Porsche's first hybrid is not the fastest, least expensive or most fuel-efficient big luxury SUV, but it's probably the best all-around vehicle in its class.
The 2011 Porsche Cayenne S hybrid luxury SUV is a study in the art of compromise. This is fascinating, because Porsche built its reputation on a dogged, heels-dug-in, Germanic refusal to compromise.
Porsche ferociously believes that the driver's only job is to drive, and that its purpose on Earth is the pursuit of speed. It took the automaker more than a decade to smell the cappuccino and put cupholders in its cars.
And when it did, its engineers were so look-what-I-did-in-school-today proud that only an exceptionally heartless soul could tell little Siegfried this was the ugliest vase anybody ever brought home from art class. Anyway, Ziggy probably heard the stream of invective across the Atlantic the first time the cupholder dumped steaming java on an American lap.
The Cayenne S hybrid's cupholders are fine, by the way. That's not the point.
The point is that Porsche's first hybrid is not the fastest, least-expensive or most fuel-efficient big luxury SUV, but it's probably the best all-around vehicle in its class. The Cayenne hybrid effectively balances performance, fuel cost and practicality to lead the pack.
Porsche is among the last automakers to offer a hybrid. The sports-car specialist feared heavy batteries and electric motors would rob its vehicles of the speed and agility that are their calling card. It sat on the sidelines while hundreds of thousands of hybrids sold.
Then somebody at Porsche headquarters in Zuffenhausen got a shock. Their fast, powerful vehicles wouldn't meet upcoming European and U.S. emissions and fuel-efficiency standards without electrification. Porsche got serious about hybrids fast.
The resulting Cayenne S hybrid SUV delivers the performance Porsche owners expect and the fuel efficiency the 21st century demands.
Prices for the 2011 Cayenne S hybrid start at $67,700. I tested a well-equipped model that stickered at $85,535. The 2012 model arriving in dealerships now starts at $69,000. It's virtually identical to the one I tested. All prices exclude destination charges.
The Cayenne S hybrid develops a maximum of 380 horsepower from a supercharged 3.0-liter V6, electric motor and nickel-metal hydride batteries. The hybrid powertrain also produces 427 pound-feet of torque at a so-low-you-think-it's-a-typo 1,000 rpm. All Cayennes come with all-wheel drive and an eight-speed automatic transmission.
The Cayenne S hybrid competes with other luxury SUVs that emphasize fuel economy in addition to power and comfort. The BMW X6 hybrid, Cadillac Escalade hybrid, Mercedes-Benz ML 250 Bluetec diesel and Volkswagen Touareg hybrid are prime competitors.
The Cayenne S hybrid accelerates to 60 mph in 6.1 seconds, has a top speed of 150 mph, can tow 7,716 pounds and scored EPA ratings of 20 mpg in the city, 24 on the highway and 21 mpg in combined driving.
None of those figures tops all the competitors, but their sum total is unbeatable. The Escalade hybrid and ML 350 diesel get the same or better fuel economy.
The X6 hybrid hits 60 mph in 5.4 seconds. The Touareg shares the Cayenne's drivetrain, engine, transmission, platform towing and EPA ratings, but lacks the Porsche's performance and luxury.
The Cayenne S hybrid is remarkably smooth and quiet on the highway and over bumpy surfaces.
This second-generation of Porsche's SUV shed about 400 pounds of curb weight. About 73 pounds of that came from ditching the two-speed transfer case that contributed to the first Cayenne's excellent off-road capability.
The new model's AWD system should be more than competent in snow and mud, but it's tuned more for performance and handling than rugged back-country conditions.
The AWD system and big, sticky tires on the Cayenne S hybrid I tested combined for exceptional stability and road-holding.
The roomy interior provides plenty of passenger and cargo space. Soft leather and tasteful brightwork decorate the interior.
The instruments and gauges are easy to read and use. The exceptions to that are frustrating, balky controls for hands-free phones and iPods.
Porsche has yet to offer voice-recognition commands for those functions, and its manual controls are a pain in the neck and a distraction when driving. The Cayenne lags far behind the competition in this area.
The hybrid system is unobtrusive and effective. The automatic engine shut-off when the Cayenne is stopped works flawlessly, restarting smoothly and immediately when I needed to accelerate.
The engine also shuts off and decouples from the transmission to save fuel when the Cayenne coasts at highway speeds -- "sailing," Porsche engineers call it.
When you drive with a light foot -- or when you push the button marked "E power," the Cayenne can run at up to 37 mph on battery power alone.
The electric motor complements the supercharged V6 to provide extra oomph for vigorous acceleration. The brakes are sure and firm.
The Cayenne S hybrid is larger and roomier than the previous model, but Porsche's designers kept it low and sleek, creating the visual impression of a smaller vehicle.
Porsche's first hybrid uses the latest technology to propel the brand's historic looks, character and performance into the future. I can't wait to see what's next.