If you just taken your first peek at the third-generation Porsche Cayenne and thought ‘Really? Is that it?’ you’re certainly not alone. Blind Freddy could see that Stuttgart’s plus-sized family hauler is, on appearance, more than a little familiar.
There are, however, three quarters of a million reasons why, stylistically, this new apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. That’s how many Cayennes have been sold to date: a quarter-mil in the first generation, double that at a half-mil for gen two. Good business, then, and Porsche is, understandably, not too keen to rock a boat that's charting a successful course.
But Take Three – or, more accurately, Take Five including mid-life facelifts – of the Cayenne has much variation in detail even if it's tough to pick and the overall brief remains conservative evolution. The roof is 9mm lower, it’s 63mm longer and 23mm wider, though it does sit on why engineers describe as a ‘sweet spot’ wheelbase of 2895mm, identical to gen two.
The net effect is a subtly more squat look in overall proportions, edgier lines and a touch more muscularity in its stance, which is more evident in the flesh than in photos. The effect is enhanced in no small measure by 25mm-larger rolling diameter wheel/tyre combinations and, new for Cayenne, fatter rubber and rims in the rear than up in front, a la BMW X5 and X6.
From the Macan-esque headlights and grille treatment, through to the more pronounced shoulders over the rear wheel arches, the new styling appears as if the old Cayenne had popped off on a hiatus of healthy dieting and gym bingeing.
And while it’s mostly effective by way of subtlety, it the rear end where the most conspicuous alterations have taken place, what with its new and oh-so 911-like ‘light strip’ eye candy linking the sharply defined tail lights.
It mightn’t appear larger but it is: nigh on five metres in length, nearly two metres in width, and this growth pays dividends in an extra 100 litres of luggage space (now 770 litres rear seats in play) in base and ‘S’ forms, while the third variant, the mighty Turbo, has a slightly more compact 745L area. It’s also claimed that the lower roofline height has not impacted cabin space headroom by as much as a millimetre.
Despite the growth spurt, Cayenne is more lightweight across its range than predecessors. A lot of this has to do with the aluminium-rich construction, which includes the entire outer skin and the floorpan. It’s not a huge weight saving: at 1985kg (base) through to 2175kg (Turbo), they’re still hefty buggers.
But there is a sort of formula now bedded into Cayenne evolution that’s long been applied to Porsche’s golden child 911 – incremental gains in weight saving, powertrain delivery and the technologies behind dynamism, plus a lot of toil getting the whole shebang to work in tuneful harmony so that there’s noticeable driver-centric improvements in the seat-of-the-pants experience.
Leaner form, meaner motivation. The base Cayenne gets a single-turbocharged 3.0L V6 familiar to the Volkswagen Audi Group, if with a proprietary Porsche tune. Its 250kW/450Nm credentials boost outputs by around 25kW and 50Nm, plied through the range-wide adoption of eight-speed automatics and all-wheel drive.
The gain in performance, though, is eye-opening, as the new base Cayenne is claimed to have wiped a staggering 1.7sec of the old version’s 0-100km/h sprint, now 5.9sec. Its top speed is 245km/h.
The ‘S’ gets a 2.9-litre biturbo V6 producing a significantly lustier 324kW/550Nm, if a modest 14kW gain all told over the gen-two version. And yet Porsche has managed to swipe half a second of its 0-100km/h sprint time, now 4.9sec, with a v-max capped at 265km/h.
But we choose the range-topping Turbo as our introduction to gen-three Cayenne at its international launch, across the seemingly endless twisty mountains roads on the island of Crete in Greece.
With a heady 404kW/770Nm from its 4.0-litre biturbo V8, output gains over the old version are just 22kW/20Nm. The net benefit across the 0-100km/h sprint is a half-second gain, which is a whopping improvement when your benchmark is in the low fours. The new version’s form guide claims a slightly ludicrous 3.9sec. Yep, a sub-four-second Cayenne!
While Crete’s not exactly prime real estate for testing acceleration claims, its twisty mountainous nature is ideal for appraising dynamic mettle. With time short, we decide to opt out of sampling the price-leading base version until Australian pricing and spec is revealed closer to the three-variant-strong range’s local release in the first half of next year, when the all-important value quotient will become significantly clearer.
The Turbo showcases a host of new goodies on offer: new multi-link suspension front and rear, new aluminium subframes, new three-chamber air suspension, 48-volt electro-mechancial anti-roll stabilisation, and active rear-axle steering all weave techy magic under the skin.
More conspicuous is a production first for the marque called the Porsche Surface Coated Brake system: huge 415mm front/365mm rear grey iron discs treated to tungsten carbide coating – a sort of missing link between standard iron and carbon ceramic braking types – clamped by 10- and four-piston callipers finished in white.
