I went to college with a sheikh. He was a fun guy to hang out with, because his worldview was shaped by the unshakable confidence that comes with having a long row of zeros on your bank statement. He knew that he'd never get in trouble for anything short of arson or murder, so he was always good for creative, entertaining mischief. Yet he was also a practicing Muslim, which gave him a curious combination of rich-guy exuberance and religious restraint. He didn't drink and he prayed regularly, but he'd also amuse himself by sending the dean's office a subscription to Penthouse and a bag of mushrooms. After visiting Dubai to drive the new Porsche Cayenne Turbo S, I now see where that young sheikh was coming from, literally. The glitziest city in the United Arab Emirates exhibits a similar curious dichotomy between enormous, flashy wealth and a culture that is, in a lot of ways, straight out of the Puritan playbook.
Dubai has no bars (except in hotels, at least thirty-five of which are five-star rated), women are required to dress modestly in public, and possessing drugs or a man-crush on Brad Pitt will get you locked up until the Detroit Lions win the Super Bowl. Apparently, all the various sordid impulses repressed by the Arab M.O. are released behind the wheel, because the driving verges on anarchy.
Imagine the road discipline of a third-world country combined with the infrastructure of Germany and the automotive mix of Beverly Hills, and you've got the basic idea. Need to get on the highway but don't see a convenient on-ramp? Simply drive up the nearest exit ramp and hang a right at the end. Feel a need for speed? Open it up. There are very few cops, and speeding violations caught on camera result in a ticket in the mail that you can pay the next time you get your car registered. And the roads . . . One desolate stretch of fresh, glassy pavement outside the city stretches about fifteen miles toward a single hotel, and it features not a residence or a business along the way, yet its entirety is lined with streetlights. Assuming that you manage not to perish in a horrible accident, driving in Dubai makes for great fun, which likely is why Porsche chose it to showcase its ultimate Cayenne. Given the crazy highway speeds and the prevalence of Cayenne Turbos, this is one of the few places in the world where the Cayenne Turbo S's top-speed advantage over its lesser sibling (168 mph to 165 mph) isn't purely academic. Also, the UAE offers miles of sand dunes to play in, lest we forget that this is a serious off-roader.
With 520 hp and a full complement of boonies-bashing hardware, the Cayenne Turbo S takes aim at the upper echelons of two very disparate genres-off-roaders and luxury sport sedans-and capably mixes it up with them both. While most crossover SUVs achieve a "jack of all trades, master of none" balance of abilities, the Cayenne Turbo S is jack of all trades, master of each. It's like a Leatherman tool that includes a machete and a flamethrower. By my standards, anything that does 0 to 60 mph in 4.8 seconds is a sports car. Anything with 10.8 inches of ground clearance, a low-range transfer case, and locking center and rear differentials is an off-roader. And anything that tows 7716 pounds is a truck. This animal is all of the above.
Our first destination is a remote expanse of sand dunes, where we'll test the Cayenne's off-road chops with the assistance of a guide named Ahmad. After airing down the tires, we're about five minutes into the great beige yonder when I high-center our vehicle atop a particularly pointy bit of sand, requiring a tow from a fellow Cayenne. Whatever little confidence Ahmad might've had in my driving is now gone, and when I ask where there's a good area for doing doughnuts, he tries to discourage me from this idea. I can tell he's having visions of us stuck again, in the middle of nowhere, and eventually being eaten by nomads. But I've got a twin-turbo V-8, four-wheel drive, and the world's biggest sandbox, and I didn't come all this way to not act like a big hick.
Eventually, Ahmad relents and says he'll show me how to properly kick up some sand. This is like telling a contestant on The Biggest Loser that you'll show him how to eat dessert. I am actually offended. Saying something like "Yeah, yeah, whatever, Ahmad," I charge down a hill and prepare to sandblast everything between here and Tehran using the tried and true rally-driving oversteer method: turn, brake, get on the gas, and countersteer. Except, in sand this deep, somehow it goes wrong. The front tires refuse to bite at all, and I end up in a full-lock, full-throttle understeer slide that causes waves of sand to wash over the windshield and obliterate all forward vision. That was ugly.
"May I?" asks Ahmad, and I relinquish the wheel. He proceeds to drive into the same shallow bowl and, never touching the brakes, coaxes the big Porsche into a pirouette around its front wheels as a sandstorm erupts behind us. As the kids would say, "I got served."
On the way back out to the road, an ominous vibration erupts from the left front of the Cayenne, and I pull over to discover that the tire, aired down to 14 psi, has bled out its minimal air pressure and gone flat. We pump it back up with a portable air compressor, but Ahmad warns that some sand might've gotten inside the tire, and this could cause vibrations on the road. Duly noted. We pull back onto the pavement and set a course for the city.
