2003 Porsche Cayenne First Drive

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2003 Porsche Cayenne SUV

(4.5L V8 4x4 6-speed Automatic)

Porsche's Pepper Pot

Some people have a problem with the idea of a Porsche SUV. Especially upset are the self-proclaimed Porsche purists. "Why?" they cry into their driving gloves, tears splashing on the delicate suede of their Sparco racing boots. "Why?"

They should dry their eyes: the Cayenne is pure Porsche. You really have to drive it to believe it.

However, the negative hoo-hah has been brewing since Porsche began to market the Cayenne in late 2001.

What makes the notion of a Porsche sport-ute anathema to enthusiasts is that it supposedly corrupts the brand. The argument is that Porsche has sold out. It is no longer the world's last great pure sports car manufacturer, it's just like all the other auto manufacturers: greedy and eager to jump on the SUV bandwagon to wring as much profit out of the truck trend as possible.

You can see the purists' point. Porsche is known for the exemplary handling and performance of its sports cars. To own a Porsche is to be part of an exclusive fraternity of enthusiasts. Now, with the introduction of the Cayenne, there's a 4,939-pound Porsche with a tailgate, cargo area and, horrors of all horrors, wood trim in the cabin. Gawd, soccer moms might actually drive the thing.

It's as though Veuve Clicquot decided to produce a light beer. Bar the door, the infidels are coming!

All these criticisms were made before the Cayenne even appeared. Now it's in showrooms and the purists should dry their eyes and the cynics should prepare to recant — the Cayenne has got the goods, as we discovered during its launch in Birmingham, Alabama.

Most impressive was its performance on a new racetrack just outside the city, which is also home to the Porsche Driving Experience, a driving school for Porsche owners. I sat in a brand-new 2003 Porsche Cayenne with Hurley Haywood in the passenger seat. (Mr. Haywood knows a thing or two about racing. He is the world's most successful endurance-racing driver, having won five times at the 24 Hours of Daytona, three times at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and twice at the Twelve Hours of Sebring.) He guided me around the 2.3-mile track, telling me when to accelerate, brake and when and where to hit the apex of each turn. The track is highly technical, but with practice I was able to complete some pretty decent laps. After six tries I finally mastered the downhill S-turn, and on the straightaway I got it up to 110 mph before I had to brake for the sharp left of turn one, which we took comfortably at about 50. It felt confident heading into the sweeping right of turn two, foot on the gas, keeping it steady at about 60 mph, then guiding it out to the left berm at the exit of the corner ("Use the whole road.") and then gunning it uphill to the second straightaway. The Cayenne surged forward and rocketed upward. It was truly exhilarating. Then I remembered that I was in an SUV. A truck. But it felt like a 911.

"It defies logic," Mr. Haywood said. "It shouldn't be doing what it's doing — a 5,000-pound truck handling this track the way it does. Amazing."

Although I would like to claim that it was skill that kept the Cayenne on the track, I must credit the amazing traction provided by its Porsche Traction Management system (standard on S and Turbo models). Under normal driving conditions, it directs 62 percent of power to the rear wheels and 38 percent to the front, but if it detects slippage it can channel full power to either the front or the back. Also standard is Porsche Stability Management, an electronic system that combines traction and antiskid control to ensure the Cayenne always stays on course. Although no technology can overcome the laws of physics, it can make a so-so driver much better.

We were able to drive both versions of the Cayenne on the track — the 340-horsepower S and the 450-hp Turbo. Both were impressive.

The normally aspirated 4.5-liter V8 in the S propels the Cayenne with the enthusiasm of a dog chasing a fat cat. The new six-speed Tiptronic S transmission makes shifts exactly when you need them, delivering seamless power with the go-pedal matted and quickly downshifting when I eased up at the entrance of corners. The tranny also offers the ability for manual shifts, either by using the shift lever between the front seats or the buttons on either side of the steering wheel. On the track it was easiest and best to leave the thinking to the sophisticated transmission and concentrate on keeping the powerful Porsche on the road. But, later, during our street test when there was more time to think and speeds were less drastic, it was fun to downshift before a curve or to provide optimal acceleration when passing.

