2003 Porsche Cayenne
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Story and photos by Laurance Yap

Suckers.

While most of the car writers in the Toronto area abandoned sports cars at the first sign of winter – the vast majority of them needing space for families and stuff as well as all-weather capability during the cold months – I’ve been living it up schussing Porsches in and out of snowstorms, charging along icy roads, running circles around stuck SUVs. This past winter, I’ve probably spent more time in Porsches than most owners spend during the course of a year, cycling through the company’s entire fleet of 911s and Boxsters, chasing wintertime thrills.

When our mindsets adjust for the change of seasons, after all, so do our automotive priorities. We look less for thrills than security; we trade exhilaration for comfort and convenience, responsiveness for stability and speed for safety features. Most of my journalistic colleagues thus find themselves in all-wheel-drive wagons, sedans, and SUVs, putting off sports-car pleasures to the summer, where they can be better enjoyed.

Too bad. Porsche only started running its press cars in the winter three years ago, and judging by the ease with which I booked all those cars, it seems like not a lot of people have noticed. It’s mostly a psychological thing, I guess – bought as indulgences, these performance cars are rarely seen as the all-conditions, all-year-round tools that they really are. And try as the company might to change that image in North America – in Europe, where P-cars are even more expensive than they are here, people drive them all year – I guess it’s still tough to see a Boxster or a 911 as something more than a summertime fling.

The new Cayenne SUV is likely to change all that, for it will be a superb wintertime performer, thanks to its all-wheel-drive (still rear-biased, of course, for tail-out antics if you want), Porsche Stability Management, huge disc brakes, and adjustable ground clearance. With the right tires fitted to its huge wheels – the 20-inch Michelin Diamaris tires we had for track testing would be out – nothing will be able to stop it, not even obstacles that would flummox most off-road vehicles.

2003 Porsche Cayenne

2003 Porsche Cayenne

2003 Porsche Cayenne

2003 Porsche Cayenne

2003 Porsche Cayenne

2003 Porsche Cayenne
Click image to enlarge

It proved its abilities, too, on a challenging off-road test route that Porsche laid out for us at its new driving-school facility at Barber Mortorsports Park near Birmingham, Alabama. With low range engaged by the flick of a lever, and the center differential locked with another switch, the Cayenne proved unstoppable on some pretty awesomely difficult terrain, climbing 35-degree hills with ease and leaning over at 45 degrees without the engine hiccuping or any loss of stability. Off-road, this Porsche is, remarkably, the real deal, and is easily the equal of almost anything else out there, including the $104,000 Range Rover. Next year, for especially extreme types, an off-road technology package, with special 18″ wheels, anti-roll bars that decouple automatically for more axle articulation, and a locking rear differential, becomes available.

Five seats and a decently, though not overly spacious interior with better build quality than any of the company’s sports cars, will help more people justify buying a Porsche to their families. Plus there’s also the value factor. Pound for pound, this SUV’s a steal compared to the company’s sports models – consider that about $80,000 will get you just a lightly-loaded two-seat 250-hp Boxster S when it nets 340 horses, all-wheel-drive, five seats, and a whack of safety features, as well as a lot more metal, in a Cayenne S. 450 horses in the $125,000 Cayenne Turbo undercut a less-powerful (but of course, still faster) 911 Turbo by more than $40,000. Seen that way, the Cayenne’s actually a bit of a steal.

But though the Cayenne drives fantastic for an SUV, it still can’t match the admittedly-untouchable watermark set by Porsche’s sports cars, that feeling of lightness and nimbleness that make them a cinch to twirl through any condition. Compared to a 911, it feels heavy – in the steering and in the way that there’s a fraction of hesitation when you ask it to change direction. Certainly, it’ll run rings around most other SUVs out there – it remains the only one I’ve driven and enjoyed on a racetrack – but the Cayenne seems a bit of a cop-out, as it trades some of Porsche’s trademark lithe, organic, ever-alive feel for more heft, security – and a huge slug of power to overcome the weight of all its goodies.

Which are numerous: heated leather seats and steering wheel, half a dozen cupholders, “servotronic” variable steering assitance, and a height-adjustable (and feel-adjustable, for sport or comfort) air suspension (optional on the S, standard on the Turbo). There’s also a fantastic 350-watt 14-speaker Bose audio system featuring surround-sound programming, headlights that look around corners, and an optional extreme off-road package with a locking rear differential and sway bars that decouple for serious off-roading.

For those who want to drive a Porsche, and who need the space to haul around more than a couple of people at a time, there will be nothing that suits their needs better than a Cayenne, and I’m not here to stand in their way: it’s a remarkable engineering achievement, and the Turbo is easily the fastest, most-communicative, SUV you can buy. The power is intoxicating, the steering is lovely, and the six-speed Tiptronic transmission does a great job.

The brakes are just awesome, too, with six-piston monoblock calipers in front and four-piston units in the rear – designed to sustain 25 panic stops from 90% of top speed without fade. Equipped with the optional 20-inch tires, the Cayenne also has more cornering grip than any other four-door out there. And it will do it all even when pulling a trailer of up to 3500 kg.

I know at least a couple of people that are merely enchanted by the IDEA of a Porsche SUV – the high-performance car you can drive in the winter! – and who want one but don’t really need the space or the weight. To these people I’d say, be brave, and buy a Carrera or a Boxster instead.

Because the crucial thing the Cayenne’s lacking, is the best, most indulgently offbeat part of all: the irony of driving a Porsche in winter. Drive a Cayenne in the winter and you’re just another driver of a big, expensive, gas-guzzling SUV. Drive a Boxster or a 911 cabriolet, and especially if the weather is good enough to drop the top for some outdoor fun (like it was for a few days this winter) and you can be a one-of-a-kind, certifiable, his-brain-must-be-frozen sports-car LUNATIC.

I know which one I’d rather be.

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