How is it possible for an automaker’s best-selling vehicle to be the one that’s landed the farthest from the tree in terms of brand identity? In a world where the Porsche name is synonymous with segment-defining sports cars, the great paradox is that the Porsche Cayenne SUV remains the most popular model in the showroom, outselling the 911 and the Boxster by a huge margin.
What’s even more notable is that the Cayenne achieves this stunning success despite not really feeling like anything else Porsche has ever built. It may look like a member of the Stuttgart-sourced family, inside and out, but on the road (or off) it comports itself entirely differently from its two-door brethren. This is no accident.
Rather than attempt to inflate the Porsche formula across a full-size frame, the company’s engineering team instead focused on building the best luxury SUV it possibly could. The penultimate 2016 Porsche Cayenne Turbo I drove maybe be many things – big, brutal, and boisterous come to mind – but it’s certainly not confused about what well-heeled customers want in a high-end hauler.
The Cayenne underwent a refresh last year, and the end result was an engine shuffle that would confuse even the most diehard P-philes. The Cliffs Notes version is that if you’re seeking out the guttural tones of the Cayenne’s V8, you’ll now have to step up to the Turbo or Turbo S editions of the sport-utility vehicle, as it’s been banished from both the S and the GTS models where it once resided in naturally-aspirated form.
The 4.8-liter unit found in the Porsche Cayenne Turbo doesn’t just make all the right sounds when fired up (thanks in part to its active sport exhaust system, activated by perhaps my favorite button out of the several dozen scattered across the Cayenne’s center console), but it also threatens to reconfigure your vertebrae should you tip into the throttle a little too enthusiastically. 520 horsepower and 553 lb-ft of torque are the automotive equivalent of a chiropractor’s license, especially when delivered with the explosiveness of the SUV’s twin-turbo setup and the guaranteed traction of the vehicle’s four-wheel drive system.
Of course, Porsche allows you to dial-in just how much crazy you want to unleash at any given time by way of surprisingly granular drive and suspension modes. In addition to the comprehensive Comfort, Sport, and Sport+ settings, you can also individually toggle the stiffness of the air suspension system as well as the vehicle’s ride height. The latter ranges from a stanced-out ‘load’ level all the way up to a tall-riding setting that can be further paired with an off-road setting for the vehicle’s four-wheel drive.
I spent most of my week in the 2016 Porsche Cayenne Turbo switching back and forth between Comfort and Sport+, with the ride height dropped to the lowest level that would still allow forward movement. The former allowed me to enjoy a more relaxed appreciation of the eight-speed automatic transmission’s shift logic, which dipped into the V8’s broad powerband with a smooth, almost lazy character at urban-friendly speeds, while the latter sharpened the ratio swap to introduce more immediacy into the drive. Sport+ also aggressively blips the throttle as it descends through gears, providing a visceral thrill that no doubt alienated me from my neighbors on more than one occasion.
In a straight line the 2016 Porsche Cayenne Turbo is a menace, devouring lesser (read: all) SUVs in its path with acceleration that borders on apocalyptic: you’ll see 60-mph arrive in just a few ticks over four seconds if you engage the ‘Performance Start’ launch control feature built into the Turbo’s transmission.
In the corners things are somewhat less graceful, as its harder to overcome the physics of the vehicle’s 5,000+ pound curb weight, but the Cayenne comes across as one of the stickier SUVs in the performance category, if a bit bulky.
A fire-breathing, multi-ton turbocharged beast is all well and good for satisfying Porsche’s performance cred, but what’s more impressive to me about the Cayenne is just how competent it is as a daily driver. Forget for a moment the 520 horsepower mill that comes with the Turbo model and consider that the SUV is also available with several lesser drivetrains that can’t necessarily deliver the same level of shock and awe.
This means that the Porsche Cayenne has to present a well-rounded face to premium shoppers, the majority of whom will be taking home properly-motivated, but not overwhelming S or GTS editions of the vehicle.
The Cayenne’s cabin is a perfectly plush environment, and just how personalized you want it to get depends entirely on your comfort level with Porsche’s pricy options structure. The Turbo is well-equipped right off the bat, what with top-notch leather on the doors, dash, and heated and ventilated seats (which are adaptive with 18-way adjustments up front), a climate controlled glove compartment, an Alcantara headliner, heated and ventilated, and a long list of active safety gear.
Almost all of these items can of course be added to most versions of the Cayenne, and even the Turbo itself is upgradeable to huge degree. My tester was outfitted with items such as a panoramic sunroof, LED headlights, keyless ignition, the Sport Chrono and previously-mentioned Sport Exhaust features, and a surround sound audio system, which boosted the SUV’s $114,700 base price by an additional $11,000.
Still, if you can get over the sticker shock the Cayenne Turbo is a remarkably pliable – and useful – vehicle. With ample second row room even adults will have little to complain about on longer road trips, and the vehicle’s cargo area is large enough to accommodate the needs of most families.
Is the Cayenne’s twin-turbo, 520 horsepower V8 the very definition of overkill? Of course it is, and it’s not even the mightiest model in the fleet (with that honor going to the 570 horse Turbo S). Would you be just as happy in the Cayenne S, or perhaps even the base 300 horsepower edition of the vehicle? Most likely yes, but that’s no backhanded complement.
Rather, it’s a solid vote in the SUV’s favor, as its luxury formula doesn’t rely exclusively on the mutually-assured destruction firepower sitting under its hood. Porsche doesn’t sell an obscene number of Cayennes because customers are gazing longingly across the floor at a 911 – it moves metal because the SUV is everything that a two-door sports coupe isn’t. Once you factor in everything that the Cayenne does well, it becomes clear that the thunderous soundtrack and tarmac-tearing torque are just a bonus for this highly competitive people mover.