With the differentials locked and the suspension raised to its highest position, we crank the steering wheel to the left lock stop and accelerate toward the steep incline that's hidden around the corner. “Just look where you want to go, and stay on the gas,” driving instructor Violetta Weykopf insists from the passenger seat. The 19-inch all-season tires dig into the sandy hill, the windshield fills with sky, and sure enough we scramble our way to the top. Then Weykopf directs us to use the car's hill-descent control to scrabble down a rocky slope at a carefully judged 8 km/h (5 mph), before she sends us blasting around a twisting dirt course, and finally splashing through 16 inches of muddy water.
We accomplish this stretch of the Les Comes off-road park not in a Land Rover, a Jeep, or a toughened Toyota pickup, but in a 2015 Porsche Cayenne, ensconced in 18-way power leather seats and with the cabin air-conditioned to 68 degrees. Porsche knows very few owners actually subject their Cayennes to this sort of treatment, but it's a very impressive feat for a luxurious SUV that can also hit 173 mph on pavement.
A subtle new look
All the dust and mud caked on our 2015 Porsche Cayenne from that exercise obscures the changes applied to the car for the new model year. The nip-tuck is meant to make the Cayenne look wider and more powerful, but it's a pretty subtle revision. Note that lines and strakes on the hood angle outward, the center grille opening is smaller, and new “airblades” at the outer air inlets help channel cooling air to the intercoolers. The spoiler is now flush with the roofline, the taillights are restyled and have a four-dot light pattern that mimics the four-point LED running lights out front, the crease above the license-plate recess is sharper, and the exhaust tips are reshaped on all models.
Bi-xenon headlights, stainless-steel doorsill plates, and a power liftgate are now standard, and a new three-spoke steering wheel loosely resembles the one from the 918 Spyder hypercar. A new button in the cargo area on models with air suspension controls a kneeling function that drops the car's liftover height by 2 inches to 27.2 inches. The rear seats gain an optional cooling function and have been softened for improved comfort.
Another big change concerns the engine under the hood of the 2015 Porsche Cayenne S. A twin-turbo 3.6-liter V-6 replaces a 4.8-liter V-8, improving both power -- by 20 hp and 37 lb-ft -- and fuel economy. It will hit 60 mph in 5.1 seconds and crack 160 mph on the autobahn.
On the winding two-lane roads from Barcelona to Les Comes, the V-6 proves to be plenty of engine for the Cayenne. It might not be as sonorous as the eight-cylinder, but the new engine pulls with a smoothness and enthusiasm that belies the fact it is bolstered by two turbochargers. Use the paddles to keep the car in second gear through a tight corner, stand on the accelerator and power into third gear down the brief straight, then mash the brakes and tug the left paddle again to ready for the next sharp bend. We make pretty swift progress, even considering our prudently slow speeds through the turns where the Cayenne takes up 60 percent the width of this rural road.
The standard eight-speed automatic transmission does a commendable job of shifting smoothly around town and responding to clicks of the large paddle shifters when we're hustling. Although we wish the Cayenne had the snappy PDK dual-clutch offered in other Porsches, including the Panamera and the Macan, a Porsche engineer suggests over dinner that a torque-converter automatic is better suited to the towing and off-roading duties often required of the Cayenne.
How about more power?
The 2015 Porsche Cayenne Turbo's V-8 carries over but small changes yield that additional 20 hp and 37 lb-ft of torque. Not that such a small bump in power is noticeable atop the boosted V-8's already prolific levels of thrust. This much acceleration is a waste on Spain's freeways, where a 120 km/h (75 mph) speed limit barely lets us scratch the surface of the Cayenne Turbo's 173-mph capability. We lock the suspension in Sport Plus to set the air springs and active antiroll bars as firm as possible, and the setting keeps this big SUV level as a sports car no matter how hard we brake for and whip around the switchbacks that lead between tiny Spanish villages.
The Cayenne Turbo is heroically, stupidly, unbelievably fast. Unnecessarily fast? Just as when we drove a Porsche Panamera Turbo, we can't help but think the twin-turbo V-8 engine is overkill outside the autobahn network. The standard Cayenne S has so much low-end torque that it feels just as quick as the Turbo in real-world driving, and we'd be happier with the V-6's lower price and fuel consumption, too.
The eco options
Although we suspect it is rarely a key purchase factor for a vehicle like this, you can choose from two fuel-efficient alternatives of the 2015 Porsche Cayenne. The first is the $62,695 Cayenne Diesel, which carries over its 3.0-liter turbodiesel V-6, rated 240 hp and 406 lb-ft. EPA fuel economy has not been confirmed for any 2015 Porsche Cayenne, but last year the diesel model was rated 20/29/23 mpg (city/highway/combined).
New to the lineup is the S E-Hybrid plug-in. Just as in the Porsche Panamera S E-Hybrid, a 3.0-liter supercharged V-6 works with an electric motor and a lithium-ion battery pack. The engine and motor combine for a total of 416 hp and 435 lb-ft, while fully charging the 10.8-kWh battery gives an estimated all-electric driving range of 11 to 22 miles at speeds up to 78 mph. The S E-Hybrid debuts publicly at the Paris auto show in early October and goes on sale in the U.S. in early 2015 for $77,395.
Same as before -- and that's a good thing
This midcycle update does not radically transform the Porsche Cayenne, but the changes are welcome nonetheless. The new V-6 engine in the Cayenne S increases fuel economy without affecting performance, and adding more standard equipment to the mix helps the pricey SUV seem like it’s a slightly better value for money. Just as with last year's model, the 2015 Porsche Cayenne excels because it impresses in many ways. It's luxurious, it drives better than anyone expects of an SUV, and we found it can even bound across a rocky off-road course. No wonder the Cayenne prints money for Porsche, remaining the company's top-selling model month after month.
2015 Porsche Cayenne S, Turbo
On sale:November 2014
Base price:$75,095/$114,595 (S/Turbo)
Engines:3.6-liter twin-turbo DOHC 24-valve twin-turbo V-6/420 hp @ 6000 rpm, 406 lb-ft @ 1350-4000 rpm; 4.8-liter twin-turbo DOHC 32-valve twin-turbo V-8/520 hp @ 6000 rpm, 553 lb-ft at 2250-4000 rpm
Layout:4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, all-wheel-drive SUV
Suspension, f/r:Control arms, coil springs/multilink, coil springs (Cayenne S); control arms, air springs/multilink, air springs (Cayenne Turbo, opt. on S)
L x W x H:191.1 x 78.7 x 67.0-67.4 in
Cargo Capacity (seats up/down):23.7/60.2-62.9 cu-ft (Turbo, S)
Weight:4597/4817 lb (S/Turbo)
0-60 mph:5.2/4.2 sec (S/Turbo)
Top speed:160/173 mph (S/Turbo)
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