2021 Porsche Cayenne GTS Review: A 453-HP Joy Machine
It's big. It's loud. It's absurd in the best way. The Cayenne GTS is for adults who never, ever want to grow up.
Giggling. If I had to make a serious introduction for the 2021 Porsche Cayenne GTS, I couldn't. It would just come out as a bunch of giggling. That's how I spent most of my time when I was testing this Porsche. Any time I so much as looked in the general direction of this thing, I would get the biggest, dumbest grin on my face. Look! Look at the silly Cayenne!
This is a perfectly practical, comfortable, four-door SUV that's easy to drive through the city. It has enough towing capacity to haul an entire other Porsche behind it. It ticks all the boring boxes for 99 percent of the dull things you have to do in life. It just happens to have enough grunt to knock the wind out of your passengers at will, make exhaust noises that tickle the most neanderthal reaches of your brain, and come in a pleasingly shouty shade of Carmine Red for an extra $3,150.
It's a rolling contradiction, and I love it.
2021 Porsche Cayenne GTS: By the Numbers
- Base price (as tested): $70,350 ($130,250)
- Powertrain: 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8 | 8-speed automatic | all-wheel drive
- Horsepower: 453 hp @ 6,000 to 6,500 rpm
- Torque: 457 lb-ft @ 1,800 to 4,500 rpm
- 0-60 mph: 4.5 seconds (est.)
- Top speed: 167 mph
- Curb weight: 4,954 lbs
- Cargo volume: 27.2 cubic feet (rear compartment only) | 60.3 cubic feet (rear seats folded down)
- Maximum tow capacity: 7,700 lbs
- Seats: 5
- EPA fuel economy: 15 mpg city | 19 highway | 17 combined
- Quick take: There is not a single situation where a big, loud, silly Cayenne GTS won't improve your day.
The V8 Returns
The Cayenne is Porsche's midsize luxury SUV that first debuted in the early 2000s, and today, it remains the automaker's second-best seller in both 2019 and 2020. Now in its third generation, it's kept true to its form, which is to deliver a sports car-like ride in a luxury SUV.
In GTS trim—which, on a Porsche, always hits a sweet spot between road car comfort and outright performance—it isn't the most powerful. The range-topping hybrid versions handily win that stats race. Yet the Cayenne GTS is the one most focused on the driving experience as a whole, with a rowdy sports exhaust as standard, an interior draped in grippy Race-Tex (Porsche's version of Alcantara), and a 30-mm lower ride height than the Cayenne S. It's the version made to hoon down twisty roads in a manner an SUV shouldn't.
2020 also saw the triumphant return of a V8 to the GTS trim for the first time since 2014 and it's the real star of the show: a 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8 that pumps out 453 horsepower and 457 pound-feet of torque. It's frankly everything that's been missing in your life and then some. Sure, the twin-turbo V6 this engine replaced was plenty powerful, making just 18 less hp than the new V8, but it didn't sound as nice.
The Cayenne GTS comes with an eight-speed Tiptronic S transmission and all-wheel drive. Other standard features include 21-inch wheels, Porsche Dynamic Light System headlights, front air intakes and side window trim finished in black, eight-way sport seats, and GTS badging all over. Additionally, there are also the as-standard Adaptive Air Suspension and Porsche Active Suspension Management systems that work together to adjust the suspension's damping rates based on the settings you select, terrain, and conditions, all in the name of keeping the Cayenne as level as possible.
The test car was equipped with Porsche Dynamic Chassis Control ($3,590), an active anti-roll system that keeps the Cayenne from swaying too much in corners or on uneven surfaces, and which also pushes the wheels down to maintain as much contact with the road as possible.
But wait! There's more! Because this is still an SUV that ain't half bad off the pavement, you also have a suite of settings for different off-road situations. "Onroad" is the default, but you also have menu options for gravel, mud, sand, and rocks, along with ride-height-specific menu settings that can raise or lower the Cayenne however your want.
