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Porsche Macan: the Top Gear verdict

  1. Some time in the mid-1990s, Kellogg’s released a banana-flavoured version of its popular Rice Krispies cereal. Called Banana Bubbles, this lurid yellow breakfast went under the slogan: “The Cereal That Thinks It’s A Milkshake”.

    The idea, as you’ve doubtless deduced, was that you got two treats in one: first, a delicious, banana-flavoured cereal and then, when you’d finished that, a delicious, banana-flavoured milkshake left in the bowl. Trouble was, though indeed a cereal that thought it was a milkshake, Banana Bubbles was unfortunately a virtually inedible cereal that incorrectly thought it was a drinkable milkshake.

    Pictures: John Wycherley

    This feature first appeared in Top Gear magazine

  2. Though Banana Bubbles was mercifully short-lived, its yellowy spectrum looms large over the Porsche Macan, the five-seat, X3-rivalling SUV Porsche heralds as “the first compact SUV that is also a sports car”.

    Fighting talk. Not only does this make the Macan, confusingly, a Sports Utility Vehicle Sports Car (Sport to the power of two!) but also leaves it chasing two contradictory briefs: to handle back roads like a Cayman, and dirt tracks like a Freelander. As Banana Bubbles shall attest, trying to do two things at once generally means you end up doing both badly.

  3. Porsche didn’t have to make such sweeping proclamations. If you live anywhere near London’s minted commuter belt, you’d have heard the communal cheer when Porsche first announced it would build a little brother to the Cayenne. Before anyone outside Stuttgart had so much as fired the engine of a Macan, Porsche’s order books were full: order your Macan in the UK today, and it won’t arrive until 2015. Even if Porsche had engineered its small SUV from leftover bits of tractor, and marketed it with the slogan “Basically We Just Stuck Our Badge On The Front Of An Audi Q5 And Went Down The Pub”, the Macan would still have sold in droves.

    But that isn’t really how Porsche does things. Porsche sets itself lofty targets and generally succeeds in hitting them. So is the Macan both cereal and milkshake? The ultimate one-car garage or a confused mishmash? We commandeered a) a range-topping Macan Turbo, b) a small mountain range in eastern Germany and c) TG’s entire petrol budget for 2014, and set off in search of answers.

  4. Before the results of our tireless research/arsing around on mountain roads, we ought to address that whole Q5-in-drag question. Porsche cheerily admits the Macan shares its underpinnings with Audi’s middlemost SUV, but ‘underpinnings’ is really all it shares. In fact, considering the VW Group’s fastidious attitude to making all its brands play in the same parts bin, perhaps what’s most interesting about the Macan is how little it has in common with the strait-laced Audi. Porsche says two-thirds of the Macan is original: in essence, only the Q5’s aluminium frame remains. The Macan’s interior is pure Porsche - many buttons, triple-barrel instrument cluster, steering wheel borrowed from the 918 Spyder, no less - as are its bodywork, suspension, transmission and, for the most part, engines.

    Large engines. If you were quietly hoping the Macan might be the first Porsche you could drive to your local Penguin Huggers Anonymous meeting without having to park around the corner, tough luck for now. No parsimonious four-cylinders nor hybrids here (though both will arrive later), instead a range of three suitably sports-car-worthy six-cylinders, two petrol and one diesel. The latter Diesel S is an Audi-derived 3.0-litre turbo V6 clocked at 258bhp and 427lb ft, along with 45mpg and 160g/km of CO2. That’ll cost you £43,300: for the same price you can have the base petrol Macan S, which uses a Porsche-specific 3.0 twin-turbo V6 with 340bhp. The petrol S will get from 0-62mph in 5.2secs, nine-tenths quicker than the diesel.

  5. But the one you really want is the Macan Turbo, with its 394bhp, 3.6-litre twin-turbo V6. 0-62mph? As little as 4.6 seconds. Top speed? 165mph. That, says Porsche, makes it the fastest small SUV in the world.

    It feels it. It may not be quite as retina-detaching as the 911 Turbo with which it shares a badge, but, by SUV standards, the Macan is a bullet train of a thing. The ‘charged V6 is a brute, combining a chest-tightening low-end wallop from the turbos with a cheery charge past 6,000rpm, one that’ll fling you deep into licence-losing territory before you can say, “Goodness, I am being flung deep into licence-losing territory.” On an empty stretch of derestricted autobahn, right foot stapled to the carpet, the Macan was still pulling hard at 160mph.

