After 20 years, is the Porsche Cayenne coming in from the cold?
You’d think that car enthusiasts would have moved on from the debate over Porsche building an SUV. Yet still, 20 years after the introduction of the Cayenne, there remains a divide among the purists and the pragmatists.
How dare Germany’s preeminent manufacturer of sports cars sell an SUV, goes the grumble. Stop moaning, say supporters—it’s kept Porsche in fine health, and have you even driven one?
Well, have you driven a Cayenne? Because soon after it was launched, at the 2002 Paris motor show, motoring journalists came to discover how, in typical Porsche fashion, the company had done the best job yet of putting the “sport” into the SUV.
[This story from Hagerty UK includes a few parts and service details specific to Britain, but the thrust of the Cayenne’s strengths and weaknesses as a potential collector apply just as well here in North America. On with the story. -EW]
Porsche went public with its plans to build an SUV, known as Project Colorado, in 1998. Emerging from a fallow period, in the early to mid ’90s, where annual global sales had tumbled to just 14,362 cars, Porsche had seen great success in introducing the Boxster and Cayman, and sharing R&D and componentry with the 996-generation 911.
The board wanted to maintain that momentum and called for another addition to the family. “A stool is more stable on three legs than just two,” was the message that was passed down to Hans-Jürgen Wöhler, former Vice President of Porsche’s SUV product line.
A two-door sports car of any guise was ruled out. The company had been badly burnt by the 928 saga, after all. Research showed that the 4×4 market was maturing into something altogether more sophisticated, but Porsche didn’t want to risk going it alone, so it agreed to share the burden of developing a new model range together with Volkswagen.
“It was a bold decision to build an SUV at the end of the 1990s,” observes Wöhler, “but this decision meant that Porsche was able to surpass all expectations just a short time later,” recounts the 63-year-old. “Ferry Porsche once said that if we would build an off-road vehicle in line with our quality concepts, it would certainly sell.” How right he was.
Back in 2002 it seemed like the end of the Porsche world, to many of its faithful followers. Yet history shows Porsche was way ahead of the game; today, every other premium sports car manufacturer has an SUV in its range. Even Ferrari has one in the offing and Lotus has shifted straight from Emira to SUV Eletre. The SUV jumped from niche to mainstream a long time ago.
But to rewind, what was the point of a large, tall and heavy, four-wheel-drive family car that could give a sports car a run for its money on road, and tackle more than enough challenges off-road to impress all but the hardened off-roader? To many, this new approach didn’t compute. Despite the “Sport” bit in SUV, no manufacturer had actually attempted to build something that lived up to the SUV pretension, whatever that may be. Besides, ‘Sport’ implied some sort of perceived lifestyle, not actual on/off road performance, or handling. It was the question that no one had asked, but the answer—quite quickly—was something everybody wanted, Porsche or otherwise.
Porsche’s answer was really quite beguiling. In ultimate, 450-hp, twin-turbo, 175-mph spec, the Cayenne Turbo was just outrageous. As in outrageously good and outrageously good fun. Porsche made sure that it would perform as well off the beaten track as a Range Rover, while on road it defied size and logic. And on the track? It would lap the Nürburgring very nearly as fast as a 911 (and probably rode the curbs better).
To drive it was to understand it. This was a whole new way of going effortlessly fast, while imperiously elevated above the mere and the mortal at ground level. To an extent, this wasn’t entirely new, given the roads were full of plodding Troopers, Land Cruisers, and Range Rovers. However, the Cayenne shook things up and we should be thankful. Sure, you could argue that BMW got there first with the X5, but by comparison, even the acclaimed X5 couldn’t stand up to scrutiny when it came to pure and simple driving pleasure.
So is the Cayenne now—whisper it—a modern-era classic car worthy of celebration? The point is becoming hard to argue with. Porsche went for maximum launch impact, with the Cayenne Turbo, but the mainstream model was always going to be the 4.5-liter, 345-hp, V-8 Cayenne, which followed soon after. A 3.2-liter V-6 with 250 hp also featured, and while Porsche vowed it would never build a diesel, it did (until VW’s Diesel scandal).
Porsche didn’t just get it in the neck for having the temerity to look into the future and build the Cayenne, it also got royally castigated for building an SUV that was considered pug-ugly too. But was it? Is it? Again, and with tinfoil hats on, we’d suggest, 20 years on, that the big old barge with a nose inspired by the 911 Turbo (996), is nothing like as offensive as it may have been at its introduction. The lines penned by Harm Lagaaij (chief designer at the time) are aging better than many may have expected.
Porsche couldn’t build the Cayenne fast enough, while also pointing out that it was the Cayenne that was effectively keeping the sports cars afloat. Cash Cow? More like a Cash Pig.
So, the question has to be: Do you want one? If the early Range Rover is anything to judge by, anyone setting out to buy themselves a Cayenne should hunt out a pre-facelift “955” (Gen 1).
There are some caveats to consider. Firstly, there are some real clunkers out there, and plenty that have been scrapped because they’re beyond economic repair. It’s the old adage: Just because you can afford to buy one, can you afford to run one? But on the flip side, you’re not going to buy a clunker, are you? You’re going to buy the best you can afford. And if you’re going to be a bear, you’re going to be a grizzly bear and buy a Cayenne Turbo, right? Well, by all means swallow the brave pill, but hand on beating heart, we can’t recommend the Turbo, simply because of its complexity. If stuff like air suspension and twin turbos on a 20-year old car doesn’t put you off, then you are made of stern stuff, indeed.
