2004 Porsche Cayenne Road Test

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  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests (1)
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2004 Porsche Cayenne SUV

(4.5L V8 Twin-turbo AWD 6-speed Automatic)

With Great Power Comes Great Profitability

Passing a 1969 Ford Torino convertible while driving a Porsche Cayenne Turbo doesn't sound all that impressive. The Torino is a 35-year-old car that weighs approximately two tons (though, frightening as it is for me to report, that still gives the old Ford about a 1,200-pound weight advantage over Porsche's brand-new people mover). But consider the fact that this particular Torino had a custom paint job and aftermarket wheels that, added together, probably cost more than all the options on the Cayenne I was driving when added up (about 7,000). Then add in the chrome exhaust tips that were belting out a throaty V8 rumble; a rumble that managed to pierce the Porsche's heat-insulated and laminated privacy glass, and it was clear this Torino was not just another aging Blue Oval product.

But pass the Torino I did, even after he'd gotten a head start by flooring it and rapidly shooting away from me at 65 mph. It only took a few moments, but a few moments of full-throttle application of the Turbo's 450 horsepower and 457 pound-feet of torque, especially when you're already going 65 mph, adds up to…well, a lot. I'll leave the rest to your imagination, but I'm happy to say that the only disconcerting aspect of this particular application of power and speed was my wife's high-pitched voice shouting, "Slow down!"

Such is the case with Porsche's top-dog SUV, a vehicle that is supremely capable of performance feats never before possible in a 5,200-pound, five-passenger, high-profile luxury vehicle. All the usual Porsche elements are in place here: sublime steering feel with near-telepathic feedback; supreme chassis control, and the associated confidence that comes with it; even the ability to rotate the rear end if desired (once you disable Porsche Stability Management by hitting the button at the top of the center stack). Of course, a few elements you might not normally associate with Porsche, such as a low-range transfer case and locking differentials, also make their appearance on the Cayenne. And if you spring the extra 33,000 for a Turbo version, like our test model, you also get the Porsche Active Suspension Management system, an air suspension that can alter ride height and shock damping rates for a variety of driving circumstances. That extra 33 large nets a few more features, like bi-HID headlights that rotate with the steering wheel to better illuminate dark curves, a CD-based navigation system, heated front and rear seats and front and rear sonar systems to aid parking.

But let's be honest, the real reason to spring for the Cayenne Turbo is written in swooping letters across the vehicle's rear hatch: Turbo. The same turbocharged magic that makes the 911 one of the most exciting sports cars available for public consumption also works to create the world's most speed-crazed SUV. Stomping on the throttle from a dead stop results in a half-second of tepid forward movement as the turbo spools up — then bam! Like Anna Nicole after spotting a Krispy Kreme, the Cayenne Turbo somehow ignores its considerable heft and simply springs into action.

A similar response occurs once the vehicle is in motion, though throttle response continued to be a notable issue for most drivers. Sometimes forward motion comes after a slight delay, other times it comes on stronger than expected (or desired). The effect is more subtle than overt, but drivers used to the refined nature of an Acura, BMW or Infiniti will notice it. We're not sure if this behavior is turbo- or transmission-related (or a combination of both), but after trolling the Cayenne car discussions boards we found several owners who had visited their local dealer to have the drivetrain controller "reflashed" with positive results.

The transmission itself proved capable of delivering positive upshifts under full-throttle conditions, and when set in "Manual" mode, it would respond quickly to up- or downshift commands sent via the steering wheel switches or shifter movement. But when left in automatic mode, with varying levels of throttle applied, it sometimes seemed to hesitate before choosing a gear. It's worth noting that Porsche has designed this transmission to "learn" driver behavior and respond accordingly. What this is supposed to result in is a transmission that "knows" when the driver wants it to hold gears during aggressive on- or off-road driving. To us, it seemed like the transmission performed well when fully engaged in either standard or aggressive driving mode, but it sometimes switched modes too early or too late (a difficult situation to avoid whenever a transmission is allowed to think for itself).

Drivetrain quibbles aside, the Cayenne is an immensely capable SUV whether tackling twisty mountain roads…or mountains without any roads. A flick of the rocker switch, located just to the right of the shifter, will put the Cayenne in a low-range mode for increased torque when climbing or descending steep inclines. Hit the switch again and the center differential will lock, ensuring that front and rear wheel speeds are equalized. These settings can be combined with ride height changes via another rocker switch (to the right of the shifter) to improve the Cayenne's approach and departure angles. Yet another set of buttons near the shifter alters the Cayenne's shock damping between "Comfort," "Normal" and "Sport" settings. We noticed an immediate change in ride quality between the Comfort and Sport settings, especially when traversing sharp bumps and freeway expansion joints.

