August 11, 2008
Toronto, Ontario – While the Porsche Cayenne has, since its introduction in 2002, been a business success story – indeed, in these financially troubled times, its sales have been steady while 911 and Boxster sales have slipped – you get the sense that the company has always struggled with the question of its sporting credentials. Initial advertisements for the big 4×4 played off Porsche’s four-wheel-drive heritage by way of the Dakar-winning 959 rally car, but even then, many enthusiasts of the brand’s sports cars found it difficult to accept that their beloved Porsche was building an SUV. The general public had accepted the Cayenne; the question was how to market it to the sports car crowd.
It was this struggle that eventually landed me in a race-prepped Cayenne last August, roaring from Moscow to Ulan Bator, Mongolia on roads, through forests, over mountains and across desert tracks in the 7,100-km Trans-Siberian rally (the Transsyberia, to use the organizer’s spelling). In the process, I became a card-carrying member of the Cayenne fan club. For two weeks, ex-Porsche factory racer Kees Nierop and I lived out of our Cayenne as well as raced in it – and demonstrated its safety and engineering integrity in a most graphic way when we triple-endo’ed it off a ledge in the middle of the Gobi desert. Sporting credentials and off-road credentials, then, proven in one fell swoop.
Despite all this, of course, the reality is that most Cayenne owners will never take their trucks off the beaten path – and thus, its optional height-adjustable suspension, standard low-range gears and other trick off-road features are of little or no use for them. That, largely, has been the crux of Porsche sports car owners’ criticism of the Cayenne: why, if this is the case, not just build a Cayenne for the road, with the handling and performance and tactility that they get from their sports cars?
In a sense, that’s exactly what the new Cayenne GTS is. Yes, it still has a low range (it would have been prohibitively expensive to engineer it out of the package for just one trim level). But in almost every other way, this is supposed to be a Cayenne that a sports car driver could love. It hunkers low and mean on a set of huge alloy wheels wrapped in summer performance tires. It sports an aerodynamic body kit and the front bumper (though not the bulging hood) of the more powerful Cayenne turbo. It has four sporty exhaust pipes and is available in sports-car colours like metallic orange and lipstick red. Inside, it has big bolsters on all of its five seats, a fat steering wheel, active anti-roll bars. And – what is that, sprouting from the centre console? – it’s even available with a manual transmission.
Does it feel weird to be shifting your own gears in an SUV that towers over a 911 and weighs over 5,000 pounds? Of course it does – and 80-plus per cent of the GTSs leaving the factory will have automatics. But for sheer entertainment, the manual is definitely the way to go. Particularly when the electronic throttle is switched to sport mode, the manual gives the 405-horsepower V8 a racy edge that simply wouldn’t be there with the automatic. Throttle response in any of the gears is electric, the monster truck surging forward at the merest twitch of your right toe; three perfectly-placed and nicely-weighted pedals allow you to execute precise, snarling heel-toe downshifts with ease.
As is the case with 911s, the normally-aspirated GTS is actually more satisfying to drive than the more powerful turbocharged models. It’s not just the manual that makes it better (the 500-hp Turbo and 550-hp Turbo S are both automatic-only). It’s the aggressive chassis setup and the standard, super-sticky 21-inch Michelins that allow the GTS to perform cornering feats that you barely imagine an SUV could be capable of. Traction, from a dead start or pulling hard out of a corner, is awesome even during torrential downpours, while active anti-roll bars help to minimize roll. The same braking package from the Turbo models, with huge eight-piston calipers up front, slows the GTS with authority, too.
Overall, in terms of sheer fun, the GTS is about as good as it gets, if you also want SUV-like ride height and seating for five. BMW’s turbocharged V8 X6 has a sophisticated torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive system, but the Porsche’s steering is better. Infiniti’s FX50 is available with adjustable suspension settings, but it doesn’t have as much grunt (it does, however, look a lot better than the Cayenne). Mercedes’ ML63 AMG is brutally fast but rides stiffly and feels more crude; it’s tough to drive smoothly and cleanly, the way you can the GTS. None of these vehicles gives you the option of a manual transmission – and none of their exhausts, not even the AMG’s, can match the thunder that rolls out of the GTS’s four chromed exhausts.
Of course, despite all this, the Cayenne GTS is still a compromised vehicle. It’s compromised as an off-roader, because its off-road ability has been all but engineered out, despite the continuing presence (and weight) of a set of low-range gears. It’s a compromised sports car, still consuming far more space and far more gasoline to perform tricks that a Boxster could do much more easily. It’s compromised in terms of utility, too: the interior, while beautifully finished, with leather and ultrasuede on the dashboard and door pulls as well as the big-bolstered seats, isn’t that spacious, particularly in the back, where legroom can be at a premium. It is also, once you add a few options to its $86,100 base price, very expensive.
None of that seems to be deterring potential GTS buyers. When I visited the factory in Leipzig recently during preparations for 2008’s Transsyberia, half of the Cayennes working their way down the line were GTSs; apparently, the company can’t keep up with demand for them. There are apparently a lot of people out there – people with a lot of money – that want to have everything in one vehicle: moms and dads that want enough space to drive Junior to school or haul home a big-screen TV but enough power and handling poise to make the drives in between as entertaining as they would have been in a more focused driving machine. Given the GTS’ price, one would think that these buyers have enough money for both a family hauler and a sports car, but I guess, if you’re in that snack bracket, you want to have an extreme SUV to go along with your extreme sports car (and probably your extreme luxury sedan, too).
Hey, car purchases, particularly once you get past, say, the $50,000 mark, are rarely based on rationality. After the success of the more mainstream Cayennes, Porsche has finally built an SUV that fans of its sports cars – who are amongst the most rabid out there – can love too.
Pricing: 2009 Porsche Cayenne GTS
Manufacturerâ€™s web site