Review by Jonathan Yarkony and Jacob Black, photos by Jonathan Yarkony
Maybe these were all just nebulous excuses for us to take these three hot wagons out for a rip in the snow. We can neither confirm nor deny the validity of any such rumours.
Lining up competitors for a comparison is never an exact science. Segment lines blur, vehicles cross over established lines, and brands sometimes float somewhere between mainstream and premium spaces in ways that are hard to pin down. One such outlier is the Porsche Macan.
It is compact in size, similar to the Audi Q5 or BMW X3, but pricing quickly outstrips those, and only Audi’s SQ5 can match the Macan for power in that segment. Well, the SQ5 had its shot, and was found a practical fallback to the more desirable, refined and performance oriented Macan.
In spirit, the Macan is a family-friendly crossover from one of the most dedicated sporting brands on the planet. In that vein, we went looking for equivalent performance.
Although a full size smaller, it’s hard to ignore a pint-sized hatchback bearing the AMG letter, one of the few badges to earn as devoted a following and performance credentials as Porsche. BMW’s M has nothing in this practical ass-hauler space. However, Mercedes-Benz’s (or is it Mercedes-AMG yet?) GLA 45 AMG is a grown up luxury-badged STI hatch that is also in its own little extreme all-weather performance and modest practicality corner of the automotive spectrum.
Did someone say extreme all-weather performance and modest practicality? Volvo seems to have finally captured lightning in a bottle with their full Polestar V60 Wagon, earning rave reviews here, elsewhere and even snagging AJAC’s Best New Performance Car over $50K for 2015 (topping the Mustang GT and Challenger Hellcat, no less). Previously, in a Sport Sedan Comparison, Volvo’s first stab at hardcore performance in the S60 T6 AWD R-Design with Polestar engine tune left us wanting and struggled to keep up as an all-around performance package despite the power and Rebel Blue paint. After only a brief drive at TestFest, it was clear that Polestar had delivered the goods. This thing does not disappoint.
So who will carry the day, the crossover cat with the Porsche pedigree? The pint-sized German über-hatch? The Swedish Unimoose?
Or maybe these were all just nebulous excuses for us to take these three hot wagons out for a rip in the snow. We can neither confirm nor deny the validity of any such rumours.
When it comes to evoking strong emotional connections, when it comes to raising your pulse and extracting maximum excitement – looks play a large role. Here again this trio all take different approaches. The Volvo V60 Polestar has gone “full peacock”, with its aggressive front splitter, carefully sculpted flanks and cop-bait blue paint. The basic V60 is dead sexy. If you choose Polestar, you choose “all of the attention, all of the time”.
The Mercedes-Benz is available with a wild graphics kit and a huge rear wing but that’s missing from this model. In standard form the GLA is subtly threatening – like when Denzel Washington smiles that smile he smiles in every single movie he is in. The black paint hides a lot of the subtle aerodynamic sculptures in the body work. The GLA45 AMG wouldn’t necessarily concern your date’s parents. Not on first sight at least.
The Macan does a wonderful job of taking the Porsche SUV design language and making it not look horrible. Where the Cayenne (and Panamera) fell short, the Macan excels. It looks like a Porsche, and it looks good. This tester is in an accountant’s shade of brown – which dulls the initial curb appeal. Well, as much as you can dull the curb appeal of a car with those iconic headlight shapes and that golden shield emblem on the nose….
The Polestar only comes in one colour. Loud. A similar shade of Smurf blue we’ve seen on Mustangs and M3s of late, on a wagon it just has an even more shocking appeal. But this isn’t some tired Accord wagon from the 90s, or even your run of the mill compact wagon. It may be one of the finest wagons ever penned, and with the Polestar kit, it looks ready to launch.
Next to the Polestar, the GLA seems a slightly hunkered down hatchback and the Macan an ordinary yet handsome crossover in its parking lot camouflage. (Brown? Grey? Blurgh?) Both look fine, and thank heavens I don’t have to write what I think of the GLA 45 AMG’s Launch Edition package or whatever those ridiculous stickers and spoiler were called – a red pinstripe, sure, but big, silver decals and a wing scavenged from the STI hatch aftermarket catalogue? Weird.
The V60 Polestar nails it.
On Waking Up…
There’s nothing quite like the sound of a Porsche, and the Macan’s 340-hp twin-turbo V6 sounds glorious even at idle, the quad exhausts burble and grunt ominously, this is a beautiful sounding engine. Nothing, nothing sounds like a Porsche.
The Mercedes-Benz GLA45 AMG comes at it from a different angle, but it is sheer insanity as it crashes through gears, igniting a war-ending shockwave in the exhausts that makes a man child like me grin like an idiot and makes flocks of birds leap from the trees and blacken the skies. It’s a combination of “burp” and “vhwhooMP!” that hits you right in the centre of your chest. So. Much. Fun.
