Forces of Nature: 2018 Mercedes-Benz G550 and 2017 Porsche Macan Turbo Road Trip
The San Andreas Fault Has Met Its Match
High-performance SUVs rock. They’re ridiculous insanity on four wheels, the over-amped energy drinks of the sport utility vehicle world. New power SUVs from luxury automakers such as Lamborghini and Maserati seem to be exploding on to the scene daily, and they’re bigger, stronger, and faster than even some of their sport sedan counterparts.
But does anyone really need to have a family hauler with more than 400 hp and be able to crawl over boulders the size of Volkswagen Beetles? We thought it was a good question to try and answer with, what else, a drive.
Because this wasn’t a comparison test, we got two of the most different kick-butt utes we could find, the ’18 Mercedes-Benz G550 and the ’17 Porsche Macan Turbo. Both strapping SUVs might sooner belong in a Jason Bourne chase scene than a suburban driveway.
Our first test subject, a monster body-on-frame behemoth that weights in close to 6,000 pounds with the aerodynamics of a high-rise, the second a svelte little bubble doing the best imitation it can of its track-focused big brother, the 911.
We decided to drive these freaks of the crossover world on another freak of nature, the San Andreas Fault, the seismic sleeping giant about which blockbuster movies are made.
The San Andreas Fault runs almost the entire length of the state of California, slicing diagonally from just north of the Mexico border at the Salton Sea, through central California at the Carrizo Plain and San Juan Bautista, then up toward the coast, heading like a casual tourist to the San Francisco Bay Area, then up beyond Mendocino before finally jutting out to sea. That’s where we started our drive.
The Mercedes and Porsche don’t look out of place on the picturesque northern California coastline, which conceals a Gigantor-like rift between the North American and Pacific tectonic plates. These two geologic archenemies slowly scrape past the other, a constant, looming, unpredictable, earth-shattering threat. One travels north, the other south, like gridlocked traffic on either side of Interstate 5.
As the crow flies, the San Andreas Fault runs about 650 miles long, but that grows to slightly more than 680 miles as we drive. Since there’s surprisingly no official marked route for the fault, we busted out some GPS coordinates and rolled out our invincible vehicles. Heading south from Point Arena along California’s coastal Highway 1, we traverse the winding road of million-dollar views, which flits carelessly back and forth across the fault. Consciously driving on top of a force more powerful than name-dropping Steven Spielberg at a Hollywood party completely changed the tenor of our drive. What if the big one hit while we’re literally on top of it?
Our Macan Turbo, equipped with the Performance Package, puts out a mean 440 hp and 443 lb-ft of torque that easily catapult the 5,600-pound German. Without that performance option you’re looking at 40 less horsepower, but also $10,500 less comes out of your bank account. Our model as tested, which included carbon-fiber interior trim accents, a booming 12-speaker Bose sound system, torque vectoring, and larger carbon ceramic brakes, would relieve owners of $114,840. That price tag alone might move some mountains.
Next to the G550’s sticker, however, the Macan’s looks like a sales item in the bargain basement. With extras like designo Olive Magno matte paint and anthracite wood trim pieces, part of a $14,500 trim pack that could be called the Tyrannical Dictator with Expensive Taste Package, our G550 will set you back $141,995. The upside is if you do get stuck while driving during the magnitude-8 earthquake, already 50 years overdue in California, you could always cook up the sumptuous Nappa leather that covers the seats and eat it, it’s that soft.
Signs of the San Andreas unfold in un-dramatic fashion, not unlike the pace of a Prius on a California freeway onramp. A crooked curb in Hollister, curved fences in Mendocino—there are no gaping crevasses that cars have fallen into. And when the big one hits, the coast of California will not fall into the Pacific Ocean like Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor predicted in the 1978 version of Superman.
The oldest earthquake in recorded history rocked California on January 9, 1857, and was an estimated 7.9-magnitude temblor. It epicentered in Parkfield, then shredded through the landscape for 220 miles south. In 1906, the great San Francisco quake, also magnitude 7.9, broke all hell loose on April 18. That one centered in Daly City, about 10 miles south of the city, and tore up the ground from Hollister to Mendocino County, devastating San Francisco because of the subsequent uncontrollable fires.
Closing the doors on the G550 might not register on the Richter scale, but even for Arnold Schwarzenegger it could be a workout if repeated enough. Built like a military bunker, those heavy doors also seemed to block at least one or two bars of cell service when latched. That’s some serious build quality. Though crank it up to 11, and the Harmon Kardon LOGIC7 sound system might blow those doors off entirely.
