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Porsche's Biggest Bet Yet

The renowned sports carmaker puts its money behind the SUV revolution
| By Paul A. Eisenstein | From 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.

Cayenne boldly promises to do it all, to serve as the "daily driver," the family's primary set of wheels, a functional solution that also rings a uniquely Porsche-style emotional response. At least that's the theory. "This car follows the same philosophy as our sports cars -- only 20 inches higher," explains Harm Lagaay, Porsche's chief designer. Like many within the company, he seems blithely oblivious to the legion of skeptics and outright critics. "If it takes time for you to get used to [Cayenne], that's OK. We are absolutely convinced, in days or months, you will notice it is a very thoughtful design."

What you notice first is the 911-style nose sitting nearly a foot higher than you'd expect. Massive air intakes, especially on the Turbo, give the front end an unfinished look. The cabin is broad-shouldered and powerful, yet somewhat ungainly. The entire exercise feels as if designers had yanked and pulled the original clay model of a 911, intent on maintaining as many classic Porsche cues as possible.

Inside, the cabin is accommodating, but elicits another sense of déjá vu, for the instrumentation is classic Porsche; the gauges, set in overlapping circles. The interior is more lavish than the sports car, with complementing burlwood, leather and aluminum accents.

The temptation is to compare styling with another new entry in the sport-utility market: Volkswagen's Touareg. Porsche aficionados are likely well aware of the ties going back to the earliest days of the two companies. It was Ferdinand Porsche who designed the original Beetle, long before bolting his name to his own brand of sports cars.

Porsche and VW have cooperated on a wide range of projects. Volkswagen provided the engine for the old Porsche 914, and its successor, the 924, was conceived as a VW sports car. When the "people's car" company scrapped it, Porsche decided to build the 2-seater itself.

Recently retired VW Chairman Ferdinand Piech, the grandson of Porsche's founder, gave his approval to the project that has become both Cayenne and Touareg. The idea of teaming up two such seemingly disparate companies might seem absurd at first, but the approach had its advantages. Neither company had ever produced a sport-utility vehicle, but each had specific skills and resources it could bring to the project. From the moment the project began, back in 1997, the partners spelled out who would be responsible for which piece of development work. Porsche, for example, handled axle development while VW took the lead on transmissions.

The partners also acknowledged they would likely disagree in places, recalls Matthias Kroell, the man in charge of VW's side of the project. Such things as handling characteristics would distinguish the performance-oriented Cayenne from the more mainstream Touareg. "We had some hard discussions on the different philosophies of the two companies [and] in the end, it was always kept clear there would be two very different vehicles," Kroell explains.

By 2001, when the partners had their first running prototypes, test drives were handled separately. Though critical elements of the suspension are shared between Touareg and Cayenne, settings and minor components, such as bushings, were left up to the individual automakers. It doesn't sound like much, but you'll appreciate the difference when you're negotiating a tight corner at 75 mph.

The partners took a different approach to the distribution of power by the full-time all-wheel-drive system. Under normal conditions, the Touareg splits torque 50/50 between the front and rear axles. Reflecting the way the rear engine 911 operates, Cayenne normally sends 32 percent of its power to the front wheels, the rest to the rear. Even the climate control systems are programmed differently.

Reaching into his pocket, Kroell pulls out a rechargeable flashlight installed in Touareg lighter sockets, but not in the Cayenne.

While Volkswagen offers one diesel version, none are planned for Cayenne, according to Wiedeking. The performance a Porsche customer expects, he says, "only comes from a gasoline engine."

With so much work done independently, the two partners have found some surprises since their SUVs were unveiled. Porsche insiders, for one thing, say they weren't expecting VW to take Touareg so clearly upmarket. "I've definitely got some competition," Fred Schwab, president and chief executive officer of Porsche Cars North America, conceded shortly before his retirement early this year.

"Porsche is facing what might well be the biggest challenge we have ever seen in our history," acknowledges Wiedeking, though he is quick to insist that the German carmaker will find plenty of buyers.

Cayenne is likely to deepen Porsche's dependence on the SUV-friendly U.S. market, which generates nearly half its volume. But the new ute could also "open markets where road [conditions] don't allow a Porsche" sports car, such as China, India or Latin America, suggests Klaus-Gerhard Wolpert, director of Cayenne operations.

All that assumes that Porsche has delivered a vehicle that the public really wants. Considering the plethora of products flooding into the SUV segment, there isn't much room for Porsche to miss its mark.

