Scaling Pikes Peak in the New Porsche Macan GTS

Can a midsize SUV with 20” wheels follow in the footsteps of giants?

Porsche Macan Pikes Peak
Porsche

Jeff Zwart’s voice, lilty and soothing like a Long Beach maharishi, crackles on the radio. “Just follow my line,” he says.

Don’t worry, Jeff old sport. I’ll be doing that.

Seven-time class winner at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, Zwart is the sherpa for my maiden burn up this storied Colorado hill. Not a burn, exactly. More like “recce run,” or a bit of sightseeing at five-tenths. For sure, it’s not race day, when the most valiant knuckleheads in motorsports do unimaginable things up here with cars and motorcycles. Still, even heavily qualified, this is a bucket-list moment.

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Zwart’s wheeling his diabolical, 700 horsepower, 996-era Porsche 911 GT2, as he did in 2011 when he ran Pikes in 11:07.869, clobbering the production car record he’d set a year earlier in a 911 GT3 Cup. I’m in the GT2’s more practical, higher-ground-clearance sibling: The Porsche Macan GTS.

The Porsche product guys say the GTS is the performance target from which the rest of the Macan line deviates. Similar to other GTS versions in the company’s product line, this Macan GTS has more power and larger brakes than the Macan S, a slightly firmer suspension tune—set 10 millimeters lower than the even more powerful Macan Turbo’s—and is packaged with a few added-value extras, like air suspension, Porsche’s Active Suspension Management (PASM) and 20” RS Spyder Design wheels.

Not to mention, it wears Porsche’s typical GTS blackout exterior trimmings like Zorro wears a mask. A bit of alcantara trimming on the inside gives it a degree of sports-car ambiance that’ll make you forget you’re probably headed to Nordstrom’s instead of a track day. Besides, all-wheel drive, all-season tires and 340 fewer horsepower than Zwart’s GT2 are as close to an odds-on safety bet a Pikes Peak first timer can have.

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With 156 corners over 12.42 miles from starting line to checkered flag, the hill climb course is a linear Rubik’s cube racers must solve by memory while hammering flat out. The risk of injury is tangible; once above the treeline, a yawning abyss skulks beyond most turns. Zwart describes one high-speed section, comprising three blind lefts taken with a near-flat pedal: If you get the entry angle right, he says, you grab all three in a single, delicate arc. If you don’t, the least bad outcome is tumbling down a 35-degree slope strewn with boulders the size of hatchbacks.

From its first running in 1916, the Pikes hill climb was one long, treacherous dirt road, inspiring some bonkers tail-out action. In 2002, after a lawsuit by the Sierra Club in which the organization cited a potential for catastrophic erosion, the City of Colorado Springs began paving Pikes Peak Highway at a rate of 10 percent per year. By 2011, dirt sections comprised just 25 percent of the course. Today, the highway is 100 percent pavement.

Naturally, the change in surface has altered the style and pace of racing. In 1986, WRC champion Walter Röhrl, pushing soil in a Group B-spec Audi Sport Quattro E2, set the top-class record at 10:47.850. Aptly, the current record holder is soon-to-be rally legend Sébastien Loeb, who in 2013 nailed the climb in 8:13.878 in a Peugeot 208 T16.

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Despite its motorsport nom de guerre, Pikes Peak is no hill. It’s one of two fourteeners in Pike National Forest. The second, Mount Evans, stands slightly taller, at 14,271 feet. At those altitudes, naturally aspirated engines gasp at the thin mountain air like beached tiger sharks. For years, the smart money was on boost, as turbo compressors deliver the richer air density internal combustion craves.

The history of turbocharging at Pikes Peak reaches back to 1918, when General Electric engineer Sanford Alexander Moss slapped a turbine on a V12 Liberty aircraft engine and hauled it to the summit. The results were stellar, and Moss went on to win the Collier Trophy, America’s highest award for achievement in aeronautics.

In a curious turn, recently Pikes has become a top competition ground for electric racecars. In recent years, two classes of EVs—production and modified—have clocked some of the most intense runs the hill climb has ever seen.

