Cayenne S: Still spicing things up

The current generation of the world’s biggest ‘sports car’ has undergone its final update. Having downsized under the bonnet, is the Cayenne S still a giant?

Pros: Impressive engine, excellent quality, no mistaking it.

Cons: Overly-fussy ergonomics, no longer has this special zone to itself.

Our road test rating: 3.8/5

Porsches thankfully don’t get any bigger than the Cayenne, albeit in every sense. This model has been the ultimate milch cow for Weissach, yet for those of us who can only dream about the idea of owning a Porsche, it’s a car whose very being kinda grates.

The ‘perfect’ or at least the ‘purest’ Porsche, to my kind, is and always be might auto-attach to imagination of being at the wheel of a certain number that got the brand rolling in 1963.

Yet we’re pragmatic. While the eternally alluring 911 will always drive the brand’s persona, it doesn’t drive the company’s profit line. And there’s no doubt the model that attaches the word ‘utility’ to the word ‘sports’ does that really well.

That around 70 percent of Kiwi clientele prefer to buy large and spend up on the Cayenne is in keeping with international trends. With annual worldwide sales running at about 80,000 units annually, it accounts for half of all new Porsches hitting the road.

An all-new Cayenne is almost ready for the world; it’s spun from the same platform as the new-gen Audi Q7 that launched at this month’s Detroit motor show and should be here in mid 2016. In the meantime, the maker is seeking to keep interest on the boil with a final facelift of the current car. This test is of the $136,800 Cayenne S.

Design and engineering

Rating: 3.5/5

Porsche spun out the world’s sensitivities by daring to create for public consumption a sports utility that was mostly about the first word but these days it’s just one of a number.

While the concept is no longer so radical the Cayenne continues to be extra-loud. The car’s size, its shape, the badge … few cars say ‘I made it” more than a Porsche, yet the Cayenne is especially shouty.

It’s because Porsche design thinking is hardly at its most original with its SUVs; basically, it seems content to start with a basic 911 shape and thereafter stretch it in all directions.

The Cayenne (and Panamera) are at the outer limits of this idea. The 2015 update is more about dabbling than utter redesign, so changes are subtle. The reshaped bonnet offers side gaps on the wings for a “wider” look, according to Porsche, while the centre air intake has reduced in size to make the two smaller side intakes look larger.

While all variants feature the four-point LED daytime running lights and have a follow-me-home lighting function, entry models get bi-Xenon headlights and higher spec Cayennes gain LED headlights with the Porsche Dynamic Light System as standard. 

At the rear, the Cayenne’s LED tail-light cluster has been redesigned, and the tailgate handle, lights and registration plate recess have been slightly restyled. The exhaust pipes have also been restyled and are now housed in the lower part of the body.

To my eyes, the tighter-dimensioned Macan is the better-looking of the two SUVs. There’s high probability the rumoured Cayenne coupe might be … well, more of a challenge. Still, while not the most handsome looking car in its category, the Cayenne definitely has a commanding presence. FYI, the changes, Porsche says, aim at making the Cayenne look wider. I’d have thought it was enough of a fat cat already, but apparently not.

Powertrain and performance

Rating: 3.9/5

The S is especially of interest to the owner set because it’s the top-selling petrol and also now drops the old model’s 4.8-litre naturally aspirated V8 for a twin-turbocharged 3.6-litre V6 pumping out 309kW/550Nm - a 15kW/50Nm boost over the outgoing bent-eight.

As well as being more powerful, the V6 is a touch more frugal than the V8. The 9.5-9.8L/100km official figure is 1.0L/100km more economical. Weighing against is that it lacks the aural delight of the V8, but it has more than enough get up and go to keep enthusiastic drivers happy. After a slight flater at step-off, likely due to the two turbos, the test car ran hard. Porsche says it can race from a standing start to 100kmh in 5.5 seconds and our own experience suggests there is nothing at all wrong with their timepiece.