In our off-road experience with the Cayenne, we've found it to be less capable than a Land Rover Range Rover or Jeep Grand Cherokee, but by a margin that is hardly worth mentioning. When you consider that most Grand Cherokee, Range Rover and Cayenne owners will never encounter the off-road limits of these vehicles, it seems pointless to worry about the customer whose off-roading demands fall beyond the Cayenne's, but within the realm of the Range Rover or Grand Cherokee. I'm sure such buyers are out there…somewhere…right?

More worthy of mention are the Cayenne's strengths and weaknesses with respect to interior design and comfort. For instance, several drivers took issue with the driver seat. Despite its multitude of settings and heavy side bolsters, it was difficult for some staffers to get comfortable. After close examination, we feel the problem may have to do more with the seat's relation to basic controls. Anyone who's driven a late-model Mustang will understand what we're talking about here. The seat itself offers adequate support and comfort, but getting it to line up with the pedals, steering wheel and shifter takes a fair amount of fiddling. I eventually found a position that worked for me, but it took several hours of quality seat time.

Areas where the Cayenne scored well with our staff included the gauge cluster and interior materials. Unlike most Porsches, which feature a larger tachometer front and center, the Cayenne uses five basic circular gauges. The central gauge includes fuel, engine temperature and an information display that can show such items as outside temperature, radio frequency and a digital speedometer. The next largest gauges are a tachometer and analog speedometer, with two smaller gauges on either side of these to show turbo boost and engine oil temperature. The entire setup could be viewed as a bit busy, but most staffers felt it was an effective layout for conveying a great deal of information. The fact that it had a very upscale, polished look only added to the effect (not that a 90,000 SUV should provide anything less, but the same effect can be had in the 55,900 Cayenne S).

Interior materials were another high point in the Cayenne experience. The rocker switches that control the ride height and transfer case have a high-quality metallic look and feel, as do the illuminated rocker switches on the steering wheel for shifting the transmission. The Havanna/Sand Beige leather and bright wood inserts within the dash and door panels were similarly well received. The stitched leather covering the dash and door panels also looks great. Less impressive was the CD-based navigation system and the lack of an in-dash CD changer. The sound system, like the drivetrain, was high on power, but lacking in ultimate refinement. Rear-seat legroom and luggage capacity behind the second-row seat both felt rather tight, though folding the rear seat down creates 63 cubic feet of cargo space, a number that matches up well when compared to the Range Rover (62), FX45 (65) and BMW X5 (69).

The real question for potential Cayenne Turbo buyers is, "How much performance do you really need?" At 55,900, the Cayenne S is at least priced competitively with other premium SUVs, and when the V6 Cayenne hits dealers in the coming months it should be priced in the 40s, though performance will undoubtedly suffer — despite Porsche's claims that the vehicle won't simply be a rebadged Touareg. But a 33,000 premium for the Turbo model? When you start approaching 100,000 for an SUV, there should be no discernible issues to discuss (throttle response, seat comfort, a CD-based navigation system, etc.).

It's easy for us to like the Cayenne Turbo — despite its faults — because we didn't have to buy it to drive it, and it did quite well during performance testing. For most of the Cayenne Turbo's likely buyers, money won't be an issue, so the vehicle's faults will quickly be forgiven by this group as well. But for anyone on a real budget, with real money to spend, this car doesn't make sense. Not when the non-turbo version can be had for nearly half the price, and an FX45 can be had for less than half a Turbo's MSRP.

At least Porsche is making a good chunk of profit on every Cayenne Turbo its dealers sell. If that helps fund continued company independence, as well as the development of Carrera GTs, so be it.

Second Opinions:

Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
Although it's true that money can't buy everything, sometimes it's enough to buy immunity from certain laws. The O.J. Simpson case is one rather grim example. Another, on a much different note, is Porsche's Cayenne Turbo. It seems that 90,000 or so will get you an SUV that thumbs its big snout at the laws of physics, nearly giving this 5,200-pound SUV the moves of a 911. With a twin-turbo V8, a forceful rush of acceleration is always on tap, whether you're blasting away from a stop or jetting by a line of laggards on an otherwise open two-laner. Equally, or maybe even more impressive is how well this thing takes a corner (neutral, dead flat and with crisp turn-in) or hauls itself down with massive brakes that feel like they could stop an F-15 on a carrier's deck without needing the assistance of the arrester hook. Think about it for a moment; the Cayenne Turbo weighs just as much as a mid-'70s Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham, you know, the really big one before it was "downsized." Imagine something that weighs that much accelerating, braking and handling like a full-fledged sports car and you get the idea.

