You see them sometimes, the über-wealthy. A CitationJet taking off for Steamboat or Bermuda. A Ferrari Spider growling along Pacific Coast Highway. Or a Fairline yacht idling past Coral Gables mansions. But you hardly ever see an über-car towing an über-boat to some über-destination. So, like, what’s up with that? Maybe the rich are too busy running hedge funds to take an awesome road trip with an epic car and boat. Since they won’t do it, last summer we decided to give it a try.
Turns out, mighty rare are Ferraris with trailer hitches, but Porsches are another matter. The Stuttgart, Germany, company’s Cayenne SUV was actually born and bred to tow, with the range-topping Turbo S belting out 550 horsepower from its 4.8-liter, twin-turbocharged V-8. To put that in perspective, the heroic Camaro ZL1 muscle car makes 580 hp. Now here comes the über-part: The Porsche’s manufacturer’s suggested retail price as equipped here: $168,225.
Is that lofty price a guarantee of good performance during mile-high trailer boating? We set out with a Malibu Wakesetter in tow to find out.
Despite the Cayenne’s impressive power, we have to admit holding a certain suspicion, because towing requires more than just big muscles and a fancy hood ornament — it also requires a broad torque spread, excellent chassis dynamics and a beefy hitch. Fortunately the Cayenne Turbo S is rated to tow 7,716 pounds. We would see about the rest.
To test the theory of whether some Euro-luxe vehicle can match American truck muscle, we devised a rigorous test: 400 miles of broiling interstate in the summer followed by a brutal 50-mile mountain climb to a suitably luxurious destination. Known as the “Jewel of the High Sierras,” Lake Tahoe is the country’s second-deepest lake, with its icy waters plunging 1,645 feet and lakefront properties ranging up to $20 million. It is most definitely an über-destination to go with this über-Porsche.
Malibu provided the perfect luxury/performance companion in the 3,500-pound Wakesetter 21 VLX. Besides three Monsoon V-8 options up to 555 supercharged ponies, the VLX also packs an impressive suite of electronics, including Malibu Touch Command (MTC) computerized presets for the Power Wedge, ballast tanks and Surf Gate that make toggling between specialty wakes easy. It also seats 14 people, has an onboard heater and boasts a Rockford sound system that’ll blow you overboard. The manufacturer’s suggested retail price on our 350 hp version, including a tandem-axle Boatmate trailer, was $110,072, bringing the Porsche/Malibu total to $278,297. Clearly, our luxury test tow package represents hedge-fund-profits territory.
After hitching up the Malibu at Tilly’s Marine in Ventura, California, we were ready to discover whether this jewel of an SUV was merely prissy or actually potent. Turns out the impressive horsepower is mirrored by 553 foot-pounds of torque, which puts the Cayenne Turbo S into the hellcat ranks when you put your right foot down. Acceleration is breathtaking at a Porsche-certified 4.3 seconds from 0 to 60 mph. Even with 5,400 pounds’ worth of Malibu and trailer in tow, it is impressive — we timed it at 9.45 seconds from 0 to 60 mph. And the eight-speed paddle-shift automatic was always quick and precise, a real delight.
So much for whether a pretty little import can tow a boat. Next on our list was whether this 15.9-foot-long car, with a wheelbase 4.6 feet shorter than that of a long-bed Dodge Ram crew-cab pickup, could haul a 21½-foot boat on its tandem-axle trailer without getting sketchy when the road does. Our trip from the Los Angeles area north along furnace-hot Interstate 5 proved it could. The Cayenne’s standard all-wheel drive, adjustable suspension and stability management all operated continuously and automatically.
The Cayenne and the trailer both have high-performance, low-profile tires, 21 inches for the Porsche and 18 inches for the trailer. The stiff sidewalls and wide footprint allow greater cornering forces, and so whether on the interstate or mountain roads, the entire package always felt poised and planted. Interestingly, altogether the Porsche and trailer feature eight disc brakes. Often overlooked, stopping power is actually a critical towing safety feature, and with this capability the entire 10,200-pound Porsche/Malibu/Boatmate package rewarded us with exceptional brake response, stopping performance and pedal feel. Maybe there is something to this über-towing?
As a disciple of crew-cab pickups, one additional reservation I had was how to pack four family members into the Cayenne for a 1,200-mile road trip. Whereas a big pickup would naturally have a Texas-size interior, I wasn’t so sure about the Porsche. I needn’t have worried. Every passenger in every seating position was complimentary of the contoured leather seating and other accommodations, including the giant panoramic glass roof, Bose surround sound and multizone climate controls.
