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Car reviews - Porsche - Cayenne - S Hybrid 5-dr wagon

Our Opinion

We like
Choice of models, hybrid economy around town, electric-only motion at low speeds, idle-stop, Panamera-esque dash, sumptuous cabin, great seats, strong performance, agile handling, responsive brakes, improved styling
Room for improvement
Jerky hybrid drivetrain, firm ride, remote steering, high prices, odd brake feel, some rattles

17 Dec 2010

WE LIKE the latest, second-generation Cayenne a lot.

We appreciate the SUV choice that the Porsche provides – from the quality engineering and real-world economy of the punchy diesel to the baritone blast of the V8.

And the Turbo, which moves with the force of an avalanche yet zigs and zags like a skier – albeit a big, fat one – on crystal, is a guilty pleasure.

Rivals BMW, Audi, Range Rover, Lexus and Mercedes have a real foe in their midst now that the lighter and far more efficient E2 generation is here.

Plus we love how the luxury SUV saved Porsche during the GFC, and how its success continues to bankroll the development of 911, Cayman, Boxster, Panamera and other tantalising prospects.

But we don’t heart the Cayenne Hybrid.

As a first attempt, the supercharged V6 and electric motor parallel hybrid drivetrain feels like a work-in-progress. And an expensive one at that, since it is about $55,000 more than the (admittedly less well equipped) Diesel.

But then again, the Hybrid does have two modes of propulsion.

Under the sleek bonnet lies a super-charged 3.0-litre direct-injection V6 petrol unit that delivers 245kW of power and 440Nm of torque, while a 37kW/300Nm electric motor is nestled in between the engine and ZF eight-speed automatic gearbox, resulting in a formidable 279kW and 580Nm.

A 288-volt NiMH nickel-metal hydride battery provides the necessary electricity, and resides in the spare wheel well beneath the cargo floor. NiMH? 2011 is the year of the lithium ion battery – a way-more efficient and effective solution.

What this all means is that the Cayenne Hybrid feels pretty much like any powerful SUV if you’re not tuning your ear to the hums and clicks of the electric gubbins going on underneath you. It starts and drives off that quietly.

Pure electric propulsion (and therefore zero fossil fuel consumption in theory) is available up to 30km/h or when you are driving along on light throttle (‘Sailing’ mode – up to 156km/h apparently), but at the other end of the scale a determined right foot will whoosh you to 100km/h in under 6.5 seconds, so the Hybrid is no slouch either.

In fact, no matter which way you look at it, the greenest Cayenne is a startling performer, building up momentum instantly, even when it needs to switch from Sailing mode. That’s a corollary of maximum torque being available from just 1000rpm, along with the super-slick stylings of the eight-speed auto trannie. Consequently, mid-range acceleration is rapid.

But the evocative Porsche noise isn’t there the power delivery feels artificial, and is far from seamless in its transition from electric to fossil fuel. Blame the drivetrain clunks. And even the standard Idle-Stop system – that extinguishes the engine when not needed, and then restarts it once the brake pedal is released – has an unwelcome jerkiness about it, sending vibrations through the car at start-up. Sorry, Stuttgart fans, but this hybrid system’s refinement is inferior to what Lexus is serving up these days.

OK, so around town, in heavy traffic, the Hybrid can ‘sail’ in EV mode, silently whooshing forward in a manner that far exceeds the limited electric-only capabilities of an RX450h. It is in congested urban conditions that the flower-power Cayenne will blossom most – all 2.24 tonnes of it.

However, on Pirelli PZERO 265/50R19 tyres, the ride is not up to luxury vehicle standards despite the inclusion of adaptive dampers on our test car. In Normal you would describe it as firm Sport is too hard on our rubbish roads, while the suspension in Comfort has too much movement. None satisfied our ride requirements. Sorry, Porsche.

Yet let’s not kid ourselves. The Hybrid will predominantly be used in and beyond the urban fringe, as a school run device, holiday house and/or resort transportation, or as a long-distance tourer.

Here the roads will be kinder. Leave the dampers in Normal and the smooth bitumen, combined with the cocooning hush of the solid body and the quiet drivetrain, will bring the peace you crave. But it’s a Catch-22 situation, because – save for some EV motor propulsion when maintaining light throttle – the sheer bulk of this thing will have the blown V6 gulping fuel down at a regular SUV rate.

For the record though, driving mostly in the inner city and ‘burbs, we recorded a reasonable 12.5 litres per 100km. That’s still a far cry from the 8.2L/100km Porsche claims.

And what about when the roads get twisty and interesting? Here, again, there are better Cayenne choices out there.