Burying the throttle compares with leg day at Gold’s Gym. Burly, butch, and full of brawn, the stalwart G-Wagen demands full visceral engagement when driving at speed for any length of time. But while you work your butt off driving, that butt will be quite comfortable and supported, as you can adjust the driver seat to hug you as tightly as a pair of your girlfriend’s Spanx.
From behind, the towering G550 looked as though it might tip over through the twisting northern California roads. Being that we’re ever such polite drivers, whomever spirited the Macan around always got dibs to drive first.
Just to keep up, the Mercedes used enough gas to put OPEC out of business. A 416hp, 450–lb-ft twin-turbo V-8 powers the G550. Its EPA-rated 13 city/14 highway mpg necessitated frequent stops as we followed the fault through the 15 counties it covers.
On the twisties, the G took work to make haste, thanks to the heavy, slow steering and winter-friendly mud and snow tires mounted to each end of the solid axles. One of our editors made himself carsick while driving, a testament to the G550’s old-school, pogo-stick dynamics. But even with its 40-year-old design, there was a unique charm to driving the G-Class quickly, exhausting though it was.
By contrast, driving the Macan felt like spa day. It slips around corners like silk against the skin. Hours could go by, and whether on the highway or a two-lane mountain road, it’s simply an enjoyable ride. It’s also fast as hell, hitting 60 mph in 3.7 seconds. In Sport Plus mode the car gets even better, with precise steering and a set of grippy Pirelli P-Zero tires. Our petite Carmine Red bullet tendered little or no body roll even around the hairpin turns up Loma Prieta mountain to visit the epicenter of its namesake 1994 earthquake.
Sport Plus on the Porsche throws the seven-speed, dual-clutch transmission into maximum attack, opening the variable baffles in the exhaust to ensure every downshift meets with a rev-matched pop from the quad pipes. The low-profile tires and lusty suspension layout had us worried we’d get beat up, but even in its sharpest setting and even on the worst roads, the Macan remains sublime, making it Porsche’s current best-selling vehicle, understandably. Of course, setting the adjustable dampers to a more relaxed mode was a pleasant change of pace on the freeway.
At Bitterwater Road, just off Highway 46, make a left. Go 30 miles to Highway 58, then drive 15 miles to the intersection where 58 starts to go over the aptly named Temblor Range. Hang a sharp right, then make a left on Elk Horn Road and cut down one of the smaller dirt paths that heads toward Soda Lake Road. There you’ll run right into the Devil’s Backbone, the best spot on earth to see San Andreas Fault made manifest. Here, smack in the middle of the Carrizo Plain National Park, nature’s Bobcat has moved the earth 500 feet over the past 5,000 years.
In the dirt is where the G550 definitely peacocked. Nothing much off-road intimidates the Geländewagen with its fulltime four-wheel drive and three locking differentials. Mercedes’ legendary capability made a mockery of the gentle wheeling we tossed its way. Just make sure you have a full tank in your Benz before you head out, because on the Carrizo Plain, there’s no gas.
The Macan followed diligently, handling the moderate off-road obstacles without incident thanks to its air-suspension–induced 9-inch ground clearance. Equipped with a multi-link front and trapezoidal rear suspensions, with a knobbier set of off-road rubber—ours rode on 19-inch summer tires—the Macan could make good work of more challenging dirt if asked.
South through Frazer Park and into the dusty town of Palmdale some 35 miles north of Los Angeles, we obediently traced the San Andreas, which at some point in the future will wield its sword and strike Californians unaware. Institutions such as California State University, San Bernadino rest atop it and major highways skirt across the slithering snake waiting to strike. Southeast through Desert Hot Springs and through Indio, it lays in wait, finally submerging below sea level just south of the Salton Sea and heads for the border of Mexico, where it ends.
Periodically we Californians feel the San Andreas and the system of faults that splinter off of it. They’re mere reminders, really. A 5.0 earthquake here, a 4.3 there, those small releases of pressure easing both plates along their way past one another like squabbling siblings shooting nasty glances at a family dinner.
With the roaring exhaust notes of both the Porsche Macan and Mercedes-Benz G550, we did our best to move the earth a little more, but alas, the only thing moved was our backsides across the Golden State. So, to answer our questions, do we need 400-plus-horsepower SUVs like these? Short answer, absolutely. And we can’t wait until we try and make the ground shake beneath them again.