2012 Porsche’s Cayenne S Hybrid

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Porsche’s AWD Cayenne SUV emphasizes sport over mere utility.
Porsche’s AWD Cayenne SUV emphasizes sport over mere utility.

Looking at the Cayenne now, it’s hard to remember why it caused such a fuss when it appeared, back in 2002. Porschephiles were livid because their brand had gone mainstream with a family hauler—an SUV!

Then they ridiculed the Cayenne for everything from its name (pepper?) to its looks, which truly did fall somewhere on the backside of homely.

But the world has shifted in 10 years. A decade ago, no one would have predicted an electric Porsche either, but this is the Cayenne S Hybrid. A gasoline V-6 was pumped up with a supercharger, and then an electric motor was added between it and the 8-speed Tiptronic transmission.

Bury your foot in the throttle and the dual powertrain creates 380 horsepower and 428 torques, good for zero to 60 MPH in six seconds. Not bad for a tallish, heavy 5-passenger AWD wagon. The two powerplants are linked through the usual complex computer program that decides when each one is needed or can be decoupled, for performance or economy.

There’s also a electric-only mode that lets you creep around the neighborhood in dead silence, but the battery goes flat very quickly and then the gas-burner comes alive again. Despite several hundred fast highway miles, we averaged 23 MPG overall. Again, not half bad. Especially since, at $75,000, this is hardly a Prius-type econo-car.

It’s a luxury car. Porsche’s performance status tends to overshadow the fact that all models, save for the stripped-out track versions, are pretty sumptuous.

This one has lovely mocha leather stitched over interesting shapes, the plastic somehow looks organic, and all of it is leavened with touches of thick, gleaming chrome.

Even more than most high-end German vehicles, the Cayenne Hybrid confronts the driver with an array of buttons and switches, but if we stare at them long enough, we can puzzle it all out, from the adjustable ride height to the multi-mode propulsion.

So there’s comfort and convenience to spare. Porsches, however, are all about the driving experience. Here too, there’s no disappointment. Well, maybe a small one: the steering.

Porsche cars feel as though they’re alive in your hands.

This Cayenne won’t put a wheel wrong, but you can’t (as the saying goes) drive over a coin and tell whether it’s heads or tails. OK, so it’s a sport-ute, not a sports car; it’s still a Porsche. Even so, the Cayenne no longer stands out quite the way it did a decade ago. Other makers now offer high-performance AWD crossover wagons too.

Still, for all its folding-seats-mit-tailgate practicality, the Cayenne is undeniably special. The young dude at the John Deere shop said, “Wow, this is the first lawn mower we’ve ever had arrive in a Porsche!” Naturally, I had to play along, and replied, “Well, let me tell you, this is the fastest this lawn mower has ever gone!” Otherwise, what’s a reputation for?

Porsche now offers six flavors of pepper. These include two reasonably priced Cayennes: a 300-horsepower model that starts (theoretically, anyway) at about $50,000 and a $56,000 diesel good for 240 horsepower and 406 torques (and fuel economy probably in the high twenties).

The top of the range is the 500-horsepower, $108,000 Turbo, which is to most other SUVs as the space shuttle is, or was, to personal aircraft. Then Porsche’s bottomless options list and its custom shop are there to help buyers empty out their other pockets.

Which gets us back to what the company was thinking when it gambled on an SUV 10 years ago: Cash flow. The Cayenne rang the bell so well (it’s not only Porsche’s best-seller, it also brought many new buyers into the fold) that it let tiny Porsche acquire a huge stake in giant Volkswagen AG.

The screaming from the faithful has subsided. Today there’s even a 4-door Porsche sedan to go with this SUV. No one complains about the Cayenne’s looks any more either; a second-generation face-lift has made the vehicle surprisingly handsome. And if you still think a Porsche SUV is peculiar, wait till you see what’s coming from Bentley and Lamborghini.