It’s been a while since ViaRETRO has had something on Porsche, right? So it’s pretty lucky that over the weekend, Peter gave me the keys to his black 944 Turbo – and to a thought provoking test drive.
I’ve never hidden my excitement for the Germany sports car maker and have previously proclaimed cars from the Zuffenhausen artisans as the world’s best all-rounders, amongst other things. Previously I’ve driven everything from a 356 to a 911, a 944S2 and a 928 and all of them fill me with respect for Porsche’s drive to perfect their concept of a sports car. Indeed, anyone with an appreciation of cars should have respect for Porsche. It’s O.K. if you don’t actually LIKE them – because that’s got something to do with feelings and that’s not Porsche’s strong suit and in fact, probably beneath its dignity.
Maybe that’s why Porsche often appeals to the technically interested, to connoisseurs, or even engineers? For example, Peter, who is an engineer and for a long time has had a taste for Italian machines (and still has an Alfa Romeo, Fiat and Vespa in the garage), but nevertheless has had a picture of a Porsche 944 on the garage wall for years. That’s it below:
‘‘I became interested in the 944 as a newly graduated engineer in 1982, the 911 had been around for a while and was well known, but now there was something new and modern: Good handling instead of a pimped up VW! I cut an ad’ out of Auto Motor und Sport, framed it and I’ve still got it hanging in the garage.’’ The symbolism in the picture is pretty clear: Why not take the mountain road, when you’re driving a car with perfect balance?
That is exactly what the 944 is known for – perfect balance. As most know, the model is a development of the 924, the latter being something that many look down on. However, Peter reminded us of the following important facts in case we were thinking of lampooning the 924:
The Porsche 924 was a commercial success in a period when Porsche was in great difficulties and with economic problems. During the years that the model was sold, it accounted for 20-40% of the total number of Porsche produced. The press and especially the American buyers were happy with it, but in the ranks of the Porsche enthusiasts, it was discredited due to the use of VW parts (which was natural given that the model started out as a joint venture between VW and Porsche) and an Audi engine. It became a real disaster for the model’s image when that motor also was used in the VW LT delivery van.
Anyway, Porsche was well aware that it was a bit of a leap from the 924 to the 911, not to mention the 928. And Porsche being Porsche fixes it’s mistakes! So of course they looked at the engine – and the basics from the 924 were in place, but more power would definitely be good. Peter then said something about Porsche’s engine deliberations, which was new for me:
Porsche decided that a six cylinder engine was the best choice and they experimented with the Volvo/Peugeot/Renault-engine, but the smoothness and impression of quality wasn’t good enough . Furthermore, economy was still important, both with respect to fuel economy in the final car and the development costs. Porsche was still lacking economic resources, so they decided to use their experiences from the V8 in the 928. Many say that the 944 engine is half a 928 engine, but that’s just gossip. However, they did re-use the construction principles and some of the components, for example the cylinder heads on the 944 are almost the same as those on one side of the 928. An inline 4 cylinder doesn’t have quite the same smoothness as a V8, but that was compensated for by adding two balance shafts, which rotate in the opposite direction of the crankshaft and at twice the rate. This neutralises the secondary vibrations. The same principle is used in Alfa Romeo’s engines in the 156 and in Saab’s H engine.
The final result was approximately 160 horse power and in classic Porsche style, it wasn’t anything particularly special for it’s class, or on paper. However, when combined with the excellent handling characteristics of the chassis, the 944 was a particularly competent sports car and indeed, a great all-rounder. It quickly became renowned for it’s high quality as well – and with a hatchback, folding rear seats and possibility for a tow bar (!), one didn’t want for anything. In the sales brochure, Porsche itself put it like this: ‘‘Sportscar fun on a sensible basis.’’ We must be over in the genre, which ViaRETRO calls “relative sensibility,’’ but it is nevertheless true: Here was definitely a sports car that you could use as your only car.
One really didn’t want for anything? Weeeeeeeeeeeeeel – yet more power.
