Porsche let us go on a ride-along of late-stage validation testing of its 2015 Macan compact crossover here in Southern California, months ahead of its official reveal and on-sale date.
Manufacturers usually give automotive journalists the red carpet treatment. However, that cosseting comes at a price: often carefully gated access to product information, on the manufacturers' terms and timeline. The only unauthorized sneak peeks we usually get are through an international network of spy photographers, many of whom camp out regularly at the Nürburgring; in Milford, Michigan; and at other locales where future products are known to test.
Stranger In Our Own Land
The experience had a cloak-and-dagger feel from the very start. I picked up David Engelman, Porsche North America's media relations manager, at LAX. I was unceremoniously driving our long-term Nissan NV200 cargo van, and had to circle the airport twice before I could cut through traffic and pick him up curbside. I was nervous about my hospitality faux pas, but Engelman didn't seem to mind, and asked if I had a good recommendation on where to grab lunch. We went to a wood-fired pizza restaurant halfway between the airport and MT's global HQ in El Segundo.
He discussed the overall plans and logistics of the trip and the details of the Macan with surprising candor, on the condition that we not discuss them publicly until closer to the vehicle's official reveal at the 2013 Los Angeles Auto Show. After lunch we were dispatched back up to LAX to meet up with the Porsche testing crew. On the way back to the airport, we saw our rides for the next few days hiding in plain sight on the mean streets of L.A. To the untrained eye, they looked like dark gray Cayennes. But closer inspection revealed a slightly smaller scale and faster rear roofline. Engelman and I both looked over and said, "Yep, there they are!"
We parked the lowly Nissan in a long-term lot and took a shuttle back to the main terminal, where we walked around the parking garage until we found the group of Porsche engineers and foreign journalists gathered with the semi-camouflaged Macan mules in a relatively vacant area of the structure. Most of the conversations taking place around me were in German. I was the only U.S. journalist invited along on this trip. After a brief orientation, we loaded up into the mules and headed out on the road. The first part of the drive was on back roads of Malibu and Pacific Palisades, appropriate venues for a performance vehicle. Although the fit and finish of these late-stage mules seemed pretty close to factory quality, they were still considered prototypes, and the dashboard, center console, and door panels were shrouded with black coverings to hide them from prying eyes. Porsche asked that we not go into great detail about the interior of the Macan, but I will say it will be immediately familiar to those acquainted with the interiors of Porsche's newer models. And yes, the ignition switch is on the left side of the steering wheel.
There were three versions of the Macan on our trip: the S trim, the top-of-the-line Turbo, and the world-market Diesel. When I asked if the diesel model would eventually be sold in the U.S., the U.S. product reps and Porsche engineers frequently answered, "What do you think?" Engelman noted that 30 percent of Cayenne sales are currently diesels, indicating a strong possibility and willingness to sell the diesel model Stateside. The first model I got into was the Turbo. Its engineers were born and raised on the autobahn, so a few pokey Prius and Accord drivers weren't going to impede their progress, and the Turbo's ample power was amply demonstrated on the 405. Any doubts that the Macan was a legitimate Porsche were quickly put to rest. The exhaust note on the gasoline-powered models was simply fantastic.
No corporate twin, this Macan
Although Porsche had access to the Volkswagen corporate parts bin to use as much or as little of the Audi Q5 as it wanted, the Macan is about 80 percent new and different than the Q5, including unique gasoline powertrains, unique sheetmetal, and some pretty substantial structural and chassis differences, including the positioning and design of the front dash crossmember. The Audi Q5's conventional eight-speed torque converter automatic transmission was replaced by Porsche's seven-speed PDK dual-clutch transmission for crisper, more responsive shifts and performance.
Porsche has a strict policy against any sort of artificial or electronic noisemakers to enhance or accentuate the engine note. Either the machinery creates sweet music, or it doesn't. This was brought up during a ride of the diesel model, which was uncharacteristically quiet for a Porsche, and especially quiet compared to the slightly rowdy gas-powered models. Engineers said the only way they could get a sporty-sounding exhaust note with the diesel was with artificial noise, so they didn't.
The Macans were tightly wrapped for our overnight stay at a hotel. The next day, the journalists, engineers, and Porsche product and PR staff went to Big Bear for the day. Once again, the engineers' autobahn upbringings showed, as they confidently weaved through the Southern California congestion on our way out to the wilderness.
With its sport-tuned suspension and high-revving (except for the diesel) engines, the Macan is clearly built with on-road performance as the priority. But Porsche wanted to prove its small crossover wasn't completely helpless when the pavement ended. We found some moderately challenging trails and got some photography and video footage of the adventure. The Macan may not be the best choice for tackling the Rubicon, but it's more than capable of handling the occasional dirt road or snowy pass.
A Real Porsche
My takeaway from the trip is that the Macan is as legitimately a Porsche as the 911, Boxster, Cayman, and certainly the Cayenne. In the quest for pursuing higher global sales volume, the company could have cynically re-badged and mildly re-engineered an Audi Q5, put some oval headlights and the Stuttgart crest on it, and called it a day. But the engineers started with the bare minimum of Volkswagen's corporate MLB platform and fine-tuned and developed it until it had that quintessential Porsche magic. Some of the trade-offs of this approach are somewhat counter-intuitive to what you'd expect of a performance-oriented brand, such as a slightly heavier curb weight than an equivalent Q5, but robust powertrains of up to 400 hp and masterfully tuned suspension calibrations make the Macan nearly as much fun to play with in the canyons as the Boxster and Cayman.
The Macan is a niche product at a premium price, and it is definitely not for those customers choosing a crossover strictly on the basis of utility or practicality. Even for those seeking a status nameplate, the Q5, BMW X3, Mercedes-Benz GLK, or even Range Rover Evoque are probably more suitable for those who simply want to impress their non-enthusiast, status-conscious friends.
But for those who appreciate Porsche's performance heritage and mystique and want a compact crossover, the Macan sacrifices little in terms of driving enjoyment and the Porsche experience in exchange for a measure of utility. Even its name -- the Indonesian word for "tiger" -- is appropriate for the way the vehicle eagerly devours the curves when pushed. Yes, there are other high-performance compact crossovers on the market, but none with the Macan's level of performance or single-minded dedication to driving enjoyment. For the time being, it's a totally unique product in the compact premium crossover market.
Be sure to check back in November and the Los Angeles Auto Show for full details of Porsche's marvelous new compact crossover.