The Porsche brand is often associated with little red sports cars zipping through traffic or turning laps on a track. With performance at the heart of everything from the GT3RS to the 718, it’s rare that anyone, either owner or Porsche enthusiast, considers the off-road ability inherent in Porsche’s very popular Cayenne. That is until you score the opportunity to test the luxury SUV on one of the longest off-road navigational rallies in the U.S., the Rebelle Rally.
The Rebelle Rally is an off-road rally for women that traverses more than 2500 km (or 1500 miles) of remote areas in the Nevada, California and Arizona deserts over a 10-day period each October. This year marked the sixth year of competition and brought together 52 two-woman teams from more than 92 cities, 24 states and provinces and five countries. Each team comprises a driver and a navigator (that uses use paper maps, compasses and map tools) and is responsible for their vehicle and gear as well as selecting routes to find hidden checkpoints scattered throughout the desert.
The Rebelle has become increasingly competitive over the years as more women return to the competition and new teams like mine—Ruby and the Wanderettes in the Porsche Cayenne S—bubble up. That’s why organizers strive to make the event more challenging, placing checkpoints in unproven areas.
Why a Porsche Cayenne S?
To many purists’ dismay, Porsche launched its Cayenne in 2002. Fans complained that the brand should stick to the beloved 911 and avoid the growing SUV craze. Yet, like anything that Porsche does, the company carefully engineered the Cayenne to concur both hot laps and off-road adventures. The first-generation Porsche Cayenne had fully locking differentials, a disconnecting sway bar and a handful of off-road features that (sadly) modern versions don’t offer today. Entering the Cayenne S pushed the limits of the Cayenne’s modern off-road capabilities.
Ruby, the name we gave the all-wheel-drive 2020 Cayenne S that spent less than 500 miles of its previous life as a tester at the Porsche Experience Center in Atlanta, came equipped with a few key upgrades, including optional air suspension that adjusts traction and ground clearance for different scenarios. Each mode—Onroad, Gravel, Mud, Sand and Rocks—are all pre-programmed with different chassis heights, transmission gearing and steering feel to help drivers navigate various road and weather conditions. Rock mode, for instance, raises the Cayenne 3 inches to its 6.6-inch standard ride height. In addition to the pre-programmed modes, we could choose one of four heights—Low, Regular, High and Terrain—to independently raise and lower ground clearance. I kept drove Ruby in Rock Mode during most of the race because it coupled the most low-end torque from the 434-horsepower twin-turbo V6 with the greatest amount of ground clearance (9.6 inches).
In Ruby’s time as a test vehicle at the PEC, she was pushed through her paces on everything from a skid pad and handling course to an off-road track designed to show off the capabilities of the vehicle. But customers and media would only spend a few hours testing out the various modes in the black-on-red SUV. It was nothing like the real-world experience of the Rebelle.
Bone Stock from the Start
Rebelle Rally founder Emily Miller said that she specifically designed the competition to showcase the capabilities of what’s known as bone stock, manufacturer vehicles. That means that the vehicles, such as the Cayenne S we drove, don’t get any additional off-road bits to help protect the vehicle or boost capability.
Ruby had nothing but different tires and wheels, both of which are available to buyers on the vast Cayenne menu. The tire and wheel swap made it easier to field repairs during the race. Essentially we ran on road and snow tires—20-inch General Grabber AT/X tires at all four corners of the Cayenne S. The Cayenne S comes with 19-inch wheels at the front and 20-inch wheels at the back, however, carrying four spares (the Rally requires you to have a minimum of one spare, at least, and two is preferable) was unfeasible.
While 20-inch wheels are far from ideal for off roading, the AT Grabbers were impressively resilient to everything from razor-sharp rocks to incredibly soft dune sand. During three stages of the rally, we faced soft dunes and aired down to just 10 PSI, which meant having to drive carefully to ensure that we didn’t break the bead or roll the tire off the wheel while navigating through steep inclines and declines. We never got stuck once, and even pulled another team we paired up with, out of a tricky situation in the Glamis dunes.
To say that the Cayenne S performed perfectly is an understatement. Never during the entire 1,500-mile event did the SUV give us any trouble, whether we were starting up the morning after an angry snow and sleet storm or facing a white-out sandstorm in the Big Dune area just outside of Beatty, Nevada. Just simply pushing Ruby through her paces on dusty, silty lake beds was trying.
We also never once blew out the air filter (a standard thing to do after driving through fine sand and silt to keep air freely flowing to the engine), or the brakes (also typical to do since sand and silt can build up in the brakes and make them less efficient) and the Cayenne S never grumbled each obstacle. The vehicle proved so hearty that we were able to drive directly from the final day in the dunes back to Los Angeles, without doing anything more than airing up the tires so they were road safe once again.
While most owners and Porsche enthusiasts would gasp at the idea of taking their vehicles off-road, my time in the Cayenne S on the incredibly challenging Rebelle Rally, only proves just how legitimately capable and downright impressive these vehicles are.
While many consider the Cayenne S to be a performance SUV only, it turns out it can handle a lot more than most owners or drivers will ever put it through, all without a single problem.