The Turbo also gets an exclusive active rear roof spoiler that automatically deploys above 160km/h to create varying degrees of downforce and, in its fifth and steepest position, an ‘airbrake’ effect said to wipe two metres off the braking distance should you attempt a full ABS stop from 250km/h.
Climb into the Turbo and you immediately sense that Porsche’s claim of Cayenne being the “sportscar of its segment” is a bow long-drawn. The cabin design and ambience is one of overt, if stylistically restrained, luxuriousness. It’s lean on flash, rich in tactile quality. That said, the seating, with integrated headrests up front and strong 'plus-two' leanings in back, tips its hat to 911. There's no seven-seat option.
Gone is the button fetish, replaced by a cleaner and simpler glassy touch-surface design, with nice waxy-feel leather, chunky metal and slick new piano black column switchgear the highlights that ties in with the shiny centre console finish and screens nicely. The layout and controls are nicer to touch, simpler and more intuitive to use.
The software inside those screens – dual 7.0-inch TFT driver’s screen flanking the analogue tacho, the flush 12.3-inch infotainment touchscreen – isn’t as cluttered and overwrought as some German rivals. This relatively new approach championed by the current-gen Panamera is a finer, more mature step forward in Porsche approach to interiors.
The deeply sculpted front buckets, low-slung seating positioning and tactile wheel, hint at performance purpose, as does the faint muted thrum of the biturbo V8 on start-up. On the move, in default Normal drive mode, its manner is tempered and measured, its operation smooth and quiet, and its air suspension cosseting if feeling somewhat detached in linking the driver to the road surface. So far, so luxury SUV-like. That said, the newfound connection of nicely weighted steering is a welcome improvement.
But as our test route leaves Greece’s gentile and picturesque coastal main thoroughfares for narrow, pock-marked, partly rain-trodden mountain backroads, the Turbo’s monster within surfaces with little more a twist of wheel-mounted mode selector (to Sport) and a flex of the right foot.
The biturbo V8 grabs 770Nm below 2000rpm and how it thrusts what’s surely over 2.3-tonnes of SUV, occupants and luggage, is quite breathtaking, and with a sudden, turbulent exhaust howl appearing from nowhere.
Quick? You bet. But it’s the sheer mass of the thing that makes me doubt that glorious 3.9sec claim. It doesn’t feel quite that quick. And I also wonder how, even with all that dynamic clever-dickery at play, so much metal, glass and rubber will become ‘sportscar like’ when tipped hard into a corner.
Those glossy-looking, tungsten-carbide brakes work an absolute charm, with excellent pedal feed and tremendous stopping power. Firing hot into a tight, closing radius corner, their power and precision is a godsend. Sport really does inject muscle and purpose into the Turbo’s dynamic complexion, not merely in a flatter stance and a heightened sense of outright cornering grip, but also with steering precision and chassis feedback.
That said, it does demand restraint and measured inputs from the driver. The recovery of front-end grip from the odd understeer moment is progressive and predictable. It hangs on stridently mid-corner, and powers beyond with surefooted progress, but it’s not overly playful and, from either behind the wheel or the passenger seat, you’re keen aware of its large-SUV limitations.
Then you activate Sport+ and the Turbo seems to start bending the laws of physics. Sure, it’s sharper, edgier and more responsive, and the eight-speed automatic's calibration, be it self-shifting or manualised, finally joins the party with swift speed and precision.
But its the newfound and heightened co-operation that allows the driver to easily dance and play with the chassis through the middle of the corner, and it fires enough torque rearward under hard acceleration that linking corners becomes a laugh-aloud game of continual and generous swings of opposite steering lock. With some right foot restrain, the Turbo can be manhandled, but its eagerness to pile on pace demands respect from the driver.
In a more open environment the Turbo might seem more at home, but it demonstrates a degree of sheer performance trickery to fully harness across the confines of the narrow Greek island roads. The message, though, is loud and clear: older Cayennes weren’t quite this much fun and this ferocious.
The staggered wheel width seems something of a game-changer for the breed. It’s as if the shift to wider rear tyres has altered the Cayenne's inherent balance and allowed engineers to tune in more oversteering fun into the all-round package. It’s a trick BMW has long adopted with its X5M/X6M stock, producing genuine car-like dynamic adjustability, and it seems Porsche has finally followed suit with its competitor.
