Expert Reviews

First Drive: 2019 Porsche Cayenne

CRETE, Greece – Popular wisdom says you go from rags to riches and back to rags in three generations. The third-generation Porsche Cayenne defies that old saw and much other conventional thinking.

The Cayenne Turbo, an SUV so powerful you could only really make the most of it if you commute on the Autobahn, dragging a bank vault.

Even the base model outdoes expectations on every score, from performance to comfort to connectivity and good old-fashioned fun. Is the base’s hardy V6 engine not enough? You can upgrade to the Cayenne S or the ultimate, the Cayenne Turbo, an SUV so powerful you could only really make the most of it if you commute on the Autobahn, dragging a bank vault.

I just experienced the new Cayennes amid the scrubbily beautiful mountains of Crete, Greece’s largest island, and home of that legendary part-man/part-bull, the Minotaur, who roamed beneath the ancient Minoan Palace of Knossos. The angry beast makes a decent metaphor for any of the range of Cayennes we drove across this island’s rugged spine.

There’s a bullish monster below the hood for these labyrinthine roads

The base Cayenne houses a 3.0L V6 turbo engine, capable of reaching 100 km/h in 6.2 seconds (5.9 with the sport Chrono package) and a top speed of 265 km/h.

Granted, we never got close to that. Crete’s roads are as up-and-down unpredictable as a four-year-old on a Halloween sugar buzz. Mapped on its nav system, the “roads” can suddenly narrow so utterly in perpendicular villages, you need to tap the button to draw in the mirrors. That actually happened more than once. Even those extra 23 mm of width the new Cayennes have taken on are too much here! You find yourself hollering, “Threepio, Threepio, stop the squeezing!” then gingerly reversing (“backing up” is a misnomer because we were going backwards, on a downward slope) twenty metres away from a quasi-dead-end bull trap.

This seems a good place to mention that front and rear park assist comes standard with the base model.

Anyway I loved the feel of the base Cayenne. Indeed, I’m all about the base, as the kids say, but it’s important to mention the smorgasbord of choice for would-be buyers.

The Cayenne S is a Minotaur on steroids. The Turbo? Fuhgettaboudit

Porsche’s goal was to preserve the driving dynamics of a sports car in a comfortable SUV. Did they achieve it with the Cayenne? Imagine driving a cannonball with temperature-controlled leather seats. The S features 2.9L V6 twin-turbo engine that emits a bullish 440 hp. That’s 20 more than its predecessor and 100 more than the base Cayenne. It’ll get you from zero to 100 km/h in 5.2 seconds (4.9 with the sport Chrono package).

Meanwhile, the Turbo model (barely) contains a whopping 4.0L V8 twin-turbo engine that achieves a top horsepower count of 550 and a staggering leap to speed from zero to 100 km/h in just 3.9 seconds with sport Chrono.

Some other leaps forward in control

The new Cayenne is the first SUV to offer an adaptive roof spoiler (standard with the Turbo). It can force air down towards the rear axle for better control, or pop up and act as an airbrake at extreme speeds – we’re talking over 200 km/h. Yes, that was another interesting feature we chose not to challenge.

While ripping through the canyons and over the rugged mountains of this Greek paradise, let’s not forget Icarus’s mistake and fly too close to the sun. Figuratively that means don’t pretend you’re a racer on these constantly invisible corners, cliffs, and humps. Literally speaking, though, the spoiler helps keep your inner Icarus grounded.

Another leap forward in driving magic is the available electrically activated rear-axle steering. Adapted from the Porsche 911 and Panamera, it improves control in high-speed turns.

Yet another first, only the 2019 Cayenne offers a tungsten-carbide-coated brake surface (it’s an option). Tungsten is among the strongest materials in the world. This finished coating increases friction, improving the performance of the brakes, yet reduces brake dust on the rims for less scratching and ultimately better wear. Win-win.

Meanwhile, less weight means better efficiency. Porsche’s engineers managed to increase engine performance while decreasing weight throughout. Technically that makes this a fuel-efficiency advantage but really, you can go faster sooner. Yay!

The base Cayenne is 55 kg lighter and Cayenne S as much as 65 kg, which is about 143 lb. I’m 190 lb. So imagine me with just my head and legs – like the monstrous symbol of that other famous Mediterranean island, Sicily.

All this rides on mixed tires of at least 19 inches (optionally up to 21 inches).

Inside, comfort complements control and connectivity

The new eight-speed Tiptronic gearbox shortens response in lower gears for super control in challenging situations on and off road. A rocky upward series of cliffside switchbacks proved this upper-end family vehicle is thoroughly capable of extra-urban adventure. My driving partner, an icon of Canadian auto journalism, spent much of the frightful climb throwing his hands up in defensive mode like a startled toddler’s instinctive “moro” response. The off-road switch button in the Cayenne Turbo that we tested in the morning adjusts ground clearance from its sporty lowest gradually up to rock-clearing levels.

Back on the highway at speed, the long eighth gear is significantly less torquey, providing a smooth, comfortable ride.

Connectivity and real-time information are factored well into the design of the visually soothing interior. A huge 12.3" touchscreen is complemented by two 7" displays in the instrument cluster; that’s almost a safety feature. For instance, say you’re using the navigation. Your full route map, grandly spread across the larger screen, is reduced to just the driver’s next instruction on the smaller one. Simple but essential: what you need most demands the least amount of eyes-away-from-road time. Important to note: the Porsche Connect Plus module offers Apple CarPlay, four USB ports, and a Wi-Fi hotspot (but no Android Auto). A Wi-Fi hotspot amid all this leather seating: it’s like driving a first-class airport lounge.

More space – but watch your edges

Despite losing weight, the new Cayenne has improved its spaciousness. The luggage compartment has expanded by 100 L to 870 L. There’s also plenty of room in the backseats.

I was fortunate to attend the Cayenne event during my birthday and, while missing loved ones, I was grateful to be surrounded by gorgeous views, humbling ancient history, and freshly grilled octopus and taramasalata. Which leads to the next point. Birthdays call to mind our age spots, sore back, and creeping waistlines. A friend texted me from home: “You’re one year closer to death.” True. And even worse: soon, if not careful, I may not be able to see my feet.

The point? Likewise, the attractive and aerodynamic downward slope of the Cayenne’s hood leaves a driver wondering where the edge of the car is. You can’t see beyond your bends. Here, among these often instantly too-narrow roads, trusting the interventionist safety technologies to warn your edges away from unwanted friction is akin to prayer.

Good place to talk safety

The standard warning and brake assist systems include predictive pedestrian protection and the aforementioned front and back park assist. There’s also cruise control with a speed limiter – so, speaking of prayer, you needn’t lead yourself into temptation.

A bevy of safety options spread out from there, including adaptive cruise control, lane-change assist, and lane-keep assist – it proved its worth several times on these tight roads where locals, who drive prehistoric Fiats, like to drive up the middle.

There’s also night-vision assist. Here on Crete they paint the trunks of the huge trees flanking the roads white, one assumes to make them more visible after dark. And of course, if you too ever want to explore the ancient villages of Crete, Park Assist Plus with Maneuvering Assist and a Parking and Garage Pilot may be worth exploring.

These part-beast/part-lounge SUVs arrive next summer. The Cayenne will start at $75,500, the S at $92,600. You’ll see the Turbo a bit later, starting at $139,700.