Revitalized Porsche Cayenne puts the spice in SUV |

Revitalized Porsche Cayenne puts the spice in SUV

Andy Stonehouse
summit daily auto writer
Special to the Daily 2011 Porsche Cayenne Hybrid

Leeds, Alabama – For anyone who’s learned to adapt to the generally ponderous physics and handling of your average SUV, the all-new 2011 Porsche Cayenne is a mind-blowing experience. A vehicle of this size and stance just shouldn’t be able to do what it can, and your brain has a hard time accepting this.

Earlier this week, I got the chance to sample the reinvented Cayenne and its innovative hybrid iteration at the Barber Motorsports Park near Birmingham, Alabama. The Barber track, home to Porsche’s American Sport Driving School, offers the kinds of amazing hairpin turns and elevation changes that would send an old-fashioned, body-on-frame SUV tumbling end-over-end into the snake- and spider-filled woods.

Instead, with just one hand on the new Cayenne’s wheel, my Brazilian race instructor rather casually pulled so many G-forces and such astounding acceleration that I found myself on the verge of losing my lunch. Picture yourself in a tall, comfortable, four-door version of a Corvette ZR1, your head pinned up against the door in a turn, and you start to get the idea.

The vehicle once derided by Porsche die-hards as the greatest sacrilege in the company’s history has indeed come full circle and is now 400 pounds lighter, more nimble, faster and (dare I say it) as race-ready as most other manufacturers’ hottest sport cars. And, at the same time, capable of Range Rover-esque off-road agility and stream-crossing prowess, with an adjustable air suspension system and full hill descent control.

At the top of the line, the new Cayenne Turbo plows 500 easily attainable horsepower out of its twin-turbocharged 4.8-liter V8 engine, yet gets 23 percent better gas mileage than the previous model. A new eight-speed Tiptronic transmission learns and adapts to your driving style, and in the hands of a professional driver, turns the still-substantial Cayenne from buttery to brutal in a nanosecond. It’ll do 0 to 60 in 4.4 seconds and top out at 171 mph, yet still features 62.9 feet of cargo space for your groceries, kids and kayaks.

A new, optional system called torque vectoring imbues the Cayenne with computer-assisted cornering ability that’s unbelievable in a track setting. Admittedly, this can be a little non-intuitive, especially when you’re used to the heavy body rolling and weak performance of regular 4,500-pound SUVs; when I got some time behind the wheel on the track, my instructor insisted I drive faster and faster to get the full, absolutely stunning effect.

Looks have improved, the objective being to make the automobile more aesthetically linked to the sports car side of the family, but rear passengers also get more foot room and a long slide on their seats (Porsche says the Cayenne serves as a limousine for many of its Chinese customers, though your standard load of American kids will also appreciate the room).

Beyond the brute power of the Turbo (and the still-substantial kick of the Cayenne S model, with 400 HP, or the standard model’s 300-HP V6), Porsche’s biggest story was the new Cayenne S Hybrid. On the track and then tested out on a wonderfully winding rural highway route, the Porsche genuinely represents the best current version of hybrid technology and is almost entirely seamless in its operation – and still as sporty and off-road capable as the regular models.

Engineers crafted the Cayenne S Hybrid with an interconnected 333-HP 3.0-liter V6 and a 47-HP electric engine, resulting in 380 combined horsepower. Uphill jaunts are no problem whatsoever and if you’re not careful, you’ll find yourself cresting 100 mph while passing people on the highway.

At the same time, with a blend of non-grabby, regenerative brakes and a rather impressive separation clutch (making transitions between electric and gas power as smooth as possible), mileage reached about 23.5 mpg during our drive.

That clutch system induces what Porsche fancifully calls “sailing,” meaning the S Hybrid can coast with the engine completely off at up to 97 mph, yet start up with a tap of the gas.

This week’s preview also included the new, 300-HP V6 models of the four-door Panamera, that abstract but compelling four-door variation on the 911; I can confirm now that a very husky individual can indeed sit reasonably comfortably in the rear seat, having seen this happen.

The Barber track, the brainchild of a painfully down-to-earth Alabama milkman, also features one of the country’s coolest museums, a multi-level behemoth with more than 650 classic motorcycles and cars on display.

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