CAPE BRETON, Nova Scotia—The Cabot Trail winds its way ’round Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island. It’s known for a lot of things: lush provincial parks atop rocky cliffs; lobster traps piled high just off the road, ready for the day’s catch; a healthy spot of French influence that dates back to the area’s Acadian roots; the world-famous Cape Breton Links golf course; and of course, the gorgeous vistas providing uninhibited views of endless ocean, views so long it’s hard to tell where the Atlantic ends and horizon begins, and gorgeous sunsets as the sky glows golden-orange, peppered with mystical pink clouds.
What you may not know, however, is the Cabot Trail is also one of the best actual drives in the country. Picture Britain’s Isle of Man TT race, just without the screaming fans and narrow alleyways and protruding staircases that have sent many a rider head over heels.
That’s not just lip service. Ask 10 motorcyclists, and I’d bet eight of them – perhaps nine – will say the Cabot Trail is near the top of their biker bucket list. Great, undulating terrain that hugs the water, that’s so open in some spots you can look down the coastline and see the ribbon of tarmac majestically wind its way along the shoreline.
The best part? You know you’ll be on that fantastic stretch in just a few minutes, because there really isn’t any other way to go.
And we were about to tackle the entire trail – call it 300 km, give or take – in a gaggle of models from one of the world’s premier performance manufacturers. We had Porsches.
Not rear-wheel drive—not even rear-engined
Not your typical Porsches, mind. We were thrown the keys to a selection of their SUV models, namely the Macan Turbo and Cayenne GTS.
While at first the idea of taking anything but a 911 or Cayman on a run like this seems anathema, Porsche begs to differ. They were intent on showing us while these aren’t your traditional Porsche modes, the engineering that goes into them is such that they still retain the most important Porsche bits: balanced handling, and just the right amount of power without overpowering the chassis or intimidating the driver.
That’s not to say there aren’t exceptions to that rule – see the GT3 RS – but it’s a mantra that’s done well for Porsche, as their cars continue to make their drivers feel just a cut above. We’d quickly find out that remained the case, even when ride heights and curb weights climb.
2017 Porsche Cayenne GTS
Our first steed was the big boy: a fully decked-out Cayenne GTS, finished in glorious Carmine Red with blacked-out 20-inch wheels, designed to recall the numbers on the 918 Spyder hypercar. Seem outlandish? Maybe, but Porsche would tell you that SUV or no, the Cayenne – especially in GTS form – is a proper performance machine and the connection between the two cars works.
Why are those three letters, “GTS,” so important? Well, in the 911 world, they signify a bridge model, of sorts, between the standard Carrera S/4S and the Turbo/GT3 models. Since there is no Cayenne GT3 – let’s not get crazy here, eh? – the GTS is, essentially, the race truck of the bunch.
That means the addition of swathes of Alcantara suede draped all over the cabin – on the seats, the steering wheel, the A-pillars – the standard fitment of those great wheels hiding the same brakes Turbo models get, a lower ride height, and enlarged front air intakes. Stand the GTS beside a Cayenne S, and you’ll hardly be able to tell that they essentially have the same bones.
While the GTS isn’t called “Turbo,” it does get a turbocharged power unit, albeit one down two cylinders on the full-chat Turbo model. Still, though; it’s enough to provide the Cayenne GTS with 440 hp and 442 lb-ft of torque, good enough for a claimed zero-to-100 km/h sprint of 5.2 seconds.
After a single standing start – Sport Plus mode activated, manual transmission engaged – I was inclined to believe those claims. We had no data recorder, but you don’t need one of those to feel yourself get pressed firmly into the special sport seatback, mind doing its best to communicate the need for your right hand to flip the upshift paddle before you smash headlong into the 6,800 rpm redline.
Which is kind of hard to see, because a) the needle’s moving so fast and b) the GTS gets a red-faced tach that kind of camouflages the redline indicator. No matter; the powerband is such that even if you do over (or under) rev the thing, there’s always enough juice on-hand to quickly do it all over again. My goodness, what a powertrain.
About the handling: the lower ride height and sport-tuned suspension that can be set to three levels are definite helpers in this regard; at 2,110 kg, the GTS is, obviously, no lightweight but it remains able to tackle the bends without all that high-level mass giving you the feeling it’s about to tip over if you push it any further. Better still, while the chassis keeps the Cayenne’s body in check, the seats keep you and your occupants’ bodies in check. Couple that with a grippy wheel that falls perfectly into your palms and the task at hand becomes all that much more enjoyable.
