The mid-range Porsche Cayenne S steps up in performance, though the large SUV’s biggest progress is made inside rather than underneath.
The forums are quiet these days, but at the turn of this century, enthusiasts were hurling invective at Porsche. There weren’t quite wild protests on the streets of Stuttgart, yet in the eyes of many, the German sports car maker committed sacrilege when it unveiled an SUV in 2002.
Time not only heals but creates indifference. Here in 2018, we’re onto the third-generation Cayenne amid minimal fuss – in a world now dominated by sports utility vehicles.
We’re not sure if Porsche is hoping the Cayenne shape will become as iconic as the 911’s over several decades, but the latest version is another subtle styling evolution.
If it still won’t be easy for everyone to fall for the overall silhouette, Porsche has sharpened the sheetmetal, emboldened the front end with larger air intakes, trimmed some height (9mm) from the roof line, and added some cool details such as the horizontal rear light bar incorporating LED tail-lights.
Sitting on the same MLB Evo architecture as the Audi Q7 and Bentley Bentayga, the Cayenne stretches another 6cm to touch 4.92m (though the 2.9m wheelbase remains unchanged). It pares mass by up to 65kg, however, courtesy of revised construction.
Pricing bulks up slightly for the entire range. Whereas the mid-range Cayenne S we’re testing here was formerly a sub-$145K model, it is now priced from $155,100. That positions it a fair jump over the $116,300 base model, but well below the $239,400 flagship Turbo.
There are more standard features than before, including autonomous emergency braking and snazzier infotainment and instrument displays transported across from the Panamera.
Upgrading from the entry-point Cayenne to the S exchanges 19-inch wheels for 20s, adds a heating function for the front seats and panoramic sunroof, introduces 710-watt Bose audio in place of an anonymous 150-watt ‘hi-fi’, and swaps the suspension from steel to air springs.
Perhaps more pertinently for a Porsche buyer, there’s also an under-the-bonnet promotion. Whereas the base model uses a 3.0-litre V6 with a single turbocharger, the S adopts the Audi-Porsche co-developed 2.9-litre twin-turbo V6 found elsewhere in the Porsche showroom (as well as Audi dealerships with the RS4/RS5 wagon/coupe twins).
Producing 324kW and 550Nm, the fractionally smaller but more powerful, shorter-stroke V6 propels the Cayenne S from standstill to 100km/h an exact second faster: 5.2 seconds – or 4.9 seconds with the launch-control system available via the optional Sports Chrono pack.
The V8-powered Turbo chops at least another second off that sprint, yet the Cayenne S hardly leaves you feeling as though you’ve been shortchanged on pace. It’s plenty quick, and the V6 and eight-speed auto is a superb combination that’s as enjoyable to exploit as it is in those RS Audis, despite a need to shift a fair chunk of extra mass.
Your right foot barely has to move the accelerator pedal to sense the strength of the V6 underfoot, and the torque delivery swells incrementally and satisfyingly with every squeeze.
Porsche quotes 3.5 seconds for the transition from 80 to 120km/h; a time that emphasises the V6’s impressive in-gear performance. That compares with 4.1 seconds for the base Cayenne or 2.7 seconds for the Turbo.
Despite the big dollop of torque plonked between 1800 and 5500rpm, this is a turbo V6 that also revels in higher revs. That makes the paddle-shift levers particularly relevant for holding gears longer to extend the aural satisfaction of the snarling six-cylinder, and accentuate the exhaust blurts on fast upshifts.
Sport is the middle option of three modes from which the driver can choose, influencing not just the engine and gearbox, but also the suspension – in both the damper setting and ride height.
It proved to be our preferred setting for both everyday and dynamic driving. With the chassis set to default Normal, the Cayenne S lacks the ultra-disciplined body control we’ve almost come to take for granted from Porsche.
While the Cayenne never descends into body-tossing choppiness like the rival Maserati Levante and sustains a generally comfortable ride, the damping allows more vertical movement than expected, particularly on country roads.
Encounters with less-frequent larger bumps also make you aware of the Cayenne’s heavy unsprung mass – heavier in our test vehicle’s case, as in place of the standard 20s it featured optional ($8020) 21-inch alloys – though mainly through temporary vibrations after the hit rather than anything unpleasantly sharp.