The Cayenne S has four-wheel independent suspension with steel spring struts and hydraulic power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering. Combined with the super-stiff torsional rigidity of the unibody construction, the system provides exceptional steering response and handling. The ride is rather unforgiving, however, with road surface bumps, cracks and other irregularities being transmitted directly to your bottom. This is, of course, a classic compromise: whenever terrific feel and handling are offered, the ride is often harsh. It is also the hallmark of a pedigreed sports car.

Optional on the S and standard on the Turbo model is air suspension. It offers six different ride height levels from 6.2 inches of ground clearance to 10.8 inches (the highest setting is for off-road use, which we will get to later). The air suspension system also includes variable damping control, called Porsche Active Suspension Management (PASM). Using buttons mounted on the center console, you can choose from three damper settings: Comfort, Normal and Sports. Comfort offers the softest damper setting and is best while highway cruising or driving bumpy roads and city streets. Normal provides more road feedback and the most extreme is Sports, which allows you to feel nearly every pimple and nuance of the road. This is the setting you want on your favorite twisty road.

If the S model is enthusiastic like a dog, the Turbo is overwhelming like a lion. The 450 hp and 457 pound-feet of torque of its twin-turbo intercooled V8 rocket it around like a feral beast. Porsche says it moves from zero to 62 mph in 5.6 seconds and possesses a top speed of 165 mph (compared to 7.2 seconds and 150 mph for the S). Hard to believe when you look at it on paper, but when your back is pressed fully against the supple leather of the Turbo's seats as it accelerates, you become an instant convert.

Fortunately, Porsche also imbued its latest creation with some serious braking power. Both Cayenne models are equipped with antilock brakes, six-piston aluminum monobloc calipers and manhole cover-size discs. They measure a massive 13.8 inches in front and 13 inches in back. They were much appreciated on the test track where they brought the charging beast down from speed in a hurry with no noticeable fade even after several laps. During normal street driving they are a bit grabby until you get used to them. The same can be said for the gas pedal, which requires a delicate touch to avoid lunging, neck-snapping starts.

Equally impressive that Porsche built an SUV that drives like a sports car is that it built a sports car that can drive like an SUV. Part of our driving experience in the Cayenne included an off-road jaunt that would have left most other luxury SUVs (read: BMW X5 4.6is, Mercedes-Benz ML55) in the mud. The Cayenne has been engineered with a ridiculously high level of off-roading ability. The 8.5 inches of ground clearance in the S model with standard suspension is reasonable for moderate off-roading, but the optional ($3,200 with PASM — but standard on the Turbo) air suspension adds 2.3 inches for a maximum of 10.8 inches ground clearance. Combined with the Cayenne's low-range all-wheel-drive mode, this allows it to crawl, traverse and mount an amazing array of rugged obstacles. During our off-road drive, we plowed through hub-deep mud, drove up and down severe muddy hills without slippage and bumped over rocky trails without ever bottoming out. In one position, with the axles articulated to form an X, the Cayenne had only one wheel on muddy terrain but was able to move forward.

The S model can ford water up to 19.7 inches deep. The Turbo with its standard air suspension raises that figure to 21.9 inches. No one can say the Cayenne isn't a true 4x4.

It seems ridiculous, doesn't it? Why would Porsche bother building this vehicle with such a high level of ability when almost no one will ever take it off-road? I put the question to Porsche Cars of North America Public Relations Manager Bob Carlson. For him, it's not overkill. Rather it's an indication of its total superiority. "We've got a 911 Turbo that goes 180 mph, but is anyone going to drive it that fast? No. If you've got a vehicle with brakes capable of stopping it from 165 mph, imagine what it will do at 65."

