Remember the sensational turn of events surrounding the launch of the Porsche Cayenne?
It was shortly after the turn of the millennium, and the company whose very existence was based upon a line of legendary sports cars was about to do something that its boss at the time had earlier pledged would never happen. Namely, add an SUV to its line-up.
The decision was met with varying degrees of scepticism among loyal fans. Some even went so far as to suggest that it marked the beginning of the end for Porsche.
A decade or so on, that controversial decision to diversify the Porsche model range to include an SUV is now viewed as a masterstroke. Successful beyond even the most optimistic sales predictions of the time, the Cayenne has established itself as the fastest-selling Porsche model of all time.
The Cayenne – worldwide sales of 77,822 last year alone – has provided Porsche with the scope for record annual sales, along with a solid financial foundation for further growth that has included new halo models such as the 918 Spyder.
Inevitably, given the profits that it has stashed away in recent years, it’s no surprise that we now have a second Porsche SUV, the new Porsche Macan.
This time around, though, the purists are notable for one thing only: their silence. To be unveiled at the Los Angeles motor show next month, the Macan is slightly smaller, more keenly priced and, says Porsche, more car-like in character than the Cayenne.
The suggestion is that it will ultimately prove more successful than its larger sibling and, given that it is tipped to be priced from £40,000 in the UK, this line of thinking sounds entirely plausible. Before its public debut, though, we have been invited to sample the new SUV on public roads during a final validation test with its project leader, Hans-Juergen Woehler, in California.
A size that matters
From a distance and without any other cars to reference for size, it is very easy to mistake the Macan prototypes with their Cayenne support vehicles.
The two share a common design language that remains clear, despite the light disguise worn by the prototypes that Porsche's test and engineering team has brought to North America. Love it or loathe it, you can’t deny that it is eye-catching.
One feature that immediately raises interest is the bonnet, a clamshell affair that features cut-outs for the headlamps and sides that wrap well down into the flanks below the top of the front wheel arches, similar to the Mini hatchback.It has been adopted to improve airflow within the engine bay, according to Woehler.
Despite looking like a scaled-down version of the Cayenne, the Macan uses quite a different base. The Cayenne shares its underpinnings with the Volkswagen Touareg, the Macan with the Audi Q5. From launch in the UK next May, Porsche intends to offer three engines and a choice of either a standard six-speed manual or optional seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox, which has been chosen over the Cayenne’s eight-speed automatic on the grounds that it provides the new SUV with a more sporting feel, says Woehler.
Four-wheel drive – a Torsen torque-sensing system that apportions power with a distinct rearward bias – is standard across the range, as are features such as automatic stop-start and a coasting function that idles the engine on a trailing throttle for added fuel savings.
Although Porsche is quick to play down the engineering links between the Macan and Q5, you don’t have to delve very far to discover that they share the same 2807mm wheelbase. Overall, the Porsche is 70mm longer, 44mm wider and 29mm lower than the Audi, which is now in its fifth year of production.
The Macan’s chassis is also a development of that found in the Q5, with a combination of multi-links front and rear. In keeping with its sporting brief, it receives conventional steel coil springs along with adjustable dampers and regular anti-roll bars, although the finer details are being kept under wraps until its unveiling in late November.
Wheel sizes start at 17 inches and go all the way up to an optional 21-inch design. The steering, an electro-mechanical arrangement, is described as a Porsche development with unique components and mapping.
I jump into the heavily contoured passenger seat of the Turbo model that is set to lead the Macan line-up. It is powered by a twin-turbocharged version of Porsche’s 3.6-litre V6 direct-injection petrol engine that, until now, has been offered in naturally aspirated guise only.
The adoption of forced induction, a complex cooling system fed by those substantial front air ducts and other associated internal modifications have raised output by a significant 100bhp, bumping it to 395bhp – the same figure touted by the naturally aspirated 4.8-litre V8 in the Cayenne S, no less. There is an even bigger increase in torque, which climbs by 110lb ft to a sturdy 406lb ft. By comparison, the most powerful Q5, the SQ5 sold in North America, uses a supercharged 3.0-litre V6 petrol engine with 354bhp and 347lb ft.
A glance around the interior reveals similarities in materials, switches and controls to that of the second-generation Cayenne, suggesting that quality will be well up to levels of other recent Porsche models. The driving position is quite sporting – more so than in the Cayenne – with a neatly proportioned, multi-function steering wheel that is not quite vertical and a high-set centre console. The cabin is very spacious. There’s lots of legroom and headroom for four adults, and five at a pinch.
