October 25, 2006

Photo Gallery: 2006 Porsche Cayenne S

Specifications: 2006 Porsche Cayenne S

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The man from Porsche’s timing couldn’t have been worse when he delivered the dark grey 340-horsepower Cayenne S, complete with giant 20-inch wheels and an oh-so-rumbly exhaust note. It’d been just a couple of weeks since I’d notched up a big ol’ speeding ticket – and having access to all those horses and that fabulous noise for a long drive to Montreal was going to test my willpower to the fullest. Still, I resolved, still a little shell-shocked, I would give the old speed limit a go. I’d leave home an hour earlier than I normally would have, would set the cruise and just pace myself.

After about half an hour – this at just past six in the morning – I had come to the realization that driving along the 401 at 100 km/h was if not outright dangerous at least unrealistic. Trundling along in the right lane at the legal limit, I was being passed by transport trucks, vans full of children, tourist buses and clapped-out Tempos. Upping the pace to 110 km/h at least let me keep up with the slowest-moving of the traffic and out of harm’s way.

The observations you make of a car are different when you’re driving slowly. At 110, you notice less of the Cayenne’s engine noise (which is hushed at that speed) and instead the rumbling and thwacking of the tires over the pavement dominates the aural experience. Those 20-inch tires may look fantastic – and may do the handling a lot of favours – but they’re quite loud and beyond that, they have a tendency to tramline in the right-lane ruts on the highway. Other than road noise, though, the Cayenne’s cabin is serene. There’s very little wind whistle, the optional air suspension on its "comfort" setting provides a sedan-like ride (it was softened a bit for 2005) and the Bose stereo sounds fantastic when it’s cranked up and your favourite tunes are on the CD player. A changer, however, remains a cost-option.

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Given my self-imposed speed limit – and a mostly arrow-straight trajectory from Toronto to Montreal, chances to push the Cayenne’s handling limits were limited. On- and off-ramps, however, could be attacked at surprising velocities. The 20-inch Michelins offered plenty of cornering grip, the steering was full of Porsche’s typical feel, and the six-piston disc brakes generated big-time stopping power when needed. Once you become comfortable with its bulk, you can really hustle the Cayenne around.

While Porsches are normally associated with sporty driving, one of the things I like about all of their models is how comfortable they are when used for more mundane purposes. Hauling a weekend’s worth of luggage up to Montreal – and a couple of friends and their stuff on the way back – proved that the Cayenne’s as capable a pack mule as it is an off-roader or a speed demon SUV. The driver’s seat is really comfortable during long stints behind the wheel (I found I stopped less when maintaining a lower average speed, meaning overall journey times were about equal) and the rear seat got good reviews, too. There’s sufficient – if not generous – head- and legroom for people to be comfortable and the large glass area helps the cabin from becoming claustrophobic. The cabin itself is nicely finished, with my tester’s optional leather-covered dashboard and door tops enhancing the high-tech ambiance created by the textured aluminum trim and the sharply-backlit controls.

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You wouldn’t expect an SUV weighing 2,245 kg and toting a 340-horsepower V8 to be economical, but because of the reduced speeds and, perhaps, its smooth shape, my Cayenne S managed a relatively impressive 12.4 L/100 km average over a weekend; impressive because despite the relaxed highway cruising, it also spent a fair amount of time jostling through traffic in downtown Montreal. There, you may never actually be going that fast but quick reactions and energetic acceleration are necessary to actually get anywhere in decent time. Thanks to a snappy-shifting (if not exactly smooth) six-speed automatic transmission and the 4.5-litre V8’s strong torque delivery, the Cayenne felt nimble when slicing through Montreal traffic, proving that having access to a lot of power is still useful even if you’re not ever going to be going that fast. All in all, the Porsche truck’s performance was pretty impressive given its mass and its heavy shoes.

Those shoes – 20-inch SportTechno five-spokers costing a whopping $5,360 – were just one of the many pricey options fitted to my Cayenne S. All told, between the full leather package, the air suspension, the trailer hitch, the memory seats, the heated steering wheel and all sorts of other add-ons, my tester’s base price ballooned from a premium $80,100 to a faintly shocking $106,070 – you could have bought a Toyota Corolla with the option money alone! As with all Porsches, you have to be careful with which options you choose.

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I’d stick with the standard interior, which includes leather seats but no leather dash but is still plenty nice (saving $4,250 in the process), go with a 19-inch wheel and tire package to reduce road noise and opt for the standard steel suspension, which offers an excellent balance of compliance and handling ability. Important options to get are the fine Porsche Communication Management system, which includes navigation, telephone and address-book capability, the moonroof (for resale purposes) and the excellent bi-xenon headlight package with integrated washers. With those pieces, you end up around the $90,000 mark – still expensive but in line with the Cayenne’s broad range of capabilities.

It’s worth remembering when looking at that price that the Cayenne S is a true all-round performer. Its competition – upper-end BMW X5s and Mercedes MLs as well as the Range Rover and Range Rover Sport – don’t offer its breadth or depth of ability. The Germans offer similar on-road prowess (the BMW handles equally well but rides much worse; the ML is more comfortable if a bit less capable in the handling stakes) while the Range Rovers offer extreme off-road capability. Only the Cayenne is equally at home on a racetrack (I’ve been there and done that) as it is with its standard low range engaged and its differentials locked up on a mountain trail (ditto).

Viewed in that light, its price starts to look a bit more reasonable, especially when you factor in Porsche’s high scores in recent J.D. Power quality and customer-satisfaction surveys. This is a vehicle that – despite styling that looks a bit uncomfortable to me from some angles and the social stigma that comes with driving a big, heavy, expensive luxury SUV – really kind of does it all. Even, it turns out, when you’re using it in a way that’s contrary to everything that Porsche has traditionally stood for.

At a glance: 2006 Porsche Cayenne S

Base price $80,100

Price as tested $106,070

Engine 4.5-litre V8

Power 340 hp

Torque 310 lb-ft

Fuel consumption (city/highway/as tested): 17.1/11.7/12.4

Competition: Mercedes ML500, BMW X5 4.4i and 4.8iS,

                   Range Rover Sport Supercharged


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