The Cayenne is an object of desire the world over, but can Porsche's sporting makeover win over the speed demons? John Simister coos through the corners...


Model: Porsche Cayenne GTS
Price: from 54,350. On sale February
Engine: 4,806cc, V8 cylinders, 32 valves, 405bhp at 6,500rpm, 369lb ft at 3,500rpm
Transmission: six-speed manual or auto, four-wheel drive
Performance: (manual) 157mph, 0-62mph in 6.1sec, 18.7mpg official average;
C02: 361g/km

As a reader of this newspaper, you are likely to align yourself with its views. These views may well include a conviction that SUVs are Bad Things. In a better world, they would have little purpose, you might think, and only exist in the numbers they do because their owners perceive the world to be a threatening place.

And a Porsche SUV... why, the very notion seems oxymoronic. You want to design a Porsche that's fast, looks racy and is fun to drive? Well, I wouldn't start from here if I were you. But the reality isn't quite so glib in its telling, for two reasons.

Reason one is that the Cayenne is, in Porsche's words, a cash cow for the company. Wealthy people in developing markets such as Russia, China, the Middle East and Latin America crave a Cayenne above all other Porsches. It has made Porsche a very profitable company, so much so that it was able to buy a stake in Volkswagen.

Reason two? That hinges on the new Cayenne GTS you see here, based on the S model that is the entry point to a range itself recently revised. So, like the Cayenne S, the GTS lacks the turbocharging of the fastest, thirstiest Cayennes. Is this a niche-filling too far? Porsche says there is demand for a "sportier" S at a price point below that of the Turbo, and at 54,350 the GTS saves you more than 20,000. Which, as we shall see, makes the Turbo a pretty pointless indulgence.

Cayennes are, in fact, very capable off-road, even possessing a low-ratio gear set, but hardly any are thus used. So the GTS is designed with "sporting" on-road use in mind. Even the rear seats accommodate two passengers in "exceptionally sporting style", it says here. You can squeeze in a third, though, if you must.

This sporting makeover manifests itself in manifold ways, one of which is the inlet manifold of the 4.8-litre, direct-injection V8 engine. Its freer breathing ability and enlarged throttle help raise power to 405bhp, while peak torque remains at 369lb ft, reached at 3,500rpm.

Then there's the transmission, which has shorter-legged overall gearing for keener acceleration. The engine is turning 15 per cent more quickly than in the Cayenne S in a given gear at a given road speed, which you would think might damage an already considerable fuel thirst. In fact, the damage is only 0.3mpg, according to the official "combined-cycle" figures. Worth putting up with? We'll find out in a minute.

You might have noticed that this Cayenne doesn't loom quite as tall as normal it sits about an inch lower than a Cayenne S. The springs are a little stiffer, too, be they the standard steel coil springs or the optional air springs. The latter have always included an active damping system, but for the GTS this so-called Porsche Active Suspension Management now comes with the steel springs, too. You don't get the clever system found with the air suspension, which automatically resists body lean, but with the lower stance and stiffer springs it might not be needed, anyway.

Delving further into Cayenne minutiae, the GTS gets the Turbo face with its giant, aggressive air intakes, plus a spoiler above the rear window and lips on the wheelarches to shield the enormous 21in wheels. All this Porsche go-faster stuff... I have to kick myself to remember that it's still an SUV.

The memory comes back as I climb up into the driving seat, an action you would not undertake in a low-slung Cayman or 911. I'm struck, again, by the inherent daftness of a car like this, but then I start the engine and the blattery rumble of a potent V8 causes sensation to trump sense for a moment.

This GTS has manual transmission, something very few Cayenne owners have experienced to date. ("What, spend all that money and change gear myself? You must be joking.") And it has the steel springs, so altogether it is the cheapest version of a GTS. So it's especially pleasing that straight away it feels far more engaging and far more enjoyable than any other Cayenne I have driven to date.

I drove a steel-sprung Cayenne S five years ago, and recommended then that a buyer should opt for the air suspension to avoid blurred vision and crushed vertebrae. Much has happened beneath the wheelarches since then, because the GTS is smooth, disciplined and almost supple. Yet it steers with a mechanical precision almost never encountered in an SUV, and leans very little in corners despite the lack of a magic lean-prevention system.

I learn from an engineer during a slalom test, which the GTS performs with scarcely credible nimbleness, that it can generate a cornering force of up to 0.85g before gradually drifting wide of the cornering line. It doesn't threaten to fall over, it doesn't even feel top-heavy; it just sits firmly and squarely on the road, behaving as if it weighed half of its two-and-a-quarter-tons. It feels a bit more aloof in comfort mode, while sport mode shows the law of diminishing returns in the way the ride gets worse more than the responses get sharper. It's fine in normal, most of the time.

A clich of car punditry is that the rear-engined Porsche 911 has become "a triumph of development over design": it has been made to work far better than the inherent snags of its rear-engined, tail-heavy layout should allow. Exactly the same truism applies to the Cayenne GTS. It simply does not feel like an SUV, more a good GT car in which you happen to be sitting high.

The engine and transmission help the notion along, for the V8 sounds as great as a hot V8 should when roused it runs all the way to 6,700rpm and you can press another button to make the accelerator's response even keener. It can get to 62mph in 6.1 seconds, by the way.

And, heavy clutch action aside, the six-speed manual transmission lets you explore the GTS's mechanical personality in a way you never can with an automatic not even a Porsche Tiptronic with its paddle-shifters, because the gearshifts just aren't quick enough or satisfying enough.

After this GTS, I drove one with air suspension and the Tiptronic. It was much less pleasing, because the more expensive suspension spoils the sharpness and immediacy of the responses and the transmission does the same. From driving a car that felt tangibly Porsche-like, I was back in a risible SUV.

Against all instincts, I really enjoyed that manual, steel-sprung GTS. It's the best SUV I have ever driven. Pity, then, that hardly anyone will buy a Cayenne in that form. More fool them.

The Rivals

Lexus RX400h SE 40,310

The only way to attempt green credentials while owning an SUV. Has a V6 front engine and electric rear motor; in theory, almost frugal.

Range Rover Sport 4.2 HSE 57,750

Polar opposite of the Lexus, it uses a 385bhp V8 and is the best-selling Range Rover Sport. Favoured by bling-lovers, too firm over bumps.

BMW X5 4.8i M Sport 53,440

Second-generation X5 is biased to on-road use, has powerful 350bhp V8 engine, feels great to drive but offers less than the Porsche overall.

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