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2015 Macan: Not a housecat

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

By Lizett Bond
Photos courtesy Porsche

Porsche is eyeing the goal posts once again with an exotically named compact SUV, the Macan. It means “tiger” in Indonesian, and it has the performance to back up its name. The all-wheel-drive CSUV is smaller than the Cayenne in almost every dimension, but as Porsche’s least-expensive entry-level model, it must fit into some big shoes.

Sports Utility Vehicles have been around in one form or another for as long as there has been an assembly line. From Model T “depot hacks” to “carryalls,” the SUV’s designation has morphed and lumbered along with the times. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, they took a big-time trundle in status, signaling the white-picket-fence version of having arrived. Model names, which included Expedition, Explorer, and Armada, addressed the venturesome side of suburbia.

Not people to stand on cliché, the folks at Porsche inaugurated their own representation of the SUV in 2002 and named it after a spicy pepper. The Cayenne seasoned status and all-round capability with a little sports car lust, defining the premium SUV segment. Porsche purists loathed it, consumers loved it, and the rest is best-selling history.

More than a decade after Porsche launched its first SUV, it’s tempting to consider its second a slightly scaled-down Cayenne — or to liken it to the Audi Q5 with whom it shares its modular MLP platform. However, Porsche has massaged the platform and added a plethora of features to distinguish the Macan from its cross-town sibling. Not only is it longer and lower than the Audi with unique LED headlights intended to resemble those of the 918 Spyder, it also has the first applications of a dual-clutch transmission and air suspension in the CSUV segment. The aluminum clamshell hood eliminates conventional front fenders and plays double duty as a protective covering for the engine bay and part of the engine’s air-intake system. Air enters through the grille, takes a turn upward into the hood’s sandwiched aluminum panels, and is directed to dual intake openings in the middle of the engine bay on either side of the engine.

With a feral, crouching side profile enhanced by 918-style sideblades (black on the S, body color on the Turbo), the Macan has hints of 911 when viewed from the rear. Wraparound taillights and a wide rear stance accentuate this, and those curvaceous rear fenders accommodate 255-mm rear tires — 20 mm wider than up front. Raising the tailgate is accomplished with the push of a button, so there’s no distracting latch to interrupt the clean lines.

The driving position can be likened to a sports car’s, and the horizontal steering wheel, also inspired by the 918, adds to that sense. Decidedly un-sports-car like is the amount of room for passengers and luggage. The back seat can cozily fit three adults, if necessary, though two folks will ride more comfortably. Back-seat headroom and legroom are tight for tall or long-legged passengers. The rear cargo area accommodates 17.7 cubic-feet of luggage with the rear seats in place, which opens up to 53 cu. ft. with the rear seats folded down.

With a base price of $49,900 (not including destination fee), the Macan S is the entry model to the 2015 Porsche family, with a twin-turbo, 3.0-liter V6 engine that puts out 340 horsepower. The Macan Turbo starts at $72,300, but that extra $22,400 gets you a twin-turbo 3.6-liter V6 with 400 hp and more standard equipment.

Part sports car, part compact sport utility vehicle

Leading up to its launch, the Macan was billed as a compact SUV with sports-car performance. According to Porsche, the slowest Macan, an S model, will scrabble from 0-60 miles per hour in 5.2 seconds (5.0 seconds with Sport Chrono equipped) on to a 156 mph top speed — that’s sport-car quick! And the automaker’s decision to ditch the torque-converter automatic and fit all Macans with its quick-shifting dual-clutch transmission, PDK, and all-wheel drive add to the CSUV’s basic performance credentials. For those who want an even better performance, the Turbo model delivers with a 0-60 mph run of 4.6 seconds (4.4 with Sport Chrono equipped), and a 164 mph top speed.

Then there’s the plethora of upgrade options, each of which will up the ante — both price and drive-wise. Perhaps the best way to improve performance, short of opting for the Turbo, is by upgrading the suspension. The Macan S comes standard with perfectly adequate steel springs and conventional shocks, but for that extra bit of finesse there are two stages of suspension upgrades to consider. The first is Porsche Active Suspension Management (PASM, which comes standard on Turbo models), an option that replaces the conventional shocks with ones that automatically regulate damping forces at all four corners. PASM also allows you to tailor the ride quality for comfort, sportiness, or in between.

