The $100K SUV: A 'fearsome machine'
Porsche SUV sees impressive first-year sales
By John Tayman
(Business 2.0) -- Please sit and get comfortable, because we're going to talk about money. Specifically, we're going to talk about $100,000. It's for a car -- a sport-utility vehicle.
Actually, this SUV is only $96,000 and change, but as it manages 13 miles to the gallon, it's best to keep gas money on hand. Now, the sole reason this vehicle exists is that you might buy it. For $100K. And therein lies a story.
Last year roughly 90 percent of the profits of General Motors and Chrysler were generated by sales of their SUVs, although these rides account for only one of every four vehicles sold.
Such legerdemain is enabled by the margins on an SUV, especially on the luxed-up, leather-clad, elephantine ones, which can throw off $10,000 or even $15,000 in profit per vehicle. (Your average Saturn contributes about $300 to the corporate coffers.)
Porsche purists miffed
Flush with this bounty, large automakers become pirates, off to plunder whatever luckless non- SUV-producing small fry drifts into view. This is known among corporate types as mergers and acquisitions, and it somewhat explains how the executives of a legendary marque like Jaguar now find themselves reporting to a passel of smug Americans from suburban Detroit. Blimey.
Anyway, while all this was going on, the world's smallest truly independent car company took a peek into its garage and realized -- uh, oh -- that there were no SUVs in there. No wildly profitable terrain-tromping safeguards against a hostile takeover. And so it decided to build one. As Porsche's former North American CEO, Fred Schwab, explained to one reporter, that was the best way "to ensure our independence." And thus was born the luxed-up, leather-clad Porsche Cayenne. Mine was ebony-black.
And for a vehicle that no one actually asked for, it's pretty damn nice. Porsche purists -- they are legion -- are miffed about the Cayenne's existence, which they believe will drag the brand down to soccer-mom level, a mere cup holder away from dread minivan-dom.
They need not worry. The Cayenne is a fearsome machine -- one that can out-sports-car most sports cars and out-macho any other SUV. I had hold of the Cayenne Turbo, whose twin-turbocharged V-8 conjures 450 horsepower and a frightening yawp. Such oomph can goose the Cayenne's 5,600-pound bulk from idle to 60 in an extraordinary 5.6 seconds, and then keep blistering until you hit 165 mph. It's by far the fastest SUV on the market. Heaven help you.
Basically, Porsche sought to blunt criticism from the purists by smothering them with excess. The Cayenne, as mentioned, is faster than you need. It's far heavier than you need. It's more blissfully stable in every turn than you need, more comfortable than you need, and it can matter-of-factly ford a tumbling 22-inch-deep stream -- not that you'd ever have the need.
The technology aboard is not unique, in this land of Land Rovers and off-road Infinitis, but Porsche has managed to refine and deploy the systems with such seamless confidence that they feel revolutionary. The four-wheel drive is electronically controlled, able to swap power instantly from one axle to another, depending on where its sensors -- which monitor driver reaction, road speed and conditions, traction, and the like -- determine it is required.
Reduction gears smooth descents and ascents, and an adjustable air suspension can raise ground clearance almost a foot or automatically lower it depending on speed (above 130 mph, for instance, the Cayenne hunkers 1.5 inches below normal), all while working in tandem with damper controls to provide the perfect combo of ride and response.
Heading into a long climb up a slippery road above Calistoga, I thumbed the suspension to sport, dropped the level to low, and let the thing tuck into curves and roar back out. Ignore the fact that you're sitting high enough to scan the forest, ignore all the luggage in the rear and the panting dog in the back and the room for five adults, and you might be in a Boxster or a 911. Which is pretty much what the company wanted.
That, and those margins: Profits at Porsche have shot up 18 percent since the Cayenne was released, with the first year's model selling at a rate of 1,500 a month.
Is it worth it?
Which brings us back to the subject of money. (By the way, you can stand up now.) Is it worth the price of two Infiniti FX45s? Probably -- especially since the FX45 lags by a hundred horses and handles about half as well as the Cayenne (though it does have a nifty rearview camera, which, given the Infiniti's sight lines, you'll need).
Perhaps because of its cost, the Cayenne is certainly the most interesting Porsche ever constructed, tricked out with subtle and ever-surprising touches -- the bi-xenon headlamps, for instance, actually measure steering angle and speed, and then calculate the best illumination for cornering. The interior is gorgeous, the exterior is odd, the engine is remarkable, and the touch of the thing is insanely assured, no matter whether you're scofflawing at 100 mph on the freeway or rumbling over gulches trying to find a trailhead.
It was while doing the latter that I finally had my Porsche epiphany. We were climbing the mountain road to the squatters' shack where Robert Louis Stevenson spent two months for his honeymoon, the only affordable option "the penniless and dying author" had, as he wrote to a friend.
The newlyweds were to fish and hunt and eke out a retreat that summer of 1880, while Stevenson squirreled away his funds. I admit to feeling a momentary twinge of guilt as I wheeled my glowing $100,000 Porsche onto the site of such noble frugality.
Then the Cayenne's air suspension lowered itself to gentle my first step from the vehicle ... and suddenly the moment had passed.
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