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Driving the 2015 Porsche Macan, the compact SUV with a sports car baked inside

February 24, 2014

FYI: Porsche is a sports car company. Sure, it builds the 5,000-lb Cayenne SUV and a long-wheelbase Panamera “Executive” luxury sedan with a limo back seat and, as of 2014, the new Macan compact crossover. But after bringing us to the eastern German town of Leipzig, and the recently expanded factory where Porsche spent 500 million Euros to build all three of those front-engine Porsches alongside each other, Porsche executives felt the need to underscore the point that Porsche is a sports car company first, and a sports car company last.

We can understand why. Just 12 years ago, Porsche’s model lineup consisted solely of sports cars: the carefully evolved 911 Carrera and its mid-engine little brother, the Boxster. Then, in 2002, Porsche shocked the automotive world — and infuriated Porsche purists everywhere — by introducing the Cayenne, which went on to become Porsche’s best-selling vehicle. In 2009, Porsche further diluted the bloodline with the hot-selling Panamera sedan followed by diesels, hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and now the Macan crossover. Porsche still bolts together sports cars with the engine in the wrong place, but make no mistake: SUVs keep the lights on in Stuttgart.

And Porsche wants to cast the Macan as less a soft-riding small SUV and more of a worthy offspring of the sports-car bloodline. Anxious to prove its point, Porsche sent writers out on a 2.3-mile, FIA-certified race course it has built at its Leipzig factory — which must make break time pretty interesting — in the first two Macan variants with U.S. passports: the 340-hp Macan S and 400-hp Macan Turbo (a diesel with join the lineup in next year). And it was there that the Macan showed its true heritage.

First was the Macan S, powered by a twin-turbo 3.0-liter V-6 — even S models are technically turbo models, despite not being called such — that makes 340 hp and 339 lb-ft of torque available from as low as 1,450 rpm. Porsche says the 4,111-lb Macan S can hit 62 mph in 5.4 seconds. Should that be insufficient, Porsche offers the Sport Chrono package for $1,290, which adds a chronometer/lap timer on the dash and features a Sport Plus setting that stiffens the adjustable shocks, and raises shift points and reduces shift times for the wonderfully intuitive, paddle-shifted PDK double-clutch seven speed transmission. This shaves 0.2 seconds from the 0-62 mph time.

Within the first turn, the twin-turbo V-6 ginned up smooth, lag-free acceleration. Despite its higher proportions, body roll was beautifully controlled, and the steering with predictably quick turn-in and appropriate weight, if somewhat less feel than Porsche’s actual sports cars.

At 4,243 lb, the Turbo seems hefty, but that weight is more than offset by the output of its larger 3.6-liter twin-turbo V-6, which makes 400 hp and 406 lb-ft of torque. Thus equipped, the Macan Turbo is said to be able to hit 60 in 4.8 seconds (4.6 with the Sport Chrono goodies). It charged with aplomb from corner to corner on the Leipzig track, though between the formidable weight, the flood of torque, the tail-happy Sport-plus stability setting and the slippery all-season tires Porsche had installed the Turbo got a little wilder in some of the more challenging corners. The result was understeer if you didn’t get the vehicle rotated early enough, and oversteer if you got too frisky. The Turbo’s brake pedal was a little soft; we’ll give it a pass this time since it had been driven pretty hard all day, though we will say to the four or five buyers inclined to spend much track time in their Macans that the ceramic brake option might be for you. Both Macans hardly embarrassed themselves, and they would have been even more agile had they been shod with proper, track-optimized tires.

Out on local German roads, with the standard suspension settings selected, both models proved to be smooth operators, perfectly suited for everyday grocery-getting and kid-schlepping. Around town, I preferred the more responsive Sport setting, which strikes a happy medium between the soft standard setup and the edgier Sport Plus setting. A couple of short bursts on open stretches of the autobahn to about 150 mph (just shy of their electronically limited 155-mph top speed) revealed the sports car baked in like a prize in a king cake. The only thing that gave me pause, particularly at those speeds, was the steering; I’d like a little more feel similar to what Porsche accomplishes in the Boxster and Carrera, though some of the blame can be placed on the aforementioned all-season tires.

At saner speeds, we could better appreciate the Macan’s interior design and features. Based as it is on the Audi Q5, the Macan has a wide cabin, yet its low ceiling and Porsche design elements such as a three-pot gauge cluster and 918 Spyder-inspired steering wheel make the space feel more intimate.

Our test cars came with two different versions of Porsche’s sport seats, the most premium of which offers 18-way adjustability, including adjustable side bolsters on both the seatback and the cushion, making it the next best thing to racing seats. The rear seat is strikingly roomy, too, especially in terms of hip- and headroom. Another surprise comes in the expansive cargo area, with generous square footage, extra under-floor storage and 40/20/40 folding seatbacks to compensate somewhat for its lower roofline than the Cayenne.
Given the derivative styling, comparisons between Cayenne and Macan are inevitable. And just as there are skeptics who think the Boxster is a poor man’s Carrera, there will be those who think the Macan is a poor-man’s Cayenne. In the case of the Macan, they’re wrong on two counts: The Macan is lighter, smaller, and sportier in character than the base Cayenne and does not feel like a cut-rate Cayenne in any way. And at $50,895 for the S model ($73,295 for the Turbo), the Macan’s base price is actually $300 higher than that of its bigger sibling. Of course, adding Porsche options, prices accelerate like a 911; our test vehicles would sticker at $74,000 for the Macan S, with our Turbo testers coming in around $81,000.

That’s a lot of coin for a compact SUV, but if you want to drive one fast, there may be nothing better. I won’t go so far as to call it a sports car, but as far as crossovers go, this is as close as it gets.

Full disclosure: The manufacturer provided meals, air transportation and lodging for this review