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Driven: 2011 Porsche Cayenne Turbo

Eight years ago, when the first Cayenne was introduced, the concern among the sports car community was whether an SUV should wear the prestigious Porsche badge, whereas Porsche's main concerns seemed to be making sure the Cayenne had Porsche-like performance and real off-road capability. Today, we've either accepted or become inured to the idea of a Porsche SUV, and Porsche's focus for the Cayenne also has changed. Its buyers don't care about off-roading, so for the second-generation Cayenne, Porsche's aim was to improve efficiency while enhancing performance.

Thus, the two recently added powertrain offerings are a diesel (unfortunately not coming to the U.S. market) and a hybrid. The latter combines Audi's supercharged 333-hp V-6 with a 46-hp electric motor. The base six is, once again, the Volkswagen Group's 3.6-liter narrow-angle V-6, which now produces 300 hp with a claimed twenty percent improvement in fuel efficiency. That would put the Cayenne's combined economy rating at 19 mpg, although no EPA figures are available yet. The V-8s, both normally aspirated and turbocharged, provide a 23 percent increase in fuel economy thanks to a new eight-speed automatic transmission and substantial weight savings. The Cayenne S now delivers 400 hp (up from 385 hp) and 369 lb-ft of torque - enough, Porsche says, to beam itself from 0 to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds and on to a maximum speed of 160 mph.

We drove the top-of-the-line Cayenne Turbo. Its 4.8-liter V-8 is rated at 500 hp and 516 lb-ft, and according to Porsche, it can propel the Cayenne to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds and on to a top speed of 173 mph. In theory, the Turbo will average 17 mpg, but in reality, our hard-driven test car barely achieved 10 mpg.

Compared with the old Cayenne Turbo, which felt like a fast castle on wheels, the new model is more lithe at speed and less ponderous through corners. The front end of the Cayenne is still as big as a small country mansion, but the vehicle has lost 408 pounds. It now weighs in at 4784 pounds, which about matches a Buick Enclave. Redline for the 500-hp twin-turbo engine comes at 6700 rpm with peak torque on tap from 2250 to 4500 rpm, so you have 516 lb-ft of punch where and when you need it most. The new eight-speed automatic transmission is supplied by Aisin and offers a slightly wider ratio spread (7.1:1) than the ZF box being used by BMW and Audi. Seventh and eighth are long-legged overdrive ratios that drop the revs dramatically at interstate speeds. Also new is the start/stop system, which automatically cuts the engine when the vehicle is stationary and your foot is on the brake. Other green items are a more efficient engine and transmission cooling circuit and a brake-energy regeneration system. Last but not least, the new Cayenne is equipped with an on-demand four-wheel-drive system that supplies power only to the rear wheels unless the electronics call upon the multidisc wet clutch to add some front-wheel traction.

The suspension is now largely made of aluminum, not steel, which alone reduces weight by 73 pounds. The Turbo model is fitted with air springs, adjustable dampers (PASM), and bigger vented disc brakes. If you think that's plenty of high tech, check out the options list. There you will find additional sparks of genius such as the dynamic antiroll system (PDCC), carbon-ceramic brakes (PCCB), torque vectoring (PTV Plus), and radar-based cruise control.

Is it really worth spending the equivalent of a base Volkswagen Golf on these goodies? Well, the dynamic chassis control device does keep unwanted body motions to a minimum, but by doing so it narrows the demarcation zone between grip and slip, thereby virtually eliminating an important warning signal. Torque vectoring is also a good thing. It improves turn-in by decelerating the inside rear wheel while at the same time feeding more torque to the outer rear wheel, triggering a yaw moment that helps to keep the car on course. The expensive carbon-ceramic brakes are, however, difficult to justify for anyone but the most aggressive drivers.

A couple of inches longer than its predecessor, the new Cayenne offers more rear legroom. The split bench slides fore and aft a generous 6.3 inches and the seatbacks adjust within a six-degree range, allowing you to choose between passenger comfort or cargo room.

But the most significant improvement concerns the classier and more user-friendly interior, which mixes design elements from the Panamera with higher-quality materials and a bunch of new options. The dashboard, which used to be an overstyled yet underwhelming slab of plastic with an extremely busy center stack, has been completely revised. Gone are the hard-to-use navigation system, the difficult-to-reach climate controls, and the not exactly self-explanatory buttons and levers for ride height and damper calibration. The Tiptronic S gearbox can now be operated by paddles rather than thumb switches (albeit at extra cost), the larger color monitor is a touch screen, and dialing in your preferred dynamic vehicle setting is no longer just a fiddly exercise.

The four round instruments have moved a little closer together and include a new multifunction display. There are two high-end sound systems to choose from, one tuned by Bose and the other by Burmester.

The dynamic light system (PDLS) automatically adjusts the range and intensity of the bixenon headlamps in accordance with speed, weather, and driver environment. Blind-spot monitoring and adaptive cruise control with a brake-to-stop function are also new. Gone for good are all off-road-related options and with them, we hope, the silly Transsyberia package.

Full praise is due the thick-rimmed, smaller-diameter steering wheel; the much-improved ergonomics; and the more flexible packaging. I also love the supportive power-operated seats - with one exception - the fixed headrest that sports a bulge exactly where my neck wants to rest.

Time to hit the road and burn some rubber, which isn't easy with the congestion around Stuttgart. After about an hour, the autobahn is finally clear enough to let the turbos swirl. Zero to 100 mph is a swift exercise, 125 mph comes and goes in a flash, and even at 150 mph the Cayenne still feels like it's attached to the horizon by a tightly strung rubber band. Top speed is 173 mph, but we briefly see an indicated 185 mph on a long, downhill slope. Try that in a Chevy Tahoe.

Thankfully, high-speed roadholding combines strong cornering grip with impeccable stability. The meaty steering never feels vague or rubbery, and the performance of the composite brakes is quite simply sensational. Their strong initial bite and communicative pedal feel are second to none. The energy-squashing deceleration goes from reassuring to riveting with only a modest increase of pedal pressure.

Among the very few complaints we have after the fast bit of a half-day journey are a fair amount of tire and chassis noise and the air suspension's tendency to respond to transverse irritations with a low-frequency drumming motion. It's nothing serious, only an idiosyncrasy that may well be absent in the steel-sprung Cayenne.

On traffic-free back roads, the 500-hp crossover feels a full size smaller and about two weight classes more agile than its predecessor. This vehicle seemingly neutralizes the laws of physics. It has amazing cornering capability and steers with exceptional precision. It accelerates as if it were launched by a built-in catapult and it is at the same time both incredibly maneuverable and absolutely rock solid.

Of the three suspension-tuning options - sport, normal, and comfort - I prefer the softest calibration in combination with the sharpest engine and transmission setting. This yields all the compliance you need on the rough stuff, all the throttle response a steady right foot can handle, and all the torque you'd ever want.

Having lost weight and gained mechanical efficiency, the Cayenne now handles and rides like a top-notch sport sedan. In some markets, it can even be specified with a couple of green fig leaves - the hybrid and the diesel - to cover up a guilty conscience. Despite these improvements, the tallest Porsche is still stuck with the off-road-compromised architecture originally developed with Volkswagen. We won't see a thoroughly reworked version until the third-generation Cayenne appears in around 2017. That model will almost certainly boast an aluminum spaceframe that will allow a further weight reduction of at least 500 pounds. That should let the Cayenne continue what's been started: making an SUV more acceptable to Porsche purists.

The Specs
On sale: Now
Price: $105,775
Engine: 4.8L twin-turbo V-8, 500 hp, 516 lb-ft
Drive: 4-wheel

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