The engineers at Weissach have given a Cayenne owner an ample toolbox of technology designed to overcome virtually any obstacle. Start with a low gear range and a locking center differential, which improves handling off-road. (A locking rear differential, useful in extreme conditions, is optional.) The automatic air suspension kit adjusts the vehicle's height depending on speed and road conditions and, in maximum position, gives Cayenne 10.75 inches of ground clearance -- enough to ford nearly 22 inches of water. It can handle uphill climbs at a 45-degree angle, using an automatic hill-holder system to keep from slipping backwards. Going back down, Cayenne's hill descent system will maintain a steady two-mile-an-hour pace.

Spend a day bouncing and jouncing, and you'll come away convinced that Porsche has produced a fully capable off-roader. Short of a sprint down the Rubicon Trail in California, Cayenne is up to just about any backwoods challenge you can toss at it.

But let's get real. The typical Cayenne owner is far more likely to slog through rush-hour traffic than down a gritty trail, and the biggest day-to-day challenge will be parking close to the mall entrance.

Image aside, SUVs do have attributes appealing to the average motorist: high "command seating" and all-wheel-drive, to name two of the most significant. Cayenne delivers both, along with a sense of on-road handling, stability and performance not normally found in a sport-utility vehicle.

At highway speed, you're likely to forget you're driving a vehicle so large and tall. You're not going to whip it around the corner as fast as a 911, but you'll come surprisingly close. Steering is precise, with a crisp, on-center feel that puts the ute precisely where it's pointed. You'll hardly notice the suspension compromises required for serious off-roading. Cayenne feels very much the sports car on pavement.

A key to the crossover's dual on-and-off-road personality is the Porsche Traction Management system. It's got plenty of power to control. Even the "base" Cayenne S puts out an impressive 340 horsepower and 310 foot-pounds of torque from its 4.5-liter V-8. The new, naturally aspirated engine is mounted up front -- a revolutionary concept for Porsche, which had an almost religious belief that God always intended to mount the engine in the rear.

For those who believe there's never enough horsepower, the optional Cayenne Turbo bumps power up to 450 hp and 457 foot-pounds, thanks to a twin turbo package. Full torque comes on at just 2,250 RPMs, and power remains flat, nearly to redline. The Turbo package is distinguished by four tailpipes.

Who really needs a sport-ute that can launch from 0 to 60 in 6 seconds and top out 165 mph (the naturally aspirated S needs 7.2 seconds and can manage a top speed of only 150)? If you have to askÖwell, R&D chief Dürheimer sums it up best, when he points out, "It would not be a true Porsche if it only offered practical value."

Value is another interesting word to associate with a Porsche. Sure, you've got a lot of practical capabilities with this five-seater capable of carrying 1,850 pounds of payload and towing a 7,716-pound trailer. But the price is anything but practical -- at least if you're someone who has to ask what it costs. Cayenne S starts at $55,900. A well-equipped Touareg with a V-8, on the other hand, will start at $40,700. Granted, that's not an apples-to-apples comparison. But the premium is steep and could give some buyers pause. The jump to the $88,900 Cayenne Turbo is even more spectacular. That's a lot of power, but it's also the most expensive ute on the market by far.

Considering how many current Porsche owners already have at least one SUV in their personal fleets, the automaker is confident many will want a Porsche badge on their next sport ute. But while senior officials have suggested they've already received a full year's advance orders, the Cayenne seems to be receiving a decidedly mixed reaction. Some Porsche purists are openly aghast while others are racing to showrooms. Demand varies by market, though in some parts of the country, such as suburban Los Angeles -- where nameplates do matter -- dealers report strong initial sales.

In spite of the controversy, that's probably not all that surprising. The real question is whether Cayenne has staying power. It's not likely to match the longevity of the 911, but it will be critical that this quirky crossover not flame out in a hurry.

Porsche officials insist Cayenne is not the proverbial "make-it-or-break-it product." Flush with cash, Wiedeking is confident the company could survive the car's failure, though it would be a bleak rebuke for a company of this size. This isn't the first time a new Porsche has generated skepticism, notes the ever-confident executive, who's equally confident that with time it will win over its critics.

If Wiedeking is right, don't be surprised to see Porsche dream up even more automotive innovations. Officially, there's no fourth product line, at least nothing with formal approval, but design director Lagaay readily hints that he's got some ideas on his boards. Some years back, Porsche briefly explored then abandoned the idea of a sports car/sedan crossover. Now just about any and every other combination is open game. Even another sports car. Welcome to the fun house.

Paul A. Eisenstein publishes an auto magazine on the Internet at