AUTOpsy: Porsche Cayenne S (2002)

Porsche’s SUV trailblazer not such much established a new automotive sector combining seemingly opposing characteristics, but fully established the power of brand cachet. 


The Cayenne didn’t save Porsche – the Boxster and 996 models so despised by Neunelfer anoraks did. And yet, the Cayenne is viewed mostly as a necessary evil, the high-margin, high-sales perfume that subsidises the artful haute couture.

Due to the Cayenne’s merits usually being considered relative (‘it drives great… for an SUV’; ‘it doesn’t look that bad’), the car isn’t viewed through the same prism as other automobiles that are not as inherently compromised.

On this basis alone, the first-generation Cayenne, the car that truly proved to the masses that an SUV could really be anything, as long as it was tall and imposing, deserves a cold, objective look, certainly from a design perspective.


However, a sense of compromise is right at the core of the Cayenne’s styling, no matter from which angle one chooses to approach this subject. For not only was this Porsche famously developed alongside VW’s Touareg SUV, but it also had to somehow fulfil the unenviable task of combining the stylistic tropes and form language of the brand with with an automotive architecture that wouldn’t appear to be able to facilitate these at all.

Designed by American stylist, Stephen Murkett, under the guidance of Porsche’s long-serving chief designer, Harm Lagaay, the Cayenne had to introduce the then-new notion that a Porsche could not only boast more than two doors, but also increased ride height and substantial physical dimensions.

Probably with the intention of making the Cayenne’s alien architecture thus more palatable, Porsche’s stylists chose to apply certain cues associated with the brand (and, of course, the mighty 911 in particular), rather than try and change the basic concept of an all-terrain vehicle to make it more suitable for the Zuffenhausen marque (as Murkett himself had done a few years prior, with the Panamericana concept car).

The frontal aspect of the Cayenne is therefore defined by proportions that echo those of the sports cars, albeit in severely modified form. So like all other Porsches, the Cayenne does without a classical grille. Instead, it features a (then) humungous ‘lower’ air intake cluster that, in reality, is as tall and in the same position as a regular saloon’s grille – just an awful lot bigger. The outer, taller part of the air intake is horizontally separated by a strake, which is aimed at adding a sense of graphical order. Unfortunately, all the graphics suffer from rather imprecise sculpting and subsequent lack of definition.

Above that, headlights of a roughly similar shape as those of a 996/Boxster can be found, albeit with less arresting, as well as less agitating graphics separating the different light units. In general, the Cayenne was obviously intended as far more conservative a design than the Pinky-Lai-influenced 996 & Boxster models, despite its groundbreaking role for the Porsche brand. Compromise truly is the name of the game here.

The one area in which did Cayenne did attempt to offer an unusual solution concerned its trim. Rather than being fitted with chrome or body coloured accents around its side windows, the sill area and the door handles, the Cayenne was initially offered with some kind of frosted aluminium look trim, which possessed the peculiar trait of looking like rather nasty plastic from afar.

This choice of material exacerbated the rather cheap impression the Cayenne’s appearance generally left (even disregarding its truly horrendous cabin). Which wasn’t helped by the awkward way in which the front wing’s surfacing doesn’t flow into the front door – an issue probably brought about by the need to share the doors with the VW Touareg.

Obviously, the Porsche Cayenne’s stance is hardly helped by the relatively small (albeit sensibly) sized wheels this first generation of the model was initially fitted with. Yet the arguably even bigger burden are, quite literally, the D-pilar and rear shoulder, which are aiming for a muscular, sinuous impression, yet only highlight how compromised the appliance of such a form language onto an obviously inappropriate body-in-white are. The effect of this is an awkwardly stern-heavy stance that’s utterly at odds with the sense of muscular athleticism that was probably intended.


However, by far the weakest area of the first-generation Porsche Cayenne was its rear end. The graphics applied there can only be described as amateurish, just as some of the choices regarding the application of trim and the shape of the light units baffle to this day.


Obviously, an attempt was made to lend the Cayenne’s rear hatch a sense of consistency through the use of similar graphics for its basic outline, the number plate’s recess and the sliver of aluminium trim underneath the rear window.

Yet, due to the extremely careless execution of these, all one is left with is the impression of an extraordinarily ham-fisted, borderline unprofessional piece of work that would have appeared more appropriate on a Korean design, five years prior to the Cayenne’s unveiling.

