2019 Porsche Cayenne S first drive review

Porsche's latest Cayenne still leaves all the copycats in the dust

After 15 years, the Porsche Cayenne still sets the standard for performance SUVs.
After 15 years, the Porsche Cayenne still sets the standard for performance SUVs.
After 15 years, the Porsche Cayenne still sets the standard for performance SUVs.

Highs

  • Superb handling
  • Makes light off-roading easy
  • Comfortable cabin, for driver and passengers

Lows

  • Most features are pricy options
  • Could be more breathtaking to look at

Porsche didn’t invent the concept of the sporty SUV, but when the performance-dedicated automaker decided to venture into the uncharted territory of sport-utility and four doors, the world took notice. It’s safe to say that the Porsche Cayenne was a success, so much so that SUV-adverse brands like Rolls Royce and even Lamborghini are getting in on the action.

For 2019, the Porsche Cayenne begins its third generation with a leaner look and a new bag of tricks that further blur the line between utility vehicle and sports car.

What’s new

In true Porsche fashion, the new Cayenne’s exterior tweaks are subtle, yet significant. The divided trapezoidal grille, for example, remains, but is cleaned up and given more pronounced horizontal slats. The turbo now visually distinguishes itself with one uniform grin across the front fascia. Further styling adjustments – like a light strip in the rear – are meant to bring the SUV more in line with the styling of the current 911 models. Its general dimensions have shifted a few millimeters, too, so the car is lower and wider than the previous version.

Beyond these more superficial changes, the latest Cayenne adopts a few clever tricks to improve both its performance and versatility. An adaptive roof spoiler now automatically repositions itself to provide incremental amounts of downforce, depending on the situation. If an emergency brake is necessary at high speeds, the wing can act as an air brake that can reduce braking distance by two meters. That may not sound like a lot, but in an emergency, every little bit counts.

The Cayenne also adopts a new Porsche surface coated braking system, rear-axle steering, and a three-chamber air suspension. More on those in a moment.  

Trim levels and features

There are three levels of spiciness to this Cayenne. It starts with the 340-horsepower V6 turbo base model, followed by the 440-hp twin-turbo V6 Cayenne S, and heats up to the confusingly-titled Cayenne Turbo, which houses a twin-turbo V8 producing 550 hp. Compare it to the Land Rover discovery’s 330-hp supercharged V6 power plant, or the 333 hp from Audi’s Q7’s turbo V6, and you can see the Cayenne holds its own. The Turbo almost matches the Range Rover Sport SVR’s gluttonous 575 horses.

You can see the Cayenne holds its own.

Whichever engine you choose, it’ll be mated with an eight-speed automatic transmission (not Porsche’s fancy PDK dual-clutch), which will route power though its active all-wheel drive system.

We spent most of the time in the Cayenne S, since it felt like it hit the sweet spot of power and nimbleness, though we certainly hold V8s near and dear to our hearts.

Technology overview

New to the Cayenne is rear-axle steering, a technology it inherited from the 911. We’ve seen it in other competitors, and it now makes its way into the Cayenne for the first time. The rear wheels will turn slightly in relation to the front wheels for added stability and handling. It virtually shortens or elongates the wheelbase depending on what the situation demands, which gives the SUV more of a car-like footprint in relation to handling.

Porsche has developed a three-chamber air suspension for the Cayenne, and the significance of this is a huge breadth of spring rates. Having three air chambers for each spring strut, rather than one, means that the Cayenne can quickly adapt to road conditions when more stability is needed.

Also debuting here is a the Porsche surface coated brake, a set of discs covered in tungsten-carbide. Along with improved responsiveness, the coated brakes have a 30 percent longer service life, and produce less brake dust. Porsche is also proud of the fact this coat is self-polishing, and they’ve matched the mirror-like discs with sporty white calipers. It’s something Porsche owners will eagerly point out to their neighbors as they’re giving a walk-around.

Keep in mind, however, that these great performance options are exactly that — options. Unless opting for the Turbo, these nifty additions are extra. 

Interior fit and finish

The Cayenne’s is like taking a 911 and a Panamera and mushing them together. You get the performance of the coupe combined with the luxury of the sedan, plus some extra utility as a result of the mixing process.

