Try though I might to ignore the avalanches of SUVs tumbling out from the globe’s automobile factories, I know that it’s ultimately futile. Almost every motor company makes them and as buyers in almost every country are desperate to own them, these behemoths of the ’burbs have become impossible to overlook — and especially so when, as a writer, the car is my subject of choice.
Such facts being the case, I therefore attempt to get around them by driving only those SUVs that I judge (using subjective criteria and highly moveable goalposts) to be in some way “worthy”. Which is why for this month’s motoring feature I’m surveying the road ahead of me — much as would the commander of an unusually rapid and extremely comfortable tank — from the elevated driver’s seat of a Porsche Cayenne S.
Now I know the Cayenne is regarded with particular revulsion by some petrolheads who aver — and I do have some sympathy with them — that it was Porsche’s decision to jump aboard the SUV bandwagon with the original model that convinced many other manufacturers to follow suit. And that, of course, helped bring us pretty much to where we are now. Equally unforgivably, goes the narrative, this same move transformed Porsche from a sportscar company into one that builds some sportscars.
Just look at the numbers: of the 256,255 Porsches delivered in 2018, a staggering 157,489 were SUVs. Pure sportscars — ie, 911s, Boxsters and Caymans — accounted for just over 60,000 of total sales, which is a heck of a lot of cars compared with, say, Ferrari’s, Lamborghini’s or McLaren’s annual output, but viewed against an ocean of urban tractors it’s no more than a moderately sized sea.
In the Cayenne’s favour, though, are two more facts. The first is that, without resorting to SUVs, the company might well have gone under, so today’s enthusiasts would have no new 718s or 911s, let alone hardcore GT4s, GT3s, GT2s, Clubsports, RSs and whatnot, to entertain them. The second is that Porsche has rarely — if ever — built a dud and, SUV or not, it’s hardly likely to start doing so now. So with those points in mind, I’ll lay aside the objections and get back to the topic at hand.
I’ll start by being brutally honest. For all its virtues (and I’ll get to those very shortly), the Cayenne has never been easy on the eye and though the designers have evidently done their best, this third-gen model still wouldn’t make it beyond the first round of a beauty contest — if, indeed, it even got as far as that. Apparently it’s a little longer and lower than its predecessor, and to be fair the new tail treatment, which stretches a light bar from one side to the other à la 911 and Macan, isn’t half bad. But side-on, playing spot-the-difference with the previous Cayenne is hard indeed, while the front grille’s mirthless, full-width grin strikes me as vaguely Jurassic.
And the car is huge — no, make that: Absolutely. Bloody. Enormous — a statement I wouldn’t normally associate with a Porsche and especially not when recalling the sublime delicacy of the tiny mid-’50s 550 Spyder racer. Yet surface appearances often deceive, because beneath the sheet metal the 2019 Cayenne is an entirely new car, from the platform that underpins it and its aluminium-rich construction to a profusion of high-tech systems. Indeed, on swinging open the driver’s door I discover that the richly appointed interior of my test car is actually a marginally upsized version of everything I like about the current Panamera’s.
In other words, it’s packed with gizmos but doesn’t look it, which is largely due to the analogue tachometer that dominates the instrument binnacle – the other four gauges, two at each side, are digital — and the gleaming 12.3-inch touchscreen perfectly integrated at the centre of the dash, rather than being perched atop it like some aftermarket iPad. The screen even seamlessly interfaces with my iPhone, giving me the choice of sticking with Porsche’s own infographics and maps, or switching to Apple Carplay, which during my few days with the car appears to work well and, among other things, reliably pumps music and phone calls through the standard 10-speaker sound system (delve deeper into your wallet and you can achieve aural meltdown with 14-speaker Bose or 21-speaker Burmester set-ups).
Clothed in smooth black leather and fitted with the optional 14-way seats with cushions that extend right out beneath my knees, it’s exceptionally comfortable, quiet and spacious both front and back, dark- hued and yet bathed in light from a panoramic roof — another option — and as ergonomically considered as you’d want a cabin to be. The dash-top stopwatch/clock that comes with the extra-cost Sport Chrono Package, which also adds a wheel-mounted drive-mode switch, further enhances the air of performance-oriented seriousness that already imbues the interior.
Pitched midway between the entry-level Cayenne and the range-topping Turbo, the S gets Porsche’s 2.9-litre twin-turbo V6, whose 434bhp and 550Nm (the latter from 1,800rpm) are more than respectable. Given the car’s hefty 2.1 tonnes you could say they’re needed, but with a Sports Chrono-assisted 0-100km/h time within five seconds and a 265 maximum it’s still pretty zesty, an easy athleticism that’s achieved not with the assistance of a clever dual-clutch PDK box but rather a regular eight-speed ZF Tiptronic auto.
As I did initially, you may feel inclined to dismiss Porsche’s “sportscar for five” tagline as mere marketing hogwash, but driving the Cayenne you quickly find the claim isn’t far off the mark. Like other cars sharing the VW group’s MLB-Evo platform, including the Audi Q7, Bentley Bentayga and Lamborghini Urus, the Cayenne now has a 48-volt electrical system that permits the adoption of active air suspension, which automatically adjusts to driving mode and conditions — and in terms of both handling and comfort the results are astounding.
My car isn’t spec’d with four-wheel steering, but no matter: it responds nimbly to the meatily responsive helm and on the twisty bits the body control offered by the active technology is quite remarkable. Add to that the comfy and compliant ride, which comes with no concessions to body roll that I can discern, and I soon start wondering whether the Cayenne really does measure 1.7 metres from rubber to roof rails. Braking power is pretty awesome, too, and that’s without the assistance of the ceramic-coated or the properly pukka carbon-ceramic rotors that Porsche offers as options.
Thanks to the battery of sensors and cameras, the Cayenne isn’t quite the bugger to park that I imagine, either, though getting my head around its inflated proportions still takes some getting used to; on the road, in contrast, it could hardly be more sweet to drive — and nor can I think of many nicer places than this in which to while away the minutes in a toll-plaza queue. Moreover — and this is crucial, because in spite of the Cayenne’s doubtless-impressive offroad capabilities, this car is likely to spend most of its life in town — my rough mental arithmetic tells me that Porsche’s official fuel-consumption figures of 9.2-9.4 litres per 100km are pretty much accurate (which aside from surely being a first, is actually quite impressive for a car as big, heavy and accelerative as this).
Does this mean I’ve renounced my SUV apostacy? I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed my long weekend with the Cayenne S and in spite of my misgivings I love the way it drives, I could sit for hours on end in its cosy, classy cabin — and I keep on finding all kinds of excuses to take it out. But here’s the thing: every time I spy a 911 it’s impossible to suppress the inevitable pang of envy. So I suppose you could call that a qualified “no”.