First Drive

2019 Porsche Cayenne First Drive | Better, faster, lither

A pinch of Panamera, a dash of Macan, and a lot of aluminum.

  • Image Credit: Porsche
It's no longer enough simply to be a fast crossover. Many crossovers are fast, and several of them are also sexy. The Porsche Cayenne, almost endearingly homely in its first iteration and baroquely overwrought in its second, managed mainly the former. To be fair, you could say they were distinctive, and looked appropriately expensive. There was no mistaking it was a Porsche. And then the Macan came along – much sleeker, definitely sexier. Now that the Panamera's gotten pretty after its much-needed makeover, the Cayenne's out of excuses. It may drive great, but it needs to look the part to be a contemporary Porsche.

To analyze both aspects of the new Cayenne, Porsche brought three versions to Crete for us to sample. It seemed to be an odd choice at first, but if you've been to Crete on the off-season you know the sleepy island is full of mountains, surprisingly good pavement, and tons of tight switchbacks and larger sweepers. The variety of roads and paucity of traffic was the perfect setting to evaluate the Cayenne, especially with its new handling options. As the drive approached, we took a long, hard look at the new shape in the parking lot in the soft light of a Cretan morning.

It's immediately apparent that the Cayenne is not quite a scaled-up Macan. The Cayenne is still doing its own thing, to some extent, and that means it trades some of the Macan's lithe proportions for a staidness that can't quite be explained away by its increased size. The steepness of the front end, despite being broken up by a gaping three-part grille and a similarly carved out lower fascia, is imposing and overly tall. The headlights, fascinating and complex inside and more gracefully shaped overall, are perched awkwardly on top, froglike. The hood is lovely, with a nice tumblehome and perfectly creased power bulge. There's simply no way to reduce the visual height of the front enough to make these elements attractive, but they're certainly distinctive. And as mentioned above, a massive improvement.

2019 Porsche Cayenne S 2019 Porsche Cayenne S 2019 Porsche Cayenne S 2019 Porsche Cayenne S

The profile is clean, with a sharp dual radius character line around each wheel well, perfect semi-circles, and deep scallops in the doors. The best part is the rear, which is refreshingly simple and lovely. The wide, unbroken taillight element resembles the Panamera's similar unit but with a dash of inspiration from the Macan's deeply concave lights. The convex shape forming the license plate cutout breaks up what would otherwise be a large, upright tailgate form. The integrated hatch spoiler (with an active panel that can move between several angles) is also smooth and sporty – it'd look entirely naked without it.

Much as the de-cluttering outside is welcome, the interior is clean and smooth when compared to its predecessor. The major interior themes are all there – the large, tombstone-shaped air vents, prominent boomerang grab handles, and so on – so it's immediately recognizable as a Cayenne. Instead of a bewildering pile of chiclet buttons on the center console, the 2019 uses seamless "buttons" arrayed symmetrically around the piano black center console. The center screen, which is beautiful and perfectly integrated, spreads horizontally, and the vents that formerly flanked it move to a more discrete location underneath.

The problem is differentiating one nonbutton from another – not a problem unique to Porsche, to be fair, but exacerbated here. It looks so good, and yet requires so much attention to use. Functions we're familiar with existing in hard button form, like turning on or off the stop/start functionality, are buried in a menu on the main screen, a few touches deep. At some point car companies will find the right balance between design and functionality, and it's easy to pick out gripes among the plaudits. While the aesthetic choices should be applauded, the interior's "wow" factor is dulled a bit in use by the ergonomic compromises.

2019 Porsche Cayenne S 2019 Porsche Cayenne S 2019 Porsche Cayenne S 2019 Porsche Cayenne S

Speaking of which, a more serious gripe: the gear selection lever. This is not a device that needed reinvention, but the Cayenne joins an unfortunate cadre of automakers enamored with unconventional shifters. More problematic is the park button, which moves to the lower part of the face of the shift knob rather than on top. Like Chrysler and Jeep's obtuse T-shifter, it's unnecessary and inconvenient – and for no readily discernable purpose. Drivers touch the shifter every single time they're in the car, several times at a minimum, so it's baffling why this is a forum for unintuitive novelty rather than beautiful simplicity. It shouldn't be a dealbreaker, but you'd better expect to explain how to put the thing in park to every single valet you ever encounter.

