We occasionally see SUVs lowered, tricked out with some performance gear, and given a sport trim label. These are usually barely less top-heavy than their nonsport counterparts. When it comes to Porsche, though, you would expect the company's sports-car DNA to infuse its SUV.
The 2011 Porsche Cayenne S largely meets these expectations, handling nimbly at high and low speeds, and using an efficient engine to hit 60 mph in about 5.6 seconds.
With most SUVs, we approach turns carefully, ever conscious of how inertia likes to play with 3 tons of metal perched a foot off the ground. But not so the Cayenne S. We quickly grew comfortable enough with its carlike stability to throw it recklessly into corners. But it does have limits.
Our SUV came with all the Cayenne's available active suspension equipment, including an adjustable air suspension, Porsche Dynamic Chassis Control (PDCC), and Porsche Active Stability Management (PASM). PDCC uses the sway bars to actively counter body roll, while PASM provides active damping power to the shocks, and can be adjusted by the driver between Normal and Sport modes. Additionally, the air suspension lets the driver set the ride height of the Cayenne S.
We bombed down an excellent series of twisty mountain roads, with turns occasionally displaying signs recommending 10 mph. The Cayenne S handled these better than most other SUVs, but it was still not sports-car sharp. The suspension technology does not entirely counteract the physics, so we still felt the car lean a little, or the front end plow into understeer just a bit.
All Cayennes have all-wheel drive, and our Cayenne S also came with the optional Porsche Torque Vectoring Plus system (PTV Plus), which pushes the outside wheel harder in a turn than the inside wheel, helping the car rotate better. We felt undeniable rotation while cornering this car, but felt it could have been dialed up a little more.
We are big fans of these stability and cornering systems, but it feels as if they were nerfed in the Cayenne S in favor of making the car more tractable for pedestrian tasks such as the daily commute or grocery runs.felt like it took much more advantage of similar technologies.
Similarly, although the eight-speed automatic works well as an all-purpose transmission, with smooth shifts and very tall gears to improve freeway fuel economy, it falls just a little short of full sport performance. Shifts, whether in manual or automatic modes, are not as snappy as we would like, making us wait for that ever-desirable power.
The transmission does some very cool things, such as holding onto low gears following a turn, allowing for a quick buildup of speed. It did not downshift aggressively in reaction to braking, but stepped down readily when we hit the gas. Engaging the drivetrain's Sport mode, a separate button from the chassis Sport mode, made the car more likely to stay in lower gears while increasing throttle response.
Porsche's long history of engine design pays off in the Cayenne S, with a direct-injection 4.8-liter V-8 smoothly generating 400 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque. As we mentioned above, Porsche puts the 0-to-60 mph time of the Cayenne S at 5.6 seconds. We found we could achieve that speed in second gear easily.
The V-8 bolts forward readily, but in normal traffic the Cayenne S can be a little too jumpy. Modulating the gas pedal takes some finesse. But we appreciated the power on tap when taking advantage of a gap in traffic.
The air suspension, in Comfort mode, makes for a reasonably smooth ride. Especially with the leather interior, cabin electronics, and seat heating and cooling, we found the Cayenne S a desirable place to be when sitting in slow traffic.
Direct injection helps this V-8 deliver decent fuel economy for its size and power, with 16 mpg city and 22 mpg highway. We managed an even 17 mpg with a variety of city and freeway driving.
We were surprised to find our Cayenne S had neither a voice command system, nor any buttons on the steering wheel for audio control. Those features are optional for the Cayenne S, an interesting choice when many luxury carmakers include them as standard. But we did appreciate the clean look of the sport steering wheel, with its simple metal spokes and solid shift paddles.
We also had Porsche's cabin electronics package, called Porsche Communications Manager (PCM), which includes navigation. Using a hard drive for map storage, this is one of the better-looking navigation systems we've seen. Not only did the maps show a nice 3D rendering of downtown San Francisco, but they included beautiful topographical features when we were out in the hills.
When guiding us toward a freeway off-ramp, colorful and explicit graphics blossomed on the screen with a depiction of the roads. One feature we particularly liked was the system's auto-zoom function. With a programmed destination, it zoomed way out during long stretches, then focused in much more closely when we needed to make a turn.
Inputting destinations by address or POI was relatively easy, although not as intuitive as it could be. Trying to browse around the map for a destination, we found the system sluggish. Colors used for routes, roads, and traffic flow information were a little difficult to distinguish, as well.
The Bluetooth phone system did its job well, copying our phone's contact list and making it available onscreen. Call quality was very good, with no audio breaks and a naturalistic sound.
Audio sources for the stereo are not as expansive as in some cars, with only terrestrial and satellite radio, a CD player, a USB port for iPod integration or USB drives, and an aux input. As for navigation address input, the interface for music selection can be less than intuitive. For example, after selecting an artist or album from the iPod menu, we had to hit a Start Playback button to actually get music started.
Sound quality from the Bose system was well-balanced, with refined frequency output. Neither treble nor bass was overemphasized, and both were pleasant. The system comprises 14 speakers and a 585-watt amplifier, making it plenty powerful. But even when turned up to especially loud levels, the system did not distort.
Although we found the 2011 Porsche Cayenne S falls a little short of sports-car performance, it is far better than the majority of SUVs in this regard due to its very advanced handling gear. The direct injection engine is also technically advanced, producing its power efficiently. The Cayenne S earns extra points for its all-wheel-drive system, which includes torque vectoring and off-road modes.
For cabin tech, the car checks off most of the boxes, and then adds icing on the cake with the detailed 3D maps in the navigation system. We could hope for a slightly bigger nav screen, but we liked its functionality. The stereo was very nice, but the audio quality didn't reach audiophile heights. A few available driver assistance features, such as blind-spot detection, help the Cayenne S' cabin tech score.
The Cayenne S wins points for its exterior design, uniquely Porsche. It also offers most of the practicality of the five-seat SUV design, with convenient cargo space in the rear. Interface design could use some work, however, as there are not many visual cues as to what to do next when entering destinations or selecting music.
|Model||2011 Porsche Cayenne|
|Power train||4.8-liter direct injection V-8, eight-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||16 mpg city/22 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||17 mpg|
|Navigation||Hard-drive-based with traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible single CD|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||USB drive, auxiliary input, satellite radio|
|Audio system||14-speaker, 585-watt Bose surround system|
|Driver aids||Park distance control, available blind-spot detection|
|Price as tested||$93,385|