The Ugly Duckling / by Andrew Fails

I'll just be honest.  When the Porsche Cayenne first debuted in 2002, it hurt my soul, just a little bit.  Now, I'm not a total purist who demands that Porsche builds only air-cooled 911s, but still...Porsche, building an SUV?  It seemed sacrilegious to me, an angry teenager in the suburbs. And trust me, nobody does angsty entitlement like a spoiled kid from an middle class family. 

I didn't want it, and goddamnit, me and my $6.00 an hour would just go somewhere else, thank you very much.  For better or worse, Porsche is ran by some folks with a bit more foresight than me.  Those kooky Germans, always planning in advance. So after some strategizing and planning that would have made Schlieffen proud, they dropped their new behemoth into the open market.  It did well. Shockingly well.

Times have changed, as they tend to. I'm still not the biggest fan of the Cayenne, but that's more because I tend to dislike SUVs in general, not because there is anything inherently wrong with the platform.  If you just HAVE to buy an SUV, you could certainly do a lot worse than the Cayenne.  Sure, it may not be the most traditionally attractive car, but Porsche has never made it's money on styling.  The entire focus has been about the driving experience.  And the Cayenne does drive well.  Far better than something that tall has any right to.  It's either brilliant German engineering, or dangerous Teutonic spellcasting.  I think we know which.

Porsche had always put driver involvement first, and the Cayenne carries on this tradition.  It is my (heavily biased) opinion that nothing drives quite like a Porsche.  Other manufacturers may build faster cars, or more comfortable ones, or more flashy ones, but the Porsche will always just...work. Due to my job, I get a bit of seat time in all manner of luxury SUVs, from Escalades, to Range Rovers.  The Porsche is the one I would take home at the end of the day, every time.  The directness and immediacy of every input is just mind-boggling.  

Throughout the cabin are subtle nods to the Cayenne's pedigree.  The tachometer sits dead ahead, bracketed in by the speedometer and a multi-function display. Because more important than your speed, or your location, are your RPMs.  This is how both my car and motorcycle both are.  Engine speed first and foremost, and everything else is incidental.  They've even carried over the tradition of the ignition key being places on the left of the steering column.

For those of you who don't know, every Porsche vehicle manufactured today has the key on the left of the steering wheel.  Yes, before you ask, it feels very odd the first few times.  There's an obscene joke there somewhere.  But this isn't done just to be eccentric.  That's more of a Citroen thing.  All Porsches have a key on the left due to the company's history with a little racetrack in France known as Circuit de la Sarthe.  Now if that doesn't ring a bell, don't worry.  The race is more commonly known by the name of the town: Le Mans.  Now, historically, drivers at Le Mans had to run to their racecar, jump in, start it, and then go.  No rolling starts here.  Now, Porsche, in that interesting German way, had decided that if the ignition was on the left, a driver could turn the key with one hand, as they shifted into gear with the other.  This would theoretically save fractions of a second on the start.  Now, did those fractions of a second matter much in a race that lasted for 24 hours?  I'm not sure, but I love to pretend I'm a racing driver, so I'll take it.

There is more to this story than simply saying that the Cayenne is "not bad for an SUV." Simply put, Porsche would most likely not exist in the capacity it does without the hefty girl. In 2013, nearly 48% of all Porsches sold in North America were Cayennes of some trim level or another. You love the Cayman, the GT3, and the 918?  Of course you do, they are some of the finest examples of driving machines in the world.  But without the profit margins that come from selling SUVs, there would not be the money to finance those halo projects.

Should a company cut out half of its sales figures, just because it goes against the perceived corporate ethos?  That's a rough question.  I'd love to live in a world where Porsche could make only purebred sports cars, while staying profitable.  But to do that, the price point would have to be elevated to Koenigsegg and Pagani levels.  So what would you prefer: a world where the Cayman costs half a million dollars, or the one where you have to walk around the Cayenne to get to the GT2 RS in the back?

It's not a perfect system, but any system that allows something like the 918 Spyder to exist can't be all bad.