Pros: More power, better fuel economy and higher-quality interiors than its predecessors; sports-car level of performance in an SUV

Cons: Extensive options list quickly escalates already elevated base price; practical, though not as voluminous as other SUV options; punishing fuel economy in all but the S Hybrid

When it first materialized in U.S. showrooms in 2003, the Porsche Cayenne sent shock waves through the enthusiast community: How could the German manufacturer renowned for uncompromising sports cars and countless racing victories stoop to making an SUV?

Now, nine years after its debut, the Cayenne has become a crucial part of Porsche's success. In 2011, one of every two Porsches sold was a Cayenne, and this year the carmaker expects to sell a record 140,000 of its SUVs-and has even announced an upcoming compact version dubbed the Macan.

The first-generation Cayenne (2003-10) was widely criticized for its unsporting curb weight. The current-generation sheds hundreds of pounds, produces more power and achieves better fuel economy when compared with its predecessor.

The Cayenne is currently available in four configurations: base ($48,200), S ($65,000), S Hybrid ($69,000) and Turbo ($107,100). While each model offers varying trim treatments, the most significant difference lies under the hood. The base model is equipped with a 3.6-liter V6 that produces 300 horsepower; the S receives a 400-hp, 4.8-liter V8; and the S Hybrid can make up to 380 hp thanks to a supercharged 3.0-liter V6 that works in tandem with an electric motor. The Turbo's maximalist approach is pinned on a turbocharged 500-hp 4.8-liter V8 that is capable of getting from 0 to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds.

The Porschephile fringe may still find plenty to bemoan about the Zuffenhausen-based manufacturer's entry into the SUV segment, but the Cayenne offers a Porsche-worthy blend of luxurious interiors and real-world performance.

Comfort & Utility

If SUVs came with S-M-L-XL labels, the Cayenne would land somewhere between Medium and Large. The cabin, although spacious enough for five passengers, has a more intimate feeling than other German SUVs such as the Audi Q7. Partial credit for the sedan-like cabin goes to its stablemate the Panamera, from which the Cayenne has inherited several design devices including the large, flat center console littered with buttons.

With the rear seats folded, the Cayenne offers 62.9 cubic feet of rear storage volume-not quite the most expansive setup, but then again, this SUV is more about the S than the U. The Cayenne's seats, for example, strike a solid blend of supportiveness and long-range comfort. Ergonomics are also excellent, though the array of identically sized and shaped buttons on the center stack verges on overkill. And while the Cayenne certainly adheres to the sport utility playbook in terms of layout, it's a bit too pricey not to be considered a high-end sports car on stilts first, and a functional beast of burden second.

Technology

Porsche has endowed the Cayenne with virtually every technological goodie available in all of automobiledom, but those creature comforts come at a price. For example, navigation with an audio interface runs $3,645; a Bose surround sound system adds $1,690, while a 1,000-watt Burmester setup runs $5,690; voice control costs $595, while a SiriusXM receiver requires $750; expect to shill out $2,990 for a rear-seat entertainment system.

When it comes to driving aids, the Cayenne can be ordered with adaptive cruise control ($2,490), lane change assist ($850), active suspension ($1,990), air suspension ($3,980) and dynamic chassis control ($3,510). Torque vectoring will cost you $1,490, while a sport exhaust swells the MSRP by $2,950. And pity your wallet if you have racetrack aspirations, as ceramic brakes add a substantial $8,150 to the sticker price. Front and rear park assist is $1,095, while that in combination with a reverse camera costs $1,750. Packages, which combine several of the aforementioned la carte options, add $4,185 to $11,650 to the Cayenne's sticker price.

Performance & Fuel Economy

All Cayennes offer potent levels of performance as compared with their competitors, and their brawn is proportionate to their prices. The base model's 300-hp engine is capable of a respectable but not blazing 0-to-60-mph time of 7.1 seconds with a manual transmission, and 7.4 seconds with an automatic eight-speed Tiptronic gearbox. Fuel economy is a bit thirsty, with the Tiptronic version yielding 16/23 mpg.

The Cayenne S Hybrid's 380 hp help it hit 60 mph in 6.1 seconds, although it's the 428 lb-ft of torque that creates that satisfying, seat-squishing sensation when the right pedal is buried. Expect 20/24 mpg from the S Hybrid model.

