After experiencing a 1998 Mitsubishi Montero's sluggish struggles driving from Los Angeles to Denver this past fall, I began searching for a more comfortable vehicle to serve as a winter storm chaser for ski season. Eventually, through some kind of Craigslist luck, a 2006 Porsche Cayenne Turbo with 115,000 miles on the clock and extensive records joined the Montero in my stable.
Any Cayenne with six-figure mileage and 15 years under its belt will undoubtedly need a bit of TLC to get into true road-trip form, though the seller of mine checked off most of the more concerning potential problems like replacing the driveshaft assembly, replacing the flimsy plastic coolant pipes, and overhauling the air-lift suspension system. And one test drive in the 450-horsepower super SUV proved just how well Stuttgart's engineers built the first-generation 955 Cayenne.
But the Continental summer tires that came with the Cayenne needed replacing before ski season approached, so I installed a set of Open Country A/T III tires that Toyo shipped me in the name of testing the all-around performance on such a unique SUV platform.
Installing Toyo Open Country AT3
The biggest Toyos I could fit without modifying the Cayenne's wheel wells measured 265/60R18—both taller and wider than the Contis, with an aggressive lug design for an all-terrain rating. Not quite a designated snow tire, the Open Country A/T III nonetheless earned the Three-Peak Mountain Snowflake rating (which actually tests very little of a tire's cold-weather performance but still sounds better than nothing).
Not Much Fresh Snow At Powder Mountain
My schedule only allowed for one ski trip before this past Super Bowl Weekend, to Mammoth Mountain where no fresh snow awaited for testing out the Toyos. But my next trip to Powder Mountain, in Utah, afforded me a chance to find some slippery stuff and give the Cayenne a go. Most of the roads near the resort were still dry but when I turned to drive up a long dirt driveway towards a future housing development, the local plowers clearly had not come through since the last storm.
Though not steep, the road definitely climbed in elevation significantly enough to make a friend part ways with his front-wheel-drive Kia Sedona rental at the bottom of the hill. The Cayenne would serve as shuttle for a few friends going up to the development property to check out a parcel far past even the semblance of a snowy road, with small patches of ice visible every 10 to 15 feet or so.
Impressive Snow Performance
Driving up the slight hill, I tried to find the limits of the Cayenne's all-wheel-drive system and the Open Country A/T III tires. Braking aggressively did activate the ABS system much sooner than on tarmac (where the Turbo-spec 350-millimeter rotors provide gobs of bite) but no loss of control. I even did a gentle U-turn at the end of the road and felt no slippage. Going downhill, feeling more confident, I sped up slightly and continued to explore the edges of traction—the Cayenne and these Toyos did absolute great, providing exactly that kind of secure feel that can, it turns out, lead to trouble.
Getting A Little Overconfident
Going back up the hill again at top speed, I dipped into some of the deeper snow on the sides of the road. The open terrain felt safe and the ground looked level—a bit of an optical illusion, as I quickly discovered when the left two tires sunk into a low ditch and pulled the whole Cayenne towards the left side of the road.
Yep, I'd managed to grind the truck to a halt, where I nonetheless gave the 4.5-liter V8 varying levels of throttle input, entirely in vain. Climbing out of the passenger seat, the driver's side door too deep to open, I inspected the situation and decided that a little bit of digging would probably do the trick. Luckily, I had a snowboard in the roof box and proceeded to get a good workout shoveling snow with it.
Playing With The Cayenne's Off-Road Settings
Satisfied with my labor, I climbed back into the Cayenne and played with some of the off-road settings on the center console. I lifted the air suspension up to the highest level, Spec Terrain, and put the transfer case in low range with the center diff locked. No luck.
Then I realized that the lower gearing probably sent too much torque to the wheels—after all, the Montero's Winter Package adds a transmission hold feature that keeps the gearbox in second to prevent slippage. Trying to replicate the Montero's impressive snow performance (I'd driven it through 14 inches of fresh powder in the past, no problem), I put the Cayenne into high range. For no discernable reason other than switchgear design, Porsche's engineers don't allow the center diff to lock without engaging low range first. But still, by manually selecting second gear and with a little downhill push from two friends outside, we got moving again.
Iced Up In The Morning
Unfortunately, I still couldn't get enough traction and the rear driver's side tire proceeded to slide further and further into the deep snow. I tried a bit more snowboard shoveling before accepting the fact that I'd truly gone and done it now. The next morning, a friendly local with a tow strap pulled up and gave me just enough of a pop to get up and out of the deepest snow, from where the Cayenne took over and climbed out onto the center portion of the road. But even that big four-wheel-drive Ford Econoline still spun a bit before getting the job done—a sign of the slippery snow that might have frozen over even more overnight.
Now free from the trap, I walked back and saw that even in the highest suspension setting, the Cayenne's still looked possibly a little high-centered the second time around. Despite a bruised ego and sore back from the digging, I can still proudly say that this was the first time I ever got a vehicle stuck to the point of needing a tow. And I'll always remember to keep those wheels on the best line possible, either on-road or off.
I've always loved the old-timer saying, "I've got four-wheel drive, I can go anywhere and get stuck!" The truth remains that even a capable off-roader with air-lift suspension, a true low-range transfer case with a locking center differential, and some of the best tires money can buy will still get stuck with the right amount of effort. So let my experience serve as a reminder to stay safe in the winter by always driving within the limits of your car and tires.
Sources: toyotires.com, tirerack.com, mammothmountain.com, and powdermountain.com.