LEEDS, AL – Devotees of the Porsche brand, known for iconic sports cars, summarily dismissed the need for an SUV when the Cayenne first launched here in March 2003.

But after more than seven years in the market, the Cayenne continues to outsell every 2-door car in Porsche’s U.S. lineup and has created precisely what the wily German auto maker wanted all along: more devotees of the Porsche brand.

The ’11 model year brings a complete redesign for the Cayenne, classified as a midsize luxury cross/utility vehicle in Ward’s segmentation, and in every respect it is better, lighter (yet bigger), more powerful, more fuel efficient, more comfortable and better looking than the model it replaces.

Despite its size, the new Cayenne delivers laser-like handling, enhanced by a new active all-wheel-drive system that can be paired for the first time with the Porsche Torque Vectoring Plus option to make the 5-passenger CUV feel amazingly stable and confident through every twist and turn here at the Barber Motorsports Park.

While delivering on the brand’s trademark performance, the Cayenne also ushers Porsche with shocking ease into the era of electrified mobility.

The Cayenne S Hybrid, going on sale this fall, seems to answer a question few people were asking.

But fuel-economy mandates require Porsche to boost efficiency if it wants to continue selling vehicles in the U.S. beyond 2016 without threat of costly penalties.

Hence the green-lighting of the 2-seat 918 Spyder, a high-performance hybrid warmly received at this year’s Geneva auto show.

The Cayenne S Hybrid is the first step toward recasting a Porsche as something other than a vessel for conspicuous consumption.

“We wanted to increase the social acceptance of the Cayenne,” says Martin Bratzler, project manager-marketing and sales for the CUV.

The parallel full hybrid system, shared with the Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid, consists of a 333-hp 3.0L supercharged V-6 designed by corporate sibling Audi AG for the S4, combined with a 34 kW electric motor.

All told, the system produces a prodigious 380 hp at 5,500 rpm and 428 lb.-ft. (580 Nm) of torque at a nominal 1,000 rpm, while delivering V-6 fuel economy.

On a 36-mile (58-km) loop on nearby rural roads and Interstate 459, the Cayenne S Hybrid achieves an impressive 25.6 mpg (9.2 L/100 km) at an average speed of 44 mph (71 km/h).

’11 Porsche Cayenne S Hybrid
Vehicle type Front-engine, AWD, 5-passenger CUV
Engine 3.0L supercharged DOHC all-aluminum V-6
Electric Motor 34 kW
Battery 288-volt nickel metal-hydride
Max Power 380 hp @ 5,500 rpm
Max Torque 428 lb.-ft. (580 Nm) @ 1,000 rpm
Wheelbase 114 ins. (290 cm)
Overall length 190.8 ins. (484 cm)
Overall width 76.3 ins. (194 cm)
Overall height 67.4 ins. (171 cm)
Curb weight 4,938 lbs./2,240 kg
Base price $67,700
Fuel economy 21/25 mpg (11.1-9.4 L/100 km)
Competition BMW ActiveHybrid X6, Mercedes ML450 Hybrid
Pros Cons
Torque vectoring worth price of admission Should be standard on all Cayennes
25.6 mpg in hybrid easily attained No spare tire
Gorgeous, comfortable interior Relies on Panamera styling cues inside

A sophisticated engine controller enables high torque at low engine speeds. At one point during our drive, we cruise comfortably at 80 mph (129 km/h) at an engine speed of only 1,000 rpm.

The gasoline engine kicks on and off seamlessly thanks to a decoupling clutch connecting it to the new 8-speed automatic transmission. The clutch allows the engine to operate independent of the electric motor, and vice versa.

In pure electric mode, the CUV silently reaches speeds of 41 mph (66 km/h) during our drive. Bratzler says most drivers can expect to be in electric mode about a quarter of the time.

The decoupling clutch also enables coasting – or “sailing” as described by Weissach engineers – at speeds up to 97 mph (156 km/h) with the engine off and without electric power, further boosting fuel efficiency.

Most conventional hybrids today can’t “sail” faster than about 30 mph (48 km/h) because they use continuously variable transmissions that cannot disconnect from the engine.

Of course, extended periods in sailing mode require a light foot, and the feature works best on downhill grades. We saw 75 mph (121 km/h) on a slight downhill stretch of interstate for nearly a minute.

Get back on the accelerator and the gasoline engine restarts without fuss. Along the way, the inlet valve timing is adjusted continuously to boost power while simultaneously saving fuel and reducing emissions.

Through it all, the Cayenne S Hybrid still feels like a Porsche.

A 288 Volt nickel metal-hydride battery weighing 154 lbs. (70 kg) resides under the luggage compartment to store electricity, further enhanced by regenerative brakes that help charge the battery during stopping.

A downside here is the lack of a spare tire, which is available as an option but would take up a good chunk of the cargo hold. An inflation kit takes the place of the spare.