It wasn’t because the 944 was slow, but because the chassis could obviously handle more power. The journalists pointed it out and Porsche was most likely also well aware of it too. Once again: When Porsche identified a task, they acted on it. In the same way as with the 911 series, they chose turbo charging for the 944 as the way to get more power, and it is obvious, as well as both logical and correct. The 944 Turbo arrived in 1985, and in typical Porsche style they didn’t just bolt on a turbo charger. The turbo was significantly upgraded in all possible ways (see the brochure below, which makes a pretty big deal out of it), and this led not only to 220 horsepower and much improved acceleration, but also to a leap in the sales price.
According to Peter, a Porsche 944 cost 820,000 Danish kroner (105,000 Euro). In comparison, an Audi Quattro cost 732,000, a BMW M5 800,000, a Volvo 240 GL 180,000 and a Golf GTI 215,000. That was quite some serious money and reading between the lines it signals how much different a 944 Turbo was compared to a 944.
This leads also to the Danish classic car import-paradox (for an explanation about the implications of the Danish registration tax on car prices and purchasing psychology see here), which is that it is most likely much more sensible to import and register a 944 Turbo before it is classified as veteran (35 years old or more) and you have to follow the ‘relaxed’ rules for the tax calculation.
That’s also what Peter did and the Porsche has obviously been a bit of a culture shock after his previous experience with ‘60s Italian cars. We´ll get back to that, because there are undoubtedly different reasons for that shock. But now there is a 944 turbo with a warm motor parked on my driveway and Peter has given me the keys, so now there is only one thing to do, jump in and try to understand it.
First impressions are, of course, that the whole car is incredibly well maintained: With less than 170,000 km on the clock it is nice and fresh and despite its 28 years, dare I say it – modern. From a design point of view, it is a great achievement, especially since the 924 basis originates from 1976. It still works and with the broad sweeping fenders the design language used is, after my best interpretation, not that much different to many modern sports cars. Strangely enough, the ordinary 944 is less aerodynamic than the 924, but that is cancelled out by the extra power of course.
Porsche gave the turbo an aerodynamic make-over and the front spoiler is now quite dangerously low – and according to the internet has the largest blinkers seen on any car until now (information which belongs in the section for useless knowledge, but which is included for your amusement). It gives the front a different look than the normal 944 – but even more interesting for the technically interested is the back end, where one finds an integrated wing in the Turbo-only rear bumper. Nice nerdy stuff – but also well done from an aesthetics point of view. It’s the same for the ‘‘telephone dial’’ wheels, which are a real classic for the period and most importantly ensure that the overall modern style doesn’t run away with what is now a classic car.
One thing you can’t call modern is the interior, which is unmistakeably black and dominated by plastics in the best 80’s style: The dashboard with it’s curved lines is, however, elegant and the seats with what is reminiscent of pinstripes are really the only thing that disrupt the sombre blackness. It also does it in a classy way, just like they fit my body perfectly: Narrow, tight and at the same time comfortable – and to my amazement an electrically adjustable drives seat, a complete luxury in a sports car. However it’s sensible enough, given that everyone should be able to find the right driving position in this car.
Once in position, the driver is aware that the instruments are perfectly arranged, and that all other dash board designers should be ashamed of themselves (SAAB being the exception!). I noticed also that the redline is at 6400, but the maximum power is at 5800 and the meaty 330 Newton meters of torque at 3500, so 6400 is completely unnecessary. On the other hand, Peter had specifically said that I needed to make sure that the turbo was on song – which I could keep an eye on with the boost gauge under the rev counter, if I was in any doubt.
Whilst the seating position says sports car, the start procedure says almost nothing. The ignition key sits in the normal position, and the motor starts without drama – and doesn’t make much sound. It is all completely without any hysterics and the same is basically true of operating the rest of the car: the steering is delightfully weighted and precise, as is the gearshift with its surprisingly long throw, but again with a solid and precise feeling that inspires complete trust in the mechanicals. Then we are moving, out on the small country roads with an unmistakable feeling of – modern car!
Yes, that was my first impression. That is of course praise to Porsche, incredible that a 28 year old car feels that way. I can remember the BMW 628 that I had, and which was also 28 years old, one could feel it´s age here and there – and it was something that I was glad for. However, the Porsche simply feels utterly modern. There was a reason for it, and I had been warned: The turbo engine’s power first arrives with a few more revs, and with grandpa driving it doesn’t really feel particularly special. In particular, because the sound isn’t a mechanical symphony. A deep and consistent burble and not nasty – but you can’t call it music.
