Wednesday, July 16, 2003

What coulda been -- Reading the Car and Driver review of the Porsche Cayenne was disheartening. If you are a Porsche-phile, even if you oppose a Porsche SUV on principle (and there are so many principles to choose from), you had to hope the Cayenne was every bit the category killer a Porsche ought to be. Apart from it's stupendous acceleration, awful design, and stunning weight, there's nothing that really distinguishes it from other luxury SUVs. Not even handling. Porsche came late to the party and delivered an ugly lard-ass that isn't even the best dancer in the room ... but will win every race to the punch bowl.

It's not just that -- given Porsche's size and niche -- it probably can't survive delivering merely okay cars (or trucks). (This Autoweek "Drivers Log" entry delivers a similar "So what?" verdict.) What breaks our hearts at Downshift Central, is the opportunity cost of Porsche's SUV distraction. Articles in the same issue of Car and Driver vividly illustrate what Porsche could have done.

Porsche's a small company with limited development money. Even though the Cayenne was developed on a platform shared with the VW Touraeg and the coming Audi SUV, Porsche couldn't bring out the Cayenne and do anything more than freshen the growing-long-in-the-tooth Boxster. The result: a "new" Boxster that is mechanically and visually almost indistinguishable from the original. In a comparison with the soon-to-be-updated SR2000, the 350Z, the Z4, and the TT, the Boxster finished a disappointing third.

Imagine what Porsche could have done to the Boxster with the Cayenne money? A stiffer shell, more power, a clutch-less manual, a coupe version, a better nose, all of the above. The irony is that the Boxster is widely credited as the model that got Porsche through the tough times. Tough to understand the corporate decision to shortchange the Boxster for an SUV.

If Porsche had to share a platform with Audi, why couldn't they share a platform with the A8, which is also tested in the same issue? The luxury sedan market may not be as big as the luxury SUV market, but it's big enough to draw Audi, Mercedes, BMW, Jaguar, Lexus, Infiniti, Rolls, Bentley, etc.

Again, imagine what Porsche could have done. The review of the A8 notes its bland looks, surprising weight (given that it's mostly aluminum), merely adequate power, and decent handling. Okay, given the Cayenne, it's unlikely that Porsche would have done much better on the looks and weight fronts. But, stuff in the engine from the half-a-ton heavier, but a second-and-a-half quicker to 60 Cayenne Turbo, rub a little Porsche magic on the steering and suspension bits, and that's a car that flies and dances.

Dream bolder and envision an Arnage-like two-door coupe. (Kinda what Audi's promising with the Nuvolari.) Or, how about a station wagon like the wild A8 Avant show car.

It's a shame, really.