The Polestar by comparison sounds tame; the straight six has wonderful tone, but it’s almost drowned out by the paint job. Have we mentioned that yet? It’s blue.
But sound isn’t everything; there’s that little thing about the engine also needing to pick you up and carry you forth.
On Getting Going…
Is Mercedes-Benz a wizard? The GLA’s 2.0L inline four is two-thirds the size of the Macan and V60’s units 3.0L six-cylinder units yet somehow produces the same amount of power. “Oh, that’ll be the turbo then”. Nope. The Macan’s V6 and the Volvo’s inline-six both have ‘em too. Hell, the Porsche has two of the things yet is the least potent of these three engines! To unlock its full potential you need to spring for the Turbo badge, minimum $82K.
That violent explosion you get between gearshifts in the Mercedes-Benz GLA 45 AMG becomes even more frightening when you think of it in those terms. 355 hp and 332 lb-ft of torque from a 2.0L engine is bananas. The Volvo uses one turbo and produces 10 less hp at 345, but makes up for it with more torque – 369 lb-ft. Porsche ekes 340 hp and 339 lb-ft out of its twin-turbo V6.
What’s the catch? Lag. Lag, lag, laggity lag lag. The GLA45 AMG takes an eternity to wind up off the line, and it doesn’t like being preloaded on the brake either, try that and she’ll bog down like Atreyu’s horse Artax.
The Volvo is more more svelte and potent than the Porsche and it shows. Of the trio it was the one that pulled the strongest longest.
Don’t feel sorry for the Porsche just yet. The most mundane of Porsche’s, this Macan, still rips to 100 km/h in 5.4 seconds despite a hefty 1,865 kg curb weight. Volvo, at a tad over 1,700 kilos, drops it under five seconds, officially 4.9, but Brendan thinks it’s faster than Volvo’s letting on, and we agree. It goes.
But the flyweight GLA 45 AMG? It is right there with the Volvo, Mercedes listing it at 4.8 seconds to 100, but you better hold on tight, because it’s a bit squirmy, its 1,585 kg and shortest wheelbase meaning it can be handful. And what with that turbo lag, it has this stupendous punch in the kidneys when you hit boost that is nothing short of addictive.
Despite the mad rush from the AMG 2.0 turbo and the Macan’s smooth control, the Volvo’s steady rush and controlled mayhem are the happy middle ground that can best be exploited safely and sanely.
On Shuffling Cogs…
Despite the acceleration times, there’s no denying the Porsche in the speed of its transmission. The PDK is to gearboxes as the Cuban is to cigars. It’s lightning fast between shifts, crisp, clean, brilliant. The paddles do as you ask, when you ask, no fuss no muss.
The Porsche made Mercedes-Benz’s seven-speed Speedshift DCT feel mundane. The pair of them demonstrated why this is the last hurrah for Volvo’s six-speed auto – even if it does have “Polestar-calibrated Advanced Quick Shift”. It was smoother than the other two, of course; it’s a torque-converter auto not a dual-clutch auto-manual but it lacked their precision.
The toss up is whether the speed and mechanical brilliance of the PDK is more or less entertaining than the noises the GLA makes between shifts. I like the noises.
You almost want the swaps to take a while in the Benz so you can linger on that noise. Whoever tuned that exhaust and the noise of the turb, wastegate manifold and pride of griffins under the body deserves do be admitted to Gryffindor, no sorting hat required.
But compartmentalizing and thinking purely in terms of transmission performance, the PDK is the undeniable champ, with the Volvo at least earning a most improved award and the prize for best gear lever, with the drive modes etched onto a clear plastic cap over a mirrored core that creates holographic shadows. Soooo cool!
On Turning the Corner….
If you’ve ever watched a movie or listened to a song after a long, effusive buildup from your fanatical friend then you’ll understand my attitude towards the Porsche Macan S’s handling. I should point out immediately that this tester was missing the adjustable air-suspension, though, so that might change things.
Everybody had told me that the Macan S is car-like, is flickable, tossable, slideable. That it corners flat and handles beautifully, that it’s a true sports car. And those people are right on every single count. They really are. But the reality is this: It’s still a CUV. It’s higher and it’s heavier and when you drive one hard back-to-back against these wagons you feel it.
On the off-ramps, the Porsche had more body roll and wallow than the other two, so around tight bends it was more nervous and less precise.
The Mercedes-Benz was the most direct-feeling. Turn the wheel, turn a corner. Simple as that. It was flat, razor sharp and bulk fun. The Volvo was yet flatter and more composed again than the Mercedes-Benz. The GLA is stiff and prone to bump steer, while the V60 is compliant and tracks true.