Like Cabot’s craggy cliff-lined shores, the Cayenne is not perfect, mind. While the body is kept nicely in check on calmer, more predictable turns, the girth starts to show itself as the tarmac gets stringier and the radii get tighter. The GTS seems to become a little hesitant as you leave the corner, taking more time to gather itself up, reset its chassis and get all that great power back down onto the road below. Is that a deal-breaker? No. If you’re not often on a track or roads as great as this, you’ll hardly ever notice.
It really came together for me as we stopped for a breather outside Flora’s “Artisinat” ice cream parlour in the quaint Acadian town of Chéticamp, with its modified French flags and its red, white and blue lighthouses and its streets with names like “Bourgeois” and “Shomphe”: the Cayenne really is the anti-SUV. Even with those big, fat tires, that weight and its modifiable off-road settings, the overall impression is one of focused performance.
The bright red calipers with “Porsche” stamped on them, the lowered ride height, the roof spoiler, the quad tailpipes all combine to say “sure, I can comfortably fit five and their luggage, but give me a drive and you’ll see what I’m really all about.” I can accept that.
2017 Porsche Macan Turbo
There were actually technically two varieties of these Performance Package-equipped Macans: the standard Turbo, and a Turbo with the Cayenne GTS’ more powerful engine. Which, in the lighter, more compact Macan, is a blessing indeed.
The Macan experience really starts, however, as soon as you take your seat behind the wheel, especially after driving the larger vehicle as we did. You sit low to the point where you don’t feel like you’re sat in a crossover at all; it’s much closer to a Porsche sports car than that, bearing in mind Porsche’s sports cars actually have a surprisingly high seating position.
Sure; if you hopped directly from car to crossover you’d notice a difference, but I’d say the difference from Cayenne to Macan is a much more noticeable one, having driven the 911 GTS only a couple of weeks prior. Yes; the cockpit’s a little more crammed as a result – especially in the back seats – but that’s to be expected and the kid (or kids) should have no problem back there anyway.
So, that sorted, it’s time to enjoy the true nature of the Macan, one of unparalleled performance in the class. This is a crossover that truly attacks the tarmac in an all-hands-on-deck manner should the driver ask it to; you get the sense even when you think you’ve taken it to its limits, there’s still another layer to peel back, and there often is.
Just as you think you’ve entered that corner too quickly, the Macan responds by asking you to do it even quicker next time. And, if you do manage to flick that sky-high limit, the brakes allow you to quickly scrub a little off the top thanks to larger front rotors.
We were lucky enough to be sat in the Performance Package-equipped model during one of the trickiest parts of the drive. At least, it would be one of the trickiest if it weren’t for the seemingly infinite tractability of the Macan.
Every twitch of your wrists on the small wheel ahead of you provokes an immediate response from the chassis, although it somehow manages to do all this without feeling nervous. There’s a wonderful linearity there that allows great communication between driver and car, just as any bona fide Porsche should provide.
Unlike the Cayenne GTS, I speak of the handling aspects here first, as they are an absolute highlight that really have to be felt to be believed. But the added power means the powertrain is perfectly capable of keeping up with that fantastic chassis, so the Macan hardly feels over-engineered.
Yes. I’ll grant you this: you will be hard-pressed to start sending the tail out wide in big, lairy drifts even in the most hardcore driving modes, but you can’t really fault Porsche for that, can you? For mixing just a little bit of electronically-forced civility into the Macan – a bread-and-butter sales leader for the brand – even if it is the most hardcore model? Didn’t think so.
For its part, the Macan Turbo sans Performance Package (400 hp, 406 lb-ft) is a fine instrument of driving pleasure, but the Performance Package delivers such a punch that, like a V6-powered muscle car, I’d forever be thinking: “why didn’t I get the more powerful one?”
Heck, I’d have to think really hard about not taking it over a performance station wagon, and I’m a massive wagon guy. Such is the spell the Macan Turbo Performance Package casts. It will cost you, though: the two vehicles stand almost $12,000 apart.
Two for the money
As I sit in-room at the Cabot Links golf course – I’d specify ocean view, but they’re all ocean view here, so it’s kind of moot – and gaze out over the perfectly maintained greens and sunbathed sand traps, I got to thinking: while the Cabot Trail is the perfect venue to display the qualities of these vehicles, it’s great for another reason.
The craggy cliffs, occasionally rutted tarmac, and windblown trees and fields make for a kind of beautiful imperfection, down a little on civility here and there. It’s also hard – and often expensive – to get to.
The Macan and Cayenne are kind of the same. They’re not the roomiest entrants in the class, they have finicky infotainment and climate control systems and at $108,390 for the Macan Turbo, $110,300 for the Macan Turbo with Performance package and $125,490 for the Cayenne they are pricey. Like the gorgeous vistas and wonderful towns you get along Cabot, however, they are well worth the price of admission.
Disclosure—This writer’s travel and accommodations were provided by the automaker for the purposes of this review.