Wheels: Practically Porsche

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I had planned to spend my first afternoon in Jerez de la Frontera basking in the Spanish sun, sipping sherry finos at an outdoor tapas bar, and strolling leisurely through the ancient Moorish palaces and plazas. Alas, the day I arrived the worst downpour in a quarter century had driven the locals and sightseers indoors and was turning the outlying red clay hills into pudding. Contrary to my lamentations, others in our party were downright exuberant at the prospect of the soupy terrain that awaited us. So much the better, said the Germans, for testing the Zoof.

I nodded enthusiastically, but I was thinking: Zoof?

“You will love it,” they insisted. “It is like no Zoof ever built.”

Then it dawned on me. Ah, Zoof! In German it conveys a sense of speed, of the wind rushing past. Not so the equivalent English phraseology, which has all the resonance of a lead pipe. Let other carmakers build SUVs; Porsche has built a Zoof.

Officially dubbed the Cayenne, it is Porsche’s first foray into the burgeoning sport-utility market and the biggest gamble in the German carmaker’s 55-year history. The risks transcend the $1.5 billion cost of development. Even before the Cayenne’s debut at the 2002 Paris Auto Show, industry skeptics were assailing the idea as preposterous. A Porsche SUV was an oxymoron, they protested. Porsche was supposed to make sports cars for the elite, not trucks for the carpooling masses. Competing in the SUV market would tarnish the Porsche image. What would Dr. Ferdinand Porsche have said?

To debate the Cayenne’s historical probity, however, is to miss the point. The SUV is not just a new model; it reflects a new operating philosophy, a new customer base, and a new role for Porsche in the automotive industry. Until now, observes Wolfgang Duerheimer, a Porsche board member, who really needed a Porsche? He answers his own question: “Nobody! Let’s be brutally frank; their practical value is not very high and certainly doesn’t match what a typical midsize sedan can do for its owners every day of the week.”

With the introduction of the Cayenne, this is about to change. Its high-performance pedigree is evident in the oversize nacelles shrouding the radiator, the low-slung 911-style headlights, and huge Brembo brakes visible through the five-spoke 18-inch alloy wheels. The devotee might even discern echoes of the 911 in the contour flowing from headlights to taillights and in the arc of the rear pillar, while the uncluttered, sculpted flanks are echt Porsche.

Those less versed in Zuffenhausen lore will see, well, an SUV. About a ton heavier, 16 inches higher, and 14 inches longer than a 911, the Cayenne’s chunky silhouette is more gumdrop than teardrop.

Porsche is offering two Cayenne models: the S and the Turbo. With a normally aspirated, 4.5-liter V-8 engine producing 340 hp, the base $58,000 S can accelerate from a standing start to 62 mph in 7.2 seconds and reach a top speed of 150 mph. An even more adrenal experience awaits in the $89,000 Turbo, distinguished from its sibling by quadruple, instead of dual, tailpipes and twin inlets—in a rare flight of fantasy Porsche calls them “power domes”—running along its hood. Like the S, it carries a 4.5-liter V-8. But with its twin turbos in full cry, the SUV rockets from a standing start to 62 mph in 5.6 seconds en route to its 165-mph top speed. In a 5,200-pound vehicle such velocities are a sign that the old rules no longer apply. 

Even so, it might take more than blistering performance to win the hearts of Porsche purists, who welcome change as readily as medieval clerics welcomed the Reformation. It hardly matters, for instance, that the latest generation of 911s are more precisely engineered, easier to operate, and safer to drive than their antecedents. In the dogma of the purist, the only true Porsche carries an air-cooled engine, an unyielding clutch, and requires nerves of steel to master. There is more than technology involved. In a world fraught with political correctness and compromise, a Porsche bespeaks an understated machismo, an absolute. This talk of the “family Porsche” is unsettling. Who wants to see a Porsche become the suburban soccer moms’ next vehicle of choice?

To some, the answer appears distressingly clear: Porsche does.

Although the company has been highly profitable in recent years, Porsche executives and dealers still shudder when they recall the economic slump of 1993, when sales fell from 50,000 a few years earlier to a mere 14,000, with only 3,000 sold in the United States. Enter Wendelin Wiedeking, Porsche’s new CEO. He trimmed Porsche’s management staff, cut costs, and imported Japanese consultants to ride herd on Zuffenhausen’s managers and workers. By late 1995, Wiedeking’s strategy was paying off, and the company posted its first profit in four years.

