NEW YORK – Leaping forward in the first quarter with a sales volume that is 26.3% higher than year-ago, Porsche Cars of North America Inc. is attracting plenty of new buyers with its Cayenne cross/utility vehicle, the importer’s top executive says.

PCNA sold 9,117 vehicles in the first quarter, about one-third of them Cayennes. Three versions of the CUV are offered, with the V-6 model accounting for 20% of sales, the base V-8 drawing 60% of buyers and the flagship turbocharged V-8 making up the remainder.

Transaction prices average $50,000 for the V-6, $62,000 for the V-8 and $100,000 for the turbo model.

“I don’t think we can maintain 26% (annual) growth,” PCNA President Peter Schwarzenbauer says of the current overall sales pace. But he predicts a double-digit volume increase this year.

“It depends on the general economy,” he says in an interview at the auto show here. His best forecast, he says, calls for an economic environment in 2006 that “will not be great, but OK.”

“Fuel prices play a very small role (in determining demand for Porsche’s products),” Schwarzenbauer says. “It’s more psychological than economic.”

Porsche has not been a target of complaints from environmental groups, despite its movement into utility vehicles and its longtime accent on high performance.

“We’re not thrown into the controversy about SUVs,” he says. However, he promises the brand will offer a hybrid-electric Cayenne it is developing with Volkswagen AG and Audi AG before the end of the decade.

The Cayenne has attracted a new breed of Porsche owners who were never customers for its sports cars, Schwarzenbauer says.

Porsche will broaden its lineup further in 2009 with the 4-door, 4-seat Panamera. But Schwarzenbauer won’t say whether more new models are planned beyond the new sedan.

Porsche sees itself remaining an exclusive brand with sales of 40,000-50,000 units annually, and Schwarzenbauer says he doesn’t think forthcoming sports coupes from BMW AG and Mercedes-Benz will cut into the marque’s sales.

“They bring more attention to the segment,” he says, predicting the new competition will expand the market.

Porsche could increase production by adding a third shift at its plant in Stuttgart, but that is not in the cards for the immediate future, he says.

“We operate at a top level in an exclusive segment, focusing on building the best sports car,” Schwarzenbauer says. “We have to focus our resources on what we can do.”

Porsche’s recent investment in Volkswagen will not impact how the company operates, Schwarzenbauer says.

There could be some collaboration with VW on parts sourcing and purchasing, but “we have no plan to tap into Volkswagen’s dealer network,” he says.

Porsche has 200 U.S. dealers and 13 in Canada. “In general, that’s the right size for us,” Schwarzenbauer says.