After taking an expensive car out for a spin, I'll ask myself: "If I had this much money to spend on a car (or truck), would I buy this particular vehicle?" In the case of the Cayenne Turbo — tempting as it is — probably not. Anybody who knows me well would assume (rightly) that this is out of character for me, as I believe rapid acceleration is one of life's simple joys. At roughly two-thirds the price, I'm sure that the standard Cayenne is more than two-thirds as good as its pumped-up stablemate and its 340-horse V8 would be more than adequate. But better yet, I'll take a Caddy SRX V8 and spend the other 45 grand on another Porsche, a base Boxster.

Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
Yes, it's fast. Although, I don't mind saying I was expecting gobs of dizzying thrust and was slightly disappointed. The thing the car does well is provide abundant power that is always on tap. I found this to be especially great in more normal driving situations such as moderate traffic or open boulevards. The Cayenne is easy to place and gets you right to that opening in traffic quickly and effortlessly. I love the way you can switch between normal and Tiptronic mode without even thinking about it.

I really like the stereo on the Cayenne; it's exactly what I would expect from a car at this price. Also, the controls for adjusting sound quality seemed more intuitive than I would have expected in a Porsche, but the navigation controls were not so easy to use.

I did not appreciate the metallic-colored plastic switchgear on the dash and center console. For 90 large, I want real metal. On the other hand, the steering wheel-mounted buttons felt nice and precise when I used them.

Comparisons to the Touareg are inevitable, so I'll jump on that bandwagon as well. The Touareg's seats seemed more comfortable to me, and I like the gauges from that car more so than the sports car-looking setup in the Cayenne.

A huge miss for me was the grabby and squeaking brakes. At low speeds and in urban driving situations, the Cayenne felt jerky and hard to manage. And the brakes squeaked so loudly at low speeds it caused me to wince in horror if I had the windows down — not good. Of course, those same brakes felt wonderful when trying to bring the big SUV to stop from higher speeds. Also, for my taste, the "Comfort" setting on the adjustable suspension was not "comfortable" enough. Yes, it handles well, but I would prefer a little more softness. Frankly, I would spend my money on a V8-powered Touareg or a Range Rover. I guess I was less than thrilled with the Cayenne overall, but that is likely due to my elevated expectations.

Consumer Commentary:

"Still a head turner. Folks at the traffic signal give thumbs up and great comments. I wonder if the Internet community/magazine writers who talk down to the Cayenne ever talk to real folks on the road? People seem to be loving this vehicle." — svinaik, Oct. 12, 2003

"People claim that we don't use our cars to their full potential, but looks to me that owners are excited about the Cayenne's many features. I have not yet towed anything, but have gone off-road. Will take it up to Tahoe this winter." — highender, Sept. 20, 2003

"I'm not knocking the Cayenne S, but that air suspension costs about an extra $2,500. A similarly equipped Cayenne S also costs about an extra $15-20K. Sophistication costs big bucks these days. Drove a Cayenne S today without air suspension. Rides about like the FX45. Thought about buying it, but for $65K thought it should have a lot more sophistication." — jpiatchek, Nov. 15, 2003

Stereo Evaluation:

System Score: 7.5

Components: The Cayenne Turbo (as well as the less expensive S model) comes standard with a 350-watt Bose audio system. The system includes an AM/FM tuner; an in-dash, single-CD player; a diversity antenna; and 15 (yes, 15) total speakers. Two small upward-firing tweeters on the dash are offset by a larger midrange speaker above the center stack. Then, there are two speakers (a small tweeter and a larger midrange unit) in each of the Cayenne's four side doors. Finally, two forward-firing tweeters in each D-pillar, plus a long, narrow bass unit just below each of the cargo area side windows, round out the 15-speaker system. Our test model also had the optional (715) six-disc CD changer mounted behind an interior panel in the cargo area. Controls are typical Porsche, meaning more convoluted than efficient; buttons are too numerous and too small.

Performance: Power is not an issue with this system, but clean, low-frequency separation is. The midrange and high notes were consistently clean, but I was never fully satisfied with the low frequencies, despite repeated fiddling with the audio controls. On less complex music, such as acoustical rock ballads or classical pieces, the base performance was strong, but even with this type of music, some "punch" was missing on the low end. On more complex music, such as modern hard rock, the lows would get muddy — though again, sheer power was never an issue. The "surround" effect, which can easily be switched on or off, did add depth to the music, but often with an accompanying increase in messy bass response. I also noticed that by setting the fader control toward the rear (by three notches) the music felt more balanced, front to rear (at least from the driver seat). As with all German luxury cars, the inability to load/unload the CD changer without first stopping and exiting the vehicle was annoying, especially in an SUV approaching 100,000.

Best Feature: Like the drivetrain, this one never wants for power.

Worst Feature: Like the drivetrain, it could use a bit more refinement, especially in the low-frequency range.

Conclusion: The system's plentiful power and clean midrange/high notes almost make up for the slightly muddy bass and overly complex control system. Almost. — Karl Brauer

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