Savaging America's highest roads in Porsche's new Macan GTS SUV

I don't like heights.

I wouldn't call it a fear, exactly -- at least not anymore. As a youngster, I was one of a few kids who wouldn't climb the rickety stairs of my grade school's bell tower, and after embarrassingly missing that "indoor field trip," I vowed to conquer my acrophobia. Since then, I've gone bungee swinging and bungee jumping, flown a sailplane and jumped off the sand dunes of the Outer Banks with a hang glider strapped to my back, all in a bid to rid myself of that altitude-induced pit in my stomach.

Which is why as soon as Porsche invited me to summit Colorado's Pikes Peak and Mt. Evans in its new-for-2017 Macan GTS, I jumped at the chance. Call it part of my personal "continual betterment process," a ceaseless program with not-always-obvious results. (Not entirely unlike Porsche's own vehicle development cycle, which often has a lot more going on under the skin than familiar appearances would dictate).

I didn't quite realize what I was getting myself into. Ours wouldn't be a casual, tourist-day foray to the top of Pikes Peak. On the contrary, Porsche had arranged for the 19-mile toll road to be opened early at 6 a.m. just for us, and it had brought in motorsports legend Jeff Zwart to serve as our high-speed sherpa in a 996-era 911 GT2. Zwart, 61, knows the mountain as well as anyone, having notched no fewer than eight class wins at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb over the last 20 years. He's not a man given to driving slowly.

2017 Porsche Macan GTS

It may look like a race car, but underneath that livery is a stock 2017 Porsche Macan GTS.

Chris Paukert/Roadshow

The morning of our run up the mountain, we amble out of our Colorado Springs hotel to discover that our Macan GTSes have been wrapped in colorful homages to Zwart's winning race car liveries, a nice touch. It's my first time driving a Macan for any real length, and it's going to be a demanding one. In the course of our day, we'll summit nearly 40,000 feet of mountains, ticking off Pikes Peak (14,115 feet), Guanella Pass (11,670 feet) and Mt. Evans (14,130 feet) along the way.

As for trip preparations, we lucky few journalists haven't done any. Most of us arrive in light shirts and casual shoes, forgetting that it could well be snowing at the summits, and playing host to prodigious winds. Porsche has thoughtfully packed our car interiors with water bottles, as we're at greater risk for dehydration at high altitudes, and our Macans have been equipped with door-mounted inhaler canisters of pure oxygen in case we start to feel the effects of altitude sickness. Our test vehicles are otherwise unmodified -- they're even wearing 20-inch Michelin Latitude all-season tires instead of far-grippier summer compounds -- a nod to how unpredictable Mother Nature can be at high altitudes.

"GTS" is typical Porsche nomenclature for the most driver-focused model of a particular vehicle line, without being the most powerful or costly. Thus, the Macan GTS sits between the S and the fire-breathing Turbo. In this case, that means its 3.0-liter bi-turbo V-6 is tuned to yield 360 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque, with peak twist arriving from 1,650 rpm (an increase of 20 hp and 30 lb-ft compared with the S). All GTS models are fitted with Porsche's seven-speed PDK dual-clutch gearbox and all-wheel drive. My particular GTS arrived equipped with the optional Sport Chrono Package ($1,290), which allows for a conservative-feeling 4.8-second 0-60 mph rating en route to a top speed of 159 mph.

Those "most driver-focused model" marching orders also yield changes like a standard air suspension that sits 10mm closer to terra firma than even the Macan Turbo, along with a unique Sport mode calibration for the stability control program that nearly doubles the allowable yaw rate (translation: the electronic nannies will give you a significantly longer leash before yanking you back in line). Front brake rotors are 10mm larger than those on the S, and the tires are wider front and rear, too.

Selecting the GTS also means that the V-6 engine's calibration is slightly more peaky in nature than the 400-hp Turbo, goading the driver to keep revs up and even use the paddle shifters to get the best of the available power. Midrange, between 3,000 and 5,500 rpm, is this engine's happy place.

Despite it not going on sale when the Macan family launched last year, Porsche maintains that the GTS' dynamic envelope and feel was actually the baseline around which the entire model line was formed. "In many ways, this is the real Macan, the original target," says Calvin Kim, product experience manager. For our drive, we'll need all the power we can get. The thin air at high altitudes tends to savage engine outputs, but fortunately, the effects of a thinner atmosphere can be greatly mitigated by turbocharging.

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About to fly up Pikes Peak led by hillclimb legend Jeff Zwart. Safety first.

Chris Paukert/Roadshow

We line our Macans up just inside the gates of Pikes Peak, walkie-talkies on and an ambulance standing by just in case things go pear-shaped. Zwart takes the lead-sled-dog spot in his 911 GT2, and with very little fanfare -- a brief, crackly transmission over the radio -- we're off.

Not "off" in a "let's ease into this" way, I mean OFF. Very quickly we're running nose-to-tail up the mountain at speeds doubling and tripling the 20-mph speed limit. Unencumbered by a fear of oncoming traffic, Zwart has us using the full width of the road to find the best line through corners.

And I'm in the passenger seat.

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Strip away the wrapper, and you're left with a Macan GTS, the Cayenne's sleeker little brother.

Porsche

I thought sitting shotgun for the first run up the mountain would be a good way to get acclimated to the heights, but I'm wrong. The Macan S' surprising-for-a-4,200-pound-crossover handling has had its wick turned up for the GTS, and we're making full use of its capabilities as we freight-train uphill, allowing its rear-biased all-wheel drive to shove us around switchbacks, its rapid-shifting transmission rifling through the gears. Once we clear the tree line, most of the corners look alike, and many of them are blind. There are several occasions when the rising sun blots out the future all but entirely. By and large, even in unexpected corners, there are no guardrails to warn where the tarmac ends and A Very Bad Day begins.