The awkward attempt at connecting the rear lights (or, more precisely, their respective upper two-thirds) through the addition of two parallel creases only adds insult to injury in this context.

Another case of careless sculpting can be found next to the Cayenne’s rear window, where an initially defined crease eventually blends in with the rear haunch in a way that isn’t discreet, but sloppy.

Due to the sheer number of unresolved details, on top of a highly compromised basic design, the Cayenne’s sales success and a lack of disdain this design would clearly deserve say a lot about the prowess of Porsche’s engineering (which helped cover up some of the car’s packaging deficits) and the might of the Porsche brand (which took care of the rest).

Wearing almost any other badge on is bonnet, the Cayenne would have ended up a side note in automotive history, a cul-de-sac – visual laughing stock even.

But Porsche don’t do laughing stock, obviously.


The author of this piece runs his own motoring website, which you are welcome to visit at

Author: Christopher Butt

car design critic // runs // contributes to The Road Rat magazine // writes a column for Octane France //

22 thoughts on “AUTOpsy: Porsche Cayenne S (2002)”

  1. Had I been reading this at the time of the Cayenne’s launch I would have agreed entirely. But in comparison with the obscene obesity and gross ugly pointlessness of current SUVs the Cayenne is a supreme example of understated elegance . . . .

  2. Nice to see a Cayenne off road there. A brave expedition indeed.

    Both this and the first gen Panamera looked very, very awkward. The Cayenne’s facelift was ghastly too.

    But – leaving aside the dubious merits of these cars – the second generation models were much better, and the Macan is a decent looking effort of its type.

    1. The Macan’s craftsmanship is, frankly, astonishing. To make this kind of form language work on as compromised a package takes some serious skill, which is why I raise my hat to Michael Mauer, Mitja Borkert et al for that particular effort.

      What I find so fascinating about the Cayenne I is that its design is so astonishingly most amateurish, yet its success prevents it from the kind of scorn it truly deserves. Had this car been an Infiniti or Kia, it’d be the butt of jokes to this day.

    2. It seems you’re focusing too much on details taken in isolation. But the whole package is far from bad (and, as already pointed out, nowhere near as offensive as other car makers efforts in this segment), and for most people it’s all that matters.

    3. Laurent, thank you so much for your enlightening remark.

      So stance and proportions are details in your book? That’s in interesting perspective.

    4. Well your piece doesn’t say much on these two points, and is hardly conclusive.

    5. I look forward to your take on it, Laurent.

      Do go for it: Put yourself in a tenuous position, just this once! You’ve got it in you!

    6. Actually I think it looks quite tidy on the side-view picture you posted here, and it’s hard to detect any of the “awkward way in which the front wing’s surfacing doesn’t flow into the front door” or “awkwardly stern-heavy stance”. Indeed it’s far from brilliant overall but in no way does it deserve to be called “ham-fisted” and “borderline unprofessional”, other than by being picky about the detailing.

    7. You’re uncharacteristically undemanding and obviously don’t hold automotive design to the same exacting standards as reports on automotive design.

      That’s good to know.

      (And the door looks as though it’s from a different car – maybe I’ll do a video the next time, just to satisfy your demands, monsieur!)

  3. Customers didn’t buy the Cayenne because of what it was or looked like, but despite of. Just as with Bangle’s BMWs, there is a large number of corporate car users that will drive just anything as long as their admired logo is on the bonnet. For any other car maker, both experiments would have ended desastrously, but these two got away with it.
    That’s the power of brand loyalty.
    The difference was that BMW for no apparent reason stress-tested their brand strength under the eye of the public whereas Porsche expanded in a new market segment.

    I remembered going on a business visit to Porsche Weissach in late 1999. I accompanied someone in his Carrera (996) when on the back roads around Weissach we saw camouflaged Cayenne prototypes. I was completely shocked because even under acres of black tape and styrofoam you could see the sheer monstrosity of the car. The Porsche driver went complertely over the top because he invariably hailed anything coming from Zuffenhausen.

  4. The Cayenne is a perfect example of how our perceptions have been softened up by a succession of blows to the head and stomach. Shocking upon its introduction, I remember being convinced it would be a brand-killer and that anybody with the merest understanding of aesthetics would laugh derisively and walk swiftly away. How silly of me.

