If Porsche really wanted me to test the new Macan GTS in its natural environment they’d have sent me to the mall. But here we are playing rally cars in Colorado, on a public-road-turned race course with more turns than a small intestine.
(Full disclosure: This story made possible by Porsche, which flew me to Colorado, took care of all my accommodations for a couple days, pretended not to mind that I billed a six-dollar coffee to a hotel room (I still feel dirty, but there were no prices on the menu), let me put a couple hundred hard miles on a Macan GTS, and oh yeah– rented out one of the most incredible roads I’ve ever seen for us to go hog-wild on.)
New for 2017, the GTS trim is supposed to have the Macan Turbo’s cornering and carving performance chops without quite as much power or as high of a price. As such, it occupies a strange space in Porsche’s lineup.
You can’t describe it with any word adjacent to “value” since the MSRP starts at about $70,000. The one I drove was optioned to almost $90,000. You’re not buying it to save money over a greater Porsche, so it needs to survive off its own merits to justify its existence.
Everything you like about the Macan Turbo, or frankly any Porsche you may have had the privilege to drive recently, is beautifully baked into the Macan GTS. The steering’s sharp enough to cut yourself on. Transmission shifts with the ruthlessness of a cossack executioner. The interior, oh man, it’s like you died and went to Hammacher Schlemmer.
All Porsche Macans are turbocharged, despite only one having the word “Turbo” stamped on the trunklid. The other trims, including the GTS, are just 40 horsepower shy of the Turbo. That means the turbocharged 3.0 V6 in the cars is rated to 360 horsepower at a gloriously noisy 6,000 RPM.
At sea level.
But I was not driving this Macan GTS at sea level. I was in a convoy tearing up the legendary Pikes Peak Hill Climb course, rented out by Porsche for the morning just a few weeks before the race’s 100th anniversary of the famous race.
The Pikes Peak course starts at 9,390 feet, almost two miles into the sky, and finishes at the 14,115 where a short jog makes you feel 50 pounds heavier and a sip of O’Doul’s can give you a hangover. Engines, even modern computer-controlled ones, don’t run so well up there.
“It will give you a chance to really feel the shift points and torque vectoring,” Porsche’s PR team assured me, knowing I was about to be surprised at how slow 360 horsepower could feel. Can anyone really feel torque vectoring, though?
Truth is the air-starved engine did open the car up to greater scrutiny. Right off the line the powerband was like an anxious animal hiding in the corner of a cage at the top of the rev range. Nevertheless, there was plenty left to provoke by repeatedly prodding it.
At the head of our convoy was multiple Pikes Peak record holder and Porsche guru Jeff Zwart in a gutted and growly (but vaguely street legal) 911 GT2 he won with in 2002 and pretty much hadn’t seen since.
“Here’s where that GT-R went off last year,” Zwart radioed at one point, kicking rocks down a cliff with his tires. The words were ominous but his tone told us that he was steering with a knee and enjoying the scenery. Farther back in the pack, I was putting permanent sweat stains in the Macan’s leather.
Gas pedal flat to the mat, my heavy hatchback seemed to drown in gasoline for a fraction of a second before sorting itself out and jogging, cantering, sprinting, and then oh yeah baby, here comes the juice!
From there the secret is to keep the engine boiling. That’s where a refined inner-ear like Zwart’s becomes invaluable; knowing exactly where, when and how to shift to keep the turbocharger screaming without losing traction and flying off the road is elite driving. You can’t do it. I can’t do it. But the Macan’s torque-vectoring traction control setup and ridiculously intelligent transmission almost made it look like I could.
Running hot into Pikes’ hairpin corners, the Macan sort of pulled me around instead of just pushing me out. Is this what torque vectoring feels like, I wondered? Hard to say, since I was too scared to look away from the road to check out the neat little display that illustrates what portion of power is going to which wheels.
I will say the Macan GTS feels more like a rear-drive car than I expected an AWD SUV to. But it wouldn’t really be right to call the car “rear-drive” bias; it’s actually continuously moving power around to whichever wheel can make the most of it based on sensor of inputs.
“The Macan line has a hang-on clutch that can be opened, sending no power to the front axle, or locked, fixing the drive ratio between the front and rear axles,” Porsche representative Calvin Kim explains. “Usually, there is always some preload on the clutch to ensure rapid power transfer when needed. That amount of preload is dependent on drive mode and driving style.”
It only took three turns to squeeze an audible ass-clench out of my passenger. Four to remember I should probably breath. Five to crush any pretense I might have had about being a good driver and after six I was just hoping my GoPro footage would look cool at my funeral.
Driving the Macan GTS at town speed is smooth and clean, if a little stiff. Hustling it is rewarding; the handling’s so muscular its abilities take a lot of stupidity to overcome. Only when an amateur like myself tries to keep up with Zwart does the car show any hint of real hardship, which is what makes it fantastic and terrible.
Incredibly the car has one more miracle to grant you; its fantastic set of brakes, which can stop all by the most egregious driving mistakes from turning into tragedy.
The Macan GTS feels like one of the truest “four-person sports cars” built in 2016 that also has enough suspension travel to nosh its way through dirt roads and LA potholes without backing off. It’s almost like the ultimate incarnation of what a really well configured and luxurified Subaru WRX wagon could be, as long as you don’t mind sitting up a littler higher than you might expect. I wonder, even at the absolute least amount of money you can spend on a Macan GTS, $67,200, why aren’t you just buying a WRX and a secondhand Cayman to go with it?
From up here, at least, the tradeoff seems to make sense, and the view from the driver’s seat doesn’t look too bad.