The center dashboard is dominated by the 12.3-inch “Porsche control management” or PCM, which is the interface for all the car’s functions, from entertainment to the myriad configuration settings. This works in tandem with two digital displays that sit on either side of the gauge cluster, so the driver can have info displayed in front of him. This comes in any version of the Cayenne, and includes enough menus and configurations to make even Volvo’s tablet-like interface jealous.

While it works to emulate its sportier Porsche cousins, the Cayenne is still an SUV, so it has a spacious cabin with ample rear cargo space. Helping occupants avoid feeling cooped up is a two-pane panoramic roof that can open in the front, but is fixed in the rear. The glass throughout is noise insulated, and all the windows behind the B-pillar have the option of tint, for increased privacy. 

Driving performance and MPG

Crete is a craggy Greek island in the middle of the Mediterranean, which made for an ideal testing ground for the Cayenne. Roads that weren’t rough-cut paths were smooth, yet windy mountain throughways. This course, picked by Porsche to split the difference between performance and utility, was primed to pose a challenge for the SUV.

To handle off-road situations, the Cayenne has a dedicated setting in the PCM that preps it for what’s to come. The air suspension hikes the car up and wheel rotation is carefully monitored. We took the Cayenne up a path rough enough to prove it can get dusty without too much concern. On our ascent, the SUV made the rough ride effortless, and even kicked on cameras and sensors to alert us of rocks or outcroppings that were too close for comfort. The Cayenne won’t be the ride of choice for the next great expedition into the unknown, but it’s nice to know that it can handle the few pavement-free situations any Cayenne owner is likely to encounter.

You’ll have to remind yourself there’s a whole row of seats…because you forgot you’re in a SUV.

On the road, though, is where the Cayenne really puffs out its chest to show its Porsche badge. The Cayenne S, housing the twin-turbo 2.9-liter V6, has a stellar balance of nimbleness and grunt. 440-horsepower and 406 pound-feet of torque is plenty to chuck the roughly 4,450-pound SUV around Cretan corners. For perspective, the weight difference between the Cayenne S and the Dodge Challenger Hellcat is about 20 pounds. Both are still under the 5,000-pound range – a weight class where SUVs like the Jeep Grand Cherokee venture, for example.

We’ve tested SUVs that wish they were sports cars like the Mercedes AMG GLE 63 S Coupe, and the BMW X6 M, on windy roads, and on the track. Those competitors are surprisingly agile – but the Cayenne’s capabilities made us forget we were in an SUV entirely. Curving mountain switch-backs felt like we were piloting a solid performance sedan, and we hardly felt the typical heft of an SUV as we blitzed through turns.

This is performance technology coalescing into something magical. You can go down the spec sheet and read off the Cayenne’s many features, but it doesn’t click until you’re behind the wheel. When you’re descending into a hairpin turn you’ll find the tungsten-coated brakes slow you more quickly than you thought any SUV can manage. Then you round the corner, hunkered down like a sports car, and fire out the other end to the next apex. You’ll have to look over your shoulder to remind yourself there’s a whole row of seats, and cargo space, speeding along behind you.

Conclusion

The Cayenne shares other ignominious traits with its brethren: options. Just about all the great engineering highlights are optional extras. The Cayenne S starts at a base price of around $83,000, but options will have that vault well over $100,000K with room to spare.

This price point was ever present in our minds as we took the Porsche off-road, which sent us down a bizarre logic loop we imagine customers in the Cayenne’s market must go through : you want a sports car, but you need an SUV, so you get a car that can do both, but then you’ve spent $130,000 on it, so you wouldn’t dare take it off road, so you don’t need a car that can do both.

Yet, somewhere in the midst of this very logical argument, you may find yourself in a Porsche dealer signing a check. It’s the same issue with the Range Rover Sport SVR, or the Bentley Bentayga. They’re all extremely expensive and aren’t necessarily the best at any one task. Yet there’s an undeniable lure an SUV that can outrun many sport coupes. The Cayenne, now as before, is a victory of raw engineering over the limits of reality.

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