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OFF-ROAD TEST

Road Test: Porsche Macan Diesel S





19 March 2015


We always knew the Porsche Macan Diesel S was going to be a luxurious and comfortable mid-size SUV, but we soon realised that it had a dark side as well.

In this modern day and age it is impossible to keep a new model under wraps. An insider at a manufacturer will inevitably let something slip, not to mention the fact that European motoring magazines pay big money for so-called spy shots of upcoming models. This means you have prying eyes permanently stationed at the Nurburgring, which a pre-production model will inevitably visit during the final months of its development and testing.

The Porsche Macan is a prime example. First there were rumours that Porsche was working on an Audi Q5-based SUV to slot in below the Cayenne. Then came the first images of the disguised vehicle and then, finally, Porsche revealed the name.

During the last two years, there has been much speculation on what engines it would have, how much it would cost and how the market would respond to it, especially since it was based on a Q5. Lovely as the Q5 may be, it’s not exactly known for its handling and performance. It was thus all too easy to be cynical about the Macan: It was a badge engineering exercise, which existed only to pour money into Porsche coffers. The name was silly as well. Porsche obviously meant to use it in an Indonesian context, in which Macan translates to “tiger,” but a bit of light Googling reveals that Macan also means “little boy” in old Scottish Gaelic.

By the time we actually got to drive it, we were expecting it to be nothing more than a mini Cayenne — the “little boy” in Porsche’s line-up. In other words, the cheapest and fastest way to get to that moment in your life when you stand around the braai with your mates and say, “I just bought myself a brand-new Porsche”.

Still, we had to test it with an open mind, and objectively evaluate the car with its target audience in mind. We mention the audience, because in our minds we were expecting a smaller version of the Cayenne, which is a magnificent vehicle in its own right. Right up to the point when Porsche launched the Macan, there was no other SUV that thrilled the driver as much as the Cayenne. The Range Rover Sport came close, though.

The Macan, however, is not a mini Cayenne and we don’t think Porsche ever intended it to be.

It takes a mere five minutes behind the wheel to realise that the Macan is far more closely related to Porsche’s sportier offerings than it is to its bigger SUV brother.

Exterior****

The Cayenne is often referred to as in inflated 911. It looks as if Porsche hooked it up to a hand pump and kept inflating until the 911’s sporty body reached SUV-like proportions. As a result, it looked bloated from almost all angles.

It’s a different story with the Macan. It doesn’t look like an overinflated Cayman; in fact, it looks as though its bodywork had to be stretched over whatever Porsche was hiding underneath.

It’s not beautiful in the same way as a Ferrari 458, but it has an unmistakable charm to it. There’s a lot of bits and bobs on the body that remind one of Porsches, past and present.

The front is distinctively Porsche, and the rear light clusters look very similar to those on the new 918 hybrid hypercar.

You certainly won’t be mistaken for a boy racer in the Macan, but there are a few styling elements that will appeal to your inner child. Those wolverine-like claws at the front, the roof spoiler and large alloy wheels come to mind.

In terms of style, the Macan fits in perfectly between the elegant Range Rover Evoque and the aggressive, slightly over the top BMW X4.

Interior****

Climbing aboard the Macan can be likened to arriving in your room at a five-star hotel. The materials are magnificent and there’s an aura of relaxation and harmony, but there’s a problem. Obviously you want a nice drink to go with the spectacular view and so you open the minibar, only to find a small can of Coke that will set you back an extra R30.

In the automotive world, this minibar is known as the optional extras list and the Macan has a particularly impressive list of things you can add to it. They are expensive, and if you tick just one or two of these boxes, the price of the Macan soon crosses that psychological R1 million barrier.

We don’t have a problem with optional extras. In fact, the German argument that they allow the buyer to customise the car makes perfect sense, but there are some things that should be standard, such as Bluetooth connectivity and electric seat adjustment for the passenger seat. You even have to pay extra if you want a spare wheel! In the big scheme of things, a few thousand rands doesn’t really matter, but our long-term Subaru XV, which is less than half the price of the Macan, has Bluetooth connectivity as standard across the range.