Likewise, the 3.2-liter gas V-6 might seem kind of enticing, but in reality, it has to be worked hard, and the upshot is economy that isn’t much—if any—better than either of the V-8s. The Cayenne Turbo which will pull 457 lb-ft at 2250rpm. And as we’re talking torque, the V-6 manages a frankly feeble 229 lb-ft at 2500 rpm, against the 310 lb-ft at 2500 rpm of the V-8 S.
In case you haven’t guessed, it’s the V-8 S that is the Cayenne sweet spot. It has the V-8 vibe, but crucially it is relatively simple to maintain and isn’t overburdened with electro-mechanical trickery. And being steel sprung means there is no air suspension to go wrong.
The V8 S is a tough old bus. It has its issues like any other Porsche, or once-expensive SUV for that matter, but the bad news always rises in internet forums. In reality, there is no killer blow that will put one out of action, just a steady accumulation of neglect and abuse as they fall down the food chain.
Running a car like a Cayenne will never be cheap per se, but on the plus side, you don’t need to have an account at your local Porsche dealer for servicing or parts. It is a conventional wagon in every sense, well within the skill remit of the local garage or even home mechanic, and there is little that cannot be bought online. Oh, and don’t forget, there’s a lot of VW Touareg/Audi Q7 cross-over too.
Prices? In the U.S., we would say that $5000 is a bare minimum for a rough V8 S and $9000 is a realistic starting point for a good useable example, with the back-up of major maintenance.
James Ruppert, the founding father of Bangernomics, is an evangelical advocate of cost-neutral motoring, and also happens to be a Cayenne owner. Specifically a 2005 Cayenne V8 S owner of four years, which is plenty long enough to form an opinion and/or experience any mechanical dramas. So firstly Cayenne: Classic or cool? “I think it’s a good-looking car, but then I would say that. Cool? Why not? It’s certainly the first of its kind. I’ve had X5s and the Cayenne is a very different proposition. It really can do it all. Oh, and I’ve had a Discovery, that really was a shocker and it died a horrible death!”
Ruppert paid £6000 for the family Cayenne (or The Flying Pig, as it is affectionately known) and has put 25,000 miles on it, taking it to 115,000 miles. He reckons it’s still worth £6K now, which is after all one of the principles of depreciation-proof cars, not to be confused with cheap. “You’ve got to be realistic,” he says. “You need a contingency of say, £1K a year to be safe. Not that it’s cost a lot, but right now 20 mpg, with fuel prices as they are, does sting. Good job I’ve got a classic Mini too.”
Aside from consumables, Ruppert’s Cayenne has suffered from one of the major, well-documented Cayenne issues: “The plastic water pipes that run through the vee of the engine are prone to age and leaking. There is a metal replacement pipe kit/fix. My local garage did the work. It’s a biggish job, but not a Cayenne extinction event, although Rob at the garage did say something along the lines of: “That was a horrible job. Hated it. Glad I did, so that if anyone asks me to do it again, I can say no.” All in, that wiped out the 2020 contingency, but otherwise it all been about consumables and a single, solitary suspension arm.”
John Glynn echoes the view of Ruppert that an early Cayenne could be a smart buy. Glynn, of Classic Car Valuations Expert, has run his 2004 Cayenne V8 S for six years and 60,000 miles. What does Glynn believe is the secret to hassle-free Porsche Cayenne ownership? “Go for a simple spec. You want steel springs, and 18-inch wheels, then the tires are not silly expensive. And besides, it rides better. It’s been a great car, and they’re not too complicated compared to anything current. Fast, comfortable, the kids love it, and it will tow anything, like a trailer with ton of bricks in it, no problem. Or a Porsche GT3 rally car to Monte Carlo!”
Come again? “Richard Tuthill is a mate and a few years back he was doing the Monte, in the Tuthill-developed WRC GT3. The service van croaked the day before the team was due to drive to Monte Carlo, so I lobbed them the keys to the Cayenne. It got them out of a hole and won over a load of new fans.” Can’t argue with that.
Any issues? “It’s mainly been consumables and routine servicing, but yep there has been one biggie.” Go on, we’re all ears … “The auto box developed a fault in that it wouldn’t shift from fourth, fifth to sixth. The valve body that operates the final three ratios needed replacing. But the good thing is, there’s nothing complicated about the auto box (which is shared with the VW Touareg and Audi Q7), it’s just a simple Japanese Aisin Warner unit. Reconditioned valve bodies are widely available. Transmission tech in Solihull fixed mine for £1250. I’ve since sent countless people there.”
So, there you have it. The Porsche Cayenne at 20 years old. A classic SUV? Well, why not? Worthy of celebration? We think so. And if it were any other Porsche, then its 20-year birthday would be front page news. They’ll be celebrating in Stuttgart, mind, especially the finance department.
As the transition to electric power takes a hold, anyone in need of a tough, affordable workhorse that will exceed expectations on the road and tow laden trailers or caravans with ease—a task that decimates the range of an electric car—should take note.
The Cayenne has played a hugely significant role in Porsche’s history, and early, original examples of the German SUV may well come to be in more demand than any of its early critics could have imagined.