    Almost as silly as this lumpen device appears now. Dear me, the Cayenne has aged poorly. Like van Hooydonk’s E65 BMW, it looks comically ill-wrought now, a collection of poorly integrated styling cues in search of a unifying canvas.
    I would have thought that if a car company, especially one as storied as Porsche, and with potentially as much to lose was to embark upon such a huge product gamble, it would have been executed with considerably more care than this. Instead, it demonstrated to the industry that all one needed to carve a niche was a large and somewhat blunt chisel.

    With all the usual provisos of matters of design being subjective, I remain utterly unconvinced by those who suggest that later iterations were less offensive. They had no right being anything else.

    The inescapable fact remains that the Cayenne tore a hole in the market and due to its success and the fact that Porsche (correctly as it happened) ascertained that subtlety was for the birds, it opened the field to the wider industry. The monstrosities of today can be traced directly back to this vehicle and Porsche retain my undying contempt for what was after all, not a matter of necessity, but a blatant land grab.

    1. One would have to take into account that Porsche was no design-led company. Except for the 928 and to a lesser extent the 924 they didn’t let designers loose on their core products. Air cooled Porsches didn’t have professionally styled engine compartments, for example. The interior design of a 993 with its haphazardly placed switchgear and lack of attention to details makes it look like the work of weekend DIY tinkering.
      Considering this background, the Cayenne was a make-or-break product from a company that needed to push their production numbers at all cost. Had the Cayenne failed, they simply could have stopped it and their core products would have survived undamaged.
      At BMW the situation was different. They gambled with brand robustness of their core product for no proper reason just for the sheer sake of it.
      With hindsight, both the Cayenne and the E65 are early indicators of the rot setting in in German car industry as a matter of complacency making them reckless. These cars are just a different expression of the same management lack of responsibility as Schrempp’s Chrysler takeover.

    2. That’s an interesting interpretation, Dave.

      The Cayenne was Porsche’s attempt to make the company less dependent upon the rather cyclical sports car sector. The 996 & Boxster had saved Porsche (and boy did they bear testament to the cost cutting involved), but the Cayenne was supposed to turn that once again floating ship into a truly buoyant one. The post-9/11 recession therefore acts as the Cayenne’s baptism of fire. I doubt they were aware that they were about to radically change the luxury automobile sector, back in the day.

      BMW were trying hard to become more of a cutting-edge, dynamic brand by the mid-90s. The last of the Claus Luthe-designed models had turned out extremely conservative, resulting in the average age of BMW owners rising to worrying extent. And as BMW management understood that the US were the cultural pacemakers at the time, Bangle was hired to bring in some fresh ideas. He arguably overdelivered on that front, which didn’t please all members of the BMW board, but amid the power struggle between Wolfgang Reitzle and Bernd Pischetsrieder, not to mention the Rover disaster, Bangle used every opportunity to push his agenda.

      I agree with you that in both cases, globalisation plays a significant role, however.

  5. The biggest mistake was the need to have so much commonality with the VW Touareg, sharing the basic passenger compartment it not most of the body in white. Making the plug and play Porsche front and rear sections looking like a cynical atempt to cash in on the 911 brand dna, which most certainly didn’t suit the car in any way.

    The Cayenne and to some extent the 996 and the Boxster was the first self consciously Porsche looking Porsches, they were almost post modernistically self referential. The beauty with the 914, 924, 928, 944, etc was that all were intrinsically Porsches without the need for bragging rights. They were Porsches in essence because they held true to the ideals inherent in the company mythology, even when they shunned everything that went before like the 928.

    The Cayenne has nothing on that, it is what it is, a very cheap attempt to cash in on the brand cachet. As the Cayenne and the Touareg is made on the same factory line, there is no abjective difference in quality between them, any price difference is pure proft, we’re talking about 30k+ Euro in profit per car, it really is a money maker for the VW/Porsche empire.

    1. Ingvar, I think your analysis of what Porsche did with the Cayenne is quite correct.
      It’s also in this light that it was a forerunner for the way the industry works today. I’m thinking (for example) of Mercedes who sell overpriced, mediocre hatchbacks in shiploads. Without premium branding, no one would have a reason to buy such a car.

    2. Giving cars from the same brand a common look hardly sounds like a bad idea in principle. It makes more sense than the opposite idea, to let cars in the same portfolio differ visually. Who’d have thought it’d turn out so badly.
      The same goes for brand values. This also has the ring of truth to it and yet has led to horribly self-conscious and self-strangling products.
      What is it about Business School thinking that can find a way to poison the notion of consistent design coupled with sensible product guidelines?
      I’d be interested to see if the case studies of “how not to do it” were really worse than the reality of letting marketing conscious managers take charge.

