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 new PCM comes up to modern standards, but the maps could be more vibrant.
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.
An alphabetical index makes it easy to scroll through thousands of artists on an iPod.
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.
Porsche's tuning gives the Cayenne GTS 20 more horsepower than the Cayenne S, but it falls far short of the 550 horsepower offered by the Cayenne Turbo S, the next jump up in performance. The GTS also stands out from the rest of the Cayenne lineup by its lowered suspension, more firmly placing it as an on-road vehicle. Considering how few Cayennes are actually used off-road, the GTS seems like a more realistic vehicle.
These console-mounted controls let you raise and lower the car, and put it in sport mode.
But it does come with all the suspension and all-wheel-drive equipment as the rest of the line. That means console-mounted controls to lock the differentials and put the vehicle in mountain-climbing mode, a feature that probably sees little use in Cayennes.
Console controls also let you adjust the air suspension, setting it between Comfort, Normal, and Sport modes, and raising or lowering it manually to negotiate obstacles. A separate big Sport button not only engages the sport suspension mode, but also sharpens up the throttle response.
Though the Cayenne GTS handles better than just about anything else that fits into the SUV segment, and even beats out most cars, we were disappointed as we launched it into the turns to feel plenty of body lean. Thinking back to the BMW X5 M we tested last year, the Cayenne GTS paled in comparison. Where the BMW would stay flat and kick its rear wheels out a little to rotate through a turn, the Cayenne GTS leaned too much for confidence.
Initially we thought BMW had really succeeded in besting Porsche, until we looked at our Cayenne GTS' option sheet and realized it didn't have the Porsche Dynamic Chassis Control. This $3,510 option actively counteracts body roll, and would make a significant difference to the Cayenne GTS' handling.
But as it was, we were still able to get through corners at speed, using the incredible nimbleness of the Cayenne GTS' steering. The body lean merely kept us from pushing it far enough to get tire slip. Again and again, the car let us double the recommended speed on turns. And in one series of short, tight turns, the Cayenne GTS really did feel like a sports car as we darted the nose back and forth.
This tall shifter doesn't allow the kinds of quick gear changes you would want in a sports car.
Further emphasizing the performance nature of the Cayenne GTS is the fact that its standard transmission is a six-speed manual. You don't often see a manual transmission in an SUV.
This particular gearbox required a lot of attention because of the close gear ratios. On a fast launch you need to shift almost immediately to second, as the engine pushes redline in just a little over a second. And third is only good up to about 80 mph, with a shift to fourth needed to avoid redlining the engine.
All of these gear changes are not made easy by the shifter, a long pole more at home in a truck than in a sports car. We imagine Cayenne GTS drivers develop very strong right arms with all the work the car requires from them. We certainly found it easier lifting coffee cups and pint glasses after spending time with the Cayenne GTS.
We spent a lot of time using the car's sport mode, and found that, beyond sharpening the throttle and hardening up the suspension, it also makes the Cayenne GTS a big gas hog. The EPA numbers for the car, at 11 mpg city and 17 mpg highway, are not pretty. We found ourselves at the bottom of that range, turning in a tank average of 11.6 mpg.
The 2009 Porsche Cayenne GTS is an odd beast, half sports car and half SUV, not really doing either task as well as a more dedicated vehicle. But some people might prefer having that kind of interior space and high ride height while tackling corners at speed. That sort of person probably likes to laugh as Mazda Miatas. For performance tech, the Cayenne GTS is impressive, with lots of horsepower cranked out of the engine and its air suspension offering different ride modes. We also take the dynamic chassis option into account for its performance tech score, but it also gets docked for the abysmal mileage. You could get as much range in a Tesla, with zero CO2 emissions.
Porsche did a good job of elevating its cabin tech with the new PCM. Although it doesn't push the cabin tech envelope like some other car companies are doing, it keeps the Cayenne GTS competitive, offering the kinds of electronic comforts that people are coming to expect. For design, we think the ergonomics of the touch screen could be improved. Otherwise, the body style is unique, you won't mistake a Cayenne for anything else, and it offers the practical interior space of an SUV.
|Model||2009 Porsche Cayenne|
|Power train||4.8-liter V-8|
|EPA fuel economy||11 mpg city/17 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||11.6 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional hard drive-based|
|Bluetooth phone support||Optional|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible single CD|
|MP3 player support||iPod|
|Other digital audio||Satellite radio, USB drive, auxiliary input|
|Audio system||350-watt, 14-speaker Bose surround sound|
|Driver aids||Hill hold|
|Price as tested||$90,580|