I'd be willing to bet that 99 percent of all Porsche Macan owners will never take their vehicle on a track or see any more off-roading than a dirt path to a summer cottage, yet I maintain that there is no better venue to explore the absolute outer limits of the automaker's newest small family transport than on a racing circuit and an off-road course. It's testing at each extreme of the vehicle's operating envelope, with both challenges requiring very different capabilities. With that in mind, and looking forward to dirty floor mats and corded tires, I jumped at the opportunity from Porsche to wring out its new Macan S at Willow Springs International Raceway, located in Southern California's high desert.

The range-topping Macan Turbo (base price $72,300 plus $995 destination), with its 400 horsepower twin-turbocharged 3.6-liter V6 gets most of the glory these days. But many, including myself, would argue that its slightly less powerful sibling, the Macan S, is actually the pick of the new litter. Despite having 60 fewer horses under the hood and giving up six-tenths of a second in the sprint to 60 miles per hour, it costs a massive $22,400 less – money better spent on equipment that improves the crossover's ride comfort and capability, or perhaps a well-used Boxster for weekends.

Despite a reasonably attractive starting price of $49,900 (plus destination), very few Porsche buyers will leave the showroom with a base model. My Dark Blue Metallic Macan S tester was equipped with a slew of mechanical upgrades, including air suspension with Porsche Active Suspension Management (PASM), Porsche Torque Vectoring Plus (PTV Plus), Sport Chrono Package and 21-inch 911 Turbo Design wheels. A Premium Package and a few other miscellaneous options bloated its price to $69,870. That's a very steep price for the premium compact crossover segment, but it's still less than a base Macan Turbo.

Rather than toss us keys in the Willow Springs paddock, Porsche delivered its Macan models to us scribes in Pasadena and then routed us over Angeles Crest Highway towards the track, which is located near Edwards Air Force Base. This generously provided me with another three or so hours behind the wheel, most of it on twisty two-lane mountain roads that were a nice preamble before our track and off-road excursions.

Driving Notes
  • In real-world driving on smooth pavement, it's hard not to be impressed with this crossover's road manners. Whether negotiating sweeping corners or short straights, the compact five-passenger Macan feels as planted as a two-passenger sports coupe half its height. I have nothing but praise for its engine, brakes and suspension on the public roads – quite honestly, each are a bit overkill for the actual task at hand, especially on heavily patrolled American roads.
  • If forced to muster a complaint, I'd lodge it at the electrically assisted steering, which feels a bit light for my tastes (Porsche uses the same basic steering rack as the Audi Q5, but its ratios and boost have been altered to suit its higher-performance badge). I prefer my steering a bit heavier, especially mid-corner when the front wheels are heavily loaded.
  • Despite sharing its Modular Longitudinal Platform (MLP) with the aforementioned Audi and a half-dozen other VW Group siblings, the engineers from Stuttgart have meticulously reworked every component to ensure i's pure Porsche – meaning in stock form it is every bit as capable on a track as it is on public roads. Competitors may offer crossovers with sport packages and oversized wheels and tires, but nobody (not even Audi's range-topping SQ5, which weighs nearly 300 pounds more) can touch the powertrain on today's entry-level Macan S, which arrives with a standard twin-turbocharged V6, dual-clutch (PDK) gearbox, six-piston front calipers and 19-inch alloys in staggered sizes, the latter of which can be good for performance but may be irksome come rotation or replacement time. Most of those are firsts for the segment.
  • Track time was configured as a lead-follow event, behind a Cayman piloted by a talented Porsche Sport Driving School instructor. Although most would believe the sports car would leave a much larger crossover eating its dust (of course, its lap times were quicker), the Macan S wasn't far off the coupe's pace. The 4,112-pound crossover (the S model is about 130 pounds lighter than the Macan Turbo), with electronics configured in Sport Plus mode for aggressive track duty, made excellent use of its PASM and PTV Plus on the tight circuit. The standard all-wheel-drive system is shared with the automaker's 911 Carrera 4, meaning the Macan S genuinely behaves like a sports car, clawing its way around each corner with minimal body roll. With four very active contact patches, I was able to actually pull out of the corners quicker than the fleeing rear-wheel-drive Cayman. I tossed and threw this crossover around at ridiculously fast speeds and it maintained its composure in spectacular manner.
  • The twin-turbocharged V6 and PDK twin-clutch gearbox deserve praise, too. The engine generates plenty of torque down low, and it doesn't mind running up to its 6,700-rpm redline. The transmission operates in lightning-quick fashion when the Sport Plus button is engaged, and it intuitively downshifts into turns and holds its gear when tenaciously cornering. This Porsche would never be even my tenth choice as a track car – it's still too big and heavy – but it has the capability to really scoot when prodded. "Mechanically sound" and "technically brilliant" – two phrases I'd use to describe the on-track performance of the Macan S.
  • To prove itself equally as capable off-road, Porsche later led us up a short, but challenging, dirt trail in the mountains surrounding the track. Despite rolling on high-performance Continental summer tires that lacked aggressive tread blocks, the determined Macan S used its electronically controlled all-wheel drive system to slowly creep up some very steep inclines (there's no low range transfer case, so the traction control automatically brakes a spinning wheel to send power to the axle with the most grip). Hill Descent Control worked its magic on the way down. Ground clearance seemed to be the limiting factor, as expected, but my tester was able to use its air suspension to raise the chassis and gain some additional space beneath its rails when the going got tough. I'd personally choose something less expensive to scrape and dent on the Rubicon (a Jeep Wrangler comes to mind, or even a Cherokee or Grand Cherokee), but the outing on the loose trails convinced me that the Macan S has billy goat genes beneath its slick bodywork.
  • A day behind the wheel of the entry-level Macan S demonstrated that Porsche has raised the dynamics bar in the compact crossover segment, much as it did with the Cayenne a decade ago, delivering a model that is competent and comfortable on the street and extraordinarily capable (maybe unnecessarily so?) on track and dirt. It remains to be seen how many people will pony up this sort of money for a compact CUV, but so far, the Range Rover Evoque has proven to be a masterstroke for Land Rover, which suggests that the Macan could be a huge success. In any case, Porsche's new baby leaves the less-costly BMW X3, Mercedes-Benz GLK and the Audi SQ5 chasing taillights and inhaling dust – at least until we see each of them answering the new challenge.