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The 2011 Porsche Cayenne is slightly bigger than the outgoing SUV, but 400 lbs lighter -- and offers the German maker's first hybrid powertrain option.

Porsche is offering us a sneak peek at the all-new version of its big SUV, and among the other notable features of the 2011 Porsche Cayenne, which will make its formal debut at next week’s Geneva Motor Show, is the fact that it will offer the German performance car maker’s  first-ever hybrid-electric powertrain option.

There were plenty of skeptics when the automaker announced, nearly a decade ago, plans to add a sport-utility vehicle to its line-up, but it didn’t take long after its launch for the original Cayenne to generate a surprisingly strong and – measured over time, loyal – following.

But a lot has changed over the years and with the overall sport-ute segment feeling plenty of pressure, analysts suggest it’s an appropriate time to be making some changes to the Cayenne formula.

Lighter weight, the maker claims, means better performance and handling and a significant improvement in fuel economy.

As these pictures suggest, Porsche isn’t going too far astray.  There’s still the 911-influenced nose, bolted to a muscular but roomy passenger compartment.  The overall look is a bit more sleek than before, yet the 2011 Cayenne actually measures in 1.9 inches longer than the outgoing model, with a 1.6-inch longer wheelbase.

Yet, what’s particularly significant is the fact that Porsche engineers have achieved a difficult balance, adding more room for passengers and cargo even as they’ve lowered weight – by an impressive  total of 400 pounds. That means a nice bump in fuel economy, even on conventional, gasoline-powered versions of the 2011 Porsche Cayenne.  The automaker also claims the changes yield a vehicle that boasts better performance, with improved agility and handling.

As before, Porsche will offer an array of powertrains for the 2011 Cayenne, from a fuel-efficient V6 to the tire-spinning 500-horsepower Cayenne Turbo.  But the real headliner is the new Cayenne S Hybrid, which uses an innovative parallel fuel-hybrid drivetrain that produced a combined 380 horsepower. The more conventional side of that system is a supercharged 333-hp, 427 lb-ft, 3.0-leader V6 that is mated a 47-hp electric motor.  Depending on road conditions and driver demand, the two sources of power can operate together or independently.

While the automaker isn’t releasing numbers, yet, it claims the Cayenne S Hybrid will deliver V8 performance and V6 mileage.  In electric mode, the system will be able to run for short distance solely on battery power, and the maker says it can operate in electric mode at speeds up to 97 mph.

With the 2011 Porsche Cayenne, any resemblance to the sophisticated interior of the automaker's Cayenne is purely intentional.

Based on the European cycle, Porsche claims the 2011 Cayenne gets a 23% bump in fuel efficiency, though it won’t have final certification on its North American mileage until just before the new SUV rolls into U.S. showrooms next July.

Along with reduced weight, Porsche credits a new 8-speed Tiptronic S automatic transmission with helping boost mileage.  Like the 4-seat Panamera sports car, the 2011 Porsche Cayenne will also feature Automatic Start/Stop function, which lets the engine automatically shut off at idle, then restart when the driver’s foot lifts off the brake.

The new interior also has a lot in common with the Panamera, such as the gauge cluster, with five interlocking instruments that include a high-resolution circular TFT screen.  That can be used for such things as tuning the radio or getting a close-up of what’s on the bigger navi screen in the center stack.  The 2011 Porsche Cayenne also borrows Panamera’s expansive center console, which consciously runs counter to recent industry trends.  Rather than developing an iDrive-like central controller, there are an array of well-marked and easily accessible knobs, switches and buttons that handle all key vehicle functions.

Following its Geneva debut, the 2011 Porsche Cayenne will put in its first North American appearance at the New York International Auto Show, in early April.

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