2011 Porsche Cayenne S Hybrid

You are about to read a review of Porsche’s first production hybrid, which also happens to be an SUV. Please don’t be alarmed, it’s not the end of the world. But, if it were, this would be a good vehicle to be driving.

Now entering its third generation, Porsche’s hugely successful money-printing machine, the Cayenne, has been given a top to bottom makeover for 2011. A little longer, a lot lighter, and much tighter-looking than the puffball that shocked Porsche purists way back in 2001 (right before they went out and bought one), the new five-door combines a host of incremental changes along with one seismic shift.

From either a distance or up close, all of the models in the Cayenne lineup – which includes the usual retinue of V6, V8 and Turbocharged V8 versions - look more or less the same inside and out, featuring a body that has been deflated even further than the last edition.

The subtle changes transform the Cayenne so much that it manages to look smaller, even though it’s slightly larger than the outgoing model and the overall styling theme remains the same. A faster angle to the rear window and the complex shape of the taillight housings are the most notable visual differences, while an increase in rear legroom is courtesy of a 1.6-inch longer wheelbase and seats that slide over 6 inches fore and aft.

Up front the Cayenne gets a version of the Top Gun-inspired interior from the company’s other piece of four-wheel blasphemy, the Panamera sedan. This takes the form of a prominent center console festooned with more buttons than Darth Vader wearing a three-piece tuxedo. On models equipped with the optional navigation system, a 7-inch touch-screen monitor in the center stack is complemented by a circular display, hidden within the five-ring instrument cluster, that can show three dimensional maps and, in one model, an interesting little animation that depicts an engine, a wheel and a battery.

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The $68,675 Cayenne S Hybrid is Porsche’s entrée into the world of battery-powered propulsion. It’s also Porsche’s first supercharged car, using a blown, direct-injected, 333 hp 3.0-liter V6 borrowed from its new corporate cousin-in-law, the Audi S4. A 47 hp electric motor/generator is fitted between the engine and an 8-speed automatic transmission, while a big, old-school nickel-metal-hydride battery pack sits under the cargo bay floor. You’ll also see this setup on next year’s VW Touareg Hybrid, because there’s nothing like keeping things in the family.

A rear-biased all-wheel-drive system is standard. There’s no low range, but it is fitted with a limited-slip locking center differential that sends power to the axle with the most traction, and can use the anti-lock braking system to balance torque between the rear wheels to enhance handling. Even though it’s environmentally friendlier, the Cayenne S Hybrid is still a Porsche.

On the former point, the Hybrid is 21 percent more fuel efficient than the lighter, 300 hp V6 Cayenne, and beats the 400 hp V8 model by 28 percent. Impressive, right? It will sound less so when I tell you that all of that equates to a 23 mpg combined EPA rating, but since that’s only 1 mpg worse than a puny Toyota Rav4 can manage, it’s actually quite good.

Technically, the Cayenne S Hybrid can reach 40 mph with just the electric motor, but with over 4,900 pounds to move around it takes a very light touch to get there, and I rarely broke 10 mph before the V6 kicked in. When it does, it’s noticeable, even by hybrid standards. The same goes for when it shuts off when the vehicle is in motion, which happens a lot - intentionally.

Lift off the throttle at 60 or 70 mph on a flat or downhill stretch of highway and the engine usually cuts out, allowing you to coast along for up to a mile at a time. Porsche calls this sailing, and the Cayenne can do it up to 97 mph. In this mode the motor/generator isn’t driving the car, but it is spinning with the wheels to recharge the battery and provide electricity for everything from the climate control system to the electro-hydraulic steering. The Cayenne will even do it on its own when you’re using cruse control. It’s a clever technique that helps it to be one of the few hybrids that gets better mileage on the highway than in the city.

Around town the engine also stops nearly every time the car does, and if you have the windshield wipers on it’ll even turn them off while you’re stationary to conserve additional energy, although I imagine that could present some visibility issues while you’re waiting for the light to change. Brake regeneration comes into play in this environment, recapturing lost energy as you slow down, but the pedal action makes smooth driving in traffic a little difficult. It’s dead for the first couple of inches then suddenly grabs with the kind of force that you’d expect of a Porsche. This is a typical hybrid trait, and one that automakers that have been in the business for over a decade are just coming to terms with. Too bad Porsche couldn’t learn from their mistakes.

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Drive faster and, like all of Stuttgart’s finest, the Cayenne S Hybrid comes into its own. Active dampers and an air suspension that can adjust the ride height of the vehicle are both available. A Sport button on the console firms all of it up, switches the transmission and throttle to more aggressive patterns and enhances the steering feel.

All of that stuff comes with a price, of course - $1,990 for the dampers, $3,980 for the air springs - and a look at the rest of the options list indicates that you can go through the last of your Bush tax break in a hurry:

Amethyst Metallic paint: $3,140

1000-watt Burmeister stereo: $5,690

21-inch wheels with arch extensions: $6,115

Fade-resistant carbon-ceramic brakes: $8,150

You can even have the slats on the interior air vents painted the same color as the body of the car for $2,330. Such la carte personalization is what makes Porsches attractive to the Carte Blanche crowd, and goes a long way toward explaining why the company is one of the most profitable automakers in the world, and literally rolling in green.

Now you can be, too.


2011 Porsche Cayenne S Hybrid

Base Price: $68,675

Type: 5-passenger, 5-door SUV

Powerplant: Supercharged 3.0L V6 w/permanent magnet AC synchronous motor

Power (NET): 380 hp, 427 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

MPG: 21 city/25 hwy