Porsche purists tend to look down upon the first-generation Cayenne, which ushered in a new era for their beloved Stuttgart automaker. But nobody can deny that the SUV saved Porsche's financial future, while simultaneously serving as the catalyst for an entire industry of high-powered luxury family haulers that dominates the market today.
The original Cayenne (internal code 955) hit dealer floors with a selection of optional drivetrains that made it the first mass-produced super SUV, comparable perhaps only slightly to the limited-production "Rambo Lambo" LM002. But where BMW and Mercedes-Benz had sacrificed utility in the name of luxury for the X3 and ML-Class, respectively, Porsche decided that the Cayenne needed to be able to blast off in a straight line, handle corners like a 911, and also hit the trail without concern. Along with its siblings, the Volkswagen Touareg and Audi Q7, the 955 now sits at the bottom of a steep depreciation curve—largely thanks to notoriously complex electronics packed into tight engine bays making just about any maintenance quite labor-intensive.
But famous reliability issues and mass production figures combine to make these six-figure super SUVs easily attainable on the secondhand market today, all while offering a unique combination of attractive features somewhat unmatched by other manufacturers in the interim.
A Super SUV For The New Millennium
The Cayenne's debut caused an uproar among Porschephiles who worried that it continued the trends inaugurated by the Boxster and 996-generation 911, which introduced mass production methods and, even worse, water-cooled engines to Porsche's sports car lineup. The exterior design might have looked large and pendulous back in the early years of the new millennium but today, the smoothed edges and muscular lines have aged well—especially for silver Cayennes like the one I was able to take out for some canyon runs in the hills of Malibu.
Twin-Turbocharged 4.5-Liter V8
Under the hood, Porsche somehow shoehorned a twin-turbocharged 4.5-liter V8 into the tight engine bay, which produced 450 horsepower and 457 lb-ft of torque when new. Those figures still sound impressive today and bordered on ludicrous when the 955 debuted for the 2003 model year. The higher-spec Turbo S variant added a few more pounds of boost to bump output up to an ungodly 520 horses, with larger brakes thrown in for good measure.
All Cayennes, from the lower VR6-powered variants to the most powerful, route power to all four wheels through an all-wheel-drive system biased towards the rear axle with a 62% to 38% torque split. But Porsche also decided to equip the Cayenne with a true two-speed transfer case offering low range and a locking center differential—an optional locking rear differential also fit into the mix (more on that later).
Luxurious And Spacious Interior Design
Climbing into the cabin, Porsche's notoriously cheap interior trim pieces do look aged in a truck with 115,000 miles on the clock, while the leather shows signs of wear befitting age and the patina provided by a previous owner's dog. But the overall design still feels comfortable and welcoming, if a bit worn.
This Cayenne left the factory equipped with the PCM infotainment system upgraded with the off-road navigation option, though the dog owner also replaced that dated setup with a Pioneer double-DIN head unit offering wireless Apple CarPlay.
Sinking into the large captain's chairs up front or the spacious rear bench seat, driver and passenger alike need not worry about legroom or headroom (not to mention lumbar support up front and even heated rear seats). The steering wheel (also heated) feels a little larger than other Porsches of the era, perhaps indicating the target market the Cayenne targeted when new.
Off-Road Focus For A Six-Figure Super SUV
But the concept of housewives driving their Cayennes to the store takes a 180 thanks to the off-road focus that Porsche baked into the SUV, especially for examples with more options boxes ticked. The truck I drove came equipped with electronically adjustable shocks controlled via three buttons for Comfort, Normal, and Sport, as well as the optional air-bag suspension system offering a total of five different ride heights.
That air suspension system noticeably lifts and lowers the 955—allegedly by over 8 inches total, though I did not bring a tape measure with me—and choosing the different shock settings truly makes a huge difference on bumpier roads or when trying to take the 5,200-pound SUV through tighter turns.
The left dial above controls the drivetrain. One click up shifts the transfer case into low range, a second click locks the center differential, and a third locks the rear diff—or at least, it's supposed to. From what I've read online, this truck should have a locking rear diff because it has the upgraded PCM system. But somebody tore off the options sticker from the trunk so I can't be certain, since it definitely doesn't have the Advanced Off-Road Technology Package. I did dip under the tail and spied what looks like a hose or wire running to the diff, so there's a chance it's just a little jammed from never being used once.
Preserving Sporty Driving Dynamics
As great as 450 horsepower and off-roading details sound, the Cayenne's ride quality sets it apart from what little competition exists now, even 15 years later. Smooth and composed, but eager to for a thrashing to equal most sports cars, the overall impression feels nothing like a truck—independent front and rear suspension, 18-inch wheels, and massive brakes with plenty of bite undoubtedly contribute to the sensation that aggressively pushing the Cayenne through a corner will lead to predictable oversteer rather than a rollover.
Overall, I came away from driving this first-gen Cayenne entirely impressed by the refined combination of power, comfort, handling, and capability. So much so, in fact, that I bought this exact car after spying it on Craigslist for a deal too good to pass up. Whether I'll live to regret the decision remains a serious question, however, since the potential for serious problems seems relatively high.
Worth The Risk Of Headaches
The seller did commission a ton of maintenance during his five years of ownership, however, including but not limited to overhauling the air-lift suspension system, replacing the most concerning plastic coolant pipes with metal units, rebuilding the front suspension, replacing the valve and intake manifold gaskets, and much more. And I'm optimistic that with extensive support online through forum communities and famous Porsche parts suppliers, I'll be able to perform most of any potential work myself and hopefully avoid expensive mechanic's bills as much as possible.
My plans for the Cayenne remain a work in progress—the prospect of a high-powered freeway flyer capable of moderate off-roading that can also easily haul gear and friends up to a ski resort sounds great. Throwing on some bigger 31-inch knobbies, skid plates, a bed platform, and a roof box to transform this into a mild overlander and storm chaser seems likely. And a company named Eurowise sells much of the off-roading and overlanding goodies catered directly to the Cayenne, Touareg, and Q7.
In the meantime, I'll be changing fluids and filters while trying to get that rear differential to activate (if it's actually in there). At the very worst, today's mind-boggling enthusiast industry helps me feel confident that this Cayenne hopefully won't depreciate much further if I can manage to take good care of it.
Sources: youtube.com, pioneerelectronics.com, rennlist.com, pelicanparts.com, and eurowise.com.