USA TODAY's James R. Healey with the new Porsche Cayenne Diesel. / H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY
Purists once scoffed at sports-car maker Porsche fielding an SUV. But when the midsize SUV went on sale in the U.S. in 2003, it transformed Porsche into an SUV brand.
Cayenne was 44.4% of Porsche's U.S. sales last year, according to Autodata, making it the single biggest-selling model by far, doubling any other Porsche.
By Porsche standards, it's an entry-level model, with a base price for diesel of $56,725 ($6,900 more than the base gasoline Cayenne, $14,100 less than the gas-electric hybrid model).
But the price rises fast if you start checking the option boxes, and Porsches says it expects most of the diesels will sell for about $73,000.
Cayenne was overhauled for 2011, getting a remarkable 700-pound weight cut and a new gasoline-electric hybrid version. Other powertrain variants have joined, broadening its appeal.
Now, Cayenne gets a diesel. It hit showrooms last September and was so popular so fast that it accounted for more than 10% of Cayenne sales in 2012, even though it was available for only four months.
This year, Porsche figures one-third of Cayenne buyers will take the diesel.
Why? Diesels use more expensive fuel that you can't find everywhere. They offer higher mileage but get their biggest mpg numbers on long highway stretches, while most Americans live in cities, where hybrids are the mileage champs.
Even so, the test vehicle made a terrific impression. If all diesels had the driving feel of the Cayenne, the demand for diesels would be overwhelming.
The Cayenne diesel engine is shared with Volkswagen's Touareg and Audi's Q7 but is tuned just-so in the Cayenne. It has gobs of gooey power, is quiet and satisfying to drive and starts quickly even in the cold (not always a diesel's strong suit).
Germany's Volkswagen Group owns the VW, Audi and Porsche brands, so sharing makes business sense.
"We wouldn't have been able to (sell a U.S. diesel) if Volkswagen and Audi hadn't already certified the engine" as meeting U.S. emission regulations, says Porsche spokesman Nick Twork. "That made the business case work."
Development and testing an engine to meet U.S. rules costs more than a tiny maker such as Porsche comfortably could bear alone.
It sold about 35,000 vehicles in the U.S. last year, fewer than any other brand still selling here except for boutique nameplates such as Ferrari, Maserati, Bentley and Rolls-Royce.
The only knock on the Cayenne diesel engine is that when cold, it didn't move out smartly from a dead stop, as when trying to jump from a side road into a hole in traffic. Not as bad as the dead-off-the-mark Mercedes-Benz S350 Bluetec diesel evaluated here last summer, and not noticeable even a little, once the Cayenne warms up.
Porsche's eight-speed Tiptronic automatic with manual shift mode works well with the diesel.
There's less need to use manual mode than with a gas engine, because diesels are strong at low engine revolutions and don't need manually selected lower gears very often to do the job.
When Audi began racing diesel cars to make the point that they are high-performance machines, it had to teach drivers not to shift down as they would with a gas engine, such as when entering tight turns. The extra revs would put the diesels past their power peaks and make them slower, not faster.
A word about mileage: We had no chance for extended highway travel, where diesels do extraordinarily well. Short, lead-foot suburban runs and cold-weather keep-warm idling made up the test, so only about 18 mpg. Still, experience suggests that's two mpg or so better than similar gasoline vehicles in the same conditions.
Test Drive recorded not quite 21 mpg in the Cayenne hybrid in summer driving around the 'burbs in a 2010 test.
Cayenne's interior is another strong point. It's roomy and comfortable once you get used to the stiff German seats (which can make a poor first impression but be priceless on longer trips.) Back has generous knee and leg room, even with tall people sitting in front.
The console-mounted grab handles angle enough to swipe lateral leg room in front. Hard-core off-road vehicles have grab handles, so occupants can hold themselves in place when the machine catches air over big bumps and slams around over smaller ones. Seems phony on the high-dollar, silk-stocking Cayenne.
Control stalks on the steering column feel about as cheap as they come, as if made from brittle plastic likely to break at any moment. Even if it's some high-tech, weighs-nothing material, it is a tactile failure.
If a $73,000 off-the-rack Cayenne is too mundane, Porsche offers show-offs bespoke Exclusive options. Beyond the ordinary options, these let buyers with enough money customize their Porsches. The test vehicle, for example, had a set of $5,625, 21-inch-diameter, special-design, Exclusive wheels (18-inch is standard).
Other Exclusive options let you, for instance, have your name in lights on the door sills or get paint to match your favorite lipstick - almost like the custom coach-building of yore.
Sounds over the top, but Porsche says its customers quite often are the sort who pay cash for six-figure vehicles, so to not offer such indulgences would be to ill-serve them.
Cayenne seems an OK high-dollar SUV - until you put a diesel under the hood.
Then, it's our top choice.
What? Diesel version of the four-door, all-wheel-drive SUV that's become the sports car brand's best-selling vehicle.
When? On sale since late 2012.
Where? Made at Leipzig, Germany.
How much? Starts gentle by Porsche standards, gets brutal fast if you add options. Porsche says typical transaction price will be about $73,000. Base price for diesel is $56,725 including $975 shipping ($6,900 more than the base V-6 gasoline Cayenne, $14,100 less than the gas-electric hybrid Cayenne). Porsche says typical transaction price will be about $73,000.
What makes it go? 3-liter, V-6 turbocharged diesel rated 240 horsepower at 3,500 rpm, 406 pounds-feet of torque at 1,750 rpm; eight-speed Tiptronic automatic with manual mode; all-wheel drive with driver-selectable modes.
How big? About the same as BMW X5. Cayenne is 190.8 inches long, 76.3 in. wide, 67.4 in. tall on 114-in. wheelbase.
Weighs 4,795 lbs. (397 lbs. more than base V-6 gas model). Rated to carry 1,488 lbs. of people, cargo, accessories. Tows up to 7,716 lbs. Cargo space: Behind rear seat, 23.6 cubic feet; with rear seat folded: 62.9 cu. ft. Turning circle diameter: 39.1 ft.
How fast? Porsche says 0 to 60 mph in 7.2 seconds, top speed 135 mph.
How thirsty? Rated 19 miles per gallon in the city, 29 highway, 23 in city/highway mix. (For comparison, gas-electric hybrid model is 20/24/21.)
Test vehicle registered 17.6 mpg (5.68 gallons per 100 miles) in brisk suburban driving that included cold-weather idling. Burns ultra-low-sulfur diesel, holds 26.4 gal.
Overall: Roomy, comfy, enjoyable. Combo of diesel power and Porsche nimbleness elevate it to our top pick in the segment.
Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com
Read the original story: Test Drive: Porsche Cayenne diesel stands out