With the notable exception of Dr. Porsche’s work on Hitler’s Beetle, the Porsche name has always been synonymous with one thing: sports cars. The company nurtured this tightly focused brand identity with 55 years of competition and technological innovation and has clung to it through good times and bad. The 928 grand tourer was the furthest Porsche strayed from its chosen niche until now, when, in a shortsighted attempt to expand overall sales, the company has jeopardized its reputation and built the Cayenne SUV.
As “soft roaders” such as BMW’s X5 and Mercedes’ ML demonstrate, much can be done to improve an SUV’s hippo-like handling and nose-first understeer. But creating an SUV that can maneuver with the grace of a thoroughbred driver’s car is always going to be an insurmountable challenge. God knows Porsche has tried to overcome the obstacles. Working with Volkswagen, Porsche applied its full engineering expertise to the task. The Cayenne may look like a Carrera suffering from clinical obesity, but it bristles with advanced technology. Still, not even the Germans can rewrite the laws of physics. Drive a Cayenne S a few yards down a public road, and its coil spring suspension, reminiscent of a drum-tight trampoline, will quickly remind you that you are behind the wheel of an SUV. You can address this problem by purchasing the optional air suspension, or you can opt for the even more aesthetically challenged air-sprung Turbo. Regardless, at the first tight corner, you will feel every ounce of the two-ton truck struggling to maintain its composure. It is not an enjoyable experience—not like driving a sports car.
The Cayenne excels when it is blasting down a dirt road at more than 80 mph, flying over loose gravel, slicing through knee-deep mud, or fording chest-high water, but Porsche did not build the Cayenne for the off-road fraternity. It is aimed at executive commuters and/or members of the stylish soccer mom set who will expect the SUV to drive like a Porsche road car. The 400-hp Cayenne Turbo may be as fast as a Boxster or Carrera, but on-road, neither of Porsche’s SUVs delivers its siblings’ capabilities or provides the same thrills. On twisting blacktop, the Cayenne is not even as much fun to drive as a BMW 5 Series, and this is the problem: The Porsche Cayenne does not embody the brand’s core values.
Sure, the Cayenne will sell, because plenty of badge snobs are ready to pay the usual Porsche premium for an SUV with maximum driveway credibility—regardless of its on-road handling. But ultimately Porsche will pay a price for losing focus in such an expensive and dramatic fashion. Stuttgart’s über-truck is a fine SUV and a world-class mud plugger, but Porsche should never have built it.