The whole package is an instant mood adjustment for the better. Even in the face of garbage weather, stress, and other garden-variety bummers, there wasn't a single moment where getting in the Cayenne didn't make me a bit giddy.
An SUV for SUV Haters
The best thing about the Cayenne GTS is that it doesn't drive like an SUV. It really feels more like a spacious luxury car. Sure, it weighs nearly 5,000 pounds and you'll feel that heft in turns. Yet it's not tippy or bouncy and its low-down rush of torque means it can get out of its own way fast—if not knock the sunglasses off the top of your head.
With all of its chassis and suspension tech combined with the torque vectoring system that sends power to the side of the car with more traction in order to minimize wheelspin, the Cayenne GTS has grip for days. This comes in handy when you need to mash the throttle pedal for laughs. That ability to maintain its composure even as it shifts its weight through turns is baked into the Cayenne GTS's design. All of this works seamlessly in the background to make it feel more like a tall Panamera than a bouncy SUV.
Even the electric power steering system is damn good now, communicating what's going on with the road through the wheel without the weird, distracting electro-mechanical feedback feel I noticed in earlier Cayennes of this generation. According to a Porsche representative, this GTS has a newly developed power-steering system, and it is a game-changing improvement. Twisty roads are a joy, especially with the exhaust opened up and the sunroof cracked to hear more of it.
The optional Sport Chrono Package ($1,130) adds a selectable drive mode dial right onto the steering wheel. There, you can select between the Normal, Sport, and Sport Plus drive modes where the chassis can go from a smooth and comfortable daily driving setup to being stiffer, lower, and more responsive for aggressive driving. Those more aggressive modes also tighten up the steering, turn off start/stop, open up the exhaust, and shift the powertrain's priorities away from fuel economy and comfort to performance and acceleration. You can use some of the center console buttons as well as the settings within the infotainment menus to individually tweak things like the chassis and the exhaust, too.
There's also a customizable "Individual" drive mode setting where you can mix and match different car settings. The only downside to that is I had to flip over to this setting every time I started the car as opposed to the system remembering my settings each time, but the tiny selector dial makes it easy.
In the middle of that Sport Chrono wheel is a push-to-pass button that enables the Cayenne's engine to deliver its max power output for 20 seconds. The GTS has enough power to pass almost anything on a standard American public road without this, but I'd be lying if I said that pushing this WHEE BUTTON wasn't fun.
Easy to Live With...
The Cayenne is always more spacious inside than I expect, likely due to its relatively compact size compared the myriad half-ton pickups it shares the roads with here. When I took the Cayenne to my mom's house, there was ample space in the back hatch to fit both my luggage and all the various odds and ends she sent home with me with tons of space to spare.
Yet big space in a midsize SUV means it's extremely easy to live with. While a larger pickup or SUV is irritating to drive in the city and barely fits up my narrow driveway, this GTS came equipped with the optional rear-axle steering system ($1,620) that gave it a turning radius similar to that of the compact car I usually drive. The Surround View cameras ($1,200) made cramming into cramped city parking spots even easier with a 360-degree view of the Cayenne's surroundings.
There's also a profoundly comfortable ride. The seating position is natural-feeling without that "I'm sitting on a barstool" effect that many SUVs have for shorter drivers like me. I'm no audiophile, but the standard Bose surround sound system on this car was more than enough to envision myself way down yonder on the Chattahoochee, except Alan Jackson's iconic ripped jeans would be made of Alcantara in here. The panoramic glass roof made it feel airy and light inside despite having a black interior. I could even set the HVAC system to blow more softly, even at higher fan speeds—lest we mess up the gross rat's nest that's called "my hair." Everything can bend to your will in Cayenne Land.
I tested this car in late spring in Texas, which means it was hot and sticky. The Cayenne doesn't stay that way for long, with the HVAC system keeping up well with "we live in Satan's groin right now"-grade heat. Shutting the sunshade over the lightly tinted panoramic glass roof helps considerably, but even if I forgot, it cooled down fast in the cabin. This Cayenne came with upgraded thermal- and noise-insulated glass ($1,130)—and it works. Plus, as much as people hate on racing-inspired nods like Alcantara interiors in an SUV, Porsche's fuzzy Race-Tex fabric cools to the touch much faster than hot leather.