Once moving, you don't need to deal with the shifter again, and if the road's good enough you won't even think of it until the next parking maneuver. That's partly because each flavor of Cayenne pumps out more juice than its last equivalent configuration, all are lighter, and most have more torque. This is a great spread for a large SUV.

But the emphasis should perhaps go to the reduction in mass, since it's easy to boost output but more challenging to lose weight. Aluminum helps, a lot, so the new Cayenne's body is largely sheet aluminum. In total, between the sheetmetal, extrusions, and castings, aluminum makes up 47 percent of the Cayenne's chassis, which moves to the VW Group MLB architecture developed by Audi. The total weight savings, from the previous unpainted Cayenne chassis to this new one, is 48.5 pounds, and there's an additional 30 pounds saved in "hang-on" elements like the doors, hood, fenders, and hatch. If you factor in standard accessories on a fully-built new Cayenne compared to its most similar predecessor, the base car loses 121 pounds, the S loses 143, and the Turbo loses 22. This weight savings, which is not insubstantial, acts as a force multiplier for handling, acceleration, and braking.

2019 Porsche Cayenne S 2019 Porsche Cayenne S 2019 Porsche Cayenne S

Let's talk about handling and braking for a second, because there's a lot going on. The most important is the optional rear-axle steering, which operates much like the Panamera's system. It benefits both parking speed maneuverability and high-speed stability. On the road, it virtually shrunk the Cayenne, making it feel smaller and with sharper handling. The electromechanical steering system helps too, having been sharpened a bit to be more direct. So too do the staggered tires, with wider rubber out back across all available tire and wheel packages, a first for the model. (They range from a combination of 255/55/ZR19 front and 275/50/ZR19 rear all the way to 285/40/ZR21 front and 315/35/ZR21 rear.) There were no issues accurately placing the big Cayenne in any tight corner.

That's not all: A 48-volt roll stabilization system kept the Cayenne flat without divorcing the driver from what was happening underneath the car, a bit of a problem with early roll-stabilization systems employed in large SUVs. None of that here. There's also adaptive air suspension with Porsche Active Suspension Management, and these new dampers have three air chambers as opposed to the old Cayenne's single-chamber system. The bottom line is there's fantastic compliance and overall comfort with great body control.

No awkward porpoising over uneven bumps mid-corner in any of the variants we drove (all of which had as many handling options as could be optioned on that model). If you're interested in hustling the Cayenne you'll definitely want the rear-axle steering, air suspension with PASM, and the roll stabilization system at a minimum.

You might also want one of the new Cayenne's optional brake systems. Our testers wore the familiar carbon ceramic brakes (PCCB), one of the best setups on the market. It's easily modulated, doesn't need much heat to work properly, and grabs like mad. It's easy to work up too much speed in the Turbo before hitting a corner, and the PCCBs scrub it off hard. Sports car hard. There's also a new tungsten-coated steel rotor setup called Porsche Surface Coated Brakes with a unique pad compound, which have a neat mirror finish and reduce brake dust substantially over traditional steel rotors and pads. It's standard on the Turbo and available on other models if you select 20- or 21-inch wheels, and if you hate cleaning your wheels (or your detailer does a bad job of it), they might be a good bet – especially if you don't need, or want to pay for, the PCCBs.

2019 Porsche Cayenne S

Power is up across the board, which makes good brakes helpful. The base car gains 40 horsepower when compared to its predecessor, the S gains 20, and the Turbo gains 30. For torque, it's a gain of 37 lb-ft, zero, and 15, respectively. The base car benefits the most, with its 0-62 mph time dropping a full 1.7 seconds, while the other engine variants lose a half second.