  6. Brutally brisk, then, but here’s the best bit: the Macan doesn’t ride like an overladen tool chest. Especially if you opt for the adaptive air suspension, which, at £1,700, you should. With most fast German produce, it’s worth taking the precaution of slipping a couple of sofa cushions down the back of your jeans before tackling a lumpy road at speed, but the air-sprung Macan is an object lesson in balancing stability and suppleness. There’s hardly a hint of tilt in the corners, but the Porsche deals with bumps and bad tarmac like - well, like a car that hasn’t been stiffened to within an inch of its life on the Nürburgring. In fact, that combination of fat power, massive grip and compliant suspension means the Macan Turbo could have some pretty senior supercars calling for the ibuprofen on British roads.

    However. This is no hosed-to-the-bone no-frills flyweight. Downhill into a fast, tightening bend, hard on the brakes, and the Macan makes a concerted effort to investigate the undergrowth on the far side of the road. There’s a lot of mass here to haul under control: approximately two tonnes, according to Porsche’s figures. At least the brakes - 360mm discs with aluminium monobloc calipers - are beyond reproach.

  7. As is the standard PDK transmission. Porsche had some early wobbles with its double-clutch gearbox - specifically those daft push-me-pull-you steering-wheel buttons - but the Macan’s seven-speed PDK might just be the best two-pedal transmission in the business, changing gear instantly and with satisfying crispness, the paddles behind the steering wheel (left for down, right for up, as it should be) engaging with a pleasingly hefty deadweight. There’s no manual option available at all. Even if there were, you wouldn’t bother.

    And if we’re talking impressive technical achievements, TopGear would humbly suggest a promotion for the engineer behind the Macan’s AWD set-up. There’s been a tendency in recent years for manufacturers to fit their off-road offerings with AWD systems that are, if worthy of the term at all, very much evenings-and-weekend: natively front-wheel drive, only pushing power to the rear wheels as a very last resort.

  8. The Macan, however, does things properly. Power is sent from the PDK to the rear axle, a second propshaft returning torque to the front wheels when needed. Which means the Macan is rear-biased in normal driving, but can throw 100 per cent of torque to whichever axle needs it most. You can also add Porsche’s torque-vectoring system, which splits torque across the rear wheels through an electronically controlled differential.

    What all that clutch ‘n’ diff-based trickery means in the real world is this: simply phenomenal traction, everywhere, all the time. I’m not sure anything short of a Nissan GT-R is quite so proficient at sniffing out every last grain of grip as this Macan. Yet better, that front-rear torque balance doesn’t default to gloomy understeer, instead pushing plenty of power to the back axle to allow you a) to stay on the throttle through even the tightest bends or b) maintain dirty great powerslides around an abandoned, snow-covered car park.

  9. Talking of snow, we tested the Macan on ice, mud, fresh powder and everything in between. It handled the lot, and even survived a quick wade through a knee-deep river, albeit not without a gurgling, anguished howl from something deep within the engine, followed by much hissing from the radiators for a good half-hour thereafter. Conclusion: the Macan won’t reach the places a Defender or Land Cruiser might, but its off-road abilities will be more than enough to get you and your progeny to your designated glamping spot at next summer’s trendiest organic arts ‘n’ crafts festival.

    So has Porsche done it, managed to make a SUV that’s also a sports car? Comparatively, yes. The Macan is massively fast, improbably grippy and beautifully built. It’s the quickest, sportiest SUV in history, more mechanical and hands-on than the Range Rover Sport and Evoque, more focused of purpose than the fast 4x4s of BMW and Audi.

  10. Even so, after a day of banging around the beautiful, empty Harz mountains, is it wrong we’re left feeling just the tiniest bit underwhelmed by the Macan? Not because it’s anything but a stunning technical achievement, but because Porsche sold it on such a vast promise. The Macan is pitched as a Porsche sports car so, unlikely as it might have been to materialise, we wanted… well, a 911 Turbo with extra suspension travel. We wanted meaty, fizzy steering. We wanted an ar*e-on-the-floor driving position. We wanted a chuntering, mechanical soundtrack. By SUV standards, the Macan is far from deficient in any of these departments: the steering is weighty and even, if a trifle dead; the seating position is low enough; there’s a decent whoosh of induction noise and a healthy array of grunts from the exhaust.

    If you, too, were expecting the full-fat Porsche sports-car experience in a slightly taller package, the Macan won’t quite float your boat. It’s just a little too rounded, a little too civilised to provoke the full sports-car fizz. A slick-suited pro, not a stick-it-to-the-man tearaway. Maybe this rounded professionalism is evidence of the insidious, greying influence of the VW mothership on once-quirky, left-field Porsche, but more likely it’s simple realism on Stuttgart’s behalf. A shouty, chest-wigged sports-sports utility vehicle, much as we’d have admired it, would have been downright tiring 90 per cent of the time, and alienated many of those new buyers Porsche is targeting with its (almost) affordable five-seater. As it is, the Macan is the first compact SUV that’s almost a sports car. Not quite the ultimate one-car garage, but very, very close. And, hey, at least that leaves room for a Macan GT3 RS…

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