Review and road test of the Porsche 944 (1982 - 1991)
FORCE 944 FROM ZUFFENHAUSEN
BY ANDY ENRIGHT
In many ways the 944 was a landmark car for Porsche, demonstrating as it did that a successful sporting model could emerge from the legendary 911's shadow and be respected in its own right. Although the front-engined four-cylinder format terminated with the subsequent 968 series, the 944 paved the way for smaller Porsches such as the Boxster. Following on from the unloved 924 model, this was quite some achievement, and gives some indication as to the 944's merit. Between 1983 and 1991 the Porsche 944 was the benchmark sub-supercar coupe, and with used models becoming increasingly tempting, here's a guide to show you the best way to put a Porsche on your driveway for the price of a Punto.
(2 dr coupe and convertible 2.5, 2.7, 3.0 petrol [Lux, S, S2, Turbo, Turbo SE])
The Porsche 944 was developed from the 924 series, a line of cars built at Audi's Neckarsulm factory and derided by enthusiasts as unworthy of the Porsche badge. Constant development had exhausted the potential of the 2.0-litre VW engine and the logical progression was to develop an engine in-house at Zuffenhausen. Unveiled at the 19891 Frankfurt Show, the 944 was an instant hit. Utilising what was effectively half a 928 engine, the 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine developed 163bhp and was clothed in a body that was aggressive where the 924 was pretty, underlining the 944's more hardcore appeal. It went on sale in the UK at the tail end of 1982 badged as a Lux and soon garnered a loyal following.
The first major revision to the 944 series came in 1985, when the 924-style interior was replaced by a more 911-style fascia, known to enthusiasts as the 'oval dash'. The suspension was thoroughly revised, a flush-mounted windscreen was fitted and an improved heating and air conditioning system was developed, along with some minor changes to the bodywork. It was at the end of 1985 that Porsche developed the 944 Turbo, sometimes referred to as a 951, arriving on these shores in 1986. Boasting 220bhp, a smoother front end treatment, bigger Brembo brakes, stiffer suspension and a stylish rear air diffuser, the 944 Turbo was, in many respects, a more complete sporting car than 911s of that year and was also the first sports car to offer twin airbags.
1987 saw the arrival of the sixteen-valve 944S, getting the Turbo's Brembo brakes and a 2.7-litre engine. The multivalve engine developed 190bhp, but the model wasn't particularly well received, many drivers complaining of a lack of torque. In 1988, Porsche built the quickest ever 944, the Turbo SE with a better turbocharger that developed 250bhp. It also boasted firmer suspension, an additional oil cooler and ABS.
The 944S2 arrived on the scene in 1989, boasting three-litres of capacity and a 212bhp power output. Sharing the Turbo's smooth front end and available as a coupe or cabriolet, the 944S2 ran until the axe fell on the 944 range in 1992. In many ways the most saleable of all 944 models, the S2 is viewed by many as the best compromise between performance and practicality and set a standard that few contemporary coupes can approach.
What You Get
The original Porsche 944 Lux is a surprisingly rugged car with plenty of tried and tested VW suspension bits and a relatively understressed engine. As it developed, the 944 grew more mechanically complex and teething problems with the early 16-valve engines dented Porsches reputation for bulletproof reliability somewhat. If well looked after, 944s are trustworthy performers, but neglected models can spring some big bills.
If you're after performance, opt for an S2 or a Turbo, as the pace of progress has somewhat overtaken the 163bhp and 190bhp versions, power outputs that these days can be boasted by a decent hot hatch. Pre-1985 models should generally be avoided, as the fascia is very dated and the driving position less than ideal. Despite the laughable rear legroom, 944s are reasonably practical with a large, if shallow, load bay and manageable fuel consumption. All-round visibility is surprisingly good and the styling has withstood the test of time very well.
