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Powder, Dirt, and Debauchery: BMW X4, Mercedes GLC, Porsche Macan

Cutting across the Southwest in three of Germany’s newest crossovers

Mike FloydwriterRobin Trajanophotographer

Snowflakes danced in our headlights' path as we wound our way up the dark mountain. By morning, the Taos Ski Valley was frosted white—the type of day that skiers and snowboarders who descend on this alpine-forested sliver of the Land of Enchantment dream about. It served as a fitting starting point for our 750-mile journey across the Southwest in a trio of Germany's newest crossovers: the BMW X4, Mercedes-Benz GLC, and Porsche Macan.

In the 1950s a Swiss-German immigrant named Ernie Blake founded the resort tucked between the soaring peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in north central New Mexico. The only thing missing from the charming, haus-like St. Bernard hotel at the base of the mountain is a pack of St. Bernards waiting out front with wooden casks hanging from their collars. In this snowbound wonderland, all-wheel drive is a proverbial no-brainer. All of our cars came so equipped, though they have different ways of keeping things under control when things go sideways.

In this snowbound wonderland, all-wheel drive is a proverbial no-brainer.

The Macan S is fitted with rear-biased all-wheel drive. The rear axle is always driven, but when rear traction disappears, every bit of torque can transfer to the front axle via an electronically controlled, multiplate clutch. The Macan has an optional off-road mode that adjusts shift points and vehicle speed on the fly, and its all-wheel-drive system works with Porsche Traction Management to move power to the wheel or wheels with the most grip. Standard on the BMW X4 is full-time all-wheel drive that keeps the crossover in a front/rear torque split of 40/60 percent under normal conditions. It makes use of an electronic, multiplate clutch to shift torque between the front to rear axles as necessary, and BMW's Performance Control system directs power to the outside rear wheel during cornering. The GLC's all-wheel drive differs from the others in that it employs a planetary-gear transfer case to manage a 45/55 percent front/rear torque split. A limited-slip center differential directs torque between axles, and traction control sends power to the wheel that can best use it.

We dusted off the accumulation from the night before and fired up the German wolf pack, but the slick, snowed-in parking area proved a challenge for the Macan. (Both the Macan and X4 were fitted with all-season tires; the GLC had winter rubber.) Good thing we brought a couple of Maxtrax vehicle extraction mats along; it wouldn't be the last time we broke them out.

The three crossovers rolled up the snow-packed two-lane to the ski area without issue. A couple of us braved the wicked cold to do a few runs down the steep mountain trails, the wind whipping in storm cells between patches of clear blue sky. When we left, another issue cropped up, this time with the GLC. Its right front wheel froze up. But after some coaxing, it rolled again and was not a repeating issue.

Good thing we brought a couple of Maxtrax vehicle extraction mats along ...

As we pushed southwest out of the valley the following morning, conditions worsened, and the temperature dipped into single digits. We trekked across New Mexico's Carson National Forest, with semi trucks spraying slush and peppering our windscreens with gravel. It was a wicked, gnarly mess, but the trio handled the conditions with ease, their all-wheel-drive and traction control systems furiously calculating and reacting to wildly varied road conditions.

The skies parted, the roads cleared, and we were treated to magnificent sights including the Abiquiu Reservoir, near where New Mexico state roads 84 and 96 meet. Orange and red rock formations burned bright under the winter sun as Cerro Pedernal looked on. We continued northwest onto Navajo lands, and massive mesas started to dominate the landscape. "This is some seriously beautiful country," crackled over the walkie-talkie.

... it wouldn't be the last time we broke them out.

The miles wore on, and we had ample time to reflect upon each vehicle. The smallest and most powerful of the group, the Macan drives like you'd expect a Porsche to drive—a sports car in crossover clothing. Its 340-hp twin-turbo V-6 shoves the Macan to 60 mph in 5.2 seconds, and its signature seven-speed PDK dual-clutch automatic cracks off shifts with ease under hard acceleration and glides through the gears otherwise. Inside, the right-sized steering wheel, classic Porsche gauge work, and insulated cabin are fantastic, and there's more cargo space than we expected with the versatile 40/20/40 rear seats folded. But the brand's infotainment screen and button-heavy console, based on an outdated cellphone design, feel old.

The GLC300 is a true blue midsize crossover with the space, sight lines, and cargo capacity to handle family duty. At one point during our trip, it ferried four editors with their gear in tow. As the newest kid in this group, it benefits from the latest Benz cockpit design that imbues it with a sense of style the others lack. Its 241-hp 2.0-liter turbo-four, paired to a nine-speed automatic transmission, moves the GLC to 60 mph in 6.4 seconds, but we noted rough shifts with the throttle mashed. And at speed, the GLC has the least isolated cabin of the three.

