By Larry E. Hall
On the automotive spectrum, Porsche and Prius are poles apart. For decades, one was the definitive German high-performance sports car brand, renowned for its extreme engineering and screaming flat-six engines. The other is just a dozen years old, the very image of the modern high-mileage hybrid.
Now the spectrum has warped, and the poles are coming closer. The Cayenne S Hybrid is about as far away from the earnest nerdiness of the Prius as any Porsche can get. Porsche had first discussed a hybrid Cayenne in 2005; the first functioning version appeared at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November 2007 and production vehicles arrived in the fall of 2010 as 2011 models.
The Porsche Cayenne was all new for 2011 and there are no significant changes for the 2012 model year. But it does receive some new features, such as blind spot monitoring, upgraded carpeting for seatbacks and cargo area and body colored wheel arch extensions. Base price for the 2012 Porsche Cayenne S Hybrid is $69,000, a $1,300 increase from last year.
“Sailing on Electricity”
When Porsche puts hybrids on the market, it’s a clear signal that the technology has broken out of the green ghetto. Of course, for Porsche, it tailors its hybrids to the expectations of a sports car buyer. That means adding a 47-horsepower electric motor to a supercharged 333-horsepower V-6 engine that brings total output to 380 ponies and a peak torque of 428 pounds feet at just 1000 rpm.
Porsche joins other manufacturers in the move away from the continuously variable transmission (CVT) employed by most hybrid vehicles. The eight-speed, driver-shiftable automatic transmission is not only a less costly approach, it wrings out the most power from the engine and makes the Cayenne S Hybrid feel like a normal SUV.
The drivetrain is completed with an all-wheel drive system with a self-locking center differential. Biased 58 percent to the rear during normal driving conditions, if one of the wheels starts to loose grip, the differential directs torque to the axle with the most traction.
The hybrid system’s unique feature is a hydraulic clutch between the engine and motor that disengages the engine so it can shut down under light loads. The electric motor then takes up the load until the engine restarts. Porsche engineers call the result “sailing” – for the quiet sensation of speed using only electric power.
As in most hybrids, the electric motor also restarts the engine, and recharges the 288-volt nickel-metal-hydride battery pack fitted into the former spare-tire well. This is a simpler and less costly system than Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive, but it comes with drawbacks, one being that the vehicle can’t use the engine to recharge the batteries while running on electric power at the same time.
Porsche’s hybrid system is tuned to give lots of electric assist at highway speeds. This makes sense, since the large, heavy, tall SUV isn’t an ideal urban car, and may spend less time in city traffic than other hybrids.
Illegal All-Electric Speed!
Porsche says the Cayenne S Hybrid runs up to 1.2 miles in all-electric mode. More remarkably, the company also says it can run on electricity at speeds up to 86 miles per hour – though that’s slightly deceptive, since it means the engine may shut down for a while at speeds that high, leaving the electric motor to propel the car. Still, traveling on battery power at speeds higher than any legal U.S. limit is quite an accomplishment for a 5,000-pound SUV.
As for on-road performance, the company says the hybrid Cayenne posts 0 to 60 mph in 6.1 seconds with both the electric motor and the boosted engine providing power. Top speed is 150 mph. At the same time, fuel economy ratings of 20 in the city and 24 on the highway – while not dramatically high numbers – are a big step up from its gasoline powered brethren, which have city fuel economy in the mid-teens.
For the carbon-conscious hybrid crowd those fuel economy numbers are pathetic, and mentioning 0-to-60 mph times and triple digit speeds is sacrilege. But to Porsche and their customers, the combination of performance, speed and increased fuel economy is just as important as fuel mileage alone is to Toyota Prius buyers.
When Porsche redesigned the second-generation Cayenne for 2011, it didn’t stray too far from the original, but far enough to distinguish it from the frumpy sheetmetal of the outgoing model. Visually, this latest edition appears smaller than its predecessor but it is actually a little longer, wider and taller than before.