Other than that the interior is supreme and really very good at making you feel special. The ascending centre console, which houses most of the buttons, is easy to understand and operate. It also looks sensational, but it’s no match for the steering wheel. It might sound odd to refer to the steering wheel as a thing of beauty, but the Macan’s wheel comes straight out of Porsche’s current halo car, the 918. It’s a masterpiece. It is as beautiful to behold as it is to hold on to. It also houses numerous buttons, from which you can operate all the infotainment gadgets.

As standard you get a high-resolution seven-inch touch screen display, which gives easy access to all the important functions, such as the sound system. Porsche offers a high-end stereo as an optional extra, but the standard 11-speaker system does a decent enough job of making your ears bleed!

In typical Porsche fashion, everything in the cabin works marvellously well. The most enjoyable attribute about the interior is the driving position. In most SUVs the driver tends to feel as though he’s sitting on top of all the mechanicals rather than in between them, as you do in a sports car. In the Porsche, you feel part of the machine. You sit deep down in a comfortable bucket seat, surrounded by that ascending centre console, wrap-around dashboard and high window line. It feels as though you’re sitting in a proper low-slung sports car, but then you gaze out of the window and realise that you still have that elevated feel that make SUVs so popular. It’s an uncanny feeling, but one we grew to like very much.

Performance and handling*****

As the Macan is built around the Audi Q5’s platform, we were expecting it to feel more or less the same in this department. This would have been perfectly acceptable, as we rather like the Audi SQ5. We had the use of the Audi for a week, and gave it back without experiencing any hassles. We enjoyed it thoroughly, but no strong bond had developed. Why, then, did we feel deeply saddened when the time came for the Macan to go back to its rightful owners?

To explain, we have to look at performance and handling from two sides.

The first perspective is when the Macan is driven in a leisurely fashion –  the way 99% of its owners will drive it every day.

Our test unit was powered by a turbocharged V6 diesel engine that produces 180kW and 580Nm of torque. This power is fed to an active all-wheel drive system via a sensational seven-speed double-clutch gearbox, which changes gears swiftly without the driver even noticing.

At full throttle it can get to 100km/h in around six seconds and, if driven carefully, will consume only 6.1 l/100km of diesel on the combined cycle.

It’s impressive in town, on the highway and on badly corrugated gravel roads. It is as “planted” and composed as you’d expect from a car wearing a Porsche badge, and not in the least intimidating to drive. It holds on to the road tighter than a grade one pupil hangs on to his mother’s leg on the first day of school.

We were also greatly impressed by the compliant ride and low noise and vibration levels when driving on gravel. Performance SUVs tend to have massive alloy wheels with only a lick of rubber surrounding them, which tends to improve on road dynamics but ruin the ride on every other surface. Porsche had the good sense to ensure the Macan’s massive alloys were shod with tyres with a half-decent profile. You may lose a second or so around the Nurburgring, but it makes the car substantially more comfortable on the gravel road between Hartbeespoort and Skeerpoort.

During our test, we soon realised that the Macan had a darker side, which becomes apparent when you push the car a bit harder. We first encountered this invigorating side of the Macan when we drove it on the Franschhoek Pass during its local launch.

To best explain the darker side of the Macan, we unfortunately have to use jargon that seldom appears in this publication. Our view on handling is pretty simple – if it’s safe and predictable, it gets a pass. That’s why we seldom use terms like “understeer,” “tyre squeal” and “tread shuffle”. So forgive the clichés as we try to explain why the Macan is such an intoxicating machine.

It started with the drive down to our usual test venue. The memories of an epic run down the Franschhoek Pass came flying back as we noticed how eagerly the Macan’s nose dipped into every corner. It’s a car that likes to be driven hard. It is, after all, a Porsche.

In the safety of the test venue (ADA SA) we could properly explore the dynamics and off-road ability of the Macan. Imagine our surprise when the Macan turned out to be an absolute hoot in its Sport Plus mode. You turn sharply into an imaginary corner, stamp on the throttle and feel the back come out. This pretty much happens with every test vehicle, but in the Macan you could actually feel the rear wheels slowly losing traction, which gives the driver enough time to control the drift and even steer the car via the throttle.

Most people will never drive a Macan in this way, and we certainly don’t encourage or condone this kind of driving, but it’s nice to know that the Macan has a latent mischievous personality hidden beneath the veneer of German precision. Porsches are meant to be exciting, and on that front the Macan delivers in spades. It’s like a man who wears a tailored suit with a Sex Pistols outfit underneath. It’s undoubtedly refined, but it has a rebellious streak.

