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Hot Pepper

The pavement ahead glistens with wet ice and snow. It's past midnight, and my friend Jason and I are apparently the only souls foolish enough to be on the road. We're driving north on I-93 into the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and the farther we go, the worse the weather gets. A wet mist gusts in from the west, sending ice pebbles scudding across the road.

Perfect.

I'm driving a Porsche Cayenne Turbo, and conditions like these are exactly what it was designed to handle. When the four-lane interstate necks down into the Franconia Notch Highway, I start grinning. We now face a narrow, twisty track pinched by aconcrete divider on the left and a guardrail on the right. Jason sinks deep into his seat. He knows what's coming. "I've never seen a cop up here," he'd told me only moments before. Using the Tiptronic system, I shift down a gear and feel the bracing surge in engine torque. I'm about to find out what this new Porsche can really do.

It's early spring, and Jason and I have decided to squeeze in one last ski trip to Cannon Mountain. Tonight we'll stay at nearby Ski Club Hochgebirge. As it happens, the jaunt also presents an ideal chance to test the new Cayenne, Porsche's first-ever sports utility vehicle. I'm a Porsche fan, but like a lot of the faithful, I had doubts about the Cayenne. Most performance drivers need an SUV like skis need wheels. Let's face it: A truck is a truck, and with the Cayenne weighing in at more than 5,000 pounds, many thought it might perform like one. Elephants, after all, are slow for a reason. But the company promised that the Cayenne was a dynamo, both on-road and off. Fair enough, I said. But I warned them that I was going to go fast and get it dirty.

The Cayenne comes in two versions: the 340-horsepower Cayenne S and the 450-horsepower Turbo. I picked up a silver Turbo in Manhattan on a Friday morning. Almost immediately, a limo driver pulled alongside and motioned for me to roll down my window so he could ask me about it. "But does eet really drive like a Porsche?" he asked in his Borscht Belt accent. The Cayenne is a blend of well-proportioned swells and flares, fronted by a split grille and the distinctive Porsche horizontal-slit headlights of the Carrera. Still, its engineers reportedly struggled over its exterior design. By their nature, Porsches are sleek sculptures of frozen motion - their very shapes intended to imply air folded upon itself. But typical SUVs are brutish blocks meant to intimidate man and nature. It's a tough balance. BMW's X5 is more identifiably a BMW than the Cayenne is a Porsche; Infiniti's new FX45 looks every bit as sharp and is half the price. The Cayenne's interior may be hand-stitched leather, but it's hardly Bentley-luxe. Porsche's idea of luxury is more about Brembo brakes than heated seats.

It's the guts of the thing that are truly beautiful. I've driven the GT2, Porsche's $179,000 twin-turbo supercar, and the Cayenne is unmistakably of the same lineage. I got my first taste of its power while slogging through traffic on my way to Boston to pick up Jason. Get on the accelerator and the Cayenne's ponderous pounds turn into pure air. After a careless moment, I'd look down at the speedometer to find that I was doing 85 mph or 90...or 105. In fact, the Turbo will zoom from zero to 62 mph in a rash 5.6 seconds, with a top speed of 160 - you won't find other SUVs making that claim. The S version, which is $56,665 to the Turbo's $89,665, hits 62 mph in 7.2 secondsand tops out at a still more than ample 150 mph.

In Boston, Jason hopped in, and we headed for New Hampshire on I-93. Before the light faded, we got into snow country and found a dirt road leading into the woods. The Cayenne easily powered though foot-deep snow. A pneumatic spring suspension is standard on the Turbo and optional on the S; you can adjust the ground clearance from a "sports" setting of 6.18 inches to an off-road height of 10.75 inches. There's also a reaar-axle differential lock and a reduced-ratio gearbox - real-world off-roading equipment, as long as you don't mind marring the paint.

Back on the highway, traffic thinned and, with an eye on my radar detector, I took the Cayenne up to...well, let's just say that had I been pulled over, the officer might have had to call in for an extra ticket book. Thankfully, there were no speed traps - and nary a tremor from the Cayenne's speed-friendly chassis.

Now on the Franconia Notch Highway, I'm gunning through corners and hammering down straightaways. The truck has a sophisticated array of traction-control equipment, with a slight and characteristically Porsche-like tendency to oversteer. I'm singing as I pour on power while coming out of turns, and never succeed in coaxing so much as a back-end slide, despite the wet, snowy conditions. The Cayenne's brakes are similarly trustworthy. I head into one tight corner way too fast and blow through the apex, but the huge discs suck up the excess momentum surely and evenly.

Too soon, we're on the dirt road leading to the Hochgebirge House, the burn of adrenaline receding. Then it begins to rain. Tomorrow's skiing looks like a washout, I say. Jason looks over and breaks into a smile. "Well, I don't know," he says. "How long would it take to get to Canada in this thing?"

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