The 2012 Porsche Cayenne S may be the perfect small SUV for America's stereotypical suburbanite. This is not meant as a slur -- in many regards, the new Porsche stands out. It can be fun to drive, is exceedingly comfortable, looks great and offers a ruggedness and utilitarianism not necessarily available from most German sports cars.
But the Cayenne's attempts to check every box also lead to its downfall in some key areas: It's the perfect car for a very specific subset of drivers.
The Cayenne S has a 400-horsepower engine producing 369 lb/ft of torque, all transmitted through an 8-speed gearbox and all-wheel drive system, which means under certain conditions, driving it can be a much more satisfying experience than is the norm for SUVs. The S, a sportier version of the standard Cayenne, plows its way around the track at a top speed of 160 mph, and, more important for most Sunday drivers, it does 0 to 60 mph in a respectable 5.6 seconds. That accelerator responsiveness, though, is only really available in sport mode.
In sport, the Cayenne S does feel sporty. The suspension tightens up, throttle response improves, and the engine produces a particularly satisfying roar. You can drive the Cayenne S with confidence in sport mode. Not so in the sluggish, disappointing standard mode. The eight-cylinder engine feels like it has been neutered. The Cayenne S struggled to overtake an 18-wheeler on New York City's Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, a disconcerting feeling when you're driving a car with a rearing-horse badge on the front. The handling also becomes soggy, and the Cayenne under-steers noticeably, even on banked exit ramps. On more than one occasion, it felt like it would drive into the other lane during a corner in standard drive.
So why not just drive in sport all of the time? Well, the majority of the time it's fine so long as you don't mind that it will hurt the already less-than-stellar gas mileage (16 mpg city, 22 mph highway). In sport mode with the AC on, it was not uncommon for us to get mileage as low as 12 or 13 mpg city. Also, on rough city roads, the tight sport suspension can be jarring for your spine, but turning it off results in handling reminiscent of a barge in a swiftly running river, even though you still keep sport tuning for the engine, transmission and accelerator.
The Cayenne S can be a great car in its way, though. In sport mode or when driven gently in standard, it can be fun or at least serviceable. It has five exceedingly comfortable seats, the interior is well trimmed in leather, and optional heated/cooled seats, heated steering wheel and sunroof can make it feel palatial. Yet even with the excellent trimming, certain elements of the cabin design feel wanting. The cabin gives the impression of being designed by a committee of German engineers -- everything is very well-designed and deliberately placed, if you can figure it out and keep track of all of the buttons.
And there are a lot of buttons. Tons of buttons. Really, just too many buttons. In a sports car, many buttons are to be expected, but in an SUV, necessarily meant to be more utilitarian, it can feel overwhelming, and the clusters are not easy to navigate under pressure in traffic. At one point, while hunting for the rear window control on the driver's side armrest while driving, we accidentally pushed the button to open the rear hatch, which is located directly below the window controls. Worryingly, the latch disengaged even though the car was in drive, although it did not open.
Another oddity of the interior is the inclusion of two large handles on the front center column. These are presumably for you to grab onto while off-roading (because you're obviously going to take your Porsche off-roading all of the time rather than just driving to work and the grocery store). The handles are very thoughtful and would be great while crossing the Hindu Kush. But in New York City traffic, a couple of open compartments to hold your cell phone, keys or sunglasses would have been more useful.
Equally worrisome, our particular Cayenne S had a sunroof that would dump water into the cabin when it was opened, even after hours of sitting in the sun after it had rained. While the car would be completely dry, when the sunroof was opened, water would poor onto the (leather) front center armrest and the driver and passenger seats from where it had pooled along the lining of the front edge of the sunroof. This problem may be a limited flaw in our particular model or may be more pervasive throughout the model line.
The Cayenne S has its strong points: seating capacity, comfort, a great sport mode and the iconic Porsche badge on the front. It's a blast for regular commutes, trips around town or a long-distance highway drive, and you still get to tell acquaintances at work outings how much you like your Porsche. But the Cayenne is not and never will be a sports car (for a utilitarian but still undeniably sporty Porsche, look no further than the Panamera S). It also shows weaknesses as an off-roading vehicle. At a price of $65,850 MSRP, without extras, it is a pricey car to get paint scratches on, although you could absolutely take it off-roading, and it would perform admirably in that regard. But it is obvious from the moment you get in that the Cayenne is not really meant for off-roading. It's designed by a sports car manufacturer, and it's meant to be taken to the drugstore and the country club, not the Serengeti.
The 2012 Porsche Cayenne S is a perfect small SUV for the suburban driver who is stuck in traffic for a couple of hours a day and wants to ride in comfort with the ability to carry passengers and hoon around a bit if an open road actually presents itself. It excels at being a moderately fun, comfortable, suburban people-carrier. If you want an SUV for more rugged driving, though, other brands like Subaru or Jeep may offer better solutions. If you want a sports car, go ahead and commit. Buy a Porsche, but buy the Panamera or Boxster. The Boxster S will cost less and be more fun even if you can't carry as many kids and groceries.