  6. The first really modern non-BOF upmarket CUV that sold like gangbusters was the Lexus RX300, arriving for 1998. In the USA, where the majority of Porsche sales also took place, and before the fragility of the water-cooled boxer cam drive for the 911 became apparent, eventually leading to rusty old air-cooled warriors being refurbished and eulogized.

    That first RX300 looked bland. With the imperative to stay alive in the face of flat or declining sports car sales, it seems to me Porsche rolled the dice on the Cayenne. So the first one was bland like a Lexus, while the companion Touareg from VW at least looked decent. Both were loaded up with two-ratio transfer cases for backwoods adventures virtually none ever saw. They were thus both overweight porkers to a frightening degree, 5500 lbs of heft in not particularly large vehicles compared to US domestic converted pickups, which although several feet longer weighed perhaps only 500lbs more in top 4WD spec. The original ML Mercedes was similarly afflicted, and no non-stick axle vehicle was going to be much cop on the Rubicon Trail, and real off-roaders laughed at these things for their lack of suspension articulation. Running about the Sahara is not the same thing as crawling over boulders, or running over thousands of small gulleys at 80 mph or more in long travel specials in the Baja 1000, which the F150 Raptor epitomizes.

    Following the usual hand-wringing from Porsche purists, those first Cayennes were for the most part bought by Porsche-owning but not Porsche-fanatic wealthy people. They could ditch some lowbrow brand SUV and drive about on daily errands behind an upscale badge. The front visage kind of looked like a 911, anyway. Pity about the rest, but the nascent CUV blobs from other manufacturers were all over the place stylistically anyway at the time. So the Cayenne was “good enough”. It only looks really ratty when grimy, and salt-encrustation in winter is the norm in the North East, so nobody stood around criticizing the utter drab ordinariness of the thing under such conditions, except car dolts like me. It turned out to suit enough people to be a success.

    Still, like Americans of today who stare in astonishment at the gargoyle-adorned vehicles primarily meant for Chinese consumption before theirs, so do, in my opinion, DTW writers fail to take into account the exigencies demanded by the dominant market of 2000 for expensive vehicles, which was indubitably the USA. And Porsche knew a hell of a lot more about what was likely to sell there than European car nuts insulted by the betrayal of ancient loyalties that the Cayenne represented to them.

    So Porsche designed the first Cayenne for Americans. Get over it! Just as Americans today should get over the Chinafication of vehicles they get to buy. Companies are forced to style for the dominant market. Neglect that like Ford and suffer a 50% sales drop in China from 2016 to 2017. Neglect rapid model renewal to keep the pot on the boil, and you’re toast there as well.

    To me, European aesthetists are now two doors away from market reality. First comes the Chinese market, secondarily the US where some toning down is at least budgeted for, and lastly Europe. Naturally, cars never expected to be exported out of the EU in any quantity can reflect local tastes. The French seem to be particularly adept at this.

    Obviously, people can stand back and pooh-pooh my words. True European elegance will win over dragon-styling among the more well-bred and cultured consumers in China and the US, they may opine. Just as obviously there are not enough of these folk to really matter for many going automotive concerns, or we would not be where we are.

    DTW explains on its masthead that it examines cars from a European perspective. Fine. But the mishmash of current design and the non-appreciation deep down of why it is that way, means that thoroughly undeserving old buses from 40 years ago get loving treatment not afforded elsewhere, like myriad old Lancias of highly dubious engineering merit and desperately poor build quality.

    Do not get me wrong. I enjoy DTW immensely and it has taught me much. But to place oneself in a European bubble is to limit oneself. Just as I say above, the Americans are only just beginning to realize they’re not number one any more, with their usual xenophobic reaction. For them and for now, pickup trucks, BOF SUVs and the Jeep Wrangler survive to be uniquely American.

    For Europe with its export or die reality, a bit more international outlook would not go amiss, even in historical perspective, if the industry is not to be trampled by you know who buying it up for fun and profit. Volvo now preserves four-cylinder thrum for the wealthy worldwide, for example. But its factory design skills and production technology is why Geely snapped it up. The new S4o or whatever presented as the Lynk&Co 02 instead, shows what may well happen next. Of course they’ll trot out their Euro designers for a bit of PR flim-flam to impress the terminally unaware back home, but Euro looking the Lynk is not.

