The entry-level Porsche Cayenne S is more like the Cayenne Turbo than the $33,000 price difference would suggest. The 4.5-liter V-8 puts out 340 horsepower (110 less than the Turbo), enough to push the S from 0 to 60 mph in 7.2 seconds. The Turbo's air suspension with active control is missing, but we've found that the conventional suspension makes the Cayenne S more alert and maneuverable.
In general, the Cayenne actually is defined by its computerized electronics (as all modern vehicles soon will be), and the S model has all the good stuff. The all-wheel-drive system sends 62 percent of the engine's torque to the rear wheels and 38 percent to the front wheels and then varies the distribution of power to each wheel according to the road surface and control inputs. The driving dynamics are brilliant, and they cut across all road surfaces and all weathers.
But a sport-utility is also about the experience of using it, and everything to do with utility is noticeably flawed in the Cayenne. It's as if the German engineers had seen sport-utes only in dirt-bashing television commercials but had never driven one to the grocery store.
First, the Cayenne is too tall for easy ingress and egress, and the doors swing closed too easily while loading passengers. The rear hatch opens too high to be pulled closed without some NBA-style leaping. The seats are too firm, the switches too fussy. The bewildering appearance of the instrument binnacle and nav system recalls a bad wristwatch with too many functions. The electronic entertainment system is outdated. Finally, the Cayenne's styling runs the emotional gamut from insipid to unpleasant.
Just like the Cayenne Turbo, the S is unsure about what it's supposed to be: a sports vehicle like the BMW X5, a luxury utility like the Cadillac SRX, or an off-road wayfarer like the Jeep Grand Cherokee.