Porsche Cayenne: the car that saved the company

The famed sports car maker’s first SUV horrified purists, but 20 years after launch the Cayenne is viewed as the right car at the right time

An original Cayenne Turbo S (left) with an S Hybrid of the second generation (centre) and the latest Turbo GT at the Porsche plant in Leipzig, which was built to produce the new SUV

Today’s proliferation of SUVs encompasses everything from the school run to high-end luxury, but they are still considered anathema by many car enthusiasts. So imagine the angst it caused amongst the Porsche faithful when their beloved company announced that it was going to be launching a high-riding off-roader. But, make no mistake, this model was sorely needed.

Ten years before the Cayenne made its debut at the Paris motor show in 1992, Porsche was struggling. By the end of that year it had registered a loss of some 240 million Deutschmarks and in the 1992-93 fiscal year had sold only 14,362 cars. Relying on the legendary 911 sports car simply wasn’t enough, and while the arrival of the more affordable Boxster in 1996 marked the beginning of better times, more was still needed.

Enter Project Colorado. Porsche had reportedly been considering an MPV (people carrier) but the US operation convinced the company that an SUV was the way forward. It could have been a joint venture with Mercedes-Benz, but when that foundered Porsche turned to a collaboration with Volkswagen, developing the Cayenne alongside the latter’s Touareg. 

Even within Porsche this was a controversial project, but being seen as crucial to the company’s survival they went all in, going so far as building an entirely new factory in Leipzig to produce the Cayenne.

In 2002, the Cayenne looked ungainly compared with the existing rear-engined 911 and mid-engined Boxster

The result was a car that did nothing to convince the sceptics. Applying 911 design cues to a two-tonne behemoth wasn’t an easy marriage, and while Stephen Murkett’s styling efforts can be viewed more kindly two decades on, the resulting car still presents a visual challenge to many. But there was no arguing with the engineering and sheer ability demonstrated by the Cayenne, Porsche throwing every scrap of its considerable know-how into developing the off-roader.

Performance had to be a given, and it didn’t disappoint. There was a choice of two V8 engines at first; the normally-aspirated unit produced 335bhp while those with deeper pockets could have the Turbo, a 443bhp hot-rod that sprinted to 62mph in a little over five seconds. Costing around £70,000 at a time when a 911 could be had for notably less, it was both brave and slightly bonkers in equal measure (the Turbo S that arrived in 2006 was even more outrageous, and was a genuine 170mph machine).  

Porsche board members inspect a Cayenne prototype at the company's development centre in Weissach, to the west of Stuttgart, in June 2000

The range would expand soon after with the introduction of a cheaper and less profligate 3.2-litre V6, although that never really satisfied the performance urge. And as an ultimate way to offend the diehard Porsche purists there was even a diesel. But the big SUV wasn’t just about performance, as the company went to great pains to ensure that it could go toe-to-toe with the best when it came to heading off-road.

Not that most owners would ever dream of doing so, but had they wished to play around in the mud the Cayenne was more than up to the task. Alongside the Porsche Traction Management system, there was a proper low-range transfer box along with a locking centre differential. 

As standard the engine’s torque was split 38/62% front to rear, but up to 100% could be sent to the front or rear wheels in extreme conditions. And this was also the first use of the Porsche Active Suspension Management system that meant it handled as well on the road as off it. Ignore the subjective aspects and it was a beguiling mix of abilities.  

The Cayenne succeeded due to a marriage of Porsche engineering and performance with considerable off-road ability

So it was fast and rode and handled better than anything this big and heavy had a right to, but had Porsche’s gamble paid off? Handsomely, and then some. No amount of figures would have appeased the haters, but between its launch and the facelift for 2007 150,000 examples were sold. And in 2007-08 it outsold the 911 by almost 50,000 units.  

Love it or hate it – I veer towards the former – the Porsche of today owes its success to the Cayenne. It is perhaps hard to imagine saying such a thing 20 years ago, but it’s part of the ubiquity of the SUV.

The future is no doubt going to look very different, and those same enthusiasts who were aghast at the Cayenne now have electrification to grapple with, but the impact of this car, both on Porsche and the wider automotive world, can’t be underestimated. 


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