It’s perfectly fine to save the polar bears. But hybrid cars have long since driven past the planet-saving image of the Prius.
For Porsche, a carmaker threading the needle between a legacy of performance and an electric future, the hybrid powertrain must do double duty: making vehicles a little greener while giving them a new kind of go-fast jolt. It's a new way to think about making the performance cars of the 21st century.
Which bring us to the 2019 Cayenne E-Hybrid. Admittedly, touring the south of France in a powerhouse Porsche SUV is an over-the-top tableau of travel magazine refinement. But what lies beneath the sheetmetal and lavish leather is what matters. This Cayenne is a technological balancing act, powered by a performance-boosting hybrid that can also allow for more efficient motoring and some zero-emissions driving.
With automakers around the world pledging to move entirely to hybrids and EVs within the next decade—and into electric cars over the next five years—this ride of the posh and rich offers a peek forward.
Go Green Or Go Fast
Porsche is a purist’s brand, inspiring some ironclad loyalists who would argue the company should make only gas-powered cars, and maybe only one car if they’re being honest: The iconic 911 and its familiar . But while the legend endures, Porsche has not stood still.
At the dawn the 21st century it bilked the believers by dipping its toe into the SUV market. Experiments in hybrid tech came, too. The Panamera sedan saw the emergence of E-hybrid, Porsche’s plug-in hybrid drivetrain. The brand’s ideas about using the hybrid powertrain as a performance boost first and a green tech second came to fruition with the ridiculous and insane 918 Spyder, the hypercar that, along with the McLaren P1 and Ferrari LaFerrari, showed what jolt of electric power could do to push the fastest cars even further.
Now, technological trickle-down has brought that approach to the 2019 Cayenne. The E-Hybrid matches a 335-hp turbo V6 to a 134-hp electric motor; total system output is 455 hp. Overall, merging the two torque curves creates something that feels entirely different from either. The Cayenne E-Hybrid vrooms like a Porsche but with more pickup off the starting line and better mpg than you'd get otherwise.
This is still a SUV, mind you. You’re very aware of its high center of gravity as you pull through a corner, a reminder that you can’t attack a turn as if you were in a low-slung 911. On the plus side, it has a secret weapon: The magic button just off the steering wheel that pumps 20 seconds of turbo bust into the car. This is the stuff of bat mobiles and Fast & Furious movies—a hot caffeine injection for when you really, really need to pass that camper.
The hybrid technology on display is part conspicuous conservation and part invisible partner. In what amounts to the car’s default driving mode, Hybrid Auto, the computer system tries to use electric power whenever it would the car more efficient, and then uses the gas engine to recharge the electric battery at higher speeds (other modes allow you to make this decision manually). A meter on the dash flashes a series to green lights to indicate how much electric power you’re using so you can get the idea of when the car decides it needs a boost. Frankly, it’s easy to lose oneself in the roar of the gas engine and the instant response of the Cayenne, and to lose track of the science project aspect of tracking battery usage.
Cutting through the heart of Arles and other delightful French towns, we turn the car into E-Power mode. To use the Cayenne E-Hybrid in fully electric mode is to drive another car entirely. This new version for 2019 carries the same size of big battery in its butt end, as you can see in the display model above. However, 30 percent improvements in battery capacity since the last time the Cayenne was redesigned mean this Porsche can do 40-plus kilometers (25 or more miles) running on electric power only, presuming you don’t exceed a speed of 83 mph, at which point you feel a kick when the gas engine turns itself on.
It is possible, then, for those without outrageous commutes to complete their daily driving in the Cayenne E-Hybrid without burning any or much gasoline, especially if there’s a charging point at the office.
Stuck in the Middle With You
Plug-in hybrids are a halfway point. Yes, the driver could put in the work to operate them as electric vehicles, at least at urban speeds and distances. But you needn’t. The Cayenne E-Hybrid would be just as functional if you kept on filling up the gas tank and never worried yourself about the electric part of the equation, in which case the acid green detailing and brake calipers are strictly ornamental.
Yet it is a sign of the times that the latest evolution of E-Hybrid is creeping into Porsche’s SUV, just as it has in previous generations of Cayenne. Americans in particular want nothing more at the moment than to buy tall crossovers, to the point that Ford is killing almost its entire lineup of short sedans in favor of trucks and SUVs. Even future-focused Tesla had to make the Model X crossover to satisfy our need to drive up high.
The next part of the equation lurks right around the corner. While a bunch of crossovers have joined Porsche in incorporating hybrid powertrains, the automotive world is just getting around to turning crossovers, the ubiquitous family cars of the 2010s, into pure electric vehicles. Tesla did it, while Hyundai and Jaguar announced new models this year. Porsche, for its part, is pursuing the Mission E electric car as a mighty Tesla competitor of 2020 and already preparing for the inevitable crossover version it’ll have to make to win over Americans.
Ultimately, the Cayenne E-Hybrid is a compromise, but a clever one. It is a signpost of Porsche in progress and a hint at the shape of the wider auto market to come.