The real stars of the interior by far were the upgraded "Adaptive Sport Seats Plus" 18-way adjustable heated front seats ($420). Mom's house is roughly a four- or five-hour trip each way, and my back is usually in some kind of discomfort from a combination of stress, working on cars, and prior injury—the last of which happened in February—but no! Not this week.
I want these seats in everything. At my desk. In my living room. At the dining table. On my porch. And especially in my Porsche.
...If You Can Figure Out the Controls
Not everything in the Cayenne's interior makes as much sense as springing for the 18-way heated seats.
The third-gen Cayenne's center console went hard on form and not so much on function. Various controls for the climate control, radio, seats and other functions are located around the gear selector on a flat piano-black panel that lights up with the location of each "button." Functions that didn't come with your car don't light up, but you can still see them in the right lighting.
Each spot on the console presses down like a button, but the "buttons" aren't separated out from each other by any sort of surround, so it's tough to know you're pressing a certain button by feel alone. Worse yet, the placement makes no sense. Want to turn on HVAC recirculation because you're about to drive past a feedlot? Have fun fumbling for that particular slice of the smooth slab when it's on the other side of the gear selector.
That being said, the two biggest nuisances with the Cayenne were related to the infotainment system. There were times during my road trip where I had to connect and reconnect my phone several times in a row before CarPlay would work correctly. If I needed to charge my usually Bluetooth-connected phone off one of the vehicle's USB-C ports, all bets were off as to whether CarPlay would remain connected. The Porsche representative I spoke with hadn't experienced this same issue before.
Meanwhile, the only stereo controls on the center console and the steering wheel are for volume, with no "next" or "back" button for whatever you're listening to. The only way to even get a physical "next" button for the stereo is by programming the single customizable button on the steering wheel as such. This is a significant distraction if you'd like to hear something again or return to a previous station while you're using any other function on the infotainment screen.
I took the Cayenne to visit my mom, so "I'm not mad, I'm disappointed" feels like the right response to these things. Porsche, you make world-beating race cars full of logically placed physical interior controls. You know the value of keeping a driver focused on the road. I know y'all know better.
The Porsche Cayenne was the vehicle that really kicked the luxury SUV boom into high gear, yet of that now-crowded field of cars like the BMW X5, Mercedes-Benz GLE, and the Audi Q7, the Cayenne GTS would still be my pick. If you're looking for a tow rig, its 7,700-lb tow rating is one of the higher ones among midsize luxury SUVs. Sure, the Cayenne shares its platform with the Audi Q7 and Q8, as well as the Bentley Bentayga and Lamborghini Urus, but Porsche left enough of its own fingerprints on the platform that it feels like its own thing. Everything about the driving experience—save for some relatively minor infotainment and control woes—makes the Cayenne GTS the most fun luxo-SUV I've driven, regardless of whether I was mashing the pedal on the freeway or corner-carving down backroads.
In true GTS style, it has enough luxury touches to be an extremely comfortable ride, but all the right options to be an absolute hooligan when you want to. The V8 truly sings the song of my people, and it's almost impossible not to smile when you're driving this thing with the exhaust fully open.
One of the best aspects of the Cayenne—even in rowdy GTS form—is it really flies under the radar. If you want a sleeper, get a big, silly fast crossover. The same rounded-off shape that no doubt helped a new version of the Cayenne claim the new Nürburgring SUV record is like stealth mode to the general public. Even in bright red. Even with Porsche badges. My friend's daughter called it a "mom car," because for better or worse, SUVs and crossovers are the general-issue parental rides of this generation. That egg-with-a-hood shape is as invisible now as station wagons and minivans were to us older farts—except to those who know what they're looking at or anyone who hears the full-volume exhaust note.
Nothing this practical has any right to be this fun. The Cayenne GTS is the best kind of absurdity for adults who want the extra capabilities of an SUV but refuse to grow up.
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