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Review: 2009 Porsche Cayenne S

The vehicle that caused critics to question the sanity in the Porsche executive suites continues to plug away. Porsche is a car company, they scoffed. At one point, the Cayenne appeared to be on life-support. Now it's a top seller. And oh yes, Porsche will soon introduce their new four-door sedan, the Panamera. What's up in Zuffenhausen? We'll try to find out.

What is it?
It's only the sportiest of the so-called "sport" SUVs. A five-seater, it is luxurious, with the handling of a sports car, also possessing the utility of a larger SUV. Well, some of it, anyway. The Cayenne S version that we drove slots in as the mid-level entry into the world where there is no substitute.

Recently, we spent some time in the performance-oriented Cayenne GTS. The S is the more well-rounded little brother, sort of a jack-of-all-trades put up against a sledgehammer.

What's it up against?
The Cayenne slots naturally against its German brethren, specifically the BMW X5 V8 and the Mercedes-Benz ML550. Those two are a bit cheaper and not quite as overtly sporty as the Porsche, however.

The Land Rover Range Rover Sport Supercharged beats the Cayenne off road, but can't quite reach the same level of on-road dynamics, but it easily rounds out the Cayenne's list of competitors.

Any breakthroughs?
For 2008, the Cayenne S features a mildly refreshed body"”essentially the headlamps and front fascia went under the knife, but otherwise the rest of the exterior is carryover. It's the Cayenne's underpinnings that are really what's going on.

How does it look?
Like Porsche Cayenne S version 1.2. It is a mild refresh on the look, which originally hit in 2003. With new headlamps, and larger arched wheel wells, it has a slightly more aggressive styling that suggests if you liked the old version, you'll be on board with this new one, too.

The Cayenne has always maintained a squat, bulldog-like stance, and has only continued with this theme since its' freshening.

Optional 21-inch sport wheels give it a distinct look, but to our eyes, the Cayenne appears to ride rather high. Perhaps it's in need of either smaller wheel wells or larger tires to fill in all the extra space. It is a totally capable off-roader, but one whose reality will unfortunately almost guarantee it never goes there.

And inside?
The interior is generally a step down from the Cayenne GTS that we recently tested; Nor is the S as sporty as the GTS, either. Leather-faced seats are supportive but don't offer as much side bolstering as the big brother, which is covered with a combination of leather and Alcantara. The familiar Porsche steering wheel, with its triangular-shaped center is as it should be, but the awkward shift switches (they are definitely not paddle levers) on the upper bouts of the wheel could use a redesign. They are not as pronounced, or as easily accessible as the usual levers, and almost require a toggle motion to activate.

A five-gauge binnacle sits front and center of the driver and houses silver-ringed gauges that monitor, from left, oil, tachometer, water temperature, fuel level, speedometer, and voltmeter. The center-most ring also houses an information LCD that shows miles-to-empty, radio channels, directions, odometer and other such information.

Inside, the general layout is right up there with Audi, which has lately been viewed as state of the art, as far as interior design is concerned. Clever use of materials including the inclusion of grab handles on either side of the transmission tunnel, offer unusual, but useful touches. But that's not to say that it is flawless.

A largish center console houses the navigation system and the Bose Surround Sound audio system with Sirius Satellite Radio, but tends to be plagued by the Teutonic trait to be fascinated with too many small buttons. An automatic climate control system (with additional front and rear zone controls) makes the interior cold enough to hang meat in. The three-place back seat comfortably sits a trio with relatively good legroom for those not NBA-inclined. The rear seat also folds down in a 60/40 split for added cargo utility.

But does it go?
Faster than the average SUV, the Porsche Cayenne S is motivated by a 4.8-liter V8 that has an output of 385 horsepower and a stump-pulling 369 lb-ft. of torque. With the six-speed Tiptronic S transmission, the 4,950-pound behemoth is still capable of a 0-60 mph time of 6.4 seconds, with a top speed of 155 mph. EPA estimates show an improvement over the previous model, by about 3-miles per gallon. Look for 14 mpg in the city and 21 on the highway.

Car control is enabled by independent double-track control arms and load-bearing air springs offering infinite damper force control. Two-channel ABS controls the 13.78-inch rotors with 6-pots at the bow, while 4-pot clampers apply the claw to 13-inch discs at the stern.

Steering is a little rough, but the better to feel the road with. Turning radius is tight enough to swap directions on a two-lane road, which is all well and good. But honestly where we think the Cayenne S really shines is in the place where it is least likely to go"”off roading. Equipped with Porsche's Dynamic Chassis Control (PDCC), and traipsing through a rally-style course at the Continental Tire proving grounds, the Cayenne took whatever we threw at it, kicking up dirt while maintaining enough forward motion to keep things interesting. Even during drifting-like maneuvers through mud and dirt, the tail would let you swing wide"”to a point where it decides to let you know that the system is about to gather you back up again.

Back on terra firma, while running through soaking wet surfaces, the PDCC kept the body roll to a minimum, and again prevented too much in the way of tail flapping during speeds that would be deemed less than prudent on a city street. Our test vehicle was equipped with Porsche's Active Suspension Management (PASM) that offers the ability to customize the shock rate, as well as raise or lower the ride height. Mildly acceptable amounts of understeer helped to keep things honest while at speed and made the ride a very compliant one. On the other, hand the Cayenne S does not entirely emulate its more sporty brother, the Porsche 911, and it is apparent that although it is probably the best handling SUV available, the feel that it transmits to the driver also reminds you there are limits to the acrobatics you can perform while behind the wheel.

Why you would buy it:
Under today's economic conditions, your portfolio (and your wallet) aren't thick enough to support the Cayenne Turbo, so this will just have to do.

Why you wouldn't:
Your taste for things Teutonic begins and ends with the Frankfurter.

2008 Porsche Cayenne S base price, $57,900. As tested, $81,105.
Marine blue metallic, $690; 21 inch wheels, $4,295; Xenon headlamps, $1,560; PCM, $3,070; Heated seats and steering wheel, $560; Light Comfort package, $610; Satellite Radio, $750; Porsche Dynamic Chassis Control, $3,510; Floor mats, $140; Air suspension with PASM, $2,990; Trailer hitch, $630; Moonroof, $1,190; CD changer, $650; Bose audio system, $1,665; Destination, $895.

Words and photos by Mark Elias.