The Turbo engine, a 4.0-liter, twin-turbocharged V8 brute, pumps out 550 horsepower and 568 foot-pounds of torque. The Turbo's party trick is warping from one corner exit to another in a blatty roar, particularly if you're doing the downshifting yourself with the wheel-mounted shift paddles and thereby bypassing the Tiptronic 8-speed's shift logic. It's not as quick on its feet as the other variants, but the rear steering and roll stabilization systems do work well enough to settle into a nice rhythm on some linked switchbacks.

The base Cayenne's superpower is feeling not terribly base at all, having lost lots of weight and gained power and torque compared to the old base vehicle. Our tester was, of course, well-endowed with Porsche options, but pair this 3.0-liter, single-turbo V6 engine with the rear-wheel steering and it'll slalom around. We slingshotted around Cretan trucks overladen with who knows what, microcars passing three wide in corners on the highway, and desiccated old pickups on short straights in the windiest stuff authoritatively. And it had a sweetness to its handling, a lightness on its feet, that the portlier Turbo simply couldn't match. One area of frustration was the utter lack of interesting noises it made with the stock exhaust. That can be rectified with optional sport exhaust – other than that, there's virtually no penalty for picking a base Cayenne. Since lap times are irrelevant in a vehicle like this, the important thing is if it can get out of its way with enough drama to raise an eyebrow. That, it can.

2019 Porsche Cayenne S

The sweet spot is the Cayenne S. The twin-turbo, 2.9-liter V6 makes 440 horsepower and 405 lb-ft of torque, and reaches 62 mph in just 4.9 seconds. More importantly, it sounds phenomenal, much more distinctive than the Turbo's V8. There's a bit of turbo whoosh and a lot of exhaust growl, but it doesn't overwhelm the cabin. Lag is minimal, but present, and the eight-speed Tiptronic adds a bit of a pause when called on to drop more than one gear. Calling for shifts yourself and hopping on the throttle a split second early is the solution. Get into a groove, and the S feels very much like a sport sedan – imagine a short-wheelbase Panamera, and you'll get the idea. The front end feels much lighter than the Turbo, too, although neither pushes much at the speeds we attain hustling around these narrow mountain roads. It's easier to get in a groove in the S, shut out the rest of the world and extract maximum satisfaction from each successive maneuver.

The base Cayenne will start at $66,750, the S starts at $83,950, and the Turbo comes in at $125,650. Even factoring in the amount that all the good chassis bits will set you back ($22,920 gets you PASM, PDCC, rear-axle steering, PCCBs, PTV+, and the Sport Chrono package), the delta between the S and the Turbo puts the former at a great advantage. If a Macan's too small for your needs, and you want a Porsche crossover that hustles, the Cayenne S is your jam. For those who need less, the base car is a great deal compared to its stablemates if you select fewer performance options.

Porsche certainly has figured out how to make the platform – which is slightly lower and longer than the old one – feel like a proper Porsche. So too is it comfortable. Both seat options are wonderful, and even the well-contoured rear bench is acceptable for a while (the seat bottom height was a bit too low to support my thighs properly). On the way back to the hotel, with PASM set to normal and the windows up, it was vaultlike and solid, a true tourer.

Not that there isn't plenty of choice in the two-row, sport-luxury SUV market. But the magic of the Cayenne is that this large SUV grows handsomer and simpler, and the new tech works phenomenally well, all while making it more rewarding to drive. It's hard to ask for much more than that.


Porsche Cayenne Information

Porsche Cayenne

Autoblog accepts vehicle loans from auto manufacturers with a tank of gas and sometimes insurance for the purpose of evaluation and editorial content. Like most of the auto news industry, we also sometimes accept travel, lodging and event access for vehicle drive and news coverage opportunities. Our opinions and criticism remain our own — we do not accept sponsored editorial.

Share This Photo X