A Porsche isn't the first vehicle you'd think of to tackle the Alaskan wilderness. But while most Porsche Cayenne diesels will spend more time hunting gourmet groceries than hunting elk, even a mountain man might be impressed by a Porsche SUV that showed us 33 highway mpg and travels nearly 800 miles on a tank of fuel.
That is, if a mountain man could afford a $98,000 Porsche. In fairness, our Cayenne Diesel was gussied up with about $41,000 in optional finery, including a $6,505 set of 21-inch black alloy wheels; a sumptuous black-and-blue leather interior for $4,086, and an operatic $5,690 sound system from Germany's Burmester, with 16 speakers and more than 1,000 watts.
The Cayenne Diesel starts at a more reasonable $56,725, $14,100 less than the gas-electric Cayenne Hybrid. Yet the diesel-driven Porsche delivered better mileage -- 19/26 mpg in city and highway, versus 21/25 mpg for the hybrid. But like most modern diesels -- quiet, powerful and so clean that they meet even California's emissions standards, the world's toughest -- the Porsche easily topped its federal ratings in our real-world romp through Alaska's heavenly Kenai Peninsula.
With a modest 240 hp but a muscular 406 ft.-lbs. of torque, this Cayenne isn't actually the first diesel Porsche in America. That honor goes to a range of hard-working tractors of the '60s, which Porsche exported here in greater numbers than its sports cars. Yet at first blush, the idea of a modern Porsche diesel does seem at odds with a company known for racers and classic sports cars like the 911. Even Wendelin Wiedeking, Porsche's former chief executive who championed the then-controversial Cayenne SUV, was vehemently opposed to a diesel version.
Many people scoffed when Porsche built an SUV in the first place — just as, in another era, skeptics railed against America's backroom purchase of Alaska as a rotten deal. And we know how that turned out. Likewise, the Cayenne has enriched Porsche handsomely, accounting for roughly half of Porsche's worldwide sales. And Porsche is now readying a second crossover SUV, the smaller Macan, for showrooms.
From Anchorage, we trek south along the Seward Highway, named for William H. Seward. It was that former U.S. Secretary of State who sweet-talked the Alaska territory away from the Russian Empire in 1867 for just $7.2 million dollars — about two cents an acre, or, roughly the price of 100 Cayennes.
Guiding the Cayenne, my hunch is that Wiedeking would be pleasantly surprised. Just as I'm surprised when we spot a mid-engine Porsche Cayman on the road with Alaska plates, its owner clearly besotted enough to own a two-seater that he can drive, at best, four months out of the year.
This diesel version isn't as fast as the 380-hp Hybrid, the 400-horse Cayenne S V-8, or the fierce 500-hp Turbo that I also blast through these green-jacketed, snowcapped mountains — the Turbo so strong that it might bring down an avalanche.
But the Diesel's 7.2-second scoot to 60 mph makes it quicker than the basic Cayenne V-6, and it's only about a second slower than Hybrid or S versions. And if the Diesel takes a touch longer to get up to speed, in every other way it's a genuine Cayenne. Meaning, it's still the best handling SUV on the planet, and one of the most luxurious.
Throw in fuel mileage that easily tops its Cayenne stablemates, and this is a Porsche that — if we're honest -- makes a lot of sense for its typically mall-loving, family-toting buyers. (Most Cayennes on the street, if you haven't noticed, aren't exactly burning up the fast lane).
The Porsche adopts all the upgrades of the second-generation Cayenne, which has to be one of the best do-overs in recent automotive memory. Perhaps most importantly, the new version sheds about 400 fewer pounds compared to the old model. And though the diesel version adds back about 380 of those pounds, that still leaves a curb weight of 4,795 lbs., lighter than any diesel competitor.
Some of that weight comes from sophisticated emissions controls that diesels must adopt to deal with smog-forming nitrogen oxides and lung-taxing particulate matter, better known as soot. Aside from fancy particulate filters and a platinum-based catalytic converter, the Porsche carries a 5.5-gallon tank of AdBlue. That ammonia-releasing solution is automatically injected into the exhaust stream to neutralize pollution. Owners must replenish the tank every 10,000 miles, on average. Let that tank run bone dry, ignoring dashboard low-fluid warnings, and the Cayenne simply won't start, ensuring that owners don't evade their regulatory responsibility.
