Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Test Drive: 2015 Porsche Macan S

I have a love of wagons, but automakers seem to feel that bringing their wagons to the US is a waste of time and money. Who can blame them? Americans simply do not buy wagons or hatchbacks in the same kinds of numbers as our European counterparts. Instead, my fellow Americans are obsessed with SUVs and crossovers. So what is an enterprising, profit driven automaker to do when its parent company has a crossover that is ripe for the picking? Why, you add another vehicle to your line-up, of course. This is precisely what Porsche has done with the all new Porsche Macan. 

Just as the larger Cayenne is based on the same platform as Audi's Q7, the Macan shares its platform with Audi's Q5. This makes for a relatively compact CUV that still offers decent cargo space. Thankfully, Porsche has injected a bit of flair into the design, making the Macan look similar to its big brother and definitely carrying the family's now signature nose.

From a design perspective, the Macan is likely to be polarizing, much as the Cayenne was when it was introduced. The now signature Porsche look works as well as it can on the smaller platform, but still remains pretty much a love-it-or-hate-it kind of affair. I find the look inoffensive, although not exactly pretty. To inject a little more sportiness into the profile and to offer more of a lifted hatchback look instead of the more utilitarian SUV look of the Cayenne, the designers opted to shorten the roofline of the Macan and more dramatically sloped the rear hatch glass, cutting into the cargo room a bit. Quite honestly, if the Macan's ride height were dropped to sedan levels and the lower portion adjusted slightly to account for the lower ride height, the Macan's overall design would work well as a sub-Panamera sized sedan/hatch. Too bad that will likely never happen. Still, with the right paint color and the right wheels, the Macan is a fairly attractive looking vehicle from most angles and for the detractors, it is at least not horribly offensive.

Inside, Porsche's recent efforts look about identical across the board. The central tunnel packed with buttons that debuted on the Panamera carries over to the Macan. That means a large swath of plastic running down the center of the car between the front seats, but at least the material quality is pretty good. Still, in a car that can easily reach upwards of $70k before even stepping up to the bigger motor, the presence of so much plastic feels a bit cheap. The rest of the interior is equally austere unless you are willing to pony up and option some of the more interesting looking color combinations, but at least the leather on the seats is comfortable and the steering wheel and shifter feel expensive to the touch.

Of course, Porsche's interiors have never been the highlight of their cars. What Porsche is better known for is delivering superbly engineered motors that offer surprising amounts of power from significantly smaller displacements than its competitors. Unlike previous efforts, this is the first Porsche model that receives an entirely turbocharged engine lineup. In our test car, what we have is the 3.0-liter twin-turbo V6. Twist the built-in fob, which Porsche prefers to a push button, and the engine fires to life with a very suitable snarl. Packing 340 hp and nearly equal lb-ft of torque, it does an admirable job of hauling the two-ton CUV up to speed. Looking for even more power? Step up to the Macan Turbo and you get a 3.6-liter V6 packing two snails blowing boost and making another 60 horsepower and 67 lb-ft of torque. Of course, as is typical of a turbo engine lugging two-tons of steel through an AWD system, fuel economy pretty much sucks, but then again, who buys a Porsche for the fuel economy?

Despite the tonnage and the massive wheels, the twin-turbo V6 does not seem to strain to get the rather portly compact CUV up to speed. Power delivery comes on strong from down low, but runs out of steam near the top of the rev range, a characteristic that is typical of modern turbocharged motors using relatively small factory turbos. To compensate, the PDK, Porsche's dual clutch transmission, works overtime to try to keep the turbos in the power band, especially when the car is in sport mode. As with other iterations of the PDK, the shifts are relatively smooth and relatively problem free, but due in part to the hefty weight the motor is pulling around as well as a desire to try to eke out something resembling fuel economy, the transmission can start to hunt around a bit when left to its own devices. This is easily solved by flipping over to manual mode and taking control, which you will be happier about in just about every possible way.

Out on the road, however, the Macan starts to feel like a bit of a disappointment, at least to me. Instead of feeling like a sports car on stilts, it ends up feeling like an SUV lowered using an aftermarket suspension. That is to say, it drives quite well and sticks like glue to the road surface. But it does so in a manner that makes the steering feel so soulless, I had to double-check several times to make sure I hadn't switched the car into some sort of comfort setting, but even with the car set in sport mode, the steering was numb. Heavy, but numb. Heavy, but lacking in feel. I hate to sound like a broken record about this kind of stuff, but if manufacturers are going to insist on using electronic power steering, the least they could do is tune it well. There are some people who get it right, a la later iterations of the Honda S2000, and others who somehow manage to get it terribly wrong, a la most new Nissans. While the Macan is no Nissan, it does not hold a candle to the S2000.

Luckily, one thing Porsche did get right is the ride. It errs on the right side of being stiff yet still remains comfortable enough to use as a daily driver. The balance is excellent and the car turns willingly, so long as you have not misjudged the entry speed to a corner by too much. Credit the well sorted AWD system that is rear wheel biased as well as the presence of an electronic torque vectoring differential. The diff is a touch slow to react if you are traveling at very high rates of speed, but it is easily capable of saving your bacon if you have a bad habit of overcooking your corners. Despite all of the electronic wizardry, however, the Macan still suffers from not quite realizing just how big it actually is. Everything about the character of the car wants to make it feel smaller and lighter than it is, but it all ends up just feeling kind of ponderous instead. There is no sensation of the car shrinking around you, as a good sporty car should. This trend seems to be spreading to all of the "luxury sport" brands, which I suppose is a reflection of consumer trends. Still, I don't have to like it one bit.

So in all, the Macan is a bit of a mixed bag. There are things about it to really like and the very fact that Porsche will likely sell tens of thousands of these crossovers to badge obsessed snobs will be good for the rest of the Porsche sports car lineup since it will keep their research and development going and cars like the Boxster, Cayman, and Carrera will get to stick around a while longer. However, as a personal vehicle, I would not ever be able to justify the cost of something like the Macan. It is an onion of compromises that with every layer peeled back, a new wrinkle or sacrifice is discovered that makes it just a little less appealing to a buyer like me, especially on a vehicle that with only a few basic options starts to send the price hovering dangerously close to $70k dollars. There are plenty of people who will happily shell out that kind of money to be able to proudly say that they own a Porsche, even though it will never be driven in anger and will serve as little more than a limousine for children, but I feel like my personal dollars would have to go elsewhere.