The true stature of an outstanding car often takes time to emerge through the dust cloud of excitement and sugar coating of novelty that shroud big product launches.
The Porsche Macan’s launch had plenty of both – not to mention the controversy inspired by a concept as divisive as a new fast SUV.
But given time to digest this car’s remarkable dynamic qualities – and several occasions to drive it – we’ve been left with the unmistakable impression of the exceptional here.
The Macan is a 4x4 like absolutely no other. It easily dismissed the challenge of a Range Rover Evoque in an early comparison test. It subsequently earned a near-perfect 4.5-star road test rating.
It’s a better driver’s car than even its bigger brother, the Cayenne, and – assuming that’s what you want an SUV to be – is singularly appealing compared with just about every medium-sized, premium-branded 4x4 that came before.
But what about since? Enter the first car with the potential to upset the Macan apple cart. One with an equivalent mission to bring coupé-like styling and desirability, stirring performance and genuine sports saloon handling to a growing captive audience already convinced that it wants the status, luxury and convenience of a premium-brand 4x4. The BMW X4 has arrived.
Although it may not be blown to pieces, the case for signing on the dotted line for that Porsche suddenly doesn’t look so perfectly sewn up. The X4 has the makings of a car to land a punch or two on the Macan.
Going toe to toe here in identically powerful, 255bhp xDrive30d and Diesel S forms, these two are within 15kg of each other on quoted kerb weight, 10mm on overall length and 3mm on wheelbase and they have identical overall heights.
If it comes as a surprise that the BMW wins the preliminary brochure-borne battle on performance, fuel economy and CO2 emissions, you’ll be equally surprised to hear that the Porsche is cheaper to buy and slightly cheaper to insure than the BMW.
More predictably, the Porsche is expected to be considerably stronger on retained value. On paper, our match-up could hardly be better poised.
But in the real world, the BMW starts this test at a bigger disadvantage than any specification preview could reveal. If you’ve already seen one on the road, or even in pictures, you’ll know why that is.
That the X4 is a marginally less incongruous-looking car than the bigger X6 may be true, but it’s not much of a compliment. Nor is any such compliment deserved.
There are parts of this new BMW’s styling that, in isolation, we quite like: the sweeping roofline, the contoured bonnet, the split swage line on its flanks – all perfectly agreeable close up. But when you stand back, the car’s features and proportions look unbalanced and unresolved.
Somehow the X4 is less like a coherent, modern BMW than a Crimewatch photofit. It could almost have been sketched in dry-wipe marker on a focus group whiteboard.
During a week with the car, no one we asked described the X4’s styling in positive terms. Most people simply “didn’t get it”. And this is a car that’s supposed to be more desirable than the average German 4x4, remember.
Next to the Macan – a car that, although not a knockout, at least is every inch the new-wave, downsized, sporting Porsche SUV that it’s intended to be – the X4 is weird in the extreme.
Which is a sizeable barrier to success, it strikes me. Assuming that you can get past it, there’s better news to report on the BMW’s cabin. You sit higher in the X4 than in the Macan, and although it’s good, the BMW’s interior doesn’t rival the Porsche’s on material richness. Up front, the Macan feels more sporting, more spacious, more special – just better.
But in the back seats, the order is reversed. Despite looking like it should be the lesser of the two on second-row passenger space, the X4 has notably more head, knee and foot room in the back than the Macan. The Porsche is the kind of car in which bigger adults might trap a knee or graze a forehead when getting into the back.
The X4 isn’t. And although the BMW’s plunging tailgate would seem to suggest otherwise, the X4 has an identical 500 litres of boot space to the Macan, and only a smidge less usable overall loading height behind the back seats.
It’s hard to know how much store we should set by greater practicality in this new SUV-cum-coupé niche, because a normal premium-brand 4x4 will always offer more – and for less outlay. Still, for those to whom it matters, the BMW is the more practical car.
It also has marginally more ground clearance than the Macan (204mm versus 190mm), unless you lavish optional air suspension on your Porsche, which you’d probably do if you were ever likely to drive off road. Then again, to most Macan and X4 owners, extra ground clearance will probably matter about as much as a chilled cupholder – perhaps, even, slightly less.
One thing about which Porsche can do nothing is BMW’s outstanding pedigree when it comes to making six-cylinder diesel engines of the kind that were always going to be central to the appeal of any sporting 4x4.
Don’t let the vital statistics of these cars mislead you to believe that, just because it develops marginally more torque, the Macan’s Audi-sourced 3.0-litre V6 is in any way superior to the BMW straight six in the X4. The X4’s powertrain is superb, the Macan’s merely good.
Very undiesel-like response and flexibility are the hallmarks of the BMW engine’s undoubted class. They come hand in hand with excellent outright performance and equally excellent mechanical refinement, but it’s the even, obliging quality of the delivery of the X4’s six-cylinder engine that really sets it apart.
You simply can’t ask too much of this motor. Pulling from below 1500rpm, it’s smooth and linear. Extended beyond 4000rpm, it’s just as constant and well mannered.
It’s the kind of power delivery that makes life easy for an automatic transmission, and yet the BMW’s eight-speed gearbox is every bit as impressive: slick-shifting, smooth and quick to find the right gear. Find fault with the combination of the two if you can, but I couldn’t.