The Panamera sedan influence is evidenced by a front end that flaunts integrated bi-xenon headlights that flow into raised fenders that sit higher than the sculpted hood and in the rear, taillights that extend into a liftgate that now tips slightly forward. With broader shoulders, tauter lines and more sculpting, the Cayenne is more European sport wagon than boxy sport utility. The only evidence of its green-ness are small hybrid badges adorning the front fenders, that in contrast to large, integrated exhaust tips that speak performance.
Inside, the Panamera imprint is prominent with a high center console that rises up to meet the dashboard center stack like a sport sedan. The instrument cluster is Porsche’s traditional set of five overlapping gauges with a dominant centered tachometer, as in a racecar. The smaller speedometer seems secondary. The S Hybrid instruments differ as they provide hybrid system information.
The interior is an elegant blend of tech and taste; it makes its statement with high quality materials, clean lines and flawless execution. Leather seats, front and rear, are all-day long comfortable. Automobile magazine stated that the hybrid’s cabin “is a wonderful place to spend time.”
That said, the array of controls on the center stack are so flummoxing they appear to require a week of intense focus just to operate the audio system and navigation controls successfully. While Automobile magazine praised the interior, it went on to say, “The only thing that mars the interior is the fact that there are simply too many buttons and switches. I counted: there are 24 buttons and 5 toggle switches on the center console, 15 buttons on the stereo, and 11 on the overhead console.”
Behind The Steering Wheel
Porsche’s 2012 Cayenne S Hybrid is a proficient blend of performance and fuel economy. By the company’s sports car standards it’s a very large, heavy vehicle, but it surprises with its athleticism. That’s due in part to a longer wheelbase – distance between front and rear axles – and a larger track – distance between opposite wheels – than the previous model. Throw in the all-wheel drive set up that enables variable distribution of torque between the rear wheels to enhance cornering dynamics, and the Porsche faithful are satisfied that the sports cars heritage is preserved.
Even the car magazines have recognized that hybrid and performance is no longer an oxymoron. Road and Track said, “Before you proclaim that Porsche has officially sold out to the soccer mom demographic by building not just an SUV, but a hybrid SUV, trust us, this new Cayenne will not leave you yawning” And Motor Trend went so far as to call the Cayenne S Hybrid a GT, “Fast, efficient, and effortlessly capable of crossing continents: That sounds like the classic definition of a Grand Tourer – a GT. Throw in all-road, all-weather capability, and you have a GT well-suited to America’s vast distances, varied roads, and volatile climate. You have the Porsche Cayenne Hybrid.”
When it comes to oomph, Popular Mechanics noted, “There’s plenty of power throughout the rev-range, thanks to the supercharger and the inherent torque of the electric motor.” Automobile magazine was also impressed and stated, “Less than a mile into our drive with the Cayenne S Hybrid, we’re impressed with the powertrain. Why? It’s the hybrid that you’d never know was a hybrid.”
If your shopping list for a five-passenger hybrid luxury crossover includes performance, then your only choice is the Porsche Cayenne S Hybrid because BMW has discontinued its ActiveHybrid X6. So, fuel economy and performance starts at $69,000. Bear in mind, however, that standard features usually found at this price level such as an auto-dimming rear view mirror, heated front seats and parking sensors are part of option packages on the Cayenne. Check all of the option boxes and the S Hybrid gets close to $80,000.
Does fuel economy trump performance? Then the Lexus RX 450h could be the one. It’s starting price is more than $20,000 less than the Porsche and gas mileage is 10 mpg better in the city, four mpg better on the highway. Of course it comes nowhere close to the Cayenne’s performance cachet.
Is Porsche serious about hybrids or was the Cayenne just a green flag hoisted to improve its image? The automaker has answered that question with the Panamera S Hybrid along with the 911 GT3 R Hybrid racecar that uses flywheel hybrid technology and the upcoming 718 horsepower 918 Spyder plug-in hybrid supercar.
Electrification of vehicles for Porsche is not an option; it’s the road to continued production of fast, fun cars for the street and racetrack.
Prices are Manufacturer Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) at time of publication and do not include destination charges, taxes or licensing.