We occasionally see SUVs lowered, tricked out with some performance gear, and given a sport trim label. These are usually barely less top-heavy than their nonsport counterparts. When it comes to Porsche, though, you would expect the company's sports-car DNA to infuse its SUV.
The 2011 Porsche Cayenne S largely meets these expectations, handling nimbly at high and low speeds, and using an efficient engine to hit 60 mph in about 5.6 seconds.
With most SUVs, we approach turns carefully, ever conscious of how inertia likes to play with 3 tons of metal perched a foot off the ground. But not so the Cayenne S. We quickly grew comfortable enough with its carlike stability to throw it recklessly into corners. But it does have limits.
Our SUV came with all the Cayenne's available active suspension equipment, including an adjustable air suspension, Porsche Dynamic Chassis Control (PDCC), and Porsche Active Stability Management (PASM). PDCC uses the sway bars to actively counter body roll, while PASM provides active damping power to the shocks, and can be adjusted by the driver between Normal and Sport modes. Additionally, the air suspension lets the driver set the ride height of the Cayenne S.
We bombed down an excellent series of twisty mountain roads, with turns occasionally displaying signs recommending 10 mph. The Cayenne S handled these better than most other SUVs, but it was still not sports-car sharp. The suspension technology does not entirely counteract the physics, so we still felt the car lean a little, or the front end plow into understeer just a bit.
All Cayennes have all-wheel drive, and our Cayenne S also came with the optional Porsche Torque Vectoring Plus system (PTV Plus), which pushes the outside wheel harder in a turn than the inside wheel, helping the car rotate better. We felt undeniable rotation while cornering this car, but felt it could have been dialed up a little more.
We are big fans of these stability and cornering systems, but it feels as if they were nerfed in the Cayenne S in favor of making the car more tractable for pedestrian tasks such as the daily commute or grocery runs. BMW's X5M felt like it took much more advantage of similar technologies.
Similarly, although the eight-speed automatic works well as an all-purpose transmission, with smooth shifts and very tall gears to improve freeway fuel economy, it falls just a little short of full sport performance. Shifts, whether in manual or automatic modes, are not as snappy as we would like, making us wait for that ever-desirable power.
The transmission does some very cool things, such as holding onto low gears following a turn, allowing for a quick buildup of speed. It did not downshift aggressively in reaction to braking, but stepped down readily when we hit the gas. Engaging the drivetrain's Sport mode, a separate button from the chassis Sport mode, made the car more likely to stay in lower gears while increasing throttle response.
Porsche's long history of engine design pays off in the Cayenne S, with a direct-injection 4.8-liter V-8 smoothly generating 400 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque. As we mentioned above, Porsche puts the 0-to-60 mph time of the Cayenne S at 5.6 seconds. We found we could achieve that speed in second gear easily.
The V-8 bolts forward readily, but in normal traffic the Cayenne S can be a little too jumpy. Modulating the gas pedal takes some finesse. But we appreciated the power on tap when taking advantage of a gap in traffic.