I'm from Boston, so I know construction. But Dubai makes the Big Dig look like a Lincoln Logs project. In one area in the southern part of the city, I count thirty-four skyscrapers in progress, compared with five or so that are complete. Dubai's flag should feature a crane, a dump truck, and an exploited Indian laborer. And maybe also the mall. It includes your regular shopping attractions, such as a kiosk selling T-shirts that read "FBI: Female Body Inspector," as well as less common mall features like prayer rooms and a ski slope. Yes, you read that right. Granted, it's a wussy ski slope, but c'mon-an indoor ski slope in the desert? What next, a series of man-made private islands that collectively form a map of the world? An underwater hotel? A 100-square-mile amusement park? Why, yes, actually. All of that is in the works, plus, according to a front-page story in a local paper, a space tourism terminal. No idea is too wild, too extravagant, or too ambitious for the main man running the show, His Highness General Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai.
Unsurprisingly, Dubai sports more exotic cars than you can shake a hookah at. I pull into the Dubai Autodrome racetrack to see if I can sneak out for a few hot laps, and the parking lot is littered with Porsche Boxsters and 911s and Chevrolet Corvettes, as well as a fleet of driving-school instruction cars-Audi RS4s. The track is booked solid, but one of the instructors, a British expatriate named David, has kind words for the Cayenne. "I've driven the Turbo here," he says, "and it's much better on a track than any SUV has a right to be. You can actually slide it around." Unfortunately, with the track busy, we have to explore the Turbo S's abilities on the considerably more frightening stage of the local highways. As I said before, the roads are great, but the drivers are another story. David concurs. "I've lived here since 1974," he says, "and you see so many accidents. I call it the Dubai Death Highway."
Be that as it may, I'm going hunting. One reason to buy a Cayenne Turbo S is to lord it over drivers of the regular Turbo, and I want a chance to rock the party on some Emiraties.
Merging up onto a four-lane highway, I get my chance. As I slide over toward the passing lane, a Cayenne Turbo comes alongside, and it's on. Oh, this is gonna be delicious. I'll toy with him a bit, then slowly but relentlessly pull past, my additional 70 hp providing an irrefutable advantage, until all he can see is that big "S" script on the deck and my quad exhaust pipes staring in his pathetic face. I put my foot down and command all 520 horses and 530 lb-ft of torque, along with the wonderful, slightly muted growl of a big V-8 with two turbo-chargers sitting in the exhaust stream.
But remember that sand in the tire? An intermittent vibration had been afflicting the Cayenne ever since, and as I pull past 100 mph in pursuit of the Turbo (which is now doing at least 120), our car develops a front-end wobble that gives me pause. The sensation is less like an unbalanced tire than an unbalanced washing machine shimmying through the spin cycle-the vibration attacks so hard that it feels like it'll bounce the car off the road. Then it suddenly disappears and I speed up, but it returns even worse. I eventually have to give up, so I set the nav system for the hotel and try to contain my anger as Cayenne after Cayenne-even a V-6 model, for crying out loud-blow past me in the fast lane.
As we get closer to home, the front end starts making more ominous noises. I pull over at a gas station and crawl underneath to have a look, much to the amusement of the pump jockey, who looks like he's never seen a Porsche driver get out of his car, much less crawl under it. The CV boot looks intact, but there must be sand in there, because the constant velocity joint sounds as if it's quickly heading for a velocity of zero. Maybe the sand in the wheel somehow contributed to its demise, but more likely it was just a matter of this particular car having spent two weeks getting thrashed by writers in the sort of sand that infiltrates your every crevice (and the car's, too). At any rate, we won't be taunting any Turbos, which was kind of a relief, because I have no doubt that someone would've forced me to prove that 3-mph top-end advantage in a door-to-door showdown that could very well have ended badly.
Even if I had put the hurt on a Cayenne Turbo, the vanquished driver could take solace in the fact that I'd paid dearly for the privilege. The Turbo S costs $112,415, a premium of $21,400 over the Turbo. Is it worth twenty-one large to get unique exhaust pipes, slightly bigger brakes, and another 70 hp? Of course not. The Turbo S is 24 percent more expensive than the Turbo, but it's not 24 percent more insane. Of course, in a land of private islands and desert ski-resort memberships, where luxury is redefined daily and nothing is quite outrageous enough, the Cayenne Turbo S offers one indisputable tether to reality that justifies the asking price for those with the means to pay it: no other machine can replicate its abilities, even if the Turbo comes close. If you're after the ultimate SUV yet devised, there's simply no other choice.