The second stage means stepping up to the class-exclusive self-leveling air suspension, which is paired with PASM and allows the driver to adjust ride height with a range of 1.97 inches. Macans with air suspension sit 0.59 inches lower than their steel-sprung counterparts at normal ride height, and can be lowered another 0.39 or raised 1.58 inches for a maximum ground clearance of 9.06 inches. The air suspension is a crucial option for those who want to extract every last bit of performance the Macan has to offer, on or off road.

Another performance option to consider is Porsche Torque Vectoring Plus, which operates in conjunction with an electronically actuated rear-differential lock to vary the torque distribution to the rear wheels and improve stability on all types of road surfaces. It’s also a handy tool to prevent understeer and oversteer.

All Macans come equipped with staggered-width tires (235-mm front, 255-mm rear), though buyers can opt for wheels in varying diameters, from 19 to 21 inches. For better ride quality, I recommend the smaller wheels, but if it’s high-performance handling you’re after, I’d go with the larger sizes.

And those are just performance options. If you want to ease on down the road with Turbo design wheels and the Burmester sound system blaring, park like a pro with Park Assist with rear-view camera, or require the benefits of thermal and noise-insulating glass, it all adds nearly $12,000 to the package. As with all new Porsches, options are a slippery slope; it doesn’t take much to build a $75,000 Macan S or $100,000 Macan Turbo.

Two Lane Blacktop

My chance to take the tiger by the tail was presented by Porsche. Destination: Willow Springs International Raceway in Rosamond, California, a desert town an hour and a half north of LA. The experience included some track time on the Streets of Willow and a little off-roading, but first we had to get there.

My ride was a Macan Turbo, with many of the performance options that do their best to keep the CSUV under control and make me feel like a pro on curvy two-lane roads. Calm, poised, precise — was it napping?

My driving partner, a seasoned racer and member of the Porsche design team, took over at the halfway point and jarred the Macan from its catnap. It gripped the asphalt as if it had claws, yet remained composed through the corners. Anyone who has driven an SUV spiritedly on a twisty mountain road can attest that any items left on the seats will likely wind up on the floor. Not only did the Macan Turbo handle like a two-seat sports car, but purses, water bottles, and cell phones stayed put. Road noise was minimal and bumps in the road were traversed with barely a thud. And as one who frequently succumbs to motion sickness, riding shotgun was not an issue.

We arrived at the track, and I soon went out for some laps in the Turbo. Streets of Willow is a tight, technical course with a decreasing radius second-gear turn at the end of the front straight, medium-speed sweepers, hairpins, chicanes, and elevation changes. The Turbo handled the course at speed beautifully. For driving like this, you’ll want to engage Sport mode, or Sport Plus in a Macan equipped with Sport Chrono. Throttle response is sharpened, gears are held longer, and shifting is faster and occurs at higher rpm. After my laps in the Turbo, I switched it for a Macan S, and detected negligible differences in handling between the two.

Next up was Horse Thief Mile, another track within Willow Springs. Here I was able to sample the Macan’s three suspension offerings (steel springs with conventional dampers, steel springs with PASM dampers, and air springs with PASM), and, while the differences between them were subtle to this writer, I suspect that a longer drive would better reveal their characteristics. The standard ride on steel springs without the benefit of the PASM exhibits a tendency towards a harsher ride, which is to be expected. I would go with the air suspension, an option I expect many Macan buyers will lean towards.

Then my intrepid pro driver/designer and new best friend treated me to a few sideways hot laps in the Turbo. Once again, I was sufficiently humbled.

Finally we hit the steep, gravely hills that border Willow Springs. A push of the Off-Road button with the optional air suspension raises the Macan 1.58 inches and changes the default torque split to 50/50. With Hill Descent Control engaged, which works best between 2 and 18 mph, the Macan turns into a pretty effective rock crawler.

For the couple lusting after a 911, but with kids and a dog in tow, or for somebody who needs an SUV with an emphasis on sport, the Macan in S or Turbo guise is a logical choice. If said family is also on a budget, the S on standard suspension will meet their performance needs, though we’d recommend opting for the air suspension and PTV Plus if performance is an important attribute. In any form, the Macan offers utility and performance deserving of its name. 

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