Porsche emerged from this restructuring with the knowledge that it could not survive by depending on a niche market alone, however lustrous its history. For Porsche to remain independent, the company had to expand into broader markets. But with what kind of vehicle? Wiedeking had already quashed plans for a luxury four-door sedan when he took over in 1992. The company considered an entry-level sports car, one that would be less expensive than the nascent Boxster, but that too would leave the company’s fortunes linked to economic cycles. As for station wagons, nothing could convince affluent American women to buy them. “Station wagons remind American women of minivans,” says Bob Carlson, general manager of public relations for Porsche Cars North America.

The process of elimination left the Zoof.

One can only imagine how things went in the Porsche boardroom the day some brave soul first suggested, “I know, let’s build an SUV.” At the very least, the presence of an SUV in the Zuffenhausen portfolio contradicted the marque’s own mythology. A Porsche is fast, so the story goes, because it was bred for the unlimited speeds of the autobahn (Porsche remains the only German carmaker without electronic speed limiters; Mercedes, BMW, Audi, and VW limit their vehicles to a relatively sedate 155 mph). Likewise, it owes its agility and handling to the switchbacks and hairpin turns of its Black Forest homeland.


But what could one expect from an off-road vehicle built in a country where—for reasons of politics, population density, and ingrained culture—there was no off-roading? On the muddy hills outside of Jerez de la Frontera, I was about to find out.

“Racecar drivers won’t go down this hill,” said Porsche’s Alex Ernst, manager of testing and quality control for the Cayenne, as the SUV rolled up to a 100-meter drop of the sort usually tackled with rappel gear. “It’s against all their instincts. They imagine they’ll fall end over end to the bottom.”

Silly racecar drivers, I suggested in my best devil-may-care manner, but I wondered if they knew something I didn’t. To be sure, the Cayenne had already overcome a number of off-road situations with aplomb. It had climbed nimbly up a 100 percent grade to demonstrate both its athleticism and the Tiptronic’s “hill holder” technology, which, when activated by electronic sensors, prevents the vehicle from rolling back down a steep incline without any action on the part of the driver. It had raced across a rutted field, where its double wishbone suspension absorbed the bumps and jolts with nary a suggestion of losing control. It had splashed through knee-deep expanses of mud and water without so much as a gurgle of protest. But now I was having misgivings as the Turbo’s front tires slipped over the lip of the precipice and gravity tugged at its 5,200-pound mass. As the nose of the car dipped toward the vertical, I could see craters the size of foxholes pockmarking the slope.

“Don’t touch the brake, let the car do the work,” advised Ernst. “All you have to do is steer.”

Remarkably, the car began picking its way down, first the left front wheel rolling deep into a crater while the diagonally opposed rear wheel lifted off the ground into the air. The movement was reversed as the Cayenne climbed out of the crater on one side and dropped into one on the other. A low whir came from somewhere inside the car as servos braked the wheels with the least traction and transferred the power to those with the most.

It was an impressive maneuver, especially when one remembers that this very same vehicle could blow the lug nuts off most sports cars on the back roads while conveying five occupants in leather-upholstered splendor to a black-tie ball. Or tote a gaggle of Cub Scouts into the backwoods for a weekend of camping. Or carry a team of sled dogs onto the Arctic tundra. Or even, with its rear seat folded down, transport an antique armoire from Sotheby’s.

But the most significant thing the Cayenne does is offer the world something it has been breathlessly awaiting for more than half a century: sound, practical reasons for buying a Porsche. As a result, the first year’s production of 25,000 was sold out months before the Cayenne arrived in American showrooms in March, and industry analysts say it will be three years before Porsche will have to advertise the vehicle. “It’s presold,” says James Hall, the Detroit-based auto analyst for marketing consultants AutoPacific. “SUVs are still the number one vehicle of choice for baby boomers, who will control automotive capital into the next decade, and for Generation X, the 24-to-late-30s age group. So the Cayenne should help keep the company independent for another 20 to 30 years.”

Precisely what the Cayenne ultimately comes to represent is anybody’s guess. It could symbolize excellence or excess; it could stir memories of 1980s Porsches racing to victory in the Paris-Dakar rally or simply become the latest must-have among Ladies Who Lunch. “We really can’t determine how it will be perceived,” says Porsche’s Carlson. “We build the Cayenne, but we can’t determine who buys it.”

Porsche, www.porsche.com

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