Still, turbo cars, like the 911 GT2 and the Macan GTS, remain the rule. In the Macan, a twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter dry-sump V6 produces 360 hp at 6,000 rpm and 369 lb.-ft. of torque between 1,650 rpm and 4,000 rpm. Approaching the starting line, 9,000 feet up, the weak air leans hard on the oversquare six’s torque curve. Broadly linear closer to sea level, the curve hangs up under 4,000 rpm, before the turbos are fully lit, and climbing toward 14,000 feet, the peak of twist seems to edge even closer to the back of the tach.

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On Zwart's mark, we launch up the hill. He's giving us plenty of margin to give the Macan a workout, even though he’s phoning it in, literally, offering route guidance on one radio, talking to event organizers on another, all while tracking an immaculate race line. Despite the GTS’s breathy hesitation at low revs, the turbo six pulls hard.

Still, I can’t get my manual-mode paddle shifting quite right. I’m either a gear down or bouncing off the rev limiter. I flip the PDK into automatic and the computer takes over. It stumbles at first,likely owing to the altitude-altered torque delivery at various revs, but soon starts applying the kind of deep understanding of the six’s algorithm-controlled power band that only another algorithm can.

Now well above the treeline, we huck around a sheer wall of plowed snow on the inside of a hairpin corner. Zwart, tracking out toward the clear blue sky, drops two wheels off the pavement, elegantly, like dunking a macaroon into a double-foam latte. It’s the only time I do not follow his line to the inch. I’m fighting to look ahead, but still catch a glimpse over the edge. A lush spread of green threads carpet the middle-distance below. Then the realization hits. Each one is a Douglas Fir, standing around 200 feet tall.

I force my eyes back up to the next corner. The suspension is the Macan’s most impressive characteristic. The degree of mechanical grip this squat SUV manages is an unexpected surprise. I can only imagine what we could do back at sea level on summer-performance tires. This tester has the optional Torque Vectoring Plus, which helps us rotate around the mountain hairpins at heavy throttle, and the Sport Chrono Package, which adds the more aggro Sport Plus throttle and PDK mapping, launch control and other goodies.

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Still, a flaccid brake pedal telegraphs the Macan’s pedestrian roots, and I’m only mentioning this because -- although Porsche has endowed its most accessable model with a surprisingly precise Porsche brand experience – it’s one of two separating lines between the Maccan and Porsche’s higher-performance cars. The first is steering, which, likely owing to weight, tire size and platform limitations, doesn’t share the crisp sensations and pinpoint accuracy of Porsche’s lower-to-the-grounders like the 911, Boxster and Cayman.

And then, in a flash, we're approaching the final series of corners. Zwart deliveres a composed warning by radio and we follow his line around a set of frost heaves, which uplifted the pavement in several unfortunate spots. I’m imagining how it might feel to slam those things at full clip, perhaps in a prototype car or on a sportbike, and shudder at the prospect of a tankslapper at cliff’s edge. Thankfully, the Macan devours whatever bumps lie at the margins. Rounding one final sequence of turns, we arrive at the summit. I'm tempted to hit the oxygen canister we've brought along in case of altitude sickness.

But my lungs relax and except whatever air they can get. We're here, at a summit marked by geology, but also analogy, the peak of driving skill and courage, and of motorsports enthusiasm and mechanical expertise. Looking out across the southern range of the Rocky Mountains, it's impossible not to think about the celebrated uphill racers that have arrived here before, and the five souls who lost their lives trying.

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A few contemplative moments, and we pile back into the Macan for the ride back. The road’s open now, so there’ll be no downhill racing line for us. The parallax of mountain ranges and rocky ledges heave in and out of view, and I’ve got time to think about the Macan GTS. Even up here, with the ghosts of time-attack racecars encroaching on all sides, it’s clear this is a well sorted, if pricy, midsize SUV that fits well enough into the post-Cayenne Porsche-o-sphere. It’s been an uphill climb for Porsche, from back when enthusiasts gasped at the prospect of sharing the marque with anything that looked like this. They're used to it now, and luckily we’ve brought along a few extra cans of oxygen.

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2017 Porsche Macan GTS
Powertrain: 3.0-liter, twin-turbo V6; 360 hp, 369 lb-ft; 7-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission
Price (as tested): $67,200 ($86,250)
0-60 MPH: 5.0 (4.8 w/Sport Chrono)
Top speed: 159 mph
MPG combined (city/highway): 19 (17/23)
Shopping Mall Parking: L3 Orange