The hybrid comes with permanent AWD, complete with a self-locking center differential.

The new Porsche Traction Management active AWD system on the non-hybrid Cayenne drives the rear wheels and transfers power to the front axle via an electronically controlled, map-based multi-plate clutch, in the event of wheel slip.

Most Cayennes rarely will cross bogs, and the Rubicon Trail is not calling out. But in the off chance owners find themselves deep in the woods, the Cayenne is off-road capable “under normal conditions,” the press kit says.

Here, in a torrential downpour that turns terrain around the track into a steamy, gushing mudslide, the Cayenne S stays composed heading down a slope of about 45 degrees. And the right foot never has to touch the brakes thanks to Porsche Hill Control, standard on all models.

The device functions like cruise control, actuated by a switch on the center console. The driver selects the descent speed, up to 19 mph (31 km/h).

Dynamically, the Cayenne is solid on road and track and outright brilliant when the optional new Porsche Torque Vectoring Plus is employed.

In hard cornering, the system responds to steering inputs and yaw velocity by applying brake pressure to the inside rear wheel, which transfers drive torque to the outside rear wheel and pushes the vehicle in the intended direction.

An electronically controlled rear differential urges the driver to exit the turn with accelerator mashed. On the undulating, tight-cornered Barber track, the system works flawlessly, keeping the V-8-powered Cayenne Turbo in full control while 500 horses howl Porsche’s symphonic theme song.

A Cayenne S without the torque-vectoring system handles less confidently, using more of the track and struggling to keep its composure through turns.

The CUV feels more nimble than its predecessor, thanks to an aggressive weight-loss campaign that targeted liberal use of aluminum, especially in the chassis. The hood, roof and fenders were steel in the old model but now are aluminum.

Without those improvements, the curb weight of the new Cayenne would be up 154 lbs. (70 kg) due to the arrival of new features such as rear seats that slide up to 6.5 ins. (17 cm).

Instead, the new Cayenne with 6-speed manual transmission is 364 lbs. (165 kg) lighter than its predecessor, while the Cayenne S with the excellent new 8-speed Tiptronic automatic has shaved 396 lbs. (180 kg).

Under heavy throttle, the mass reduction feels even more pronounced. “That 400 lbs. (181 kg) feels like 1,000 lbs. (454 kg),” a Porsche racing instructor says while putting the Cayenne through its paces at the Barber track.

Chassis control comes in many flavors on the Cayenne, including available Active Suspension Management, an electronic system with three settings that continuously adjusts individual shocks to improve stability.

The Cayenne Turbo comes with a new air-suspension system with PASM as standard equipment.

Also available with air suspension is Dynamic Chassis Control, an active anti-roll system that anticipates and significantly reduces lateral body movement.

By counteracting the swaying force of the body, the Cayenne stays more stable and delivers more responsive rack-and-pinion steering at every speed.

The hardware is similar to that in the old Cayenne: a fully independent double wishbone front suspension and multi-link rear setup.

Also carried over are the direct-injection naturally aspirated gasoline 3.6L V-6 and 4.8L V-8, both tweaked to produce 3% more horsepower. The turbocharged version of the V-8 makes the same 500 hp and 516 lb.-ft. (700 Nm) of torque as its predecessor.

But thanks to the weight savings and new 8-speed transmission, fuel efficiency goes up 20% with the V-6 and 23% with both versions of the V-8, Porsche says.

Inside, the Cayenne is lavishly appointed in the style of the Panamera sedan, which earned a Ward’s Interior of the Year award in 2010.

The Cayenne borrows the Panamera’s steering wheel and gauge configuration, as well as the center console that slopes gently toward the back seat, with angled buttons stacked neatly on either side of the gear shifter.

The CUV’s previous cockpit was not offensive, but its center stack was bulky and stood upright, whereas the new stack flows on an angle into the dashboard while maintaining good visibility of the controls.

Of course, this much style doesn’t come cheap. A Cayenne Turbo on display here and painted Umber Metallic (Hershey brown) stickers for $113,540, including $3,990 for a Burmester high-end audio system and $800 for ventilated front seats.

An $83,060 Cayenne S offers a gorgeous deep brown leather package that costs $3,655 and Bose surround sound for $1,690.

But there are bargains to be had. Base pricing begins at $46,700 for the V-6, $63,700 for the V-8 and $67,700 for the hybrid. Porsche expects about a 50/50 split between the V-6 and V-8 take rates; up to 15% of Cayenne buyers globally are expected to pick the hybrid.

U.S. sales of the old Cayenne held their own through troubled economic times, and the new model is well-positioned to expand Porsche’s appeal as the recession thaws.

Whether potential buyers want to indulge in a decadently powerful Cayenne Turbo or a more politically correct hybrid, Porsche has a CUV for everyone – at least everyone with money to spare.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com