After a few kilometres it was time: Floor the accelerator, revs up and then it happened – nothing! First…a faint, faint whine from the turbo in the background announces that you probably can begin to tense your muscles. From 3000 revs the engine wakes up and just five hundred revs later it snorts in such a way that it is a pure delight. There’s not much time between nothing and everything, and that also definitely enhances the feeling of power. I wouldn’t say that it arrives unpleasantly suddenly, but I am also in no doubt that it is probably not the easiest engine for getting the best out of the car. That is, the final ten tenths on the track.
On a country road you get rapidly used to it, and dropping down a gear or two allows for some bone crushing second and third gear acceleration to overtake with plenty in reserve. The sound remains surprisingly quiet, but don’t make the mistake of underestimating, because we are actually talking about a rather rapid machine: 6.3 seconds to 100 and almost 250 km top speed. That was faster than the Porsche 911 Carrera at the time – but the 944 Turbo was also more expensive, so in light of that it is O.K. In addition it is apparent that the suspension and chassis can handle it all. As was mentioned, this was all on a public road, but a couple of roundabouts showed s glimpse of the combination that I most love: plenty of grip but still comfortable. O.K., it is fast – but definitely not scarily so, and I can imagine the 944 Turbo as a capable long distance tourer. This is where Porsche’s focus on fuel economy shows itself, because even the powerful Turbo can give over 10 km/L on average. Well, as long as you aren’t tempted too often by the rapid second gear acceleration.
I was excited, and so was my daughter. ‘‘Crazy fast’’ and ‘‘sounds like a jet plane at take-off’’, ‘‘nice’’ and ‘‘people are looking at us as we go by’’, were her comments. It’s true, all of it: The black 944 Turbo here is a devastatingly capable machine, and I was suitably impressed. Yes, I even thought seriously about whether such a low mileage 944 can still handle a decent amount of everyday driving if it had to. And a trackday now and then. It has a split personality, and whilst Dr. Porsche is sensible and friendly, Mr. Hyde is actually not that bad. He’s just a lot faster.
So, is that the main conclusion? Well, it could be. But let’s hear from the owner again:
The difference between a 911 and a 944? Well, I have to admit that time has clearly shown that the 911 won on value and image. For the 944 there are three things missing in particular: The legendary silhouette, the sound of an air-cooled six cylinder boxer and that the ignition key sits on the left of the steering column. On the other hand, it drives better, safer and more economically etc (and it costs a third of the price!).
After I sent an email with something along the lines of ‘‘wooow, it’s good to drive’’, Peter wrote back ‘‘Yep, almost too good!’’ This is of course a completely stupid luxury problem to raise, but the 944 Turbo does actually go so well, that you have to drive ridiculously fast to feel how good it is. If you don’t drive so fast, there’s no drama at all, quite the contrary it feels astonishingly normal. So, now it gets difficult: If one drives classic cars to get a dose of salts against normality and ordinary cars, then ‘‘astonishingly normal’’ is not a positive thing. Peters Fiat 500 is a dose of salts, his Duetto also, and the engine of the latter has, for example, more drama and sound at idle than the Porshe has in its whole rev range.
That is the 944 Turbo’s ’problem’: It’s so good that it doesn’t feel particularly ’classic’ to drive it. Until you drive really fast. That of course, is what it is really good at! And just to quash any doubts: ’Problem’ and ’Classic’ are in inverted commas, because it is something completely hypothetical, and in this case over in the category of luxury problems. Which I definitely could live with, if I had to. The 944 here is a fantastic car, which I really would like to have in my garage.
It is actually a bit of the same phenomenon, which I covered in the last Saturday Matiné. Young timers are almost too good – and the Turbo is one of the best.
ViaRETRO-bonus information: Peter had a feeling that the prices of 944s are increasing, but couldn’t document it. However Oldtimer Markts ‘Preise 2013’’ – supplement can, and it says that whilst the model line in general has increased in price over the last five years (2-8%), it is the Turbos which are moving in leaps and bounds with 21% for the first model and 24% for the Turbo S.