Opt for the S, and its 400-hp engine yields a more impressive 0-to-60-mph time of 5.6 seconds, which puts this bulky sport-ute on par with many performance coupes. EPA fuel economy numbers are 16/22 mpg, barely showing a penalty compared with the base model.

The more tightly wound Turbo version packs a 500-hp engine that helps achieve an eye-opening 0-to-60 mph time of 4.4 seconds. Considering its 4,784-pound curb weight, the Cayenne Turbo's fuel economy figures of 15/22 mpg could be worse-although they're in no danger of earning Porsche any environmental awards, either.

Safety

Porsche's Cayenne boasts crash safety engineering that includes a chassis strategically reinforced with high-tensile steel, force limiters on the front seats and rollover detection that triggers seatbelt pretensioners and curtain airbags. Additional airbags are situated in front, passenger and driver knee locations. High-strength crossmembers protect the doors and bumpers.

While generously equipped with engineering features designed to protect its occupants, the Cayenne is also safer thanks to responsive handling and powerful, quick-stopping brakes that can help avoid accidents altogether.

Driving Impressions

Performance varies dramatically from model to model, but the entire Porsche Cayenne lineup boasts genre-defying performance capabilities. Thanks to its newly acquired Panamera-inspired cabin layout, the Cayenne's interior makes it feel less like a traditional sport-utility vehicle and more like a high-end luxury car.

The base model can feel brisk when summoned, but the S Hybrid's copious torque makes it the surprise performer of the bunch, especially when the shifter is clicked into S, which sharpens throttle response and puts the transmission into a more aggressive mode of attack. The S Hybrid is also capable of driving on electric-only mode at up to 37 mph, while coasting without engine intervention at even higher speeds.

The S version ups the ante. But, for truly awe-inspiring performance, look no further than the Turbo. Start/stop technology makes for serene red-light experiences, but Sport mode in this SUV transforms it into a lurching beast. Similarly, the suspension can transform from floaty to stiff with the touch of a button, and its most aggressive handling mode makes the Cayenne Turbo so quick to turn that it becomes easy to forget you're in a hulking animal of an SUV.

Its almost endless array of interior options lends the Cayenne lineup a kaleidoscope of personas; the most luxurious tend to include equal doses of wood, aluminum and leather-lined dashboards with Alcantara headliners. When the Cayenne isn't being driven hard, these surface materials conspire to make passengers feel as if they're in a posh sedan, not a hard-charging SUV.

Other Cars to Consider

Audi Q7 - Starting at $46,250, the Audi Q7 is a bigger but similarly ambitious answer to the Cayenne. Powered by a supercharged 3.0-liter V6 gasoline engine or a turbocharged, 3.0-liter V6 diesel mill, the Q7 is an adequate performer but not quite on par with the Porsche's outstanding levels of acceleration and handling.

BMW X5 - BMW's X5 deserves an award for its gradual process of evolution; once bulky and awkward, the model now works more efficiently thanks to greater interior space and a more focused on-road demeanor. Engine options range from the xDrive35i's turbocharged 6-cylinder that produces 300 hp (starting at $47,500) to the X5 M's 4.4-liter turbocharged V8 that churns 555 hp (and starts at $87,250). BMW's X5 offerings are more philosophically in line with Porsche's driver-focused Cayenne models than Audi's.

Land Rover Range Rover Sport - Range Rover Sport models start at $60,895 and escalate to $76,095 for a Supercharged version powered by a blown 5.0-liter V8 that produces 510 hp. The Range Rover offers luxury and attention to design detail that are comparable to the Porsche, but its considerably heavier curb weight keeps it from competing head to head against Porsche in the area of performance.

AutoTrader Recommends

Get the best of both worlds and get the satisfying yet reasonably economical S Hybrid. How many boxes to check off on the options list depends on your bank balance.

author photo

Basem Wasef is an automotive journalist, author, and photographer with two coffee table books under his belt, and is a regular contributor to Popular Mechanics, Robb Report, and Maxim among others. When Basem isn't traveling the globe testing vehicles, he enjoys calling Los Angeles home.

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