Dusty Spice: Or How A $500k SUV fares offroad

Derryn Wong

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Can the Porsche Cayenne handle the rough stuff? CarBuyer finds out the Porsche Cayenne can

Photos: Derryn Wong

UAE/Oman –
“Hey, why don’t I take my half-a-million dollar sport utility vehicle (SUV) off-roading?” is something you’ll hear an owner say. Perhaps at gunpoint, or at a particularly advanced stage of inebriation, just before unconsciousness.

With the CarBuyer team having recently tested the new third-gen Porsche Cayenne at its preview and international debut, in both standard Cayenne/Cayenne S and ass-whoopin’ Turbo form, we already know it has little equal when it comes to shredding tarmac – it’s one of the best driver’s sport utility vehicles (SUVs) out there right now.

But we’ve always wondered how it would fare away from the lovely black stuff, which is exactly what Porsche offered with its test drive of the Cayenne and Cayenne S in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

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Lead ‘Em In The Dust

We all know Porsche for its on-track achievements and stunning sports cars. But as seen in our feature on Porsche’s ‘secret’ museum storage section, the brand actually has a long-standing history with all-wheel drive systems and off-roading.

One of its earliest forays into the dirt world was the 1953 Jagdwagen, or Type 597, which was built for the Wehrmacht’s tender for a Jeep-style off-road all-purpose vehicle. It was tremendously capable, but expensive to produce.

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Porsche’s first full production all-wheel drive car isn’t half as obscure: The 959 supercar almost needs no introduction, being the fastest car of its time and a technological tour-de-force. Research from the 959 went into making the 959 Rally Raid (above) which contested the Paris-Dakar Rally in 1985 and winning, 1986, taking first, second and sixth.  

The company’s modern all-wheel drive story began there, and its engineers saw the Dakar as a great testbed and experiment. To fast forward to the present day, at least 70 percent of all Porsches sold are all-wheel drive, given 40 percent and 30 percent of its total 2016 sales come from the Macan and Cayenne respectively.

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The Cayenne Transsiberia – stock, except for snorkel, roll cage and dirt tyres, crossed Siberia in a 2007 rally event 

Porsche of course, subjected the new Cayenne to the usual battery of reliability and stress tests in heat, cold, sand and snow, but we know almost everyone driving a Macan or Cayenne will never go off-road.

“There are, how do you say this, not a large number of people who will go offroad in a SUV!” says Stefan Lenschow, Porsche’s body line SUV manager and tech expert on the ground with us during the event. “And we do know not that many people will push the car to the limit off or on road…but it has to have the ability to perform highly – if not it wouldn’t be a Porsche.”  

That’s pretty much the reason for having an SUV: It’s about always having the choice to leave the tarmac, knowing that the car can do it when the time comes. Even if the time never comes. If that sounds tremendously pointless, keep in mind that it’s the exact same thing for powerful sports cars.

Planet Caravan
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Fried chicken: One of the great bastions of civilisation 

Our journey begins in a distant corner of the UAE, a district known as Fujairah. It’s located at the northernmost tip of the country and faces east toward the Gulf of Oman (Dubai, on the other hand, faces west the Persian Gulf).

The UAE is indeed, mostly flat desert, but Fujairah is the most mountainous part of the country. That accounts for the relatively interesting roads and scenery we enjoy as our 20-odd car caravan of Porsche Cayenne and Cayenne S models winds its way from the starting point of the Fairmont Fujairah, near Dibba Beach, north towards the mountains.

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The new-gen Cayenne’s cabin is, like the Panamera, a great step forward for Porsche. Instead of a flood of buttons (and black plastic), the Cayenne makes great use of polished, transparent surfaces inside, which are much more luxurious to the finger. Most obviously it’s in the big touchscreen infotainment display, but the console buttons have a similar treatment. Even on the outside the rear ‘Cayenne’ nameplate is encased in transparent plexiglass.

While it’s desert-dusty, the roads here are in great condition – they’re better than Singapore’s, though it seems folk here have the same inability to refrain from gassing it in a straight line, as the built-up areas have lots of speed humps.

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From the cockpit of the Cayenne, it’s all serenity. Our car has lots of equipment – including air suspension and active suspension (PASM) – and it simply smoothes away the humps with ease. There’s also another thing we realise about SUVs in this situation: The high-rise seating position really does add considerably to the experience. Compared to our sedan ride to the hotel, the Cayenne’s tallness lets you see much more, from traffic to goats. Back home, sitting taller means you just see the tops of other cars, with the urban landscape getting in the way.

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We pass the port of Fujairah and have a painless border crossing – the northermost tip of the UAE isn’t actually the UAE at all – it’s the Musandam Governate, an exclave of Oman. Once across the border, traffic drops off significantly, and we have the chance to sling the Cayenne through a wonderful series of bends on excellent tarmac.

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It’s a wonderful change of pace after the town work. While our bliss is very short lived – less than 10km or so – the Cayenne displays uncanny brilliance. It handles quite like the Panamera, there’s more body movement and roll because it’s an SUV, but the classic Porsche qualities of incisive, transparent steering, dependable front end and ride quality that only adds to your confidence without nerve-wrangling crashiness.  

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That the Cayenne can handle itself off-road is of little doubt, though what would have been much more interesting to report is how far off the beaten path it could go.

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Our route north is characterised by two things the scale up as we go: Rougher roads and taller mountains. Tarmac to dusty, unpaved trails give way to gravel strewn paths, as we follow a riverbed cutting its way into the mountains. The hills go from gentle and rolling, to craggy, sheer cliffs looming above us.

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Our guides tell us just a few weeks ago flash floods made the route nigh impassable. Our canyon is littered with huge boulders, cracked shale and large sections of what obviously used to be mountain.

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Things are heating up a little, with the sun out and the road rougher, but the wonders of modern tech aboard the Cayenne make it easy.

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A simple click of the ‘Off Road’ button in the Cayenne, we select ‘Gravel’, and the suspension and drivetrain switch to the best settings for the conditions. While Dakar pilots had to contend with 50-degree cabins, we turn on the cooled seats and grind along in ease.

Gravel and stones send shudders through the cabin, reminding us that the new platform (VW Group MLB) is stiffer than before, but that’s to be expected of anything other than a true 4×4 with high-profile off-road tyres. That we’ve not stopped to reduce tyre pressure and that the Cayenne’s all run on 21-inch wheels, all add up to impressive performance, and without the driver having to do anything.

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Doubling back out of the canyon with a driver change, the dirty stuff ended with us back on tarmac and climbing a steep hill – sheer drops, magnificent vistas – to our end point, the Six Senses Zighy Bay Dibbi, featuring the world’s worst place to have a parking brake failure.

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While we didn’t get a deeper, more extreme of idea of the Cayenne’s off-road capabilities, it firmed up what we already knew of it as a on-road handler par excellence, and found out that when the going gets (mildly) rough, a Cayenne pilot will have a luxurious, comfortable time of it that’s not hot in the wrong ways.

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About the Author

Derryn Wong

CarBuyer's chief editor brings 15 years of experience in automotive journalism. Previously, he was the editor for Top Gear Singapore, and a presenter for CNA's Cruise Control motoring segment. He's contributed to The Business Times, Today, and many other publications, and also covered technology as editor of Stuff magazine. An avid motorcyclist and photographer, he is the Chief Slave of two cats. Follow him on Instagram @werryndong

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