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.
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