The Hybrid’s steering is agreeably light and very direct (for an SUV), but far, far too remote in feel to wear the Stuttgart coat of arms. There is no feedback to help you sense what’s going on below, just the actual sensation of turning precisely where you want it to go. This may as well be a driving simulator as far as tactile sensations are concerned. And we’re talking about a Porsche here.

Grip is just phenomenal, though. Armed with permanent all-wheel drive featuring a self-locking centre differential, the Hybrid hangs on for dear life at impossibly fast speeds, as we had a chance to ascertain during a closed-loop proving ground blast in wet and woolly conditions. That’s got to be worth plenty to folk who need their SUV to drive as securely as it looks, and here the Cayenne just shines.

But, again, disappointment awaits, for the toweringly effective brakes feel completely artificial, like you are wearing anti-gravity space boots. Of course, again, their absolutely sensational performance means most owners will not complain, but keen drivers will hate their synthetic sensation. Porsche has engineered the stoppers to recuperate otherwise lost energy back into the battery pack, so this may help explain the weird pedal feel.

Odd sensations through the wheel and brakes, an unsettled ride and some drivetrain clunkiness, offset by strong performance, deft handling, incredibly short stopping distances, and amazing potential fuel economy around town. This sounds like a Prius on steroids, not a Porsche.

Except that – other than the nicely scripted ‘hybrid’ badge on the side of the Cayenne – there is nothing remotely hybrid-esque about the Cayenne’s styling. Nobody will know you’re driving an eco weenie.

In its transition from first to second-gen luxo SUV, the Porsche ditched the heavy low-range transfer case, adopted lightweight driveshafts and gained a host of aluminium suspension and body parts in an effort to bring weight down.

Not only is the drivetrain some 30kg lighter now, the engineers have lopped 111kg off a body that is actually 48mm longer, 11mm wider and 6mm higher than before (despite seeming more compact), while riding on a 40mm longer wheelbase.

The latter means a more spacious interior has been made possible, with increases particularly prevalent in rear-seat legroom. This means that – at last – the intimidating yet inviting Panamera-inspired cabin architecture can now be enjoyed in more spacious surroundings.

Porsche’s enigmatic luxury sedan’s influence is most evident in the dashboard, especially in the way the snug space age centre console – with its impressive array of buttons and switches – is almost aircraft like in layout. It’s a sci-fi fetishist’s fantasy.

Still, the ambience is not quite up to Panamera standards. Maybe it’s the cheap appearance of the Nokia-style shiny metallic-look plastic lashed along the perimeter of the oversized air vents, gear lever housing and minor switches. Or perhaps it is the orchestra of squeaks and rattles that emanated from within.

But there are plenty of other Porsche quality cues elsewhere to please badge snobs, not least that massive logo bang in the middle of the lovely little steering wheel, as well as the beautifully arranged analogue gauges.

As with the Panamera, one of the Cayenne’s five-dial instrumentation windows features a full LED screen that can cycle through the whole gamut of vehicular functions – including GPS map, arrow and destination input readouts, as well as trip, phone, and even state of hybrid drive info displays. Neat.

There is also a sizeable screen dominating the centre dash area, above even more buttons and knobs. Novices will need lots of time to familiarise.

Except for the lofty seating position – which varies a surprising degree according to how fast the vehicle is travelling – there are few clues to the Cayenne’s SUV role inside – barring a pair of boomerang-shaped grab handles about where your knees would rest. The pillars are welcomingly thinner than some others, and the overall feel is that of a luxury wagon.

We have no qualms about that, and nor of the seats, which –even in the mid-centre position – provide sufficient space and absolute comfort and support. That wheelbase stretch over the old model is certainly appreciated.

Our test car featured an upright full-sized spare wheel placed to the right of the cargo area, taking up about a third of the available space. The alternative is a puncture repair kit. Why aren’t there Runflats on this Cayenne?

Even with the latter, the NiMH battery pack that lives where the spare wheel well once was means that the Hybrid’s cargo floor would still be higher than in regular Cayennes. Luggage space tumbles 90 litres to 580L (or 1690L with the rear seats folded – down from 1780L). So while this isn’t bad, there are more spacious alternatives out there.

Before this test, we really expected to be enthralled by the Hybrid. On paper its sheer performance/economy/technology prowess had us believing that a new dimension to luxury SUV motoring was dawning.

In reality, the execution and feel of the hybrid drivetrain actually detracts from the excellent basic ingredients. From the jerky drivetrain, remote steering and strange brakes, to the jittery ride and uninspiring exhaust note, there is no way a brand devotee could connect with this strange, distant creature, while those used to a Lexus would be irritated by its many annoying imperfections.

We get no pleasure at all in concluding that this Cayenne is perhaps the least convincing Porsche since the earliest 924.

Buy the Diesel instead or wait until the Hybrid is refined.

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