Porsche is going from strength to strength at the moment, but things haven't always been rosy in Stuttgart. The sports car business is fickle and, during the 1990s, the king of rear-engine performance was on the brink of bankruptcy. It made diehards angry, but the solution was to build a luxury four-wheel drive.

Twelve years after the Cayenne made a perennial problem child into a profit powerhouse, it gained a younger brother called the Macan. Porsche says it's the sporty child in a class full of same-same offerings, but can a four-wheel drive ever really deliver a truly authentic sports car experience? We spent some time with a Macan S to find out.

After a childhood spent reading, watching and dreaming about driving a Porsche, last year saw the realization of a personal dream. A brave (or foolish) friend lobbed me the keys to his 997 911 Carrera S Convertible and, with him sitting nervously in the passenger seat, this terrified pilot buried his foot in the carpet until the speedo needle was north of 250 km/h (155 mph).

Looking past the fact I was driving on what was the wrong side of the road for me, it was barely above freezing and every diesel wagon in southern Germany tried to get in the way, it was a borderline religious experience.

Time spent in a creakier, older Targa later in December only served to reinforce just how well sorted the basic Porsche formula is. The weighting of the pedals and shifter is always spot on, the steering brims with gritty information about what the nose is doing, and I could just die of happiness thinking about snaking up that narrow, deserted country road on the outskirts of Cologne. What hope does the Macan, an exercise in Volkswagen Group badge engineering, have of matching that kind of experience?

Although it shares its basic underpinnings with the Audi Q5, the Porsche Macan is a much more sophisticated animal than the four-ringed four-wheel drive. They're both part of the VW family but share very few parts, and it shows when they're parked side-by-side. Whereas the Audi belies its practical focus with a boxy profile, the Macan's curvy hips and gorgeous clamshell bonnet make it look like a sports car on stilts, especially with big wheels specced.

It's got the engine to back up the looks, too. The base model comes with a tepid turbo four good for 252 hp (188 kW) and a 6.3 second sprint to 100 km/h (62 mph), but making the (costly, but more on that later) jump to Macan S trim brings a twin-turbo V6 with 340 hp (250 kW) and 460 Nm (339 lb-ft) of torque. Cayman or Boxster owners aren't likely to lose any sleep over the performance on offer, but it will be quick enough to show soccer mums a clean set of heels in the local traffic-light drags.

But forget the engine and the way it looks. The most impressive element of the Macan is the gearbox. Sure, there are gearboxes with more ratios, and some transmissions slam the gears home a few milliseconds faster, but no dual-clutch or torque convertor can match the telepathic tendencies of the PDK or (in the native German) Porsche Doppelkupplungsgetriebe.

It blends effortlessly into the background when you want it to, creeping with the traffic and shuffling seamlessly to a tall, economical gear in Normal Mode. Start fiddling with the paddles, though, and it gives you whip-crack upshifts, perfectly matched downshifts and all manner of delightful noises from the exhaust. Flat-out changes create an aggressive BLAT sound, while pulling the left paddle under heavy braking lets rip an armada of pops and cracks. Unnecessary? Sure, but it's damn good fun.

On pure numbers, the Macan S isn't overly quick, but there's more to performance than figures. You're at risk of being burned off by an enthusiastically driven Golf R from traffic lights, and the Mercedes-AMG A45 leaves the Porsche for dead off the line, but that doesn't take away from what is a charismatic and responsive powertrain. It's relatively quiet until you prod a console button to switch into Sport Mode, which frees up a deeper, hard-edged growl that gives credence to the idea this is a (distant) relative of the 911.

Interestingly enough, the owner of this particular car says the noise played a big part in his decision to buy the Macan over its rivals. Enjoy it while it lasts, Mike – the Boxster has been downsized to a grumbly four-cylinder and the Macan might be next.

Noise isn't the only element with hints of 911 about it. The steering wheel, which is borrowed from the 918 Spyder, feels utterly gorgeous in the hand and reassures the driver with more weight than the average four-wheel drive, while there's a lovely linearity to the response of all the major controls.

It makes for a car you can throw around with the gleeful abandon usually reserved for small hatchbacks, as we discovered on a narrow stretch of road in upstate New York. Grip is plentiful and body roll minimal, especially when you remember this is a 4,500 lb (2,000 kg) four-wheel drive. If you're being a real idiot it'll push into gentle understeer, but the passengers will have called for a change of underwear well before that point.

Don't think the impressive handling detracts from the Macan as an everyday car, though. It's almost silent on the highway, with no noticeable wind noise and the engine ticking over at less than 2,000 RPM. The seats are comfortable for long-haul cruising, and the ride is firm without ever becoming uncomfortable, although time spent playing around with the Porsche Connect touchscreen can be frustrating. And don't even get us started on the navigation system, which would rather have you perform a sketchy u-turn than simply re-route around the block.

Apple CarPlay means it isn't an issue if you've got an iOS device but Android Auto isn't supported, forcing Google devotees to run with the in-car system.

What price this high-riding Porsche-ness? The four-cylinder Macan kicks off at US$47,500 but to get behind the wheel of the six-cylinder Macan S you'll need to stump up at least $54,400. Add a few options and you're looking at a seriously expensive four-wheel drive.

For the sort of person who buys this sort of that car, that probably won't be a problem, so we're going to jump ahead and ask a second, more difficult question. Does the Macan live up to the badge on its nose? The short answer is yes. It's not a Cayman, but the touches of sports-car goodness, from the exhaust note to the steering wheel, make it feel like more than just an average family four-wheel drive.

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