What to Look For
The list of available 944s stretches from £1,500 dogs to £18,000 beauties, with a vast welter of good, bad and ugly examples in between. The first thing to avoid is anything that's been extensively modified. Wheels should be Porsche items and any evidence of spoiler kits or aftermarket paint jobs should be given a wide berth. Likewise, you should look for a complete maintenance record. Although this may not be forthcoming on older cars, try to ensure that the buyer isn't one of that type who can just about afford the upfront price but has skipped on upkeep. This can land you with big bills. Here's why.
The 944 has what is known as an interference engine. This means that if the timing belt fails, the pistons and valves will smash into one another with potentially expensive results, an occurrence that's not unknown especially with early 944S models. Post 1987 models have an automatic tensioning device built in, but the first batch of cars requires an expensive proprietary tool to tension the belt, and some owners tried, and failed, to do it themselves. You do not want to be picking up the bill for their incompetence! Belts on 944s should be changed every 28,000 miles, and you should allow at least £300 for this job. Another 944-specific fault are engine mounts, which often fail on the exhaust side, resulting in excess vibration at idle.
The water pump is also an item which has proved problematic and is particularly awkward to reach, replacement necessitating removal of the timing and balance belts first. If you fit the latest water pump, as recommended by Porsche mechanics, you'll also need to fork out for a new thermostat too. Other problems reported by 944 owners include leaky power steering fluid reservoirs caused by poor clamps that affix the hoses, and cracking dashboards on early models caused by warping in the sun.
The cabriolet models should be checked for a damaged, leaking or non-functioning hood. Look for mounting points for roll cages, fire extinguishers or four-point harnesses and inspect carefully for crash damage. This will normally be noticeable through misaligned body panels or through evidence of respraying. Otherwise try to go for as low a mileage and as well maintained an example as your budget will allow. If the choice comes down to equivalently priced S2 or Turbo, choose the normally aspirated car.
(Estimated prices, based on a 1986 Turbo) Shop around and you'll find Porsche spares at surprisingly reasonable rates. We turned up a pair of new front discs and pads for £120, with rears not dissimilarly priced. A front wing can be yours for £105, as can the turbo's teardrop mirrors. A rear valance retails at around £175, whilst headlamp units are £115 each. Piston rings are £35 a shot, whilst inlet valves and guides are £45 each. Expect to pay around £50 for a replacement cam belt.
On the Road
Driving the early 944 Lux is an exercise in making the most of the available power, the chassis easily capable of handling more. The 944S answered the criticisms of those who needed more go, but you'll need to work to access it as, like many early multivalve engines, it's quite a peaky unit and it responds well to a sound thrashing, a fact that doesn't always bode well for the used buyer! Nevertheless, it will reach 60mph in 7.4 seconds on the way to 142mph. By far the most satisfying models to drive are the Turbo and S2 cars. The Turbo is a genuine rocket ship, especially in 250bhp SE guise, and can show a clean pair of heels to many of today's coupes including the Porsche Boxster S and Audi TT225. With a top speed of 162mph and a sprint to 60mph of only 5.7 seconds, the 944 Turbo SE was and is a true force to be reckoned with. Even the 220bhp version can still crack 60mph in 5.9 seconds!
The 3.0-litre S2 models are slightly more sophisticated than the frenetic 2.5-litre turbo cars. With a meaty surge of torque, this was the 944 of choice for many and remains in high demand. Barely any slower than the Turbo in 'real-world' driving conditions, the S2 handles beautifully in classic front engine/rear wheel drive style. Step from a Boxster to a 944 S2 and you won't feel hard done by in the older car, its blend of handling, performance and comfort belying its advanced years. The cabriolet models are delightful, lacking only a marginal amount of chassis rigidity to the coupes and are even easier to sell.
You'll may well wade through plenty of rubbish looking for a decent 944, but there's no shortage of choice and this ups the odds of chancing upon a genuine car. Best bargains are 1985/86 Lux models, early S2 examples and late Turbos. If you track down a good 944, you'll wonder why anybody would ever contemplate buying a new coupe, when something so good can be yours for so much less. Putting a Porsche on your drive for £6,000 is a realistic proposition. It's worth it just to set the neighbours' curtains twitching.
Porsche 944 (1982 - 1991) review by ANDY ENRIGHT