With no old-school, black diesel exhaust to ruin the view, owners will see a Cayenne that looks like a genuine Porsche, inside and out. The body is lean and curvaceous, vastly better than the family-truckster look of the original Cayenne.
From Mike DePetro, our back-seat passenger and Porsche product manager for the Cayenne, we learn that our Diesel could travel anywhere in Alaska — a state nearly 2.5 times the size of Texas — on a single, 26.4-gallon tank of fuel. It could also make it to Russia from here, if a land bridge existed between our two countries. (Sarah Palin would approve).
There's plenty of time to enjoy our spectacular surroundings, including the Cayenne's interior upgrades. The Cayenne integrates the familiar banked console now found throughout Porsche's lineup. Stitched, top-quality leather, gleaming metal and an array of toggles and buttons make the cabin look like Kanye West's private Gulfstream.
The new touch-screen navigation and audio system seem a bit tricky at first, but by the old standards of Porsche — notorious for dinky buttons and where's-the-owner's-manual frustrations — it's a quantum leap ahead. The same goes for the new thin-film display screen housed within Porsche's beautiful, traditional concentric driver's gauges, dominated by a generous analog tachometer. That color screen displays everything from navigation to vehicle functions and entertainment selections.
Pressing the gas to ease past a battered Ford pickup, I hear no trace of the clattering, chug-chug sound for which diesels were once notorious. Only at idle, standing outside the Cayenne, can I detect the barest trace of a tick-tock sound from these beefy cylinders. Within the hushed interior, you'd never suspect that this Cayenne has a diesel under the hood.
"It's the only Porsche exhaust we tune to be quiet," DePetro says with a smile.
That 3.0-liter, turbocharged diesel engine is shared with the Audi Q7 TDI, but Porsche tunes its version for 20 more horsepower. An engine block made from graphite iron alloy saves about 55 pounds compared with a conventional cast iron block. That engine is mated to a brilliantly creamy, eight-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission that also helps boost economy. Keeping the Cayenne around 65 mph, I'm rewarded with 33 mpg — remarkable mileage for such a roomy, high-performing SUV. Even at a spirited, 70-to-85 mph pace, the Cayenne returns about 28 mpg. The diesel, however, is the only Cayenne without a stop/start system that shuts down the engine to save fuel when the vehicle is halted.
Funneled by the rugged Chugash and Kenai Mountains, we carve along the Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet, one of America's most magnificent stretches of highway. It's also one of just two places in the U.S. (both in Alaska) with regular bore tides, a dramatic phenomenon in which a wall of seawater up to six feet high rushes down this shallow glacial fjord at up to 15 mph. The bores are caused by a new or full moon's extreme low tides, combined with a huge variation from high to low, about 35 feet on average in Turnagain. Top surfers such as Kelly Slater come here to ride this single shore-to-shore wave for several hours and up to five miles at a stretch. And along these glittering tidal flats, the Cayenne delivers its own impressive show of force, with burly passing power and a 135-mph top speed that's higher than most owners will dare.
That afternoon, I drive the Cayenne to a trailhead in the Chugash National Forest, for a quick solo hike to the Portage Glacier. Just days after a San Diego backpacker was mauled to death by a bear in Denali National Park, I've been handed two kinds of repellent: One for bugs, and a can of Counter-Assault "Grizzly-Strength" Pepper Spray. (It says so right on the can, though I suspect the stuff would just tick the bear off).
Until recently, diesel cars were also guaranteed to repel American buyers, who were suspicious of their dirty exhaust or sluggish performance. But modern diesels are washing those obstacles away. Though Porsche acknowledges that it has work to do to educate people on diesel, the company expects that 10 to 15 percent of customers will choose the diesel version of the Cayenne.
Now, all Americans need to do is come in from the wilderness.
2013 Porsche Cayenne Diesel
|CLASS||Four-door, five-passenger midsize sport utility vehicle|
|ENGINE||3-liter diesel V-6|
|0-60 MPH||7.2 seconds|
|EMISSIONS||7.3 tons of CO2/year|
|MILEAGE||19/26 mpg city/highway|
|PRICE RANGE||$25,200 - $28,200|
|CONS||Option prices reach for the sky|
|PROS||The efficiency of a diesel with the handling of a Porsche|