First Drive: 2019 Porsche Cayenne

Porsche raises the "Sport" in SUV, yet again.

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Porsche

HIGH ON A RIDGE rising from the Aegan Sea, a dirt track meandered out of view. We had to know where it went. Fortunately, the vehicle we’d come all the way to the mountainous island of Crete to test was perfectly capable of exploring the varied terrain.

The Porsche Cayenne transitioned with ease from screeching around asphalt corners to bumping along rutted dirt roads. After rounding a bend and ascending the spine of a tall hill, we were rewarded with astounding views of the Greek island and the turquoise water all around. This is the promise of the performance SUV, a promise the Cayenne was first to fulfill, and which the new one does better than ever.

When the model was introduced in 2002, Lexus already had its RX crossover, Mercedes had the ML, and BMW was selling the popular X5. But it wasn’t until Porsche, the purest of purist brands, staked its reputation and finances upon an SUV that these trucklike machines truly pivoted toward driving enthusiasts. The first-generation Cayenne handled better than any sport-ute that had come before, and it went on to sell 280,000 units worldwide.

We’re still feeling the effects of that shift today, with the advent of Bentley’s Bentayga and the forthcoming Lamborghini Urus. The performance SUV has become a mainstay. Though a boon for sales, this also puts Porsche in a quandary. With more competitors in every direction, the Cayenne— grand dame of performance SUVs—can’t just compete, it has to dominate.

Enter the redesigned, third-generation Cayenne, which assumes a more carlike appearance. It’s lower and wider than before and takes on some of the Panamera’s cues, including a light strip in the taillamps that spans fender to fender. Still, the Cayenne leans more toward a lineman’s bulk than a quarterback’s wiry strength. The hood is high and the overhangs short, so the nose falls off abruptly. A proliferation of air intakes, especially on the Turbo model, masks the considerable height of its short snout.

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Porsche

The interior has also been Panamera-fied. The center console used to look like something from the control room of a 1980s nuclear missile silo, with rows of buttons framing each side. That cluttered design gives way to the clean aesthetic of glass panels featuring touch-sensitive controls with haptic feedback. They look slick, but you have to take your eyes from the road to operate them reliably, and some functions, like shutting off the engine’s automatic start/stop feature, are now buried in the touchscreen’s menu system.

The three Cayenne variants available at launch—base, S, and Turbo—each get smaller, more powerful engines than their last-gen counterparts. The biggest improvement is in the base model, where a 3.0-liter turbo V-6 produces 340 hp and 332 lb-ft of torque—an increase of 40 hp and 37 lb-ft over the outgoing 3.6-liter naturally aspirated engine. Stuck behind a gravel truck with only short straightaways between curves, the Cayenne proved plenty powerful enough to catapult around slower traffic, the eight-speed automatic promptly dropping down two gears on full throttle.

The Turbo, with its twin-turbocharged, 550-hp 4.0-liter V-8, is capable of even greater feats. According to Porsche, it’ll hit 60 mph in 3.7 seconds with the launch-control function that comes with the optional Sport Chrono package. But it doesn’t quite feel like your eyeballs are going to sink into your brain in that way we’ve come to expect from the venerated Turbo name. It’s the heaviest of the new Cayennes, which, despite weight-saving measures that benefit all Cayenne models—such as using aluminum for most of the unibody and a lighter, lithium-ion battery—means it’s still quite portly. At least the available carbon-ceramic brakes are well suited to hauling down its 4800 pounds.

Our hands-down favorite is the S model. Its twin-turbo 2.9-liter V-6 has ample shove (440 hp, 405 lb-ft of torque), but at 4500 pounds, it feels noticeably more nimble than the Turbo. It is also the model in which we most appreciated the optional rear-axle steering, which until now has not been available on the Cayenne. There’s an arsenal of other high-tech performance aids available, including an improved active roll stabilization system and adaptive air suspension, among others.

Every version of the new Cayenne we drove felt more capable than its predecessor, with better performance, increased comfort, and less body roll than expected for such a tall vehicle. Minor interior quibbles aside, it’s just easier to live with and well poised to stay at the head of the pack.

Porsche Cayenne S

Price: $83,950

Powertrain: 2.9-liter twin-turbo v-6, 440 hp, 405 lb-ft; awd, 8-speed automatic

Weight: 4500 lb

0–60 mph: 4.9 sec

Top Speed: 164 mph

On Sale: Now

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