Rather than unduly stiffening the ride, Sport mode actually brings some welcome compliance, while tightening everything up nicely to provide a strong platform of confidence for the driver when they’re in the mood for a spirited drive. Sport Plus mode takes the air suspension to its lowest setting, though the damping force in this setting feels a touch too much for the road.
Sport also brings a more eager response to a press of the accelerator pedal.
While the Cayenne has lost some weight, there’s still no doubt you’re trying to hustle a two-tonne mobile object on a winding road. Yet, there is satisfaction to be derived from its relatively quick change of direction, immensely stable cornering composure, plentiful grip, and enjoyable corner-exit thrust.
The rear-end stability is aided by the first application of sports-car-style asymmetrical tyres on a Cayenne – with 30mm-wider (315mm), lower-profile rubber at the rear.
The steering isn’t ultra-sharp – it’s a big, heavy front end it’s trying to shift, after all – but there’s unerring accuracy. (For reference, our test car featured the $650 speed-sensitive Power Steering Plus that aims to lighten the steering at lower speeds and make it heavier at higher speeds.)
You can occasionally hear the electronic stability-control system grab a brake during more aggressive cornering, though the action itself isn’t intrusive.
Although this is a Porsche, the front-seat bolstering is biased towards luxuriousness rather than sportiness. The seats are super comfortable, however.
The brakes are terrific: classic Porsche in the way they deliver a strong bite, and allow the driver to know exactly how much pressure needs to be applied for an approaching bend. And despite the big tyres, tyre noise doesn’t register as an issue.
The Cayenne continues to be a Porsche you can take off-road if you’re happy to get your $155,000 dirty. There are four off-road modes covering gravel/mud/sand/rocks, with the latter taking the chassis to its highest setting (Terrain).
(Centre console grab-handles continue to be a Cayenne signature, if more realistically acting as a design cue rather than something that will be used in most cases.)
Off-road modes and most functions are selected/engaged via the panoramic, 12.0-inch central touchscreen that debuted in the Panamera sedan. A plethora of functions seems daunting at first glance, but intuitiveness is helped by the multi-box home screen with scrolling side bar, plus proximity sensor that introduces additional options as your hand approaches the screen.
The centre console supports the glass interface with haptic-feedback shortcut touch buttons, and a mini rotary dial that can be used to cycle through screen options. The only other physical controls on the console are the temperature/fan toggles and the electronic park brake button. It’s almost minimalism compared to the button overkill of the previous Cayenne’s console.
Digital graphics are also present on the five-dial instrument panel, providing plenty of useful information closer to the driver’s view of the road. We still love the fact Porsche keeps the largest and most central dial an analogue tachometer.
Overall, Porsche manages to achieve a slightly more sophisticated cabin presence than the impressively presented interior of the related (but diesel only) Audi Q7. The Cayenne doesn’t provide a third-row option like the Q7, however, so it’s strictly a five-seater. (Porsche is possibly keen to avoid any people-mover connotations.)
Back-seat passengers are presented with generous leg room – abundant if you’re averagely sized, but still plentiful if you’re among the taller folk. Good head room, too, and a similarly good array of storage options.
The bench cushioning isn’t as plush as the front seat squabs, but provides plenty of support under the legs, and the seatbacks feature adjustable recline. They don’t fold fully flat (in 60-40 configuration), however, and the lack of electric release levers in the boot of a $150K-plus SUV raises eyebrows.
There’s a total of 1710 litres, though the boot is big (710L) even without collapsing the seatbacks. Useful features include a cargo blind, side netted storage, 12V socket, and electrically adjustable load height courtesy of the air suspension.
Overall, you don’t feel as though you’re left wanting for much in the Cayenne S, even if there’s a stack of extras – including extra speed – gained with the Turbo.
The S’s sweet V6 delivers immensely enjoyable performance. And even without the 48-volt electromechanical anti-roll system, rear-wheel steering, or bigger, specially coated brakes standard on the Turbo (but optional on the S), its handling – imperfect standard ride aside – maintains the driver appeal long central to the Cayenne philosophy.
Where the Cayenne S and its fellow variants step forward is in a greater all-round maturity, and most notably the elevated sense of interior luxuriousness and sophistication.
Life has just been made a lot harder for its large luxury SUV rivals.
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