Porsche Cayenne

It's often said that first impressions count, but we are also told never to judge a book by its cover... So where do we start with the entry-level 3.2-litre Porsche Cayenne? While it proudly wears the sports car badge, it's based on a Volkswagen platform and is powered by a reworked version of the V6 engine currently doing sterling service in VW's Caravelle van.

As if the Cayenne wasn't controversial enough! Adding a VW-derived V6 is likely to raise eyebrows, but purists needn't worry. The newcomer is well equipped, good to drive and competitively priced. BMW's X5 should be concerned.

It's often said that first impressions count, but we are also told never to judge a book by its cover... So where do we start with the entry-level 3.2-litre Porsche Cayenne? While it proudly wears the sports car badge, it's based on a Volkswagen platform and is powered by a reworked version of the V6 engine currently doing sterling service in VW's Caravelle van.

It's the first time since the underrated 924 of the late Seventies that Porsche has used another manufacturer's powerplant. And the move clearly marks a milestone in the firm's history. We took to the wheel to find out how the controversial 4x4 measures up.

Named simply the Cayenne, and aimed at the BMW X5 3.0i Sport and Volvo's XC90, the new V6 joins the V8-engined Cayenne S and Cayenne Turbo. Prices start at £35,000. Visually, the car is virtually identical to the V8s. Although there are subtle changes to the badge, wheels and side skirts, the latest Porsche still has road presence. However, the jury's out over its looks, particularly when put next to the deftly styled BMW X5.

Inside, leather is standard, as is a new six-speed manual gearbox, complete with low-ratio transfer case for off-roading. Tiptronic shift, with steering wheel-mounted paddles, is a £1,500 option, but this hampers performance and ups fuel consumption slightly.

Twist the key and the engine bursts into life with all the enthusiasm of the flat-six units that make the 911 and Boxster so delightful. Although quieter than the 4.5-litre V8 that's in the Cayenne S, the powerplant still offers an impressively purposeful exhaust note. It propels the 4x4 from 0-60mph in 9.1 seconds and on to a 133mph top speed. This makes the base Cayenne the slowest Porsche on sale, although economy of 25.6mpg compensates.

The clutch pedal is light, and while there's a slightly rubbery feel to the gearshift, changes are quick. That said, the heavy flywheel means swapping gears smoothly can feel ponderous.

However, the biggest revelation is the handling. Because this Cayenne is lighter and has virtually the same adjustable air-suspension as that fitted to its bigger-engined brothers, the new car feels nimble. On our icy test route, it was hard to gauge how much cornering grip the 4WD generates. However, the surface provided a perfect demonstration for the Porsche Traction Management system (PTM), which can put all the available power through a single axle.

The accurate steering allows you to thread the car confidently along slippery roads, while the chassis remains predictable. Carry too much speed into a corner and the 4x4 will understeer - hit the throttle too hard mid-bend and the back will step out. The anti-lock brakes also offer impressive stopping and feel.

But questions remain. Should drivers judge the Cayenne by its badge, or the competence of its suspension and traction control? The answer is both. This car drives like a Porsche, and kind of looks like one, too. Expect to see it on a high street near you soon.

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