The crossover SUV has completely revolutionized the previously stagnant car industry. Particularly in the United States, all areas of the country are buying crossovers as quickly as the automakers can produce them.
Hell, crossovers have even been enough to keep Mitsubishi alive, and considering their current product offerings that really says something.
They’ve become so popular because they combine the practicality of the old fashioned body-on-frame SUVs with the comfort and efficiency of traditional passenger cars like sedans.
Buyers like All-Wheel Drive, they like the taller ride height, and they like the cargo capacity that comes from a rear hatch.
CUVs have come to dominate the landscape, partially because most CUV buyers have convinced themselves that they need one. I think this is nonsense. In general, people don’t buy the car that they need; they buy the car that they want. While there are plenty of people that do in fact need a CUV, the remainder (and majority) of buyers simply attempt to rationalize buying the car they want by claiming they need one for silly reasons.
Regardless, people are usually willing to pay a premium for convenience, and that’s exactly what CUVs are – a convenience.
Personally, I don’t care for CUVs very much. There’s a time and a place for them, but in general I think that they are overwhelmingly and catastrophically boring. They are duller than a 45-minute lecture on the cultural significance of the disposable napkin. They all look alike to me, and are usually heavy, slow, and consequently don’t drive very well.
But who would think that after all of this, one of the only examples of a crossover that cuts through all of this dreariness and drives with even a modicum of sporty intentions would be one of the first crossover SUVs to ever exist.
Enter, the Porsche Cayenne. In the late 1990s, Porsche was financially struggling. Porsche had already well established themselves as one of the titans of the sports car industry, but their sales were declining. Their new Boxster roadster was helping a little, but it simply wasn’t bringing in enough cash to keep the company going.
With their backs against the wall, they made one final Hail Mary attempt to turn things around by doing something totally different. Porsche made an SUV. And in 2002, they debuted the brand new Porsche Cayenne, and it was a huge success.
To the rest of the world it seemed like the bosses at Porsche had completely lost their minds, for a couple reasons.
First, Porsche was a sports car company. For their entire history they made almost exclusively sports cars and grand touring cars. Coming out with an SUV made Porsche purists scream bloody murder.
Second, and more importantly, the design was…odd. Almost no one described the car as beautiful. Porsche did their best to translate some of the styling elements from that period’s 911 to the Cayenne, such as the fried egg headlights, but it largely missed the mark. As Car and Driver once quipped, it looked like “a 911 that was rear-ended by a Country Squire.”
But, as controversial as the styling was, in hindsight we know that what Porsche had created was a crossover SUV. In fact, it was one of the first crossovers we had ever seen, and was one of the cars that lead the whole CUV movement. It might have had a few differences from modern CUVs, such as locking differentials, low-range gearing, and a 7,700 lb towing capacity, but it kick-started the evolution.
Fast-forward to the present, and the Cayenne remains a staple in Porsche’s lineup. It performed so well in sales that it saved the brand and allowed them to continue making the sports cars we all know and love.
I got an opportunity to drive a Cayenne for the first time on a recent trip to San Francisco, as a rental car through Turo (it’s like Airbnb, but for cars). The car I drove was a 2013 Cayenne S, which places it in the middle of the Cayenne’s second generation. The ‘S’ trim takes the base Cayenne and upgrades it with a sportier package, including a more powerful 4.8L V8 engine with 400 hp 369 ft-lbs of torque.
Porsche ever so slightly refined the look of the second generation of the Cayenne, and I think it lost some of the frumpy styling from the first generation. I still can’t say that it’s a pretty car, but it’s definitely a lot less heinous.
This particular rental had about 80,000 miles on it, and after driving it I was incredibly impressed with how solid the car still felt at that mileage (especially for a rental). Everything about the car was equipped with the stereotypically exceptional German build quality.
Looking at the interior, it’s clearly been built to be roomy and comfortable. Unfortunately though, this was part of the era of Porsche interior design in which they made a button for everything, and scattered them across the center stack. The industry has gone the opposite direction as of late with fewer buttons and more infotainment integration, so it looks dated now.
When it came time to drive it, I think the first thing that surprised me was how big the car was. It may only be a 5-seater, but you feel a commanding presence driving it down the road.
But the thing that sets the Cayenne apart from its competition is the way it handles its size. It might weigh in at over 4,500 lbs, but this is one of those SUVs that will shock you. In a way that only Porsche could manage, they gave this car better turn-in response and more responsive steering than even some dedicated sports cars.
The engine is strong but it isn’t blisteringly quick, so I would imagine that the S trim is a worthwhile upgrade over the base model’s 300 hp V6. It provides plenty of pickup for passing and is generally enjoyable for spirited driving. The throttle response is sharp, and it really is just a pleasure to drive (I don’t think I’ve ever said that about an SUV before).
While the performance numbers from the Cayenne certainly won’t blow anyone away, it’s just an all around good car. That’s why I think that specifically this year and model – the 2013 Cayenne S – is the sweet spot for used CUVs.
The S trim for the Cayenne fits somewhere between the bottom end base model and the super-hot Cayenne Turbo. This specific car is about 6 years old now, so it has fallen most of the way down the depreciation curve but isn’t quite to the point where you might be getting a junker.
At this mileage and timeframe, you can find a used Cayenne S from $21k-$28k no problem. Compare that to $30k-$38k for an equivalent Cayenne Turbo or $20k-$23k for an equivalent base model. Upgrading from the base model to the S trim is a relatively small jump for a big gain in performance, but going further to the even more desirable Turbo requires a much deeper dive into your pocketbooks.
Now some people might be extremely cautious in buying a Porsche with 80,000 miles on it, and for good reason. Maintenance and repairs on Porsche cars are notoriously expensive compared to more budget-minded brands. However, Porsche sets itself apart from the other German manufacturers due to the fact that they’re generally regarded as reliable. The Cayenne follows this idea well, especially in the second generation, when problems from the early first gen Cayenne had long since been worked out.
When repairs do pop up, they will obviously be more expensive, as will routine maintenance. But if you can stomach that, you’ll probably find that the car won’t be in the shop as often as you might expect.
As with all cars, the less complicated the car is, the less there is to go wrong, which further supports shooting for a lower-end model such as the Cayenne S (especially since it doesn’t have the problematic air suspension that comes on the Turbo).
In total, if you’re looking for a satisfying fix for the CUV doldrums, a used Porsche Cayenne S might just do the trick. Just because you need something practical doesn’t mean it can’t be fun.