The GLA has better steering feel and communication, the Volvo feels a little vague. I prefer the Volvo on real roads, but the GLA45 would be my pick on a track.
As much as these cars are bred from track-proven pedigrees, I would argue that none of these will see much track time, if any at all. They are fast wagons for everyday, all-season use, and although I agree with Jacob’s assessment of their talents, the Macan’s beautifully weighted steering and smooth, progressive turn-in seem a natural fit for daily use, and yet you can still push it beyond any reasonable driving behavior on public roads, and have your fun in the snow in complete control.
The AMG’s steering is almost too quick, the handling downright nervous, willing and eager to snap its tail out on loose surfaces. It is the wild child that can be insanely good fun, but would take a special kind of intensity and abandon to live with it on a daily basis.
The S60 R-Design of previous years was both harsh yet sloppy, but even in this snowy weather, the V60 Polestar gripped and stuck its turns with unshakable precision. The Volvo again finds the happy middle, the steering quick and sharp, the body controlled in its motions, flat during weight transfer and just plain borkin’ awesome!
I’m not saying we found a wide, flat expanse of snow-covered ground and did skids. I’m not. But, if we had, the Volvo was the one that probably theoretically would have performed the tightest doughnuts, maintained the longest drifts, and changed direction on throttle more happily.
The Macan would have done magnificent rooster-tail throwing skids all over the place and responded to the steering inputs with precision. It would have also forded the snow banks guarding said flat expanses more easily because of its extra ground clearance.
The GLA would have suffered from turbo lag that prevented it coming on strong early, meaning you had to work up speed before things got properly sideways and curly.
So the Volvo would have been best. Theoretically. Allegedly. If one were to perform such misbehaviour. Which one shouldn’t.
Umm, yeah, so, how about this weather….
I’m going to go right ahead and give this one to the Volvo. Those seats are amazing and that’s all there is to it. The Mercedes-Benz seats look and feel great for me, but the headrest is fixed and it interfered with my taller colleague.
The Macan seats were comfortable but too wide for me and lacked thigh bolstering. The Volvo seats not only had the right blend of firmness and suppleness, but also had bolsters that wrapped me up like Olaf (ask your kids).
I found it easier to get my seating position lined up the way I wanted it in the Volvo, though all three units came with the standard 18,000-way adjustable seats and tilt/telescoping steering column.
In the past the V60 in R-Design trim has been criticized for rough handling and too-stiff a ride but here the ride is much better balanced. The GLA45 crashes over bumps and transmits too much of the road’s harshness into one’s rump.
The most comfortable ride however, is clearly delivered by the Macan. It’s heft and bonus suspension travel give it a hurdler’s upper-body stability over bumps.
It was pretty much a given that the GLA 45 AMG would trail in this category as the smallest vehicle in test as the shortest, narrowest with smallest wheelbase, but it does manage one coup: with the seats folded down, its 1,235 L of cargo volume eclipse the V60’s 1,220. Not bad, and its 421 L of trunk space aren’t far off the porker Macan’s 500, but with seats up, the Volvo can haul the most meatballs with 793 L of available airspace. Then again, the Macan expands to 1,500 L, so it’s the cargo king for weekend renos, with bonus hidden storage under the rear floor, and a clever net on the underside of the parcel shelf/cover for odds and ends or a snowbrush. That cover is also designed to fit perfectly on the floor between the sides for maximum cargo volume
Both the Porsche and the Volvo have 40/20/40 split folding rear seats, and the AMG’s are 60/40 with a ski pass-through to make the most of its small space. But in terms of flexibility and practicality, the Volvo’s soft cargo cover adds an integrated net to prevent cargo or dogs from flying into the cabin in an accident or while Jacob is driving, and a hook and tether to hold up the cargo floor when loading the underfloor compartment.
When it comes to rear seat space, the GLA is small, but the V60 is actually smaller, with less rear headroom and legroom, and starts to feel a bit claustrophobic with the dark headliner and small sunroof. Both the Macan and GLA get plenty of natural light, the Macan from a massive panoramic sunroof and the GLA from two large openings, the front one opening and the rear fixed. Because of its overall size and the well-lit interior, the Porsche had the most inviting rear seat, and its height means child seats and children are also a breeze to install.
As Jacob said, the Mercedes front seats are sporty and look cool, but the fixed headrest caused me discomfort, and while the Porsche has excellent seats, the Volvo’s were nothing short of extraordinary: well-bolstered, comfortable, and exquisitely crafted with blue stitching to match the signature exterior paint.
The V60 and Porsche also had backup cameras and sensors, but the Benz has a 360-degree camera and sensors, and combined with its small size earns it the crown of parking lot queen.
