Following in NASA’s Footsteps in a Pair of High-Tech Porsche Cayenne Hybrids

We take both plug-in hybrid Cayennes to the lunar-like landscape of Oregon, where NASA trained Apollo astronauts before heading to the moon.

Driving through central Oregon, the terrain feels comfortingly familiar. It’s western, but not really a desert; hilly, but not exactly mountainous. Evergreens are abundant, as are lakes.  But if you head deep enough into McKenzie Pass, a few hours east of Eugene, you may as well be on the Moon. The terrain goes from green rolling hills to an inky black wasteland. The summit of the Pass sits in the middle of a basaltic andesite lava flow, created hundreds of thousands of years ago and now a crumbly, inhospitable landscape of undulating black terrain that looks as lunar as anything on Earth.

The truth is, NASA thought the same thing. More than 50 years ago, in July 1966, the space agency came to this lava field and several other volcanic locations with the Apollo astronauts, recognizing the spots as analogs for the lunar surface, and thus ideal training locations leading up to the actual Moon missions.

As luck would have it, I found myself in the area this summer, on the exact weekend of the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s momentous landing. The purpose of my visit was to take the new plug-in hybrid Porsche Cayennes — both the V6-based Cayenne E-Hybrid variant and the blisteringly powerful, V8-armed Turbo S E-Hybrid — on a road trip with a colleague. When I realized the local connection to the Apollo program, my mission found vivid focus: Visit as many of the sites as I could while getting to know the new cars, now my own equivalent of electrified lunar rovers.

We mapped out a trail that began with the most remote Apollo training site, Fort Rock. This 350-foot-tall, nearly mile-wide ring of lava formed when a vent in the Earth began spewing out lava about 1.8 million years ago. Today, the ring sits in a dusty, barely populated corner of Oregon accessed via some of the longest, straightest roads in the state.

That gave us a chance, of course, to put the pedal to medal. These hybridized models — the V6 is the blue one in these images, the V8 white — represent Porsche’s newest leap on its path to electrification, coming just shy of the launch of the new Taycan electric sedan. Both benefit from the core improvements in the third-generation Cayenne, but with enhancements to the electric powertrain to boost performance beyond that of the previous hybrid version, which debuted in 2010. This includes a standard 3.6 kW charger (upgradeable to 7.2 kW) and 14.1-kWh batteries mated to more powerful electric motors. (That battery is 30 percent larger than the previous hybrid Cayenne.)

The V6 delivers a combined output of 455 horsepower and 516 pound-feet of torque, while the V8 cranks out 670 hp in total and 663 lb-ft of torque. That makes the V8 the most powerful SUV Porsche has ever produced — and the quickest. It rockets to 60 in just 3.6 seconds, compared to the V6’s 4.7 seconds.

That sort of performance from both machines helped us score an early start, so we could pack all the destinations into a single day. Shooting across the barren terrain, both cars felt supremely planted and stable; the V8 was simply able to zip away from stops a bit quicker. We didn’t touch their respective top-ends — 183 mph for the V8; 157 for the V6 — but we would have certainly reached those speeds quickly had we tried. (Also of note here: the air conditioning, which often suffers in hybrid powertrains, kept us cool and composed as well as any NASA spacesuit.)

Arriving at Fort Rock, my imagination took over, transporting me to a steep lunar valley. As we stumbled across the terrain, I grasped the logic of NASA’s choices. The unknown lunar surface, itself a volcanic creation, wasn’t something to be trifled with — so the agency put the astronauts on the sharpest, nastiest terrain possible.

We headed to Hole-in-the-Ground, about an hour away. It’s like an overgrown, more eroded version of Arizona’s Meteor Crater — but formed from volcanic forces rather than a meteor strike. Hole-in-the-Ground sits miles off any paved road, and the trail in can be challenging. But the Cayenne’s all-wheel-drive, controlled by the Porsche Traction Management system, managed it well enough. Plus, the all-electric drive mode allowed me to creep along in silence as I listened for any cracking, sharp-edged lava rocks that might do bad things to the tires.

Both cars can deliver roughly 20-30 miles of electric driving on a full charge, monitored through the company’s smart if sometimes confusing information system displayed on the generous center screen. The confusion stems from the access points for the drive modes; there are several ways in and several relevant screens, so you might wind up lost in the wrong display if you’re looking to, say, place the car in all-electric mode. Fortunately, there’s a simple button on the console that shoots you straight to the screen that monitors the drive mode and energy consumption. 

Hole-in-the-Ground itself felt even more moon-like than Fort Rock, with its 500-foot-deep crater accessible to off-road vehicles via even rougher, steeper trails. Though the Cayennes are capable off-roaders, we didn’t venture in; our rims were shod with summer tires, and we were miles from civilization and cell towers. It was the Oregonian equivalent of the far side of the Moon, and I didn’t want to be stuck there.

Navigating north towards Lava Butte before heading back into civilization, we were trying to beat the clock — and very nearly did, thanks to the fact that the E-Hybrids use the same power management system developed in the legendary 918 Spyder hypercar, which first transitioned to  series production Porsches in the Panamera E-Hybrid sedan a few years ago. (You notice this most, of course, in the V8 model Cayenne.)

Sadly, we missed the closing time of the park near Lava Butte, but were able to still grasp its vibe from a distance; indeed, we managed to scramble our way onto a lava prominence for a better view, helped along by the V8-only three-chamber air suspension. Given that Lava Butte is pretty much the direct opposite of Hole-in-the-Ground, it was similarly entertaining to envision the challenge for the Apollo crews. As with many lava flows, the slopes are consistent, but also consistently rocky — meaning not much in the way of paths or terrain you can follow to climb up and down. It’s just you and every loose and slippery lava rock ahead of you.

Lave Butte also was the first of our destinations to deliver that total-blackout look, but it was nothing compared to the lunar landscape around McKenzie Pass, our final stop. It was here that we spent by far the most time, watching as the color shifted from daylight to twilight, the menacing, light-absorbing hues of the flows deepening along the way. Any perception of distance faded, along with any sense of shape; everything was an amorphous, indistinct threat, broken up only by spindly pine trees that took root in the pumice. By day, such lava flows are barely manageable, but by night they’re total black holes.

We treaded exceptionally lightly onto the surface of the Moon for some photos as the sun went down, then returned to the sanity of asphalt, wondering just how on Earth the astronauts were able to pull off what they did on the Moon — whether on foot or via the electric rovers they wisely brought along in later missions.  Unfortunately, they didn’t have actual Porsches up there to help out further. 

We, however, did, and as we snaked our way out of the lava field along the glorious switchbacks and twisties on the way back to Eugene — the Cayennes easily absorbing the turns via their 48-volt active roll stabilization system, with the electric motors delivering millisecond head starts in torque delivery as I laid on the power — I realized this is about as close as I’d ever likely come to riding a rocket to the Moon.

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