Then we’re off, up the ramp of the car park and on to the streets of Los Angeles to a secret canyon road and then farther inland for some off-road driving later on.
Porsche is yet to reveal any weight figures for its new model, but Woehler suggests that a number of weight-saving measures, including the use of aluminium in the body, will allow the Turbo to hit the scales at under 1700kg. Nevertheless, there are sufficient reserves to provide it with more than just brisk performance.
In lower gears, it possesses serious pace away from the lights and truly impressive in-gear acceleration. Final performance figures are yet to be validated. My money is on a 0-62mph time of below 5.0sec and top speed of more than 160mph – enough to bury the SQ5, for sure.
Impressive performance, dynamic handling
As we hit the highway, it becomes obvious that the Turbo possesses quite long gearing at the top of its ’box. With its optional seven-speed PDK gearbox left in automatic mode, it rarely requires more than 2000rpm to remain with the flow of traffic. Mechanical refinement is superb, with only a faint growl of exhaust on part-throttle.
Together with the gutsy twin-turbocharged 3.6-litre V6 in the initial top-of-the-line Turbo, Porsche will offer the Macan with at least two further Audi-sourced 3.0-litre V6 engines from the outset of UK sales. Porsche has confirmed a supercharged petrol engine with 335bhp and 339lb ft in the Macan Sand a common-rail turbodiesel with 254bhp and a heady 428lb ft in the Macan S Diesel.
The Macan is also scheduled to receive a limited range of four-cylinder engines, making it the first Porsche to do so since the demise of the 968 in 1995. Nothing is official but, sourced from parent company Volkswagen, a turbocharged 2.0-litre petrol unit with 225bhp and 258lb ft and a 2.0-litre turbodiesel with 177bhp and 280lb ft are likely candidates for the price-leading petrol and diesel models.
Along with the focus on straight-line speed, Porsche’s engineering team was tasked with endowing the Macan with what Woehler describes as “the most dynamic handling in its class”.
What strikes me most about its on-road characteristics, once we leave the wide boulevards of Los Angeles behind, is its sheer agility. The Macan corners with all the eagerness of a well sorted sporting estate, displaying sharp turn-in, remarkably little body roll and an ability to accept lateral forces without any discernible understeer, even at the limit. There appears to be abundant levels of mid-corner grip, and the four-wheel drive system ensures that there’s always loads of traction and, in combination with the Turbo’s deep reserves of torque, terrific drive out of low-speed corners.
But if you’re looking for a more definitive verdict, you’ll have to wait until we can drive the new Porsche for ourselves. There is no doubt that the Macan has the ability to mount a series challenge to the BMW X3 for pure dynamic ability on the bitumen. From the passenger seat, it displays all the dynamic hallmarks needed to make it the Cayman of the SUV world.
And what’s really surprising is that, despite running 21-inch wheels shod with 265/45 rubber, the ride is totally acceptable. There is a firmness to its springs, but it copes with a wide range of irregularities – from small and medium-sized intrusions to larger potholes and speed bumps – with a degree of suppleness that would embarrass the Q5 on the same combination of wheels and tyres.
Like the Cayenne, the Macan has been conceived predominantly for on-road driving. However, Woehler is full of praise for the ability of the new SUV in tricky off-road conditions, suggesting that it can hold its own against every conceivable rival in the rough stuff, despite the absence of anything as hardcore as low-range gearing.
Inevitably, it isn’t too long before we leave the relative security of the bitumen and begin charging down a series of narrow gravel roads in the mountains behind Los Angeles. Despite its sporting slant and a lot of talk from engineers about efforts to keep the centre of gravity as low as possible, the Macan possesses greater ground clearance than the Q5.
It also has more accommodating approach, departure and ramp angles than the Audi. And after some serious circle work, I can assure you that the sportiness is not only confined to on-road driving.
Has the gamble paid off?
Porsche's ambition with the Macan was to produce an SUV that would appeal to a wide range of customers – from school-run mothers to dyed-in-the-wool enthusiasts and those seeking more than a modicum of off-road ability. And in this respect, it has achieved its goal.
At least, that’s the feeling we got after a day in the passenger seat of the Turbo version. Its breadth of ability is quite stunning, underpinned by a heroic engine, fantastically efficient driveline and a chassis that appears to have been sprinkled with more than a pinch of Porsche magic.
The exterior won’t be to everyone’s taste, but the interior is classy, spacious and very inviting. Best of all, there is absolutely no hint of its links with the Q5. New class king? At the moment, it looks that way.