If I'm being honest, I'm a bit on edge.

It's not that I doubt my copilot -- I've driven with him before, and he's doing a sparkling job of keeping the bumper of the Macan we're trailing in close proximity and very sharp focus. It's just that I'd rather be in control, firm in the knowledge that I can stop this crazy train at will. I don't have a white-knuckle grip on the door grab handle, but I do catch myself stomping for a brake pedal that isn't below my size 10 on at least one occasion.

2017 Porsche Macan GTS

Nothing like a swanky office with a good view.

Porsche

We've been hustling skyward for a while when I notice that there are increasing plumes of smoke emanating from the Macan ahead of us. It's not the brakes. Something has let go -- perhaps a coolant hose -- and he's smoking like his wings have just been clipped by the Red Baron. I grab the walkie, make a report and the Macan ahead of us reluctantly pulls over to the shoulder. We're off the throttle for a split second to acknowledge the incident, but in a blink, our posse has resumed gunning for the clouds at high speeds.

As we near the summit, the pavement becomes wobbly and buckled in inconvenient places, likely due to the more frequent snow/thaw cycle at high altitudes. Zwart warns us over the radio that he'll occasionally be wandering off what would otherwise be the racing line through corners in favor of smoother surfaces. It's a good decision, as even these off-line sections get a little hairy.

We make it to the mountain's zenith, only to have to quickly pile back down the mountain. The way back should feel even more harried than our ascent given that gravity is helping us speed up, but oddly, it doesn't, perhaps because it's easier to see the road ahead in places, or maybe because I've had a chance to acclimate to the frenzy.

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The GTS' V-6 ekes out 17 mpg city and 23 mpg highway -- just not if you're having any fun.

Porsche

Then it's my turn behind the wheel. There's no time for me to take stock of the Macan's nicely appointed interior, it's strap in and go. We only have the mountain locked down for a brief while, and can't afford to keep the public waiting. Regardless, I'm immediately more comfortable in the left seat. It's not hard to find a suitable driving position, and the idea of controlling my own destiny is much more appealing.

Screaming up Pikes Peak is also damned entertaining, as it turns out.

I'm having such a ball revving the bejesus out of all three liters that I nearly forget to be nervous. Giving chase to Zwart and trying to cut the apexes just so, I find that on the occasional switchback, it's easy to pile in the corner with too much speed and understeer wide. Fortunately, nailing the throttle to keep the revs up soon brings the rear end around in entertaining fashion, and with a welcome crescendo of engine noise, too.

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Yes, it's June, and that's still a mountain of snowpack. It's cold up here.

Porsche

While far from mushy, the Macan's brake pedal isn't as immediately firm under foot as it is in one of Porsche's sports cars, but that's as it should be for 99 percent of crossover driving. There's still plenty of stopping power underneath, and the pedal is progressive. Steering is quick and accurate, and as we reach the melting snowpack and the thirty-something temperatures on the Peak's upper reaches, I'm glad I'm not on summer rubber.

What seemed to drag on for a half hour from the passenger side feels like it's over in a few minutes from the driver's seat.

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Meet Jeff Zwart, Pikes Peak legend.

Porsche

When we reach the frigid, snowpack-covered summit for the second time and stop for obligatory touristy photos, I notice that I'm feeling a bit out of sorts, and the kernel of a headache I awoke with is starting to germinate into something more inconvenient. I don't pay it much mind, which will prove to be a mistake a hundred-plus miles away while we're driving up the even-taller Mt. Evans (home to the highest paved road in these United States), where a more gradual ascending road and a far-less-frenetic driving pace mean more time for altitude sickness to creep in.

In the end, while I've got a screaming headache and most of my party seems to be a little green around the gills on Mt. Evans, we're all fine. Everyone takes turns depleting their oxygen canisters largely for their novelty value, and we eventually motor onward to downtown Denver to take stock of our day.

Call it a crossover, an SUV or even an all-wheel-drive hot hatch, call it whatever you want. The Macan GTS is one hell of a performance vehicle. It doesn't disappoint when hauling the mail over some of America's most treacherous roads, and it also acquits itself just fine tootling comfortably along the interstate, where you'll have more time to take stock of the nicely appointed interior with its newly snappier, Apple CarPlay-compatible infotainment system.

Of course, the Macan is also more expensive than you might think -- and not by a little.

The new-for-2017 base Macan starts out at $47,500, but up until this point, the average Macan transaction price has sat at around $68,000, a huge sum for a compact premium SUV. Yet Macans are still an extremely hot commodity -- on backorder until recently.

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Racing for the top? The Macan GTS is up to the challenge.

Porsche

The GTS starts at $67,200 before options, neatly splitting the pricing gulf between the $54,400 S and the $76,000 Turbo. Fitted with such options as a black leather and Alcantara interior ($4,790), Torque Vectoring Plus ($1,490) and $3,390 Premium Package Plus (Bose surround sound, panoramic roof, intelligent key, heated seats and auto-dim mirrors), my Sapphire Blue Metallic tester rang up at a heady $86,250, many thousands above what you'd pay for an all-boxes-checked BMW X4 M40i, Jaguar F-Pace S or even Audi's SQ5, a corporate cousin it shares a thing or two with.

Performance-wise, the Macan GTS stands at the summit of the today's premium compact crossovers. It even looks great. But if a visit to your local Porsche dealer leaves you with pricing acrophobia, well, there are a lot of other pretty routes down the mountain.

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