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2011 Porsche Cayenne S Hybrid: The German icon goes green

Porsche tries to balance performance and economy into its popular crossover
by: Courtesy of Porsche The 2011 Porsche Cayenne S Hybrid is one of the new wave of high-performance hybrids on the market.

Was the 2011 Porsche Cayenne S Hybrid inspired by Dr. Ferdinand Porsche or Dr. Victor Frankenstein?

Purists howled when the company founded by Dr. Porsche released the Cayenne in 2003. After producing nothing but sports cars for 63 years, Porsche was now selling a midsize luxury crossover, just like practically every other car manufacturer on the planet. Although the front end bore a passing resemblance to the 911, the rest was pure blasphemy - five doors, all-wheel-drive and an engine mounted in the front.

But Porsche knew what it was doing. The Cayenne became the company's best selling vehicle, helped by a range of engine choices that included a twin-turbocharged 4.5-liter V8 that cranked out 520 horsepower, enough to propel it from zero to 60 in under five seconds. The profits also allowed the company to invest in existing sports cars, resulting in the current, highly-acclaimed version of the 911.

But now Porsche has thrown even Cayenne fans a curve - a hybrid version called the Cayenne S Hybrid. It combined a supercharged 3.0-liter V6 and an electric motor to produce a combined 380 horsepower while still being rated at 20 city and 24 highway miles per gallon by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

That's better than the BMW X6 ActiveHybrid (17/19 mpg) and competitive against three German diesel crossovers, BMW X5 xDrive 35d (19/26 mpg), the Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueTec (18/25 mpg), and the Audi Q7 TDI (17/25 mpg).

But a week of test driving around the Portland area revealed a number of shortcomings with the Cayenne's hybrid system. It includes a clutch that disengages the V6 to achieve what the company calls 'sailing.' But the re-engaging is both slow and noticeable when speed is increased. Not only that, but the regenerative brakes that help recharge the battery grab more than most other hybrids. As a result, our test Porsche Cayenne S Hybrid was hard to drive smoothly around town and when passing on freeways.

These problems can be eliminated by driving the Cayenne S Hybrid aggressively or putting in a Sport mode that seems to override the hybrid system. But doing so reduces the mileage, negating the primary reason for buying a hybrid in the first place.

There are benefits to ignoring the mileage, though. Driven aggressively or in the Sport mode, the Cayenne S Hybrid is much more fun, offering a balanced mix of good acceleration, handling and braking. The steering is light and direct, the brakes feel much better, and the transmission moves swiftly through the gears.

The supercharged 3.0-liter V6 is made by Audi and also offered in their A4 and A5. It is smooth and responsive, producing 33 more horsepower than the base, normally-aspirated 3.0-liter V6 in the Cayenne. Porsche should think of offering it in non-hybrid form, slotting it between the base 3.6-liter V6 that produces 300 horsepower and the top-of-the-line twin-turbocharged 4.8 V8 that cranks out 500 horsepower.

Regard of model, the interior of the Cayenne is one of its strength. Similar to the equally controversial Panamera four-door sports car, it features a center console that angles down from the dash between the front seats. The console hold many of the control buttons that were originally spread across the dash, reducing the cluttered look while still making them all easily accessible. Expect other manufactures to adopt similar designs in coming years to accommodate the controls for the many high-tech features that are now becoming standard on even entry-level cars.

Porsche has not been afraid to challenge the challenge the purists in the past. It released a Volkswagen as the 914 in the United States in 1969. The first front-engine model was the four-cylinder 924 introduced in 1976, with the front-engine, V8-powered 928 following two years later.

The idea of the Porsche Cayenne S Hybrid is appealing. Mating an electric motor to a powerful gas engine instead of a small, stingy one makes sense on paper. This system needs a little more refinement to justify the base price of 67,700, however, however.

Facts and figures

• Model: 2011 Cayenne S Hybrid.

• Manufacturer: Porsche.

• Class: Midsize Crossover Utility Vehicle.

• Layout: Front engine, all-wheel-drive.

• Style: Four door liftback.

• Powertrain: Supercharged 3.0-liter V6 (333 hp) and 34 kW electric motor (47 hp) for combined 380 hp.

• Transmission: Eight-speed automatic with Sport mode and steering wheel mounted shift paddles.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 20/24

• Price: Beginning at $67,700 ($86,900 as tested).