly roads. My wife, Miranda, loves this random driving as much as I do, and our son, Max, was happy to snooze in the back.

The Cayenne may be a SUV but it still dips and rolls through corners with ease and finesse. In short, it still feels like a Porsche. I managed gear selection using behind-the-wheel paddles, keeping the eight-speed Tiptronic S in the lower gears for maximum power. We stopped at lookouts and tarried in small villages.

Like frolicking dolphins and puppy kisses, Tuscany is one of those rare things in life that actually lives up to the hype. The fields look like they were arranged by a master stylist, and the evening sun lights up the hills a luminous gold. As a friend once commented, even the flowering weeds on the side of the road are pretty. It’s like the best of California’s Sonoma, cranked up to 11.

‘Must Visit’

We were ready for some downtime, and the final days of our weeklong trip would be at La Bandita, a guest house in the farmland outside of Pienza. A bunch of friends had stayed there several years ago for a wedding and after seeing photos, it’s been on my “must-visit” ever since. The property sits amid a sea of rolling green fields dotted by white fluffs of cotton -- actually flocks of sheep from which the milk of the fabulous Pecorino di Pienza cheese is derived.

You aren’t likely to wander onto the place by accident, and the owner warned us the dirt and gravel path was a bit rough. He wasn’t kidding. The Porsche’s navigation system failed to find the final few miles, so we resorted to a map and written directions.

Finally we turned off a two-lane asphalt road and onto a pocked and rocky road. I placed the Cayenne on its highest air-suspension setting and was glad of it. Though few ever use it, the Cayenne is capable off-road as well.

European delivery? Indeed, Porsche’s diesel SUV delivered us every place around Tuscany we wanted to go. Except, perhaps, a few too-tight parking spaces.

The 2015 Porsche Cayenne Diesel at a Glance

Engine: 3-liter turbo-diesel V-6 with 240 horsepower and 406 pound-feet of torque.

Transmission: Eight-speed automatic.

Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 7.2 seconds.

Gas mileage per gallon: 20 city, 29 highway.

Price as tested: $68,970.

Best features: Highway mileage and low-end power.

Worst feature: Parking it in tight slots.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)