By Joe Wiesenfelde
August 11, 2011
After reviewing the redesigned 2011 Porsche Cayenne, we've put the hybrid version, the Cayenne S Hybrid, to the test. So what's the verdict?
I suspect people who value the Porsche name and want the higher mileage -- or perceived political cover -- of a hybrid will appreciate the 2011 Cayenne S Hybrid, but the SUV doesn't overcome its "hybridness" enough to satisfy performance enthusiasts.
Without a doubt, the hybrid delivers better efficiency: an EPA-estimated 20/24 mpg city/highway versus the regular Cayenne S's 16/22 mpg. That might not seem like much in mpg figures, but the city rating is a 25 percent increase, and that's nothing to wag a green thumb at. The city gap is also 4 mpg between the hybrid and the base six-cylinder Cayenne, which is a bit of an underachiever. On the highway, though, the six is only 1 mpg behind: 16/23 mpg.
The higher mileage comes at a price, of course, starting with a $3,300 premium over the gas-only Cayenne S' sticker price. The payload is also down 232 pounds, to 1,477 pounds, which is still more than workable. The towing capacity is the same at 7,716 pounds -- tops among comparable SUVs. Because the high-voltage battery pack is under the cargo floor, cargo volume behind the backseat is 20.5 cubic feet -- 13.5 percent smaller than the non-hybrid's 23.7 cubic feet. The difference is minimal, especially if you fold the rear seats down and exploit the Cayenne's full cargo capacity, which is 59.7 in the hybrid versus 62.9 cubic feet in the standard Cayenne.
In terms of acceleration, the hybrid falls between the six-cylinder and the Cayenne S: It does zero to 60 mph in about 6 seconds, a half second slower than the regular S but about a second and a half faster than the base Cayenne.
On the whole, the hybrid's driving experience is better than that of many hybrids. For one thing, the drivetrain employs the regular eight-speed automatic transmission, which feels pretty natural. Much of the time, the engine turns on or off and engages or disengages with the driveline seamlessly, but not always. Sometimes it balks as the engine fires up, and you're plenty aware of what's going on under the surface. At times you hear droning from the supercharged 3.0-liter V-6 engine, which is borrowed from the Audi S4, and the braking is disappointing. I criticized the regular Cayenne's pedal for being a bit numb, and the hybrid makes matters worse with the usual nonlinearity that accompanies regenerative braking (or recuperation, as German automakers call it). Most annoying is the brakes' tendency to grab at the moment you come to a complete stop. Is it worse than the average hybrid? Probably not, but it's so out of place in a Porsche you can't help but notice it every time.
As for the handling, you feel the extra 385 pounds of curb weight in the form of body roll. It was there even when our test vehicle's optional adaptive suspension was in its Sport setting.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety hasn't crash-tested the Cayenne -- or any other Porsche -- apparently ever. Low-volume models typically go untested, and Porsche, as a brand, is low-volume. The European New Car Assessment Program, whose stringent tests provide some indication of an American model's crashworthiness, also hasn't tested any Porsches. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's five-star program likewise hasn't tested the Cayenne either.
The Cayenne's front occupants get frontal, knee and seat-mounted side-impact airbags. There are also side curtain airbags for the front and rear seats, antilock disc brakes and an electronic stability system with traction control. A new blind spot warning system option indicates when another vehicle is in the Cayenne's blind spot on either side.
Porsche has a history of working magic, especially in the past decade. The very notion of a Porsche SUV was preposterous, yet the company made it work -- both by reading the market and its owners well, and by producing a model that feels like a Porsche. Then they rolled out a large four-door car, the Panamera, to more skepticism. Once you drive it, though, you know it's every bit a Porsche.
With the Cayenne Hybrid, however, I'm not convinced. I'm not saying it won't find its buyers -- partly because I've been burned in the past by similar predictions about both the model as a whole and its six-cylinder version -- but the driving experience isn't up to Porsche's standards. I suppose the six-cylinder Cayenne is the best indication of the hybrid's chances: Apparently, modest acceleration is good enough for people who just want to drive a Porsche. Perhaps the same priority will overcome the performance shortfalls in this version.