EANDERING, annoyed, up a Cretan mountain track scratches microscopically at the core of the third-generation Porsche Cayenne’s athletic prowess. Especially when what Porsche calls its “off-road” section could be cheerfully traversed in a Golf.
So the Cayenne S can raise its ride height to 240mm, with its active rear anti-roll bar pushing wheels down into holes and its all-wheel steering shrinking its turning circle. Some domestic driveways will be worse.
A bit later, though, this very same Cayenne S whips into a third-gear left hander with a trace of all-wheel drift, slips into understeer on the still-wet patch of tarmac in the shaded lee of an overhanging cliff face, then re-gathers itself as quickly as it de-gathered, punching effortlessly with incessant dollops of new speed.
And there was a soaring road crown and lumpy, broken edges that the chunky Porsche just ignored, swallowing up the suspension equivalent of nails and broken glass like they were sips of hot chocolate. It all happened so swiftly, seamlessly and elegantly that a casual observer wouldn’t have noticed anything out of the ordinary.
But something was clearly out of the ordinary, because two tonnes of high-rise luxury isn’t supposed to do that. In history’s less ethical epochs, people convinced elephants to tap dance, but they didn’t tap dance well. And yet, that’s the engineering equivalent of what’s happened here.
For the driver, this sort of thing is simple. Not quite effortless and a sanitised step removed from “engaging”, but it’s calm, comforting, reassuring and composed nonetheless.
For Porsche’s engineers, making this happen was everything except simple. Audi’s engineering team did a lot of the heavy lifting, but Porsche’s Dieselgate memories are fresh enough to know Neckarsulm’s work is worth checking forensically.
There are three stars to this show: the sweetest V6 on the market, the brilliant chassis dynamics and an interior shorn of the button-fest that dominated the bye-bye car.
While the base model is the most improved player on the Cayenne team and the Turbo’s power delivery remains so brutal that it’s only ever a twitched toe away from playing mini-golf with a driver, the Cayenne S is by far the best. (It’s also far from the best seller, with the so-far-invisible Diesel dominating the Cayenne scorecards).
Where the Turbo is all theatrical thump, the S feels more rounded, more usable every day and more fun to drive when the roads get interesting.
It has a broader torque range than its more expensive sibling, and 550Nm is usually enough from 1800rpm. It has a broader power range, too, and feels and sounds far happier about revving to its 6800rpm limiter, as if by nailing the throttle, you’ve asked it to do what it wanted to do all along.
You don’t realise just how sweet and smooth the new 2.9-litre twin-turbo V6 is until you drive the Turbo, and 324kW is more than enough to make its short ratios (astonishingly, 5.00 for first, with a 3.24 final-drive ratio) of fleeting relevance.
It’s so clean and strong that Porsche says it hits its 265km/h top speed in the direct-drive sixth gear, with the last two long cogs there for cruising with better fuel economy and a quieter cabin.
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It’s a wonderful motor to drive, punching out of corners on either torque or high-end power, capable of terrific feats of throttle response and there’s enough of everything to drift the big SUV on dry tarmac. Porsche claims it will hit 100km/h in 4.9 seconds, but that’s only with the optional Chrono Package, otherwise it’s a 5.2-second exercise.
But for all the potency, the star(s) of the show live below decks and include such notable techy stuff as all-wheel steering, an electro-mechanical anti-roll bar and a three-chamber air suspension system that finally works properly. Driving most of that stuff is a 48-Volt system that replaces Audi’s battery with a lighter capacitor.
The stock brake package does without the Turbo’s new tungsten-carbide coated brake disc in favour of a steel frisbee with six-piston calipers up front, all surrounded by 255/55 ZR19 rubber at the front and 275/50 ZR19s at the back.
Its ride and handling stand out, capable of comfortable cruising, effective pothole masking and, with the hang-on rear differential, a terrific ability to shrink in tight corners and stretch for stability on the faster ones.
And the well-weighted steering, wide power curve and clean gear shifting make it massively flexible and forgiving in hard driving. And, surprisingly, fun.
STAR RATING: 4/5
Dislike: Steering feel; still very heavy; fixed headrests
2018 PORSCHE CAYENNE S SPECS
Engine: 2894cc V6, DOHC, 24v, twin-turbo
Power: 324kW @ 5700-6600rpm
Torque: 550Nm @ 1800-5500rpm
0-100km/h: 4.9sec (claim)
Price: $145,000 (est)