A few months ago, I began the search for my latest vehicle in earnest. While the final result may seem a foregone conclusion to some, I did a lot of homework, test driving, and soul searching before making the decision and purchase.
I began the quest with a car that I sincerely admire, but knew was a complete longshot. Pay any attention to automotive media, and you will spot the trends from near-universal praise of sporty wagons to the honest and enduring admiration for products from Mazda. While the list of automotive journalists for whom Miata is always the answer is quite long, the vehicle I drove has also received heaps of praise, the Mazda 3. Specifically, the redesigned-for-2019 Mazda 3 hatchback, with a manual transmission.
The Long Shot
The Mazda 3 hatch punches well above its weight, making what is technically an economy class car feel like an entry-level luxury model. Mazda has bucked the trend with its manual transmission for 2019 in two ways; one, they still offer a manual, and two, it is only available on the top trim level. While some were upset by this move because it adds a few thousand dollars to the cost of entry, I applaud it. The alternative has been far too prevalent where manuals are only available on the base spec from several manufacturers. I want to drive stick, why restrict me with the worst engine, no leather interior, and no tech, ridiculous.
My time test driving the Mazda 3 left me impressed with nearly everything about the car. The interior is not what you expect in a $29K hatchback; it is much closer to an Audi from a few years ago. All the surfaces you touch with regularity are soft and feel rich, the seating is excellent, and the tech is first-rate, to include the heads up display. The steering feel of the Mazda 3 was good as expected, as was the overall driving experience. Almost every aspect of the car was even better than I expected, and I could immediately see why so many journalists sing its praise.
When I parked the car back at the dealership, I was very, very impressed. But I immediately knew I would not be purchasing the vehicle. For many people, this car would be perfect. It has adequate storage, seating (front and back) is quite comfortable, and the driving experience is solid. The downfall for me is that it is comically underpowered. If the Mazda 3 offered a turbocharged version of the current engine, I would have a Soul Red Crystal one in my driveway right now. As it is, the car doesn’t have enough power to satisfy my desires in a daily driver, and that is unfortunate.
Next up for my testing were the “twins,” the Audi S3 and the Volkswagen Golf R. Both share many components, offer all-wheel drive, and boast the same turbocharged 2.0 L engine. Both cars sound absolutely mint and have superb driving dynamics. The differences come down to interior appointments, transmission, and configuration. The Audi S3 wears a fitted suit (no tie) to the party, while the Golf R sports a Banana Republic hoodie, AG jeans, and a backpack.
The Audi was undoubtedly quick, made all the right sounds, and felt fantastic both pushing it through a twisty backroad and cruising on the highway. I drove a 2017 model with the optional tech package, which gives the car Audi’s “virtual cockpit” display. For those who haven’t seen this, it is a neat party trick. The display swaps out traditional gauges for a 12.3-inch configurable screen which will display a digital version of your “normal” tachometer and speedometer, a 3D “moving map” navigation display with driving information in the corners or a mix of speedometer and other vehicle and infotainment information.
The display is crisp, and the options are very well thought out and organized. But this level of technology isn’t enough to overcome the car’s problems. One of those is perceived reliability. When I was looking, Audi issued a recall for all S3s which caused a nationwide de-certification of every Certified Pre-Owned S3 in the country, not exactly a positive omen to the car buyer. The recall was for a problem that could render the passenger airbag inoperative regardless of whether a passenger was in the seat. I asked my salesperson if the CPO status would be reinstated after the recall was complete, he said he wasn’t sure.
Thousands of quality products suffer from recalls, so did this one cause me to eliminate the S3 from consideration? No, the small size and lack of trunk room did; but it didn’t exactly go in the “plus” column for it when I was considering my options. Frankly, due to the parts shared by the cars, I’m surprised the Golf R does not have a similar recall issued for it.
The S3’s brother from another mother was next up. The Golf R automatically had an advantage for me because of its excellent manual transmission. The driving dynamics of the Golf R were not that different from the S3, not unexpected, of course. Changing the driving modes made a noticeable difference in how the car felt, the power was adequate, and it sounded great. With 52.7 cubic feet of cargo room with the back seats down, the Golf R has more storage space than some SUVs, so the interior room was not a problem. The driver’s seat was supportive and comfortable, and the tech was a near match for the Audi as the 2019 Golf R comes standard with a very similar virtual cockpit setup.
Ultimately, the Golf R was good looking (especially in blue!), comfortable, roomy, and fun to drive. So why didn’t I buy one? My decision came down to what I wanted from this vehicle purchase. I wanted a car that could do just about anything, go just about anywhere I need and be fun with more than a hint of luxury while doing so. The Golf R lost out mainly because, while it is immensely more practical, it wasn’t different enough from my Cayman S to fit the bill. The Golf R has nearly identical ground clearance and almost the same size tires as my Cayman. If I didn’t already have a sports car, the Golf R would’ve been tough to turn down, but I do, so it was out.
Enter the Mercedes GLA 45 AMG. My desire for a vehicle with genuine practicality for my lifestyle, luxury, and serious fun-to-drive credibility had a bullseye on this car. It took forever to find one I could test drive. As soon as one would show up anywhere within the free or inexpensive transfer range at Carmax, it was gone before I could get it moving my way. My local Mercedes dealers didn’t have a single used one in stock, and only a handful of new ones. I know the new model has several improvements over the years I could afford, so I wasn’t about to taint myself by driving one of them.