The Cayenne's cargo area is no less utilitarian than its off-road capabilities. At 19.1 cubic feet with the rear seat up, it provides enough room for luggage for four on a week's holiday. With the rear seats down that balloons to 62.5 cubic feet, which is enough for an antique dresser, the dog and weekend bags. The load floor is flat. Liftover is low and there are sleek chrome recessed tie-downs and stainless-steel plates to ease sliding in that dresser.

Also, both models have a 7,716-pound towing capacity, which is more than enough for most towable boats and trailers. More impressive is that the Cayenne retains its composure even when it's hooked to a trailer. Rick Bye, another former racer in Porsche's employ, took us on a ride with a 2,500-pound load on back. The ride was essentially a "hot lap" through a cone course with a 911 Carerra on the trailer. We seriously thought Mr. Bye had lost his mind. In an S-turn he got the whole thing going sideways for what amounted to an eight-wheel drift. Then he stood on the brakes and brought the whole shebang to a standstill in a heartbeat. It was so ridiculous we laughed.

The Cayenne also boasts the most comfortable and attractive interiors of any Porsche to date. (Purists will be happy to know that the ignition is still to the left of the steering wheel.) Subdued colors and soft leather upholstery and trim make it a warm, pleasing environment. Also, the seats are comfortable and the Cayenne provides a multitude of creature comforts, including a 350-watt, 14-speaker Bose surround sound audio system, the first in any vehicle.

The rear seats are comfortable, too, but only for two adults. We put three regular-size adults back there and it was cramped, especially for the middle passenger who had to deal with the center console at his feet. Otherwise, legroom, footroom and headroom are good. We also appreciated the bolstering of the two outboard seats, which kept us upright when the driver got energetic.

The Cayenne Turbo is even more loaded with features than the S, such as: bi-xenon headlights, power tilt and telescoping heated steering wheel, navigation system and front and rear heated memory seats.

So, it's hard to criticize the Cayenne's engineering, its performance, its utility or its luxury. And as far as selling out to wring profits from the sport-utility market, that's partially true. Porsche built an SUV to make money, but the reason wasn't greed but survival, according to Porsche Cars North America CEO Frederick Schwab.

Why did Porsche build an SUV? "To generate revenue," Mr. Schwab replied. "We expect the Cayenne to double our North American sales. That will go a long way to ensuring our independence."

Porsche is the smallest real independent automaker. It sells about 50,000 to 60,000 vehicles worldwide annually. The next smallest is BMW at one million units. If you want Porsche to keep being Porsche instead of a division of a large conglomerate, it needs to make a lot more money. "To create the vehicles we're famous for, we need a tremendous amount of cash," Mr. Schwab contends. "We need money to maintain the identity that makes Porsche what Porsche is."

Whether that argument eases the pain a Porsche SUV has caused you, is up to you. However, you might want to get used to the Porsche badge on different vehicle bodies: there are rumors that a fourth vehicle line (911, Boxster, Cayenne, ???) is in development. We suspect a crossover vehicle of some kind. A sport wagon perhaps?

If you're determined to be negative about the Cayenne, you might take potshots at its rather indistinctive (ugly, even?) styling. Although the hood, with its froglike eyes and round chin, closely resembles the 911 and Boxster, the rest of the design is fairly pedestrian. We didn't attract a lot of attention driving around Birmingham, soliciting few double takes and none of the jaw-dropping gawks and catcalls that sometimes occur during vehicle launches. In fact, we felt kind of invisible. You might also take exception to the Cayenne's price. The S model starts at $55,900 and the Turbo at $88,900. And when you start adding options — power sunroof ($1,100); 19- or 20-inch wheels ($1,000 for 19-inch, $2,100 for 20-inch, 18s are standard); six-disc CD changer ($715); and wood trim ($990) — a fully loaded model can top out just shy of $100,000. Sure, it's a lot of money, but not for a true Porsche. Right?

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