Yes, dear readers, we have come to the point where we are already celebrating the anniversaries of classic SUVs. In this case, it is the Porsche Cayenne, which celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2022.
For the occasion, the Zuffenhausen firm gladly opens its archives and reveals some fascinating anecdotes about its savior. Did you know, for example, that the Cayenne almost became a Mercedes? Or why the engineers involved in the project had to (reluctantly) part with their cherished service 911s?
But let’s start by looking at the more than tense situation of Porsche in the early 1990s. The company was on the edge of the abyss, keeping itself somehow afloat thanks to orders from third parties like the Mercedes 500 E or the Audi RS2.
For the year 1992, the balance sheet shows a loss of 240 million marks. Wendelin Wiedeking, first spokesperson for the management board since September 1992, then president from August 1993, reacted: he optimized production, removed entire hierarchical levels and introduced the Boxster. The company managed to turn a corner and aimed for further growth beyond the classic sports car segment.
An analysis commissioned by the department of then-sales manager Hans Riedel revealed that the legendary 911 and the new mid-engined Boxster model would not be enough to secure the manufacturer’s future. “We realized that with sports cars alone, we were coming up against limits on the market”recalls Anton Hunger, head of communications for former CEO Wendelin Wiedeking. “The sales department had clearly demonstrated this with the help of market research. In the long term, Porsche would have been on a downward slope again.”
For the “third Porsche”, five alternative vehicle concepts were considered, but in the end only a luxury minivan and a premium sports SUV were seriously considered. The minivan idea was vetoed by the United States, Porsche’s largest market at the time. “At the time, minivans were especially popular with low-income families”says Anton Hunger. “But what was already working well back then across all income strata was the big 4x4s”.
For the development of such a completely new model, Porsche was looking for a partner – and first found it in the vicinity: Mercedes-Benz was to launch the M-Class (or ML, now GLE) in 1997 and was only not opposed to Porsche getting involved and putting its own accents on it.
“At this point, we imagined the Porsche SUV as a high-performance derivative of the Mercedes”explains Klaus-Gerhard Wolpert, the first manager of the Cayenne range from 1998 to 2010. “With its own exterior skin, much of the technology of the M-Class, but engines and chassis components from here”. The Porsche/Mercedes cooperation decided on in the summer of 1996 was progressing well, but it failed at the end of the same year due to differences of opinion on the economic relations between the two companies.
A new partner was needed. He was found in Wolfsburg: although Volkswagen and Porsche were not yet linked within a group at the time, the then chairman of the board of VW, Ferdinand Piëch, grandson of the company founder Ferdinand Porsche, recognized the potential for cooperation. “Porsche presented the concept to VW and Ferdinand Piëch decided: we too may need such a car”Wolpert recalls.
In June 1997, the decision was made to build the Cayenne and the Touareg together on the Porsche platform as part of the project internally dubbed “Colorado”. Less than a year later, this decision was already made public. Only the name of the Cayenne remained secret at first.
Porsche was the development leader, VW was to take over the production of the new SUV. There were visible common parts, like the doors, and the interior was also similar. But for other important components, the partners took different paths: First, no Porsche engine was used in VW’s sister model and vice versa. Chassis tuning was also arranged separately.
The Cayenne was to set standards both on and off tarmac roads. “For us it was clear that if we launched an all-terrain vehicle, it also had to convince without restriction on the terrain”, explains Anton Hunger. Or as Felix Bräutigam, then Porsche Marketing Communications Director, put it: “The Cayenne is synonymous with a sporty driving experience. The terrain for that matters little to it”.
To give his engineers an idea of the requirements of developing a Sport Utility Vehicle, Line Manager Klaus-Gerhard Wolpert took an unusual step: “I asked all my area managers to part with their Porsche company car. Instead, we bought different SUVs, for example BMW X5s, Ford Explorers, Jeep Grand Cherokees and Mercedes M-Classes. Colleagues had to drive these models on a daily basis, and every four weeks we swapped them out.”
At first, the Wolpert team grumbled against the ordered renunciation of their beloved 911, but the daily confrontation with topics hitherto less considered at Porsche, such as storage space, the height of the loading sill, the folding rear seats, the fording depth and the angle of attack, favored in the team an awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of the competitors. “That was one of the keys to success”says Wolpert with conviction today.
In September 2002, just over four years after the Cayenne ruling was released, Porsche’s first five-seater had its world premiere at the Paris Motor Show. “Porsche is indeed facing what is perhaps its greatest challenge”declared Wendelin Wiedeking during the evening organized the day before in the courtyard of the Hôtel d’Evreux.
“This day, I have no doubt, will be of historic significance for the company”. The chairman of the board, who was still in office until 2009, must have been right. With the Cayenne, the sports car manufacturer has reached new customers and new markets, although strong reservations have been voiced by some fans of the brand.
“In our own house, the Cayenne was quickly accepted. But the Porsche clubs were less enthusiastic. There were sometimes strong headwinds”, recalls former spokesman Anton Hunger. But the numbers proved Porsche right.
Because Wiedeking and the entire management team were wrong on one point: the Porsche Cayenne was not only delivered 25,000 times a year to customers, as originally planned. From the first generation, called E1 internally, Porsche sold 276,652 copies in eight “model years”, or almost 35,000 units per year. In the meantime, the third generation (E3) has rolled off the production lines and the millionth Cayenne has already made history. The latest deliveries have well exceeded 80,000 units in 2021.