Sportscar like? Not so much in a puritan sense. It’s certainly not lithe. But as a genuinely heady high-performer in a plus-sized package, the Turbo is both compelling and capable in big doses. As some measure of proof, during our drive the on-board g-meter recorded spikes of over one-g of acceleration in every direction, which is pretty remarkable for over two tonnes of family friendliness in a tight and twisty public forum. Stymied ultimate potential? Perhaps so…
Next up, the biturbo six-powered ‘S’. And after a half-day of solid high-flying through the Greek mountainside, we’re inclined to advise the mid-range variant is perhaps the sweet spot of the Cayenne range. Or, at least, a seemingly fitter steed for the driving at hand.
What’s the go with the engine? Why a 2.9-litre V6 in the ‘S’ rather than the base car’s larger 3.0-litre capacity?
Engineers explain it’s essentially the same core engine with an identical bore size, but in the higher-power 2.9 they’ve shortened the 3.0-litre’s inherently ‘long stroke’ by three millimetres (from 89mm to 86mm).
Why? For improved durability when you increase boost and engine rpm (6800rpm versus 6500rpm) to achieve peak power (an added 74kW). And as the initial ‘tune’ launching a new generation of Cayenne, there’s plenty of in-built engineering headroom to increase outputs throughout its lifecycle.
The high-power biturbo V6 pulls hard, sounds great, is married to the ZF-sourced eight-speed automatic – in different unit to the higher-torque-rated Turbo unit – sweetly and, around Crete at least, offers enough outputs so you can feasible use having a hot punt. Being more lightweight than the Turbo, it’s a little more chuckable though the corners, it remains obedient and cooperative to driver input, and its deft torque-shuffling smarts allows the same powerdown oversteer trick as the Turbo.
If anything, the mid-ranger’s lifts in purpose and performance from Normal to Sport and on to Sport+, are more evenly balanced for road use. Unlike the Turbo, you can dig in harder and use more of its ultimate capabilities on road. Spend a couple of hours in the ‘S’ and you begin to wonder why, with a rationale viewpoint, you’d even need to fork out a handsome premium for the Turbo version.
The jury is out for off-road capabilities. Porsche's test route did hit the beaten path for a few kilometres, a fairly manicured half-broken/half-sealed pass up the side of a hill. Certifiably European off-road, then, rather than your typically harder-core Aussie stuff.
Yes, there’s a gamut of dedicated off-road drive modes – Gravel, Rock, Mud – that alter the ride height and recalibrate the driving characteristics to suit, but as someone who once bogged a Cayenne Turbo years back in nothing more than ankle deep slurry, I’m keenly aware progress is largely at the mercy of tyre type. Not only are grooves in our car’s 21-inch low-profile rubber shallow and certifiably ‘on road’, the sheer size of Cayenne’s brakes severely limits choice of alternative mud tyre and rim combinations.
Off-roadability, though, is something of a side act. Talk to those who created it and the third-generation Cayenne is anchored off two aims: to increase the sportiness and performance “because it’s a Porsche,” and to increase the levels of smart assistance and connectivity, one senses, because rivals have lifted expectations and, in turn, customers demand more in these areas than Porsche has traditionally delivered.
Porsche made a fair song and dance about assistance systems and the Cayenne’s newfound levels of connectivity in Greece. But with time short and, frankly, barely a straight piece of road to be seen across our 48 hours with the range, there was nary a chance to divert our gaze from the black stuff outside to have a good dig around its technical creature comfort and connectivity trick bag.
In Europe, LED matrix headlights, night vision and lane change assists, park assist, surround-view cameras and adaptive cruise control are optional, so it remains to be seen how many of these features are fitted standard and to which variants. There are also a host of connectivity technologies that come under the Porsche Connect banner, though many of these app-based features demand localised development to ever see Aussie release.
“Some of the features will available at the Australian launch, and all could eventually be rolled out provided there’s infrastructure to support it,” says Porsche Australia.
Almost strangely, the broader qualities around Cayenne’s practicalities as a family hauler remain largely unchanged. Apart from the notable glass-screened controls for second-row climate control, it takes some effort to spot where this generation has instigated change. Not that Porsche's large-SUV breed lacked by any glaring degree to begin with.
The new Cayenne impresses most in depth. It rewards once you dig into the experience and surely the goodness within is easily overlooked if your measure of judgement is based on changes to exterior styling. It’s still no sportscar, and it’s still ultimately encumbered by its heft. But the capabilities Porsche has injected in a format hamstrung by circa-two tonnes of weight is quite remarkable. Having said that, for ultimate driving enjoyment, you’re better off shopping within the Macan range.
While the S and Turbo, in different ways, lift the averages for greatness amongst large, luxo-dipped, performance SUVs, new Cayenne remains evolution rather than revolution. But like its stablemate sportscars, the progress gained is an ever-increasingly high watermark.
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