Imagine a vehicle as utilitarian as a Swiss army knife, as plush as Pebble Beach and as untamed as a night on the town with J. Lo. Imagine a vehicle that can easily accommodate four golfers and their clubs and at the same time pull a 7,716-pound house trailer as well as a roof full of bicycles, skis or surfboards. Imagine traversing the worst off-road conditions, knowing that a combination of full-time all-wheel drive, locking center differentials, 10.75 inches of ground clearance and sophisticated traction and suspension controls will help you negotiate any terrain, road or no road.
Now imagine taking the same vehicle and blasting across a racetrack at 165 m.p.h., accelerating from a standing start to 100 m.p.h. in 12.9 seconds, handling tight corners and high-speed sweepers with ease thanks to brakes and suspension components equal to or better than those typically found on exotic sports cars. All this from a car that qualifies as an LEV (low-emission vehicle) under government standards. And to cap it all off with a touch of street cred, imagine that same vehicle sitting low and tight on twenty-inch alloy rims, with a fourteen-speaker Bose stereo powerful enough to stun cattle, plus an excellent navigation system and interior trim in wood or high-tech aluminum.
Meet the all-new Porsche Cayenne, arguably the most radical creation ever from the venerable German automaker— the first Porsche to haul people and gear across any surface as expertly as it hauls ass across asphalt. This is a different animal for Porsche, a marque known exclusively for sports cars. It seats four adults in comfort and is suitable for everyday use. In short, it's a big step for Porsche.
To hear Porsche Cars North America president Frederick Schwab tell it, the Cayenne might be the most important vehicle the company has ever made. Schwab expects the Cayenne to account for about half of Porsche's worldwide sales, which will allow Porsche to maintain independence—and thus preserve its soul, something that wouldn't happen if the brand were swallowed up by conglomerates, as Jaguar, Aston-Martin, Land Rover, Saab and Volvo have been.
The Cayenne comes in two flavors: the $55,900, 340-horsepower Cayenne S and the $88,900, 450-horsepower Cayenne Turbo. Both feature four doors, full-time all-wheel drive, 19.1 cubic feet of trunk space and a host of luxury and performance features. Cruising the highway in the S or the Turbo, you sit up nice and high as you would in a conventional SUV. Yet on a racetrack, the car feels as nimble and balanced as a conventional Porsche sports car. Hurley Haywood, who has won the 24 Hours of Daytona more times than any other racer, calls the Cayenne "the heavy 911"—meaning it feels like a Porsche 911 sports car, just a bit bulkier.
The Turbo was a blast to drive at triple-digit track speeds: Nail its 450-horse turbocharged V-8 and let the good times roll. I used the throttle to determine my angle of attack into and out of the corners. Body roll and brake fade were virtually nonexistent. On the same day, I took the Cayenne through wet woods full of ruts, slimy clay, steep hills and rough rocks. It carried itself with the composure of a mountain goat. Then, for good measure, Porsche's test driver ran a Cayenne through an autocross slalom course at high speeds—while pulling a 911 on a trailer behind it.
In short, you'd be hard-pressed to find a situation the Cayenne can't handle. No wonder Schwab says his company has but one worry about the Cayenne. "Our hardest challenge will be getting people behind the wheel," he says. "Because once we get 'em there, we've got 'em."
Scorecard: PORSCHE CAYENNE TURBO
BASE PRICE: $88,900
ENGINE: 4.5-liter turbocharged V-8
TORQUE: 457 lbs. per ft.
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed automatic
ZERO TO 60 MPH: 5.6 seconds
TOP SPEED: 165 MPH