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We all have a primal Porsche in our mind's eye – low and compact, a motorized panther, with bulging fenders, sticky tires, and a growling exhaust. For most of us, it's a 911, the iconic Porsche sports car that has been with us since 1963. For others, it may be the 356, also known as the Bathtub Porsche, a tiny 1950s machine loved by countless enthusiasts, including actor James Dean, who bought a special-edition 356, stripped off the rear-view mirrors, and raced it on weekends.

My point – the primal Porsche is not an SUV.

This was on my mind as I landed in Germany to drive the new Macan, a compact SUV that plays a key role in Porsche's strategy. As a sports car fan and long-time Porsche buff, I've watched the company's trajectory with a mixture of admiration and despair – when Porsche brought out an SUV, it was like learning that the pope had resigned from the Vatican to open a mattress warehouse.

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That first Porsche SUV, of course, was the Cayenne, which was announced in 2002. For the Porsche faithful, it was a stunner. How could the legendary sports car builder make an SUV, one of the most impure and decadent vehicle classes since the Winnebago?

As I headed out in the Macan, I thought back to my earliest memories of Porsche, when my father took me for a drive in a 356 Speedster on a German airfield in 1959 – I was only a small boy, but that Porsche left a lasting impression of speed, compactness and German cool.

Now I was testing a new kind of Porsche. Against all odds, my first impression was positive. The Macan seemed significantly more compact than its Cayenne big brother. The roofline fell away to the rear in an aerodynamic diminuendo, conjuring the shape of a 911 or 356, and the tires were fat, filling the swollen fender wells in true Porsche fashion.

Behind the wheel, the Macan felt more like a sports car than any SUV I've ever driven. Most SUVs have all the steering of a 1972 Chevy Caprice. Not the Macan – the breakout force from centre was perfect, and I could feel the tire contact patches through the wheel.

Out on the autobahn, I ran the Macan up to 235 km/h. (The Macan was happy to go even faster, but the all-season tires were limited to 240.) This was serious speed, but the Macan was resolutely stable – the aerodynamicists had nailed the shape, negating high-speed lift. After that, it was on to Porsche's racing test circuit at its Leipzig factory, where I flicked the Macan into Sport mode and chased a factory test driver in a 911.

The multi-link suspension and wide tires kept the Macan stuck through the fastest corners, and the crisp steering allowed me to place it precisely on the chosen line. The Macan wasn't the equal of the 911, but it was surprisingly good. Unlike the 911, the Macan can seat five people and haul a trailer.

Back in the day, I was a Porsche zealot who believed that only a two-seater sports car with a rear-mounted engine should carry the Porsche badge. I have since changed my tune. The decision to build SUVs saved Porsche from bankruptcy – and the fat profits earned on the Cayenne helped pay for the continued development of the sacred 911.

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Porsche is a company that has always combined passion with pragmatism. Founder Ferdinand Porsche was both a brilliant engineer and a canny businessman who insisted that every product make money. While other niche builders have failed, Porsche has always found a way forward. Last year, it sold more than 170,000 cars (and made more profit per unit than any other car manufacturer).

The history of Porsche has been an interesting combination of tradition and tumult. The wooden-floored Porsche factory in Stuttgart that I toured with my father in 1960 is still in operation, but it is now surrounded by a collection of sleek new buildings packed with high-tech machinery. (A glass bridge carries partially assembled 911s over a highway that divides the old and new sections.)

The Macan, Cayenne and Panamera, meanwhile, are built a few hundred kilometres away in Leipzig, the old German town where composer Johann Sebastian Bach is buried. The Leipzig Porsche factory is on the edge of town, sitting in the fields like a spaceship.

After driving the Macan on the autobahn and the racetrack, I took it out on an off-road course that was originally built to train Russian tank crews in the Second World War. Pressing a switch raised the Macan's suspension and shifted its gearing into a low-range mode, making it easy to scale a 30-degree slope, claw through a mud pit, and slalom through a stand of trees.

After my test drive, I spent time with Peter Steinkirchner, a senior Porsche engineer who oversees suspension development for the company's car lineup. We spent hours talking about steering ratios, spring rates, and bump compliance. We also talked about whether an SUV can be a Porsche. "A Porsche is made for drivers," Steinkirchner said. "But it can also be comfortable. There is no conflict in that."

Some have decried the Macan as the downfall of a great sports car maker. They're wrong. This is a genuine Porsche. And you can still have a 911, too.

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