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.
Cream of the Crop -- Csaba Csere distills the experience of driving "several hundred cars and trucks ... over the past couple of years" to produce a list of his favorite and least favorite "powertrain or structural components."

What tops his list? BMW's active steering or SMG shifter? Audi's dual-clutch sequential shifter? Mercedes emergency braking anticipation thingy (you lift of the gas quickly, the braking system assumes you need to slow in a hurry and starts to apply the brakes before you actually hit the pedal)? Any of the structural advances that have made every manufacturer's new model stiffer? Regenerative braking and hybrid technology? The ubiquity of all-wheel and four-wheel drive performance cars?

Nope. The Chevy Avalanche's mid-gate. First, it's hardly an innovation. Anyone with a station wagon recognizes it as a folding rear seat. Second, it's mere marketing fodder, likely to be used rarely if ever by the vast majority of truck and SUV owners (putting it in the same company with any components designed for off-road use). Third, it has nothing to do with driving. (Csaba, you do remember driving? That activity you engage in behind the wheel of a car designed to go, stop, and turn in an entertaining and responsive fashion.)

His second choice? Quadra-steer. No kidding. Parking assistance for your oversized pickup or SUV. Csere, even acknowledges that the technology won't improve handling, because "too many cars do just fine without its weight, complication, and cost." Irrelevant when actually scooting down the road in a real car but handy maneuvering your Suburban when dropping off the ten-year-old at ballet class, and it makes his list.

To be fair, third and fourth place on Csere's list go to variable displacement engines and variable-geometry manifolds. But, fifth spot goes to a cellphone holder. When I'm blasting down some two-lane country road, I ignore a ringing phone because it interferes with the driving experience.

The list of bad items is only marginally more relevant. But, it's worth noting that he derides bumper-mounted parking sensors, because real drivers ought to know where their cars ends. A good point. But, the people buying the SUVs and trucks with the parking sensors are not real drivers. And, whatever it is about the sensors that annoys the driver in Csere who was AWOL in the first eight paragraphs can't possibly stack up to the shared benefit of lower insurance premiums that result from the prevented fender benders.

Csaba, maybe you've been at C/D too long and cars bore you. Time to see what editorial openings they have at Light Truck and SUV.