Especially when, over and above the quality of its performance, there is also the quantity of urge to send this 1900kg 4x4 to 60mph in less than 6.0sec – something that our road test timing gear has already confirmed and that you’ll read more about in the coming weeks.
The Porsche’s seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox can shift as quickly but not quite as smoothly or intelligently. Your perception of the Macan’s on-road performance is affected by the car’s longer intermediate gear ratios.
And yet the Porsche’s performance does seem ordinary in other ways: less tractable at very low revs, less smooth and willing to rev, a touch slower and less user-friendly when initially engaging drive.
To be fair to the Macan, it only seems ordinary after you’ve hopped out of a car with one of the best diesel passenger car engines in the world.
In isolation, the Porsche’s 3.0-litre V6 is certainly powerful enough and sufficiently well polished to be an effective constituent part of a driving experience that, as we’ll go on to explain, is outstanding in other ways.
But there’s no mistaking it: the Macan’s diesel six could be better. Should be, too. The car is half a second slower to 60mph than the BMW on test here and more than a second slower than the range-topping 309bhp X4 xDrive35d and Audi’s SQ5. If I were a Macan owner buying into the prospect of the most exciting 4x4 in the world, I wouldn’t be too happy with that.
So the X4 makes up for some of what it lacks in visual allure with pleasing practicality and a distinguished powertrain. Suddenly, this looks like a contest again. Until, that is, the Macan shows the true strength of its hand.
The Porsche handles the twists, turns and bumps of a country road with crispness, tautness, balance and involvement that the BMW can’t even approach – let alone surpass. Among 4x4s, this car was in a league of one for driver appeal before the X4 came along and it remains in that exclusive league afterwards.
You do, however, need to fill in your order form just so in order to be certain of that total dynamic superiority.
Muddying the waters of a nice, simple verdict isn’t something that any Autocar road tester likes to do, but muddy they must be when dealing with cars at this end of the premium ranks – where suspension, drivetrain and steering options are legion, choice reigns supreme and as an end in itself, and the potential to take the dynamic edge off any new BMW, Audi, Mercedes-Benz or Porsche is so great. Too great, in our opinion.
The Macan in this test came with standard steel springs and optional PASM adaptive damping, PTV torque vectoring (with intelligent limited-slip differential) and the Sport Chrono pack.
Wider test experience suggests that, thus configured, the car is at the height of its dynamic powers – the best-handling 4x4 by a distance.
But your Porsche dealer will probably advise you that the self-levelling, height-adjustable air suspension makes the Macan even more dynamically brilliant.
Air springs certainly make this a more comfortable car, and one more broadly suited to the variety of surfaces that it’ll cover across Britain’s road network.
But they also take a lot of the sense of connectedness away from the car’s steering, which is otherwise ideally paced and weighted and generous on contact-patch feel. Air springs make the Macan more like every other 4x4, in other words.
You guide this car into a corner with instinctive directness, aware the instant that the front wheels begin to ease lateral load into the chassis and hardly feeling this two-tonne 4x4 roll or even threaten to understeer.
That initial steering response is incredible and so rare in an SUV – and it is replaced by an even more remarkable balance of grip as you progress through the corner.
The latter allows you to point the car at the exit of the bend with very little effort, put the car in a neutral cornering attitude and open up the steering before the road has even straightened out. Amazing stuff. This is how you drive powerful rear-drive coupés and saloons – not 4x4s.
The BMW is no bad car to drive, but it still isn’t the match of the Porsche on any front. Its steering is a bit heavy, monotone of feel, and picks up speed without corresponding weight to tell you when it’s happening (the Variable Sport rack is standard and has never been our favourite BMW item).
Its ride is more compliant than the Porsche’s but also less fluent – restless and choppy when tested, those adaptive dampers failing to provide good old-fashioned subtlety of initial body control. And its cornering balance is disappointing, its attitude always nose-led, the driveline failing to give you options for mid-corner adjustment.
An X4 without BMW’s Adaptive M Sport suspension may ride better; unlike in the Macan’s case, this is our first taste of the X4 on home soil, so there’s no wider test experience to drawn on.
But even if so, the difference between a well configured Macan and an equivalent X4 would still be yawning. It would have to be.
The Macan remains dynamically untouchable, then – but its victory is all the more resounding here because, next to the clumsy-looking X4, the Porsche is so obviously the product of greater vision. Henry Ford’s famous aphorism about the design of the Model T springs instantly to mind: “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they’d have asked for a faster horse.”
The X4 seems like the new-breed 4x4 that you’d draw yourself on the back of an envelope: a muddle of disparate styling cues that ultimately fails to redeem itself on the road.
The Macan is the definitive article: the new-breed 4x4 that you’d actually buy. Onward rolls the apple cart.
Porsche Macan Diesel S
Price £43,300; 0-62mph 6.3sec; Top speed 142mph; Economy 46.3mpg; CO2 159g/km; Kerb weight 1880kg; Engine V6, 2967cc, turbodiesel; Power 255bhp at 4000-4250rpm; Torque 428lb ft at 1750-2500rpm; Gearbox 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
BMW X4 xDrive30d M Sport
Price £46,395; 0-62mph 5.8sec; Top speed 145mph; Economy 47.9mpg; CO2 156g/km; Kerb weight 1895kg; Engine 6 cyls in line, 2993cc, turbodiesel; Power 255bhp at 4000rpm; Torque 413lb ft at 1500-3000rpm; Gearbox 8-speed automatic
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