There’s a very good reason why the Porsche differs so much from its Audi cousin. While designing the Macan, Porsche chucked out most of the existing platform and worked its own magic. The result is a car that can honestly call itself a mid-size SUV sports car.

When the going gets tough, the Macan definitely can keep on going. It proved as much on our recent trip to Botswana. While we didn’t have the opportunity to drive it ourselves, we were able to witness its impressive prowess through the thick sand.

This time we did the driving. We started slowly with some moderate inclines and an axle twister, and the Macan passed with flying colours. We then made our way to an infamous steep incline, complete with a slippery hole every few metres to make it more interesting. We knew from experience that a car needs a diff-lock to make it to the top, but we decided to give it a go anyway. The Macan came within centimetres of the top, but its off-road driving mode ended up cutting the power when we needed it most. We discussed trying the obstacle in sport mode and were 90% sure we could have made it, but the obstacle dips sharply at the end, and we didn’t want to apply too much power which would have resulted in the front bottoming out, and possible damage to the car.

The Macan had already proved that it had more than enough off-road ability. It completed the kind of obstacles it will probably face in its lifetime with aplomb, and then some.

Safety features*****

The safety experts at Euro NCAP gave the Macan the full five stars for safety. It scored 88% for adult occupants and 87% for children, which means it’s top–notch as far as passive safety is concerned.

On the active front you get an awful lot of acronyms, the most important of which are PTM and PSM. The former is Porsche’s all-wheel drive traction system, the latter an electronic nanny, which constantly monitors various inputs and intervenes when necessary.

The Macan’s massive brakes also deserve mention, because they do a stellar job in bringing almost two tons of Porsche to a halt in an emergency brake situation.

Practicality****

In terms of practicality the Macan is on a par with its main rivals. The legroom and headroom up front are generous, while legroom in the rear is better described as adequate. There’s seating for up to five people at a squeeze and the boot can swallow 500 litres of luggage. With the rear seats folded flat, the vehicle can accommodate 1500 litres. This makes it perfect for a family of four who lead an adventurous lifestyle. Porsche also offer an optional roof rack, which can be loaded with an additional 100kg of luggage.

A tow bar system is also available. The Macan has a tow rating of 750kg for unbraked trailers and an impressive 2 400kg rating for braked trailers.

Value for money*****

At first glance the Macan doesn’t appear to offer good value for money. Add another R60 000 to its list price and you can slide in behind the wheel of a brand-new Cayenne with the same engine/gearbox combination. But that’s missing the point.

As we said earlier, the Macan is not a smaller Cayenne but rather a larger Cayman. Customers who want a large, comfortable SUV will still buy the Cayenne, but the Macan is perfect for the bachelor/bachelorette who currently owns a Cayman/Boxster and is on the verge of getting married and having kids! You get the space and the luxury, but not at the expense of driving pleasure.

Of course, there’s no denying that the Macan is the most expensive vehicle in its class, but only by a few thousand. If you are in this league, R10 000 doesn’t matter that much.

One rival of particular interest is the Range Rover Evoque SD4 Autobiography. It costs around R80 000 less than the Macan and comes with every conceivable luxury as standard, but when it comes to performance and handling, it doesn’t get close to the Macan.

On the depressing drive back to Porsche Johannesburg, we tried to think of something we didn’t like about this car. The lack of certain standard features was the most glaring omission, but we also decided that what it lacked most of all was a delicious soundtrack from the engine. A performance car should surely make a loud, raspy noise, and the diesel unit in this particular Macan just doesn’t deliver any auditory pleasure whatsoever.

For that reason only, we’d opt for the turbocharged 3,0-litre V6 petrol model. Yes, it’s going to use a lot more fuel, but if you can afford a Macan, you’ll have enough money to feed its need for unleaded.

For most people, the diesel model is all the car they’ll ever need, but if you are buying this car because its naughty side appeals to you, we recommend the petrol model. If you can afford it, why not go the whole nine yards and get the manic Turbo derivative?

The Macan is the new undisputed champion of the mid-size SUVs. Its sheer breadth of ability is mind-boggling.

Now, if only we can find a reason to drive it again…