Driver appeal

Rating: 4.2/5

Imagine, if you can, being in a sports car that has somehow managed to levitate itself to place a metre or so higher than you’d think it should be above the road surface.

That’s the Cayenne experience. From behind the steering wheel it really does seek to provide the impression of being a sports car than a sports utility; the driving position goes against off-roader convention by being quite low-slung and straight-armed and having that console and transmission tunnel siting as a high divide between you and any front seat passenger also engenders the image of it being set up for high speed activity.

The 3.6-litre that almost seems like too much for the smaller car is just right for this one. Sure, you lose the V8 bellow but, in turn, there’s not only power but a cleaner delivery of that thrust along with greater flexibility to the performance. Economy probably isn’t an important consideration to Cayenne drivers but this has reduced, though in our hands it was hardly an angel.

Ride, refinement and quality

Rating: 3.5/5

The Porsche line is that this rig is less SUV that ‘sports’ and ‘utility’ – a feeling that is reinforced by the manner in which it drives, not only in a straight line but, more crucially, around corners. The Macan is the best-handling SUV of any sort available here, but the Cayenne – though wider, taller and heavier - doesn’t trail far behind, with lots of grip and composure through bends.

It’s utterly unfazed by achieving, without troubling the stability control, cornering speeds that would throw a more traditional large off-roader (think ‘Land’- anything) onto its roof and also provides considerably more driver involvement than most in its category. Of course, your enthusiasm needs to be tempered by the reality of it being neither a small vehicle not a light one.

The air suspension provides a variety of clearly-defined degrees of compliance, yet being a Porsche even the softest is firm and, from thereon, the rigidity simply increases. The tendency for the eight-speed auto to pause slightly before kicking down gears is another trait.

Off-roading? Well, you could I suppose. There are buttons dedicated to assistance systems, even an off-seal mode, but what chance is there of seeing a Cayenne in the muck? Outside of corporate demonstration days, I never have. Those occasions have also shown up a further side of the car’s character. You’d think the Cayenne is the one Porsche that would be taken to a race track but not on it, however I can attest it will actually cope with a circuit thrashing – though, agreed, throwing this much mass around requires an experienced driver and can be disconcerting for passengers!

Practicality and packaging

Rating: 3.8/5

Interior changes run to a new multi-function steering wheel and the park assist function comes with overhead "surround view on the infotainment screen.

Other than that, there's familiar Cayenne territory such as the massive, button strewn centre console so confusing in its layout you initially dare not go near it while driving due to the high risk of becoming dangerously diverted. A good example of how supposedly showcase design can also run risk of simply looking too show-off for its own good.

The Cayenne’s physical authority does not translate to a particularly massive interior. The high transmission tunnel makes it a much more intimate space inside than some rivals, there's still no third row of seats and the rear seat has only adequate leg room and really is better suited to two adults than three. Some would say the front passenger's footwell is quite cramped for such a wide vehicle.

The two other ‘lesser’ brands working with this platform – Audi and Volkswagen if you’re ignorant of their tie-in - do a better job of their ergonomics. Cayenne’s touch screen operation is unnecessarily fiddly and time-consuming. There’s a complexity to simple tasks –setting up a phone for instance – that newer systems now show up as contrived.

It does not show any particular consideration to cost-cutting: The premium-ness of the look and feel is total. Even Porsche plastics manage to look slight better than mainstream finishes. Equipment levels are also impressive.

The 670-litre boot is easily the biggest in Porsche-dom.

How it compares

The Cayenne rewrote the rules on what a full-size SUV could do on the road and, as the second-generation nears its end, it still largely lays down the law.

It’s primarily part mud-plugger, more muscle car though doesn’t it seem a touch ironic, given all that this badge stands for, the best Cayenne is probably the diesel (now a V8)?

I’d still prefer a ‘proper’ Porsche sports car as my Lotto dream machine, but cannot deny this model’s obvious appeal.