This still feels like a contentious one, right? Despite the fact that everyone now makes an SUV, that Cayennes have always been really good and that many PHers own one, bestowing Hero status on Porsche's original 4x4 still feels like it might trigger a few. But if ever there was a time to properly appreciate the Cayenne’s significance, it was during its 20th anniversary year. And with the chance to drive a cool overland-spec version.
Calling the first generation ‘E1’ the saviour of Porsche is perhaps a stretch, but there's no doubt whatsoever that it was the catalyst for the manufacturer's dramatic expansion. Nowadays we associate Porsche with everything from LMDh racers to Formula E, and a 911 with almost a tonne of downforce and arguably the most desirable electric car in world. And it owns a bit of Bugatti. Its biggest market is currently China, which the Cayenne has helped facilitate - it proved beyond doubt there was demand or four-door Porsches, of which (let's not forget) there had never been one before this car. The idea to expand, which came as long ago as the 1990s, was a smart one. So the Panamera, Macan and Taycan followed in short order, and they’ve not done too badly either. The million-unit milestone was passed for the Cayenne back in 2020.
For some idea of how things have changed with the Cayenne leading the charge, you can consider the GT3. Back when the SUV was first launched in 2002, just 106 Gen 1 996 GT3s were supplied to the UK at the turn of the millennium. Now there are nearly that many 991 GT3s alone for sale on PH. The Cayenne, albeit not single-handedly, has pushed this kind of market presence along, with Porsche being able to broaden its offering to school-run mums and powerfully built company directors while keeping happy those who like flat sixes and manual gearboxes. Which is quite a neat (and profitable) trick to pull off, and a world away from the 996/986 duo that existed before this car’s introduction.
But there have been many profitable cars over the years that haven’t been worthy of acclaim. What made the Cayenne different - and what continues to mark it out, in fact - is just how capable it actually was. Air suspension, a fully locking centre diff, a low-range transfer box and variable four-wheel drive pointed to that. Contemporary reviews were astounded at how Porsche’s first attempt at the sports utility fad had so artfully combined off-road ability with properly sorted on-road dynamics. Clarkson himself suggested it was better off-road than on it, for some idea of just what had been achieved. And while it’s hard to move for fast SUVs today, the 450hp Cayenne Turbo was astounding when neither the BMW X5 nor Mercedes ML could muster more than 350hp. The Cayenne, no matter where its platform originated from, was a genuinely groundbreaking car. Now, maybe it wasn’t the ground that some wanted breaking in the early 2000s, but when you take into account all the things the Cayenne helped pay for, it’s hard to imagine many grumbling about where Porsche has ended up.
This Cayenne is not a Turbo, sadly, but rather an S that has been lightly overhauled by Porsche Classic in the UK to show what’s now possible with these cars. Just 12,000 miles old and freshly prepped for anniversary duties, it’s no surprise to find the old bus is a delight to drive. They undoubtedly aren’t all like this. If this is how factory-fresh cars felt 20 years ago, the adulation makes complete sense. Like a Cayenne now, in fact, it feels like a loftier Porsche rather than an SUV with sporting pretence. Accordingly, this just about feels related to the 911 and Boxster of the time. There’s the same clarity and precision to the steering (even allowing for the squidge of off-road tyres), the same clever heft to the controls, and the same enthusiasm and willingness from a great atmospheric engine. Though somewhat hamstrung by an old-school Tiptronic (wheel-mounted shift buttons and all) the 4.5-litre V8, newly developed for this installation, let's not forget, delivers a decent slug of torque all the way through the revs and still feels brisk enough charging past 6,000rpm. There’s even more Mad Max thunder in this one, too, with the stripped-out rear quarters, and that’s obviously great.
Furthermore, though this sounds crazy for a car almost 4.8 meters long and weighing two and a quarter tonnes, SUVs have evolved just like sports cars. So the first Cayenne seems almost wieldy and compact by 2022 standards. It’s shorter than a new M3 and only as wide as a Macan; combined with so much glass and accurate controls, it’s far easier to place on the road than might be thought, the very opposite of the vagueness you might associate with SUVs from a nascent era. Or perhaps expectations were low. You might even dare to call it enjoyable in a way, requiring a bit of patience but rewarding the effort. It’s balanced, too. Certainly, it’s easy to see why this felt so stupendously good two decades ago. The Cayenne just drives like a really well-sorted large car.
Still decent off-road, too, even if this car was equipped for a far sterner test than it was subjected to. There’s decent ground clearance, easy access to the locking diffs, and no untoward creaks or groans when off the beaten track. Course a Range Rover will go further down it than the Cayenne, but when the model is now better associated with the Turbo GT and E-Hybrid, it’s nice to know the Cayenne can rough it out when required.
All of this was true when the car was new, of course, but its appeal - to the wider car media, at least - was undermined by the styling. “I have seen more attractive gangrenous wounds than this”, concluded the Clarkson review. “Frankly, I’d rather walk back to the studio than drive another yard in it”, he added, just so the message got across. How times have changed, eh? Now the Cayenne’s ubiquity, and the drastic design evolution of the entire segment, make this first car look very ordinary indeed. Almost plain, really, with an unassuming silhouette and a face we’ve all gotten used to. Still wouldn’t call it a looker (when an original X5 looks better resolved by the day) but the Cayenne is no longer going to offend. Whatever you think of the Cayenne, or SUVs more generally, we can all agree that the industry has done far, far worse than this since 2002. Fortunately, too, this Cayenne is further proof of the theory that every SUV looks better kitted out for adventure. And it’s as deserving of wearing the gear as any G4 Land Rover or similar - don’t forget the Cayennes that were victorious in the Transsyberia Rally were S models.
Drives like a Porsche, sounds like a Porsche, wins like a Porsche - see? It’s easy to understand why the Cayenne is being so enthusiastically celebrated by its maker, even before considering the obvious commercial success. And while it’s never going to be the classic Porsche to tuck away and save for Sunday best, it’s easy to understand the appeal of a build like this particular car, maximising the off-road ability while keeping it usable (and enjoyable) on the road. And making it look cooler. All of which may well mean that there are more things to go wrong - but, let's face it, there plenty of less-than-perfect SUVs that have been loved and enjoyed before this. Moreover, there are seemingly presentable Cayennes out there at £5k. And if you still don’t like the looks, what better way to disguise it than mud up to the wing mirrors?
SPECIFICATION | PORSCHE CAYENNE S (E1)
Engine: 4,511cc, V8
Transmission: 6-speed auto, four-wheel drive
Power (hp): 340@6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 310@2,500-5,500rpm
0-62mph: 7.2 seconds
Top speed: 150mph
Weight: 2,245kg (DIN)
On sale: 2003-2009
Price new: £44,530 (2003)
Yours for: from £5k
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