The Porsche Cayenne broke with over half a century’s worth of tradition when it launched in 2002. Two decades on, how far has it come?
Before 2002, Porsche made sports cars. This was an absolute truth. Everything the company had ever built in its then 54-year history of making cars had been low-slung and had two doors.
Even when, with 1976’s 924, Porsche first strayed from its established formula of air-cooled boxer engines mounted behind the driver, some of the brand’s hardcore fans were upset. So you can imagine the outrage when, in 2002, a pair of headlights aping the then-current 911’s ‘fried egg’ units appeared on the front of a hulking SUV weighing comfortably more than two tonnes.
It seems silly 20 years later – it’s often said that Porsche is an SUV manufacturer that happens to sell sports cars – but when the Cayenne launched, there was uproar. Porsche couldn’t make an SUV – it made lithe, lightweight sports cars, not five-door, two-tonne monsters.
Porsche was a business, though, and the rationale was very simple. Before the Cayenne, Porsche’s range consisted of two models: the perennial 911, and the Boxster that had pulled the firm back from the brink of bankruptcy in the 1990s. While Porsche was out of those woods, it was clear that a two-model line-up wouldn’t be sustainable and a real money-maker was needed.
Witnessing the boom in SUV ownership in North America in the late ’90s, Porsche, together with parent company Volkswagen, saw an opportunity and seized it. Two decades later, the fact is this: essentially every limited-run, high-performance Porsche sports car that’s been made since 2002 can credit the Cayenne’s runaway success with its existence. With no Cayenne (and its smaller Macan brother), there would most likely have been no Carrera GT, no 911 R, no 718 GT4 RS – maybe even no GT3.
Porsche was the first to tap into the performance luxury SUV sector that can now count Ferrari, Lamborghini, Aston Martin, Maserati and even Lotus amongst its entrants, and the Cayenne is now into its third generation. A particularly cold and grimy winter day spent on the moors of County Durham is a demonstration of how little, and yet how much, has changed during its 20 years on sale.
The first thing you’ll note is that the first-generation Cayenne in these images isn’t standard. Before SUVs and crossovers became the incredibly common sight they are now, it was still considered important that the first Cayenne had genuine off-road ability.
To that end, an optional off-road package brought skid plates and a locking rear diff. This car, though, an S model from 2005, has been taken further by Porsche Classic, the brand’s in-house heritage specialists. The wheels and rock rails are genuine Porsche parts, while the aftermarket has been raided for the all-terrain tyres, spotlights, and roof rack, complete with overland gubbins. It probably wouldn’t compete with a Land Cruiser or a Wrangler on the trails of Moab, but it has no issues dispatching a heavily rutted and potholed green lane on our test route.
On the road is where it impresses most, even today. As a Cayenne S, it features a 4.5-litre, 340bhp V8. That 340bhp is one of those numbers that sounds small in today’s context, but it’s an eager, responsive and charismatic engine that provides more than enough shove to haul the Cayenne along, with a pleasingly gentle V8 rumble in the background.
It’s a car that feels most comfortable at a relaxed lope rather than at nine-tenths. The early Tiptronic gearbox is slow to react, and the steering is light, but still accurate and responsive. Even on these knobbly, thick-sidewalled tyres, however, the whole car is imbued with an agility that still feels impressive now, and must have been revelatory for a car of this stature and mass in 2002.
The newer, grey car is a very different story. Look at the details: there are smatterings of carbon fibre everywhere, including those peculiar endplates that adorn the roof spoiler. Those huge, 22-inch gold alloys are wrapped in racy Pirelli P-Zero Corsas. The interior appears to be home to a small nation’s supply of Alcantara. This is the Cayenne Turbo GT, and was introduced in 2021 as one of the most hardcore SUVs ever built.
If the original Cayenne was an affront to the purists, then those two little letters tagged onto the end of the Turbo GT’s name could be the last straw for some. The GT badge is a particularly hallowed one amongst the Porschisti, signifying the most extreme derivatives of the brand’s cars. Once again, though, they should probably grin and bear it. The Turbo GT is a revelation.
Though separated by only one other generation, and using the same fundamental recipe of a V8 and a Tiptronic automatic gearbox, switching from the old car to the new is startling. The gearbox has gained another two ratios and paddles in place of the wheel-mounted buttons of old, and the V8 is now the 4.0-litre twin-turbocharged unit fitted to everything from the Audi RS6 to the Lamborghini Urus.
It’s not the most powerful Cayenne (that would be the Turbo S e-Hybrid), but 632bhp still propels it to 60mph in 3.3 seconds. Instead, Porsche have focused their efforts into making the Turbo GT handle in a way that comes close to defying physics.
It’s applied every possible bit of weight-mitigating technology to this car, with the usual bewildering array of initialisms – PASM, PDCC and PTV Plus all feature here. It would take an entirely separate article to explain what they all do, but the net product is an SUV that behaves like a giant, V8-powered rally car. It displays a sure-footedness and agility that requires some mental recalibration when sitting this high up.
As you twist the little drive mode selector up from Normal to Sport Plus, each level uncorks a new layer of naughtiness from the exhaust and tautness from the air suspension until the car becomes an unstoppable cross-country machine.
It avoids falling into the trap of point-to-point pace being its entire personality, however. Porsche has honed electric power steering systems to the point that they’re beautifully talkative, and the Turbo GT moves around beneath you in a playful yet predictable way.
Driving the Turbo GT, it feels as if the idea of the fast SUV has crossed a horizon that it’s been sailing towards for the last couple of decades. It’s so bafflingly quick and capable that anything beyond this seems like total overkill. In all likelihood, things will continue to get quicker, especially as electrified drivetrains become more commonplace, but we can look back at the Turbo GT as a moment when the SUV did one of its most convincing impressions of an out-and-out sports car.
More importantly, it’s a demonstration of what Porsche’s been able to achieve with two decades of SUVs. Before the Cayenne, the notion that a massive SUV would not only wear a Porsche badge, but drive like a Porsche, was unthinkable, but it seems so very normal today. And for the diehards? Well, Porsche still makes sports cars. And that’s probably thanks to the Cayenne.