    So this rather mean carving up of the original Cayenne’s details can only be appreciated in isolation from the market forces and available budgets of the time. Having a right old go at things seems a Kubrick specialty, and I love to read his putdowns of Mercedes styling in particular. In its relentlessness, however, no other point-of-view can apparently be entertained, so in the end it all seems a bit angry and righteous. No doubt it gains page reads, but neither that nor toeing the line is DTW’s raison d’etre in any case. At least it makes me think things through to come to my own personal dogmatic conclusions. For me, DTW’s ponderings are a good seed for contemplation that I can obtain from nowhere else.

    1. So DTW is crap, we’re all ignorant, but you return to remind us of these facts nonetheless, as though driven by a Swiss clockwork. A-ha.

      Personally,Bill, I don’t do clickbait. Believe it or not, but even these slight pieces aren’t copy-‘n-pasted in 15 minutes. And I’m fully prepared to have people disagree with my findings. I’m also prepared to make my case, if anyone is interested enough to start a debate.
      But what exactly are you, Mr Malcolm, Sir, trying to tell me here?

      What I was trying to point out is aesthetic shortcomings and poor craftsmanship. What on Earth’s that got to with the Chinese, American or European market? It’s poor work that should’ve been done better, full stop.
      Should I’ve given the Cayenne an easier time, because it was mostly done for Americans, who generally wear trousers that are too short and ties that are too long? Is that what you’re trying to tell me, Bill? Am I not being biased enough?

    2. I’ll attempt to enter the fray here and hope I don’t get my feet burned. Bill makes a perfectly valid point about how the Cayenne was most likely designed primarily with the US market in mind. Which in isolation is fine and all, but if we then consider just how careless and slipshod the resultant vehicle looked – especially in comparison to its clearly related VW Touareg sibling, surely it merely serves to underline just how little Porsche thought of its US customers?

      A lack of respect for which they were richly rewarded. People bought them, people liked them. Bought more. Who they were and are now is probably irrelevant, especially since almost everybody is now buying an equivalent. But is it acceptable to give the Cayenne a pass simply because it now looks fairly innocuous by comparison to some of the monstrosities we have to contend with?

      I’m a little uncomfortable with the notion that critiquing the car’s styling is in some way being unfair about it. It’s not as if it’s some defenceless oft-maligned butt of every joke of a car like for instance, the aforementioned Gamma. It’s a Porsche. It says so on the boot. And on that basis ought to be held to a higher account.

      As one of DTW’s founders I’ll put my hand up to having a Euro-centric bias but one of the functions of this site is to encourage a conversation around subjects that engage (or enrage) us. In the intervening time I have learned a great deal, both from my own researches and the insights from our readers and contributors – (Bill included). But nobody has a monopoly on being correct. Not I, nor Bill, Laurent, Kris or anyone else who writes or comments on these pages.

      We’re all here because we are passionate about these subjects and we all have something to impart to one another. Of course, whether we like what we hear is another matter…

    3. I thought Bill was pretty fair about DTW´s strengths and biases but a bit too kind to Porsche. On the one hand I find the cynicism of Porsche rather repellent. The badge is a promise of integrity and they don´t fulfil it. On the other hand, Porsche customers deserve to be fleeced if they don´t look with active minds and anyway they have plenty of money. If it keeps Stuttgarters in wurst and cheese, that´s a good thing. Porche could have earned their keep more honestly. While I am sometimes critical of our N American cousins´ tastes, I think everyone deserves the best products they can afford and those who simply assume their customer´s stupidity are always disgracing themselves first.

      It is something of a wonder that neither the mighty US nor eternally beautiful Europe can outweigh the tastes of the burgeoning Chinese market. In part I think it´s because the managers over-estimate the Chinese in an example of group-think. If the Chinese really do want visibly different cars, design them for them and please let we here in the EU and US have something we find more palatable. That´s what front and rear bumper assemblies are for. Don´t tell me the EU and US aren´t big enough to justify their own bumpers, Mr Car Executive Product Planner.

    4. I came here for the extremely meaningful insights and discussions with industry people in the know, I stayed for the Lancias and the popcorn debate…

    5. Ingvar: I am sorry for the dearth of Lancia material lately. I just can´t photograph another Kappa and run an article on it. I would love to test drive one though.

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