If you’d gone around Porsche headquarters 30 years ago muttering things about SUVs and hybrids with the sports car maker’s name on them, you’d probably have been booted out of Stuttgart faster than you’d have been able to say achtung, baby.
But history would have proven you prophetic: the company introduced its first Cayenne SUV in 2003, and now – mein gott in himmel! – there’s a hybrid version of it, which arrived last year with the rest of the 2011 (third-generation) model range.
For Porsche, a company that was known exclusively for sports cars before the Cayenne muddied up the gene pool (as some enthusiasts believe, even though the Cayenne has been a financial boon for the company), a hybrid is quite a stretch. After all, don’t these dual-power vehicles, which combine a thrifty gas engine with an electric motor and high capacity batteries, typically aim for economy over all, including performance?
Not so fast. The Cayenne S Hybrid, as it’s officially known, isn’t the first so-called high-performance luxury hybrid. Lexus’ GS hybrid was a forerunner in this regard, and BMW has fleet-footed hybrid versions of its 7 Series sedan and X6 crossover, and Mercedes makes a hybrid S-Class.
In the Cayenne’s case, combustibles are consumed in a 3.0-litre, supercharged Audi-built V6 engine that makes 333 horsepower and 324 lb-ft of torque, figures that best those of the entry-level six-cylinder Cayenne. Factor in the hybrid’s electric motor, and the power peaks rise to 380 hp and 580 lb-ft, numbers that challenge the potent, V8-driven Cayenne S. So armed, Porsche says the Cayenne S Hybrid will sprint from zero to 100 km/h in 6.5 seconds, roughly splitting the difference between the base V6 and S models.
So, is the hybrid hardware there just for show (and some extra go)? Well, no. According to Natural Resources Canada, the gas-electric Cayenne’s fuel consumption ratings are 9.7 l/100 km in the city test cycle and 8.0 in highway testing. Those are the lowest of any Cayenne, and competitive with, if not better than, estimates for the Cayenne’s diesel-powered rivals from BMW, Audi, Benz and Volkswagen. Of the alternate-power luxury SUVs available now, only the hybrid Lexus RX 450h beats the Cayenne hybrid for economy, though the Lexus is no match for the Porsche’s performance.
The Cayenne hybrid is quite heavy: at nearly 5,000 pounds (about 2,273 kg), it’s the heftiest of Porsches. Still, it feels plenty quick, even if it’s not what you’d call outright fast off the line, and the engine’s exhaust note sounds pretty nice.
Most hybrids are capable of running on electric power alone; so can the Cayenne, except in this case, you’re not doing anything so mundane; rather, you’re “sailing,” according to Porsche. (Come on, now.) The Cayenne can move from a stop and cruise – sorry, “sail” – on flat roads or down hills on battery juice, but only if you’re very gentle with your right foot. The “e-power” button on the console commands the powertrain to run on battery longer and at near-normal rates of acceleration, but only for short distances. Normally, acceleration is handled by the gas engine alone, but heavy throttle will bring the electric motor – and all 380 horsepower – on line to speed things along.
Using those electrons to my advantage, I managed a real-world fuel consumption average of 10.4 L/100 km in mostly city driving, a terrific result that puts the Cayenne S Hybrid firmly in family car territory and ahead of what BMW and Benz’s hybrids would likely manage in the same circumstances. The last Cayenne I drove, a 2009 GTS model, managed no better than 12.2 on the highway, and a thirsty 17.6 in the city street slog.
The ride is comfortable in any of the optional air suspension’s three settings, but my just-right was sport mode, the firmest of the three. The other two (comfort and normal) allow too much float and wallow over uneven pavement for my tastes. I have to wonder how much of that uncharacteristic (for a Porsche) float is owed to the extra weight of the hybrid hardware, particularly the battery, which lives under the cargo floor. For those to whom such details matter, the hybrid boasts more even weight distribution – 52.5 per cent on the front wheels, and 47.5 on the rears – than the standard Cayenne S. In theory, this translates to better handling.
The air suspension’s other tricks are automatic level control (no sagging under heavy loads) and height adjustability that can not only set the car at a stilt-like height off-road setting for maximum ground clearance, but can do the automotive equivalent of a crouch to ease the loading of heavy cargo and less-mobile passengers.
As the Cayenne is Porsche’s interpretation of the sport utility, it boasts sharp steering and cornering responses, even with the suspension dialled to its softest setting. The odd-man-out in the hybrid model is the brake pedal, where the transition from regenerative braking to traditional hydraulic stopping power is abrupt and makes for jerky going at low speeds.
As the acceleration figure mentioned above suggests, the Cayenne Hybrid is no slouch in a straight line, either. The car responds eagerly to big throttle inputs, and it’s under hard acceleration that it becomes clear why Porsche stuck with its eight-speed automatic in the hybrid, instead of opting for a less-engaging continuously variable transmission (CVT) as many other hybrids do. The familiar rise-and-fall of the engine note as the gearbox moves through its ratios reminds you that this is indeed a high performance machine, in spite of how efficiently it performs in day-to-day driving.
There are many good things to say about the interior, with its Panamera-inspired console and plastic trim that does a convincing imitation of aluminum, while the interior door handles are aluminum. The sexy leather dash is part of a $5,700 upgrade, one of many pricey options fitted to my tester.
The front seats are very comfortable (despite a lack of lumbar adjustment), and my only complaint about the rears is that the bottom cushion is a little low under the thighs. The rear seat slides fore and aft to favour passenger or cargo space.
There a few knocks to note in a car with a six-figure price tag, though. The armrests in the doors are nearly rock-hard, the turn signal and wiper controls stalks feel like they belong in a $16,000 Jetta, and I wished the rear headrests could be moved down further out of the view rearward.
At $78,200, the Cayenne S Hybrid is nearly $5,000 pricier than the regular Cayenne S. That’s actually not an unreasonable increase; many low-end and mid-range hybrids are at least that much more expensive than comparable gasoline-only models.
No Porsche is complete without expensive extras; my tester’s MSRP was augmented with 19-inch wheels ($1,790), Sand Yellow paint ($3,590), full leather interior ($5,700), the ironically named “basic” package (bi-Xenon headlights, sunroof, auto-dimming mirrors and navigation, $5,700), Bose audio system ($2,480), high-gloss black exterior trim ($180), air suspension ($4,550), ski bag ($470) and front and rear park assist ($1,250). Including the $1,115 freight charge, the total was $104,845, and that’s after an adjustment made earlier this year that brought the final price down from more than $110,000.
The Cayenne hybrid is not the first of its kind from a German automaker; BMW and Benz have both beaten Porsche to the punch. However, this dual-power Cayenne is the best-executed German hybrid in terms of balancing high-performance with a real effort to reduce fuel consumption. Things get interesting when you consider that Porsche sells a diesel-powered Cayenne in other markets, a vehicle that would be a more fitting rival to the diesel SUVs that every other German manufacturer sells in Canada. My educated guess is that we’ll get the diesel Cayenne here for 2013; there are already clues that VW’s Touareg, a close relative of the Cayenne, will also be sold in hybrid form here next year.
German car companies have already proven they can make clean, efficient diesel engines that live up to the brands’ performance pedigrees. It’s taken them longer to embrace hybrid technology, but this Cayenne proves that a hybrid doesn’t have to sacrifice performance or fun in favour of fuel economy.