It's been 15 years since Porsche first launched its Cayenne SUV on an unsuspecting market. Back then, regardless of the car's capability, there was considerable outcry from traditional Porsche enthusiasts, those that believed that the German company should only make sports cars. That disbelief has died down, mostly because the whole world has gone SUV and crossover mad, but also because the Cayenne has turned out to be a massive sales success, enabling Porsche to continue producing even more impressive sports cars thanks to healthy finances. It helps, of course, that the Cayenne itself is ludicrously good at what it does, mixing family-carrying space with engaging dynamics like few others in the segment. For 2018 there's a brand new iteration and here we test drive the entry-level Cayenne.
In the metal
Is the Porsche Cayenne getting more attractive with each iteration or are we becoming more accustomed to it? Either way, the 2018 Cayenne is, to these eyes, the best-looking yet, especially when viewed from the rear. There, it carries on the latest family style with an eye-catching full-width light design that's intricately shaped and proudly features the PORSCHE script in big bold lettering. The new Cayenne sits on the same wheelbase as the previous model, but overall length is up 63mm and the roof is nine millimetres lower. More pronounced rear haunches add to the sportiness and allow the new Cayenne to look a little like the Porsche Macan at times from certain angles. Accentuating the new proportions are larger wheels and tyres, so that, while the standard rim sizes have all grown an inch, so have the tyre diameters, in a bid to retain comfort levels. Up front, the new car is unmistakably a Cayenne, signified by large air intakes below a smooth bonnet and high-tech LED headlights.
Even if you're unsure about the exterior, the interior of the new Cayenne should win you over. It'll be familiar to anyone that has sat in the latest Porsche Panamera with its high central tunnel, wide touchscreen and lots of 'black panel' detailing. Without being gaudy, it looks good. It feels good too thanks to plenty of leather trim as standard and tactile switchgear. There is, depending on specification, a lot of controls to get the hang of, but it's quite intuitive to use in general. A surprising blot on its copybook is that you can faintly see - through the centre console surface - labels of buttons and sub-systems that don't apply to your car - e.g. 'E-Power', which will be used in the forthcoming hybrid version.
Nonetheless, it's easy to ignore and more than offset by the excellent 12.3-inch Porsche Communication Management (PCM) touchscreen that dominates the centre of the dashboard. Supplementing that is a seven-inch colour display either side of the analogue rev counter, with full customisation of the views. Porsche Connect Plus is standard, featuring lots of online functions, while Apple and Android smartphone users can download the Porsche Connect App.
There is no seven-seat option for the Cayenne, but the rear is commodious for three and the floor is flat all the way across. The seat slides forward and back by 160mm, the backrests tilt and it can all split and fold flat to create a massive 1,710-litre space. If you really want to spoil your rear passengers, then specify the Comfort seat option with 14-way electrical adjustment and heating.
The Porsche Cayenne is powered by a turbocharged 3.0-litre V6 petrol engine that produces 340hp and 450Nm of torque. It's smooth and surprisingly quiet for the most part and does all its best work in the mid range. There's ample performance on tap, but you'll need to switch it into one of the Sport settings to unlock it if you're on an interesting piece of road, as it's a little subdued in the Normal mode. Like all Cayennes, power is sent to all four wheels via a re-engineered eight-speed automatic transmission that Porsche refers to as 'Tiptronic S'. Compared to its predecessor, it's said to be much faster and smoother at changing ratios, while they have also been widened, to the benefit of off-the-line acceleration at one end and cruising economy at the top. We found little reason to use the tactile gearchange paddles, even on a tortuously twisting mountain road, as the driving modes are very well judged, varying the changes from smooth in everyday use to faster and more abrupt with slightly more aggressive automatic throttle blips on down-shift when required.
In Cayennes fitted with the Sport Chrono option, the three-spoke leather steering wheel gains the company's simple mode selector with a tiny button at its centre for Sport Response. Press this and the car is poised, ready for a flat-out burst of acceleration for up to 20 seconds. It's designed to maximise performance for quick and safe overtaking of slower traffic and it works well, eliminating any delay once it's safe to pass.
And while many will buy the Cayenne for its prestige image and family-carrying capability, it wears a Porsche crest on its nose so it must also live up to the company's lofty driving dynamics standards. It should be no surprise to discover that it does. No two-tonne vehicle should handle with such fluidity and alacrity as does the Cayenne, even in nearly its most basic form. In fact, having experienced a few of the more advanced chassis options (such as rear-wheel steering, air suspension and active roll control, which we'll cover in more detail in a separate test drive of the Cayenne Turbo) available, I'd suggest that the entry-level Cayenne is at its most enjoyable to drive when in pretty standard format. Perhaps just add three-setting damping via the Porsche Active Suspension Management (PASM) system.
Specified like that, it's refined and comfortable even on lovely big alloy wheels, yet is genuinely great to drive when traffic thins out and the road turns twisty. The steering is perfectly judged and even offers a modicum of feedback through the rim, while there's just enough body lean to let you know how close to the limits of adhesion you are. In truth, those limits are very high and the Cayenne proves remarkably adjustable on the throttle, resisting understeer (in dry conditions) and exiting tight corners with a satisfying stance that hints at rear-wheel drive. Driven back-to-back with the Cayenne S and Cayenne Turbo, it certainly didn't feel like the poor relation.
Now, we know that an infinitesimally small number of Cayenne owners will consider taking their hundred grand SUV off the beaten track, but in the interests of research we did tackle a dry, steep gravelly off-road track and it shrugged it off with impunity after choosing 'Gravel' from the standard five-mode off-road menu system. Those intent on going further can specify the optional Offroad Package.
What you get for your money
At a starting price of €100,721, the Porsche Cayenne isn't expected to upset the biggest sellers in the segment, all of them diesel, but at least it's well-equipped as standard. Heat-insulating glass is included (though you may want to upgrade to the heat and noise-insulating option), as is the PCM as mentioned with an LTE-equipped SIM card, along with front and rear parking sensors, cruise control with speed limiter, an anticipatory pedestrian protection system, LED headlights, 19-inch alloys, leather upholstery and electrically adjusted front seats. The sky is the limit with the options list, allowing upgrades of everything from the chassis to the wheels, seats and stereo system. We'd suggest leaving the chassis as standard though and focusing on other aspects of the car.
Although Porsche's widening range is finding more buyers in Ireland than ever before, it's never going to be a brand that automatically comes to mind for most, even those in the market for a sporty premium SUV. The Cayenne nails that brief, however, and isn't necessarily way more expensive than its nearest direct rivals. Obviously, the entry-level Cayenne and its petrol-engined brethren will be considerably outsold here by the diesel and hybrid options, when they arrive, but it shouldn't be dismissed entirely if you rarely venture out of the city limits and the enhanced image of the new Cayenne appeals.