Infotainment and the human-machine interface – your connection to your car’s systems – can have a massive impact on how much you enjoy driving. In this trio Jonathan preferred Mercedes-Benz’s COMAND system. The puck control is well-placed ergonomically, and he liked the graphics in the system.
The Porsche Macan’s system is a hot mess of buttons and an uninspired graphics setup. While ergonomically I don’t like it, I found the menus and access to the controls that are important easy and accessible.
It’s Volvo, however, who really steals a win here. The button pad is smaller than it ought be and convoluted, but every menu and control that appears in the centre TFT can be controlled with one scrolling wheel button on the steering wheel.
As with the other two, a large suite of vehicle, audio and navigation information is all available in the instrument cluster too. But Volvo’s system when controlled by the steering wheel button or the large control dials on the console is ergonomically perfect, I loved the simple, colourful graphics and the sensible menu layout.
The Volvo also had the largest set of technological aids and marvels, including full stop-and-go cruise control, blind-spot detection, speed-limit sign reading, lane keep assist and the coup de grace, Volvo’s pedestrian and cyclist detection and avoidance system – City Safe.
Yes the Porsche and Mercedes-Benz both had cruise control, blind-spot detection and some collision mitigation systems, but none are as complete or effective as the full set available on the Volvo.
Jacob is wrong. It is the Volvo that is a hot mess, and the Porsche, while busy at first glance (and visually appealing only the most ardent of button lovers), becomes second nature after a period of familiarization. After sampling a handful of Porsches over the past year, the logic and layout of the Porsche switch bank console has become second nature, and the screen, though fiddly, makes sense in its menus. But why, oh why does the stereo always turn back on even when it was off when the vehicle was powered down?
The Volvo’s screen controller is small, a long reach and the enter button nested, quite possibly the worst layout in the luxury world now that Lexus is making the leap from lurchy mouse to touchpad. As cool as Fred is (Volvo’s climate control guy, according to Jacob) and the auto climate controls reasonable and stylish, the tightly packed cluster of central buttons is uninviting and even traction control defeat is buried several menus deep. Not that we’d have any reason to want to find the traction control defeat button….
While Jacob favours Volvo’s steering wheel controls, I found the Porsche’s steering wheel scroll wheels for volume and menus superior to Volvo’s buttons, making navigation and adjustments quicker and more natural.
Though some may object to the aesthetics of the GLA’s screen placement, it is highly visible, and the ergonomic placement of the COMAND knob make for easy control via the main screen, with redundant menus in the gauges operated by steering wheel controls for the best mix of the three. Oh, but those gauges? The silver facing is elegant in full daylight, and at night it is brightly backlit, but in overcast and dim periods, they are hard to read.
The smallest car with the most power came in at the lowest price, but that value was not enough to sway us. The Mercedes-Benz GLA 45 AMG will make a lot of people happy that want some absolutely bonkers performance, sound effects that draw werewolves to mate (hmm, no wonder Jacob loved it so much), have only modest practical needs and can get around its somewhat anonymous and awkward looks.
The Porsche Macan is the all-rounder and the practical choice, and if you never drive a V60 Polestar, you will likely believe it cannot get any better. This modestly equipped test vehicle also shows that if you limit your options to the essentials, it is reasonably affordable for its performance levels. It is sharp, yet forgiving, powerful without being excessive, poised to perfection and just roomy enough for family duty while small enough to fit city living.
It’s the most expensive, has the most cramped interior, underwhelming cargo capacity for its footprint and woefully outdated technological interface, but gosh darn it, does it ever drive well, look great and make you feel special. With only a handful expected to surface in Canada, it may be one of the rarest cars we’ve ever driven, so the exclusivity only adds to its appeal. While it wins our hearts, you probably won’t be able to buy one, but you should. The Volvo V60 Polestar is a complete performance package, shockingly fast, superbly balanced, yet comfortable enough to drive everyday and enjoy all year long, the hot winter wagon we’ve always longed for from the beloved Swedish brand.
|2015 Volvo V60 Polestar Warranty:
4 years/80,000 km; 4 years/80,000 km powertrain; 5 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 4 years/unlimited distance 24-hour roadside assistance
|2015 Porsche Macan S Warranty:
4 years/80,000 km; 4 years/80,000 km powertrain; 12 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 4 years/80,000 km 24-hour roadside assistance
|2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA45 AMG Warranty:
4 years/80,000 km; 4 years/80,000 km powertrain; 12 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 4 years/unlimited distance 24-hour roadside assistance
|Optional Equipment||None||Agate Grey Metallic ($790), Panoramic Roof ($1,910), Park Assist ($1,110), 19-inch wheels ($1,440), Infotainment Package ($3,420)||Premium Plus Package - $2,900, Premium Package - $4,900, Cosmos Black Paint - $890|
|Price as Tested||$68,190||$64,185||$61,285|