Ride quality is also crucial for distance towing. The Porsche’s active suspension management system was solid here too, with a push-button choice of comfort, normal or sport settings. We left the system on normal for most of the trip, as it provided fine ride quality without the vehicle ever feeling floaty or off-balance. Thanks in part to its optional acoustic glass, the Cayenne proved quiet inside, registering 67 decibels on the A-scale of our sound meter. The only demerit here was pervasive low-level tire and exhaust background noise.
So far the Porsche was excelling at towing capacity and power, stability and comfort. But what about fuel economy? For the entire towing trip, including interstates, mountain roads and launching, it averaged 9.5 mpg. That’s comparable to a full-size pickup towing a similar-size boat, although the Porsche required premium fuel compared with regular unleaded for many pickups — a 5 percent added hit. Despite the Cayenne’s seemingly large 26.4-gallon fuel tank, we typically refilled before 200 miles, about 80 miles shorter than a large pickup with a 35-gallon fuel capacity. This required two fuel stops per driving day compared with just one for a pickup.
In the heat-soaked farm towns in California’s Central Valley, the Porsche and Malibu stood out like Gucci shoes in a dirt-floor honky-tonk. But the Cayenne didn’t mind the heat, easily dispatching hundreds of miles of broiling pavement. In fact, the Porsche/Malibu/Boatmate package is so competent at speed that the 55 mph legal limit proved hard to obey. And the standard exterior mirrors, too narrow for a useful rear view, left us sitting ducks for a ticket. Accessory towing mirrors are recommended.
After 400 miles of successful highway towing under hot conditions, we were confident the Cayenne would excel pulling the Malibu over 7,387-foot Echo Summit on the way to Tahoe. And it did just that, thanks to great handling and the twin turbos, which negated the usual altitude-caused performance loss. Truthfully, I’ve never had an easier and more confidence-inspiring run up that mountain with a boat in tow.
Finally glimpsing Tahoe’s famous blue waters far below us was a great reward. And the transition from the Central Valley to the Tahoe basin was stark. Instead of triple-digit temperatures in the flatlands, Tahoe was in the 70s. Pine and cedar trees replaced grain fields and tumbleweeds, crows and sparrows ceded to eagles and jays, and Circle K truck stops were replaced by the Tahoe Resource Conservation District boat-inspection station. To stem the spread of invasive mussels in the lake, all boats must have this inspection prior to launching. That’s good, but it was neither cheap nor quick, requiring $75 and over an hour to inspect the never-used Malibu.
This was just one of many reminders that Tahoe is as pricy as it is pretty, with the private launch ramps we explored charging $25 to $45 per round trip and mooring buoys, if you could find one, quoted at $100 a day in season. We settled on Obexer’s Boat Co., a 104-year-old family establishment on the woodsy west shore, which featured a friendly staff and casual launch environment. And while the Porsche and Malibu were a decidedly premium combo, we also favored the folksy 1940s-era Tahoma Lodge under the pines rather than a glittery high-rise hotel.
Although its famed clarity has declined and despite worrisome algae and mussel problems, Tahoe is still a stupendous boating experience — as long as you don’t mind the cold water, which ranged from 58 to 64 degrees during our visit. On a calm day, wakeboarding and wakesurfing here is a surreal experience. You can quickly find deep water, which averages nearly 1,000 feet, leap off the swim step, and stare right into the inky abyss. Then yell “Hit it!” and shred right over it.
Although Malibu’s optional 410 hp or supercharged 555 hp Monsoon engines would have more giddyap at Tahoe’s 6,225-foot elevation, the standard 350-horse engine sped us out to the choice water quickly enough. And when the occasional swells came our way, the well-developed hull cut through them with minimal chaos.
Thanks to the computerized MTC system, when you’re in ski, wake or surf mode, the Malibu does everything but drive itself, giving all riders the best wake for their best shot at a best trick. And as a lifelong surfer I was thrilled with the endless glassy wake, complete with a hollow curl on top. Now, most millennials would probably want to listen to dubstep on the huge rear-facing sound cannons while practicing cutbacks and aerials, but not me. Instead, I am proud to claim the first-ever wakesurfing session to 500 fantabulous watts of Herman’s Hermits. To me, that goes well beyond mere über-luxury.