In recent years, Porsche has profited immensely from its decision to expand beyond its traditional sports car segment into other premium markets, with models like the Cayenne SUV and Panamera four-door sedan.
The challenge when moving into new segments is preserving the characteristics that made the company’s signature products distinctive and desirable to customers. As skeptical as purists were of the very existence of the Cayenne when it was introduced, something that they found even more disturbing was that it wasn’t just an SUV, it was a very heavy SUV for its size.
A Porsche SUV, it seemed, should at least be a light, lithe example of the breed. Porsche evidently agreed, so the new 2011 Cayenne could be named The Biggest Loser for its stunning loss of 400 lbs. of performance-sapping, fuel-sucking bulk. Now the Cayenne S accelerates from 0-60 in just 5.6 seconds while returning a respectable 16 mpg city and 22 mpg on the highway according to the EPA. A standard automatic engine stop/start feature avoids wasting gas when idling in traffic.
That’s the good news. Less good is that even such a gigantic weight loss is hard to discern from the driver’s seat because this is still a 4,500 lb. vehicle. Remember the phrase “road-hugging weight,” which purported to describe how immense American land yachts could sail unperturbed over pavement imperfections? The Cayenne still feels like it possess “road-flattening weight” which steamrolls flat any encountered bumps.
No matter how it feels, the Cayenne is lighter, and that, along with more efficient powertrains, leads to improved performance and fuel economy. The 400-hp 4.8-liter V8 engine was matched to an eight-speed computer-shifted manual-type transmission. As with other “auto-manual” gearboxes, the driving characteristics are a bit different from those of a conventional torque converter-equipped planetary automatic transmission.
This is probably most noticeable on the common shift from Reverse to Drive after backing out of a space while while still rolling slightly backward. Torque converter transmissions are very tolerant of the mild abuse, but computer-operated clutches don’t like it at all and can decline the invitation to engage, or engage abruptly. I know, I know, come to a stop, then shift into Drive, but my street is on a hill, and cars tend to roll backwards even when I’ve stopped.
The more direct feel of the power transmission is certainly in keeping with Porsche’s sporting heritage, but it can seem out of character in a prestige wagon like the Cayenne. The new gearbox eliminates the transfer case, sending power directly to all four wheels and saving 73 lbs. of mass in the process.
Porsche recognizes that luxury SUVs regularly serve limousine duty, so even while engineers slashed mass, they stretched the wheelbase 1.6 inches to increase rear-seat legroom. Overall length stretches a shade less than 2 inches more than the old model.
This limo duty is compromised by the Cayenne’s goal of preserving Porsche-grade track prowess. While the company has successfully graduated the Cayenne from Biggest Loser to Dancing With The Stars, this agility on its feet does come at the price of a harsh ride that borders on punishing over rough pavement. Such is the price of victory.