Finally, the same VW dealer who had the Golf R got a 2015 GLA 45 AMG in on a trade. After what seemed an eternity for dealer prep (about a week), I was finally able to drive it. The steering wheel and general feel of the driving position were spot on, the controls were minimalistic but at an expected level for Mercedes, even in an “entry-level” class. The sound of the AMG engine (the most potent four-cylinder engine on a production car when new) was awesome. The driving dynamics were excellent, sporty but not too harsh on bumpy roads, tight and precise during spirited driving, and overall quite a bit of fun. Then there was the exhaust, what a hooligan this car is. In sport mode, the most absurd pops and snarls emanate from the exhaust on acceleration and deceleration. It was loud, startling, and impressive!
When I began my car search, this is the car I wanted. It’s a little tighter and more compact than the Macan S, a little more “upscale” than the Golf R, and infinitely more usable than the Audi S3. Unfortunately, there were certain things about the Mercedes that ruled it out after my test drive. One of the letdowns was the presence of lower-quality materials in the interior. Once you look below the infotainment and HVAC controls, you could see the hard plastics indicative of cost savings on the GLA line. There’s also a hard plastic plate behind the seat belt anchor that sounds extremely cheap when the belt retracts and makes contact.
But, the most significant factor for me not purchasing the GLA 45 AMG was the intrusion of the center console into my right leg. I rest my right leg against the center tunnel wall when I drive, and on the Mercedes, there is a protrusion there that dug into my leg as I drove. Regardless of how I positioned myself, this piece was a factor and did not allow me to get comfortable; needless to say, I was disappointed. I truly enjoyed driving the car, it’s powerful but a good drive around town, and I like the somewhat unconventional (some say ugly) styling. Alas, I knew I would never get comfortable in the car, and so it had to be removed from my list.
I honestly struggled with my decision to the very end. Even though my final choice offered everything I was looking for, the Golf R was very close and cheaper. I had to come to terms with the idea that the vehicle that made me the happiest, was also what most enthusiasts consider the bane of the automotive world, a CUV.
The Porsche Macan S is a fantastic automobile. It offers the utility of a small SUV, the handling dynamics (especially when adequately optioned) of a sports car or hatchback, and the luxury of a top rate German auto manufacturer. In other words, everything I wanted from this vehicle purchase, but at a premium price even used.
In truth, the price differential of a new Golf R compared to a 2016 or 2017 Certified Pre-Owned Macan S is only a few thousand dollars, but the numbers feel more substantial. Once I resolved myself to spend the extra money and avoid compromising, I set out to find a CPO Macan S that was within my budget and had the options I knew would make it drive the way I desired.
My critical options were the Premium package which included heated and cooled seats (comfort), Porsche Active Suspension Management (PASM), and preferably the Sport Chrono and Air Suspension options (performance). With these criteria, I knew I had to search the entire country, not just my local area if I was going to find one.
If the GTS model were in my budget, this search would’ve been much more straightforward. I would have only been searching for color as most of these options are standard on the GTS. But, the GTS was out of reach, so I scoured the internet searching for the perfect Macan S. By using a combination of Autotrader.com, Autotempest.com, and the main Porsche website, I was able to find the handful of examples to fit my criteria on the market. Unfortunately for me, the available options within my price range were scarce; and the leads I did find, had a tendency to be sold by the time I called the dealership.
With my patience wearing thin, I found four candidates that fit the bill, each with a few key traits to differentiate each other. I made a low, but fair, offer on a 2017 based on the location (far away but easy to get to and a fun road trip home) and the options (PASM, 18-way seats, and full leather make a compelling package). The sales rep lectured me on their accurate price based Google market analytics and blah, blah, blah. They didn’t even bother to make a counter-offer, so I moved on to my second choice, a 2016 where the original owner went crazy with the configurator. The car had a full leather, two-tone interior, white face gauges, Sport Chrono, PASM, wood trim, embossed headrests, tow package, and even the Porsche Sport Design package that changed the front fascia and fog lights. It was optioned almost to the price of a GTS when purchased new and was now sitting on a dealer lot priced in line with most other models of similar mileage and condition.
After a few phone calls and text messages, I made a fair offer and they accepted without any haggling. I immediately regretted it because I probably could’ve gone a little lower and still got it, but oh well. That was a Friday, I booked my flight for Sunday evening and planned my road trip home starting Monday morning.
I drove just under 1300 miles in two days with a little over 18 hours of driving to get back home with a short stopover to see my parents. Overall the Macan S performed flawlessly, was even sportier and more capable than I thought, and also managed to average 27mpg. I intended to investigate some of the best roads in the country on the Blue Ridge Parkway, but a line of heavy thunderstorms altered my course and restricted the final portion of my journey to the highway. I’ll have to make another trip for that experience.
After a few weeks of ownership, I don’t regret choosing the Macan S at all. It is everything Porsche says it is and serves as a perfect complement to the Cayman. I look forward to many adventures in this vehicle, and maybe even some “gentle” off-roading.