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Porsche's Biggest Bet Yet

The renowned sports carmaker puts its money behind the SUV revolution
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Arnold Schwarzenegger, July/Aug 03

The rain in Spain is, on this particularly soggy day, falling mainly in the hills. They've just gotten the power back at our hotel in Jerez, in the heart of Iberian Sherry country, though some of the roads are still washed out and much of the surrounding hill country has turned into a gooey, flowing muck. One couldn't have asked for better weather now that we've wrangled a little seat time behind the wheel of the newest entry from Porsche.

Right about now, you're probably starting to cluck your tongue and conclude that Cigar Aficionado's automotive team has already spent a wee bit too much time at Tio Pepe, sipping some of that Sherry. But on this bracingly damp and chilly morning, we're achingly abstemious, our driving gloves at the ready as we -- and the rest of the automotive world -- prepare to put Porsche to perhaps the biggest test the Teutonic automaker has ever faced.

Last September, after several years rife with rumor and "spy" photos, the German manufacturer officially unveiled its long-awaited third product line. The event did little but increase the intensity of a debate that's been under way since Porsche first announced plans to develop a vehicle somehow combining the attributes of a sports car and a sport-utility vehicle.

To say that the new Cayenne is controversial is as grand an understatement as calling the time-tested 911 quick. Though unquestionably familiar, you recognize the new vehicle much as you perceive your own face in a fun-house mirror. Some react with a broad smile, while others gape in horror at a design that looks like a 911 on stilts.

Automotive styling is all about compromises -- or the lack thereof. Sports cars have traditionally been the purest of purpose and that translates into the design of a vehicle like the 911 or Boxster as low, sleek and powerful. With the exception of the 944/964 models, the Stuttgart-based marque has consistently rolled out some of the fastest and most nimble automobiles ever to rule the road. Not only fast, but capable of handling the most tortuous back roads like slot cars. We're not talking easy to drive. Mastering a Porsche has traditionally been hard work. But there are plenty of rewards once you do.

It's no wonder Porsche's sports cars have been the stuff of dreams for more than half a century, luring in celebrities like the legendary Hollywood bad boy, James Dean, as well as those who simply have the money to play like a star.

Initial impressions might suggest there'd be nothing in common between a 911 and a Cayenne other than the word "sport." If a sports car is sleek to the point of sensuality, slicing through the wind like a knife, the typical sport-ute has the build of Drew Carey, bludgeoning the air like a brick. A ute's high center of gravity always seems to put the vehicle on the brink of toppling over on the highway, never mind around tight turns. So what could Porsche ever have had in mind?

"I can understand the initial skepticism," concedes Wolfgang Dürheimer, Porsche's director of research and development. But economic realities have forged an unholy automotive alliance. Sports cars may be for the pure of heart, but only so many purists are out there. Recently, Porsche has been one of the world's most profitable car companies; all the more so when you account for its miniscule volumes. But barely a decade ago, the carmaker was an economic basket case. Porsche planners are only too well aware that the sports car market tends to disappear in a puff of tire smoke during economic downturns.

As for the SUV, "It is the segment with the greatest potential for growth," asserts Porsche's very assertive chairman, Wendelin Wiedeking. "Thirty percent of luxury buyers are purchasing SUVs," he says, emphasizing his point with a puff of cigar smoke. "The SUV segment is changing, transforming, moving from simple to luxurious. The other Porsches are emotional. Now you have the ability to carry five people and all their things."

Practicality is not a word one normally associates with Porsche. The typical 911 or Boxster owner likely has at least a couple other cars in the garage for the days when the weather gets bad. Or when the kids have soccer practice. Or the spouse wants to haul home antiques.

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