Where other SUVs plod along like elephants, the Porsche Cayenne zips around like a cat. And we're not talking about some fat housecat that falls off the arm of the couch, then looks around like that was exactly what it meant to do. No, the Cayenne has the moves of a feral beast racing through the underbrush.
Put the Cayenne into sharp corners and it darts around like a sports car. There is only one other SUV that comes up to the Cayenne's level of handling, and that's the BMW X5 M, but more on that comparison later.
We got our hands on a 2009 Porsche Cayenne GTS, those last three letters denoting the street fighter trim for this SUV. The GTS sits lower than the standard Cayenne, and engine tuning gives it more horsepower. Intended for asphalt; its locking differential won't see much use.
A new generation of cabin tech
Previous Porsches we've tested wowed us in all but the cabin tech, but Porsche released a new generation of the Porsche Communication Manager (PCM) for its 2009 vehicles. The PCM combines navigation, stereo, and phone system, and this latest version gets a touch screen and a 40GB hard drive. Not quite up to the level of the cabin tech found in the BMW X5 or the Audi Q5, but it is, at least, a big step forward for Porsche.
The navigation system's maps aren't particularly stunning, using a washed-out color scheme that makes it difficult to distinguish streets. But the resolution is good, with street names showing clearly, with no jaggy edges. Using the touch screen, you can drag the map around, the fast response of the hard drive allowing for easy movement.
This system also incorporates traffic information, showing incidents and flow information on the map and letting you view a list of nearby incidents. Under route guidance it will dynamically find detours around bad traffic. On one trip, with our San Francisco headquarters programmed in as the destination, it recalculated the route three different times because of traffic information it received.
The touch screen makes destination entry easy, and the system has all the usual features, such as a points-of-interest database. It also uses text to speech in its voice prompts, reading out street names. We were amused when it pronounced highway 101 as "one hundred and one."
But as the maps are not graphically intense, and don't show 3D-rendered buildings, we expect that much of the space on the 40GB hard drive goes to waste. And you can't fill it up with music, either, as the Cayenne GTS doesn't rip CDs, as many other cars with in-dash hard drives do.
Porsche includes satellite radio, an MP3 compatible single-CD player, auxiliary input, USB port, and iPod as audio sources. The last three come with the optional Universal Audio Interface, a set of ports in the console. The iPod interface uses a proprietary cable, although you can plug older iPods directly into the USB port.
As a clever means of letting you easily find albums and artists from the thousands that an iPod can hold, the PCM offers an alphabetical search capability. Initially, the PCM presents album and artists lists all at once, with a simple scroll bar down the side. But hold down the scroll bar button long enough and the interface switches to alphabetical browsing, letting you skip to all artists or albums that begin with a particular letter. This indexing also applies to USB drives.
Our Cayenne GTS came with the optional Bose surround sound system, using 14 speakers. Clarity was very good with this system, as individual instruments were well defined. Unlike other Bose systems we've heard most frequently in BMWs, this one didn't overwhelm the music with a heavy sound. However, the bass wasn't particularly strong, and we concluded that symphonic and acoustic works would sound the best.
To the side of the touch screen sits a slot for SIM cards, a feature useful in Europe. Unfortunately, it is not designed for U.S. phones, so this feature is likely to go to waste. However, the new PCM incorporates Bluetooth phone integration, and it's a pretty good system. Within a minute of pairing a phone, it downloaded the phone's contact list, making it available on the touch screen.
There is a voice command component to the phone system, but it is basic, only letting you dial by number.
Although this new PCM is a big improvement, Porsche didn't do much about the ergonomics. The screen sits far too low, and we found it difficult to use features such as music search without looking away from the road for too long. The positioning even makes it difficult to glance at the maps.
A high-stepping SUV
The new PCM goes a long way toward making the Cayenne GTS a car you can use every day, but most people will look at this model for the sports car experience it brings to an SUV. To that end, Porsche fits it with a 4.8-liter direct injection V-8, using variable valve timing to get 405 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque. According to Porsche, the Cayenne GTS gets to 60 mph from 0 in 5.7 seconds.