The X4 xDrive28i isn't pretty when you first see it, but you're pleasantly surprised when you get to know it, like a blind date you're told has a winning personality. The Bimmer impresses inside and, while strikingly similar dimensionally to the Macan, it feels markedly bigger than the Porsche in the cockpit, although its coupelike proportions compromise rear headroom. The BMW's 240-hp, 2.0-liter turbo-four and eight-speed automatic transmission combo feels more powerful than the X4's 6.0-seconds-to-60-mph number suggests. The steering feels artificially heavy, and the infotainment system and center stack are past their sell-by date, though the head-up display is kind of cool.

We continued northwest onto Navajo lands, and massive mesas started to dominate the landscape. "This is some seriously beautiful country. "

We pushed on toward Monument Valley, one of the unquestioned wonders of America straddling the border between Utah and Arizona, and we arrived just as the sun began to set. The land was washed in a deep adobe red, the colossal flat-top formations seemingly carved by a mystical force. The hard-pack dirt trails winding through the park were pockmarked with ruts, outcrops, and rocks, but not one of our Germans tripped up during our Wild West revelry. We pressed on toward Lake Powell and settled in for the night. We woke up to see the sun come up over the mighty man-made reservoir. Only a few houseboats dotted the flat water as we drove over Glen Canyon Dam, and we could see a crusty white rim on the canyon where the water level used to reach—a stark reminder of how parched this part of the country has become.

We decided to take one last jaunt off-road, following the rugged dirt path known as Cottonwood Canyon Trail toward the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a slice of southern Utah strewn with more stunning natural formations. Our resident outdoorsman and videographer Sandon Voelker ran the route prior to our trip, so we were confident it wouldn't be much more of a challenge than Monument Valley was. And it wasn't—at first. A couple of miles in, however, the trail suddenly turned to clay-based quicksand. It was fun as we flung mud every which way, but mild concern turned into panic when we made the discovery that our support vehicle was bogging down, hard. The X4 and GLC escaped back to the trailhead as the Macan tried to tug free the crippled ute. The grimy Macan made it out; the support vehicle needed a tow.

 

The land was washed in a deep adobe red, the colossal flat-top formations seemingly carved by a mystical force.

We spent the rest of the afternoon pumping quarters into a car wash in Page, Arizona, power washing the three vehicles, thankful each had emerged from the mud. When they were clean enough, we pressed on to Las Vegas, the end of our Southwest whistle-stop tour. Despite the four-hour hose down, the trio dropped clumps of dirt on the driveway as we rolled up to the valet of the Aria, a sleek luxury hotel in the center of the Strip. We traveled through snow, filth, and muck to learn whether this crew of luxury-leaning, city slicker German crossovers could handle more than just a jaunt to the local mall. If their acronym soup of all-wheel-drive and traction control systems were really as good as advertisers say. If after several days on the road they would impress us with their amenities and overall abilities.

The unquestioned on-road champ, the Macan, flat-out shocked us with its off-road versatility. The GLC proved the all-around star, the family-friendly choice we'd pick for any situation. And the X4? Well, it's plenty capable on-road or off, but its special looks won't make it for everyone.

We were all too ready for some Sin City-style debauchery as we got our dirt-splattered selves out of the battered but unbowed threesome and into the hotel lobby. We felt the eyes of the valet drivers, receptionists, and hotel guests follow us all the way to the elevators, where a dolled-up partygoer eyed our mud-splattered photographer Robin Trajano and asked, "So, what have you been doing?"

2016 Mercedes-Benz GLC300 4MATIC Specifications

On Sale: Now
Price: $41,875/$59,130 (base/as tested)
Engine: 2.0L turbo DOHC 16-valve I-4/241 hp @ 5,500 rpm, 273 lb-ft @ 1,300-4,000 rpm
Transmission: 9-speed automatic
Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD crossover
EPA Mileage: 21/28 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H: 183.3 x 74.4 x 64.5 in
Wheelbase: 113.1 in
Weight: 4,001 lb
0-60 MPH: 6.4 sec
Top Speed: 130 mph

2016 BMW X4 xDrive28i Specifications

On Sale: Now
Price: $43,245/$56,795 (base/as tested)
Engine: 2.0L turbo DOHC 16-valve I-4/240 hp @ 5,000-6,500, 258 lb-ft @ 1,450-4,800 rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD crossover
EPA Mileage: 20/28 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H: 184.3 x 74.1 x 63.9 in
Wheelbase: 110.6 in
Weight: 4,130 lb
0-60 MPH: 6.0 sec
Top Speed: 130 mph

2016 Porsche Macan S Specifications

On Sale: Now
Price: $53,650/$65,800 (base/as tested)
Engine: 3.0L twin-turbo DOHC 24-valve V-6/340 hp @ 5,500-6,500 rpm, 339 lb-ft @ 1,450-5,000 rpm
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch auto
Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD crossover
EPA Mileage: 17/23 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H: 184.3 x 76.1 x 63.4 in
Wheelbase: 110.5 in
Weight: 4,112 lb
0-60 MPH: 5.2 sec
Top Speed: 156 mph