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Porsche was famous for luxury sports cars. Then along came the SUV and everything changed


Nathan Bomey


USA TODAY

Published 7:47 AM EST Jan 22, 2020

For generations, Porsche has been known to its loyal fans as a brand with exquisitely designed and engineered sports cars.

Specialty vehicles like the tiny-but-powerful 911 sport coupe have been central to its identity.

But in recent years, the Volkswagen Group luxury brand has transformed itself into a maker of sport utility vehicles brand with lower prices and bigger sales.

Yes, Porsche still sells cars but they’ve taken a backseat to SUVs in terms of sales.

In 2019, SUVs made up more than two-thirds of Porsche’s U.S. sales, up from less than one-third in 2010. The brand’s Macan SUV starts at $50,900, while the least expensive version of its Cayenne SUV is $66,800. Both are significantly cheaper than the 911, which has a starting price of $97,400. The brand’s sports cars are priced higher largely because of their premium materials, robust powertrains and design.

By comparison, mainstream SUVs like the Chevrolet Equinox and Ford Edge cost $23,800 and $31,100, respectively.

Porsche’s transition from majority cars to majority SUVs has been a textbook example of how to capitalize on the nation’s SUV boom without alienating enthusiastic customers who adore ultra-fast, ultra-luxury sports cars, including the Porsche Boxster and Panamera. The shift has also bolstered overall Porsche sales, which have more than doubled from 29,023 vehicles in 2011 to 61,568 in 2019.

But there was never a guarantee of success.

“When we published the plan that Porsche would develop and sell an SUV, especially the core fan base, they couldn’t believe it,” said Klaus Zellmer, CEO of Porsche Cars North America, in an interview.  “They say, ‘That’s not my brand anymore.’ So it’s tough. You have to convince people.”

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Consider them convinced.

In 2019, Porsche had its best SUV sales year ever. The brand’s total SUV sales rose 22% from 2018 to 41,668.

Porsche’s first- and second-best-selling vehicles in 2019 were SUVs by a longshot. The Macan was No. 1 with sales of 22,667 vehicles, while the Cayenne was No. 2 with sales of 19,001. The brand’s best-selling car in 2019 was the 911 with 9,265 vehicles sold.

Baltimore resident Mia Walsh drives a Porsche Cayman at the racetrack for fun. But her family vehicle, the Cayenne,  has been a perfect fit as a spacious but sporty vehicle for runs to Sam’s Club and trips around town with her kids. She is on her third Cayenne.

“You may get wooed into the Porsche brand with a sporty 911 and then your life progresses and you’ve got a family and a wife and kids now, and you want to continue with the quality of the Porsche brand and the power of the Porsche brand, so you migrate into an SUV,” Walsh said.

Ahead of the curve

Unlike mainstream brands like Hyundai and Kia, which focused on cars and have had to play catch-up on SUVs as passenger car sales plummeted in recent years, Porsche was ahead of the curve.

When the company launched its first SUV, the Cayenne, in 2003, there was “lots of handwringing and arms being up about how the brand had lost its way and sold its soul and was never going to be the same,” said Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Cox Automotive’s Kelley Blue Book and Autotrader.

Walsh acknowledged there was an “outcry” among some enthusiasts who didn’t embrace the change from the beginning.

“There’s people who are the traditionalists who can’t see that in order to be financially stable, manufacturers need to adjust to the market and adjust to future trends,” said Walsh, who also serves as president of the Porsche Club of America’s chapter in the Potomac region.

But the company overcame that skepticism with outstanding engineering in its SUVs, just like its cars, analysts said.

“Engineering precision just oozes out of” Porsche vehicles,” Brauer said. “You can just feel how well made it is.”

A total redesign of the Cayenne has helped fuel the surge in the last two years. Debuted for the 2018 model year, the redesigned Cayenne still has the size of an SUV, but it looks and feels like a grown-up version of the 911, according to car reviewers at the research site Edmunds.

“Our approach always was that whatever we build in whatever segment we’re active in, it always has to be a Porsche – it always has to be the sportiest car in the segment,” Zellmer said.

To do so, the brand transferred engineers responsible for the popular Carrera GT mid-engine sports car in the 2000s to build its first SUV from the ground up, Zellmer said.

And when the Macan came about, Porsche didn’t withhold the type of sporty qualities that it would use in its performance cars, choosing to include flourishes like ceramic brakes and a standard dual-clutch transmission.

“Whenever Porsche launches a vehicle, it has that Porsche DNA,” said George Augustaitis, director of automotive and economic analytics at car-shopping site CarGurus. “So whether you’re driving a Cayenne or a Macan, a Cayman, a Boxer, a 911, a Panamera, whatever, they all have this feeling when you start the engine, when you turn the wheel, when you hit the brakes, when you hit the accelerator, it drives like a Porsche.”

More SUVs?

The question now is how far will Porsche go?

“They’ve done an incredible job building their SUVs. We wish they’d produce more,” said Jeff Dyke, president of Sonic Automotive, which operates five Porsche franchises and is one of the largest dealer companies in the country. “We can’t keep them on the shelf.”

There are obvious opportunities for more SUVs, perhaps most notably in the three-row SUV segment, where models like General Motors’ Cadillac Escalade and Ford Motor’s Lincoln Navigator currently dominate.

Zellmer said Porsche “would have problems” entering a segment like that while “being true to its brand values.”

But he also said the company will “stay flexible and respect customers’ wishes.”

Dyke said he expects Porsche to take a crack at a new three-row segment. “I do believe they will extend the brand and they should,” he said.

Bethesda, Maryland resident Gary Baker, who has owned Porsche models like the 928, the 911 and the Cayenne, said he would consider buying a large Porsche SUV if the brand made one.

“They will make it driver friendly,” he said. “I wouldn’t be concerned whatsoever.”

Grumbling about electrics

One change the brand has already announced is its decision to convert the Macan into an electric vehicle beginning “early” in the 2020s.

The switch has caused grumbling among Porsche fans, much like when the brand originally debuted an SUV.

“That same pushback is happening now with the traditionalists who want to hear the engine roar, want to be able to have all the things that a gas-powered vehicle gets you,” said Walsh, the president of the Porsche Club chapter in the Potomac region.

Zellmer, who recalls Porsche getting heat from fans in the mid-90s for switching from air-cooled engines to water-cooled engines, knows the transition could be rocky in the beginning.

But he believes Porsche fans will embrace the new wave of battery-powered vehicles because the brand is following a similar playbook from its transition to SUVs by focusing first on an electric sports car — the recently debuted Taycan – before turning to its first electric SUV.

“We want to make sure that people understand what Porsche does,” Zellmer said, “and so far that’s worked rather well.”

Follow USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey on Twitter @NathanBomey.

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