Road Test - Porsche 924s

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Little Brother Bounces Back

For a car that the Company never intended to sell, Porsche’s 924 has been rather successful. It was meant to be a VW, designed and developed in a consultative capacity, as are so many projects at the Weissach technical centre; when VW’s new managing director cancelled the project, Porsche chose to cut its losses and sell the little coupe as a “starter” model.

That is a story which has been often recounted, and it seems to have been the most memorable thing about the car. It was regarded rather scornfully by many people, 911 owners and wishful thinkers alike, as not being “a real Porsche”, and is even now sometimes described as “the one with the van engine”, an unfair taunt, since the sohc engine was developed from the Audi 100 unit, and it was a detuned version which found its way into the VW LT van, not vice versa.

On the car’s introduction in 1977, the novel rounded styling also excited mixed opinions — or in other words some disfavour, but the arrival the following year of the stunning 928 not only confirmed this new and influential design trend, but in using a similar mechanical layout established the new pedigree line.

But what most people desired about the 924 was above all the name. Along with BMW, the Porsche badge has become the sought-after symbol of success, and even the basic model has virtually as much kudos in the general eye as a Turbo. So the “borrowed” car has sold in large quantities — 130,000 — since its inception, and, significantly for Porsche, their figures say that nearly one-third of UK owners go on to the next step and buy a 944.

There has been more than one performance variant of the 924, of which the Turbo is the most often seen and the Carrera GT the most talked-about, and it is the influence of the latter and its Le Mans derivative which is obvious in the 944’s jutting front wings and squatter stance. It is my opinion that the high and flat-topped rear arches are a mistake, drawing attention to the visual weak spot of the 924 which is the heavy expanse above the rear wheel, but the buying public seem unmoved by this and the 944 has become the best-seller in the range. This has rather overshadowed the 924 (or “nine-twenny-four” as the American English spoken at Weissach has it), which has received only minor changes since the Turbo faded out in favour of the ’44.

So at last something exciting has happened to the baby. The 2-litre has been elbowed out by the four-cylinder 2.5 unit much acclaimed in the 944. However, to avoid embarrassment, the compression ratio has been dropped to restrict power to 150 bhp and torque to 144 lb ft, a loss of 13 bhp and 7 lb ft respectively. Other advances have filtered down to the S. like the alloy rear semi-trailing arms, and discs finally replace the rear drums. But all this is underneath — thank heavens for the new to the 924) alloy “telephone dial” wheels which refresh a familiar shape. They are the only visible difference: Porsche have chosen not to do the obvious and add a new spoiler to the slightly chinless front. With production costs so similar for the two shells, there was a plan to sell the 944 with the 2-litre engine as the bottom package, but disappointing performance and little cost saving has resulted in the reversal of this idea so that the old shape continues unaltered but with the improvements detailed above.

Finished beautifully in that Guards Red which seems so intense, the 924S exudes that level of quality engineering which retains so many customers. Even the VW door handles seem to fit in because everything fits together so well. The interior is now identical to last year’s 944 (although this year’s 944 will have the dash of the new Turbo) with tasteful pinstripe cloth door panels (£88 extra, and you can’t have them if you have spent the £1,000 on leather seats). In fact, the prospective buyer will have to do some careful arithmetic: the 924S is £14,985, the 944 £18.234: allowing for power steering, standard on ’44 but an option on ’24, the price difference is only £2,750. Add only the leather seats (£1.000) and wide wheels and tyres (£1,557) and the gap is virtually bridged. And let’s be honest, we would all rather have the 944, wouldn’t we?

As a matter of fact, from inside, one begins to wonder if the choice is so easy. All those sensations which so impressed me about the 944 seem to be present in the new car. The precision of the imperceptibly assisted steering, the unflappable ride, the unstinting urge of the quiet engine, the confident feel of the brake pedal, — a sense of engineering and dynamic balance which led me more than once into allowing clearance for the wide arches of the 944 before remembering what I was driving. So the difference must be in the performance, then?

Unfortunately, the last 944 MOTOR SPORT tested was before the advent of our Leitz electronic test gear, otherwise one could make a direct comparison. As it is, the 9240 comfortably beat not only its own quoted acceleration figures, but also those of its big brother. With a 0-60 mph time for the 2-litre car of some 9.6 sec, I was expecting with the S to aim for Porsche’s own 8.5 sec figure. In fact it consistently achieved 8.1 sec, 0.3 sec better than the 944 ought to be. Similarly, the projected maximum of 133 mph went by easily, the car just nudging the 137 expected of its sibling. What these figures demonstrate, far from any start-line wizardry, is the feeling of understatement with which the vehicle performs. But Porsche thoroughness has ensured that the 944 is, in fact, quicker still.

The architecture of the car, as the French so nicely put it, joins the front engine to the rear transaxle by a rigid torque tube on which is mounted the short gear-lever. The change is swift, the syncro tough enough to cope comfortably even with the two snatched shifts which are required on the way to 60 mph at the test track, and the five ratios feel well spaced with third being a lovely urgent gear to be in on an interesting road. Also standard now is the four-spoke leather wheel of perfect size which adjusts vertically, plus electric windows, mirrors, and rear hatch release, the hatch swinging smoothly up of its own gassprung volition. The rear wiper, cleverly enclosed in a box hung on the glass, is quite important at low speed when rain falls onto the hatch, but the little button is hard to locate on the central tunnel below the driver’s elbow. Other details such as light switches would benefit from being rid of the parts-bin philosophy — Porsche AG’s design skills are of an exceptionally high order, as the overall fascia layout, uncluttered and logical, confirms, and the little VW/Audi rocker switches are below par. But that is a quibble beside the handbrake lever. I can see that it would be difficult to mount the lever centrally due to the torque-tube, but the knuckle-barking squeeze to grab this very distant item from its slot between seat and door quickly became a pain in the — well, the shoulder actually. The pains elsewhere were due to the seat. Even an hour’s drive had my back aching, a disappointment in such an enjoyable car, but one which I suppose I should ascribe to some personal spinal oddity rather than to the otherwise hip-hugging chairs. And here is yet another car with no independent fresh air vents — £15.000 to drive with the window open.

Willing at any revs, the power unit extends from canter to gallop above 3.000 rpm, even though the torque peak is at this figure. But watch out for the red line — at 6,500 the Digital Motor Electronics unit (or DME) goes on strike with what sounds like asthma. Let us be thankful that the days of valve chatter are gone, but there was something rather devil-may-care about “the factory says six-two, but I reckon she’s safe to seven . .” Still, the choke-free instant-start blessings of fuel injection are now widespread, with ever-better economy, and spiced in the case of the Porsche by the surprise on the garage attendant’s face when he hears that it takes 2-star. Sadly the factory figure I could not beat was fuel economy: instead of the urban figure of 23 mpg, I managed 19 mpg, but one must always pay for one’s pleasures.

Although the generous stretch available to the driver’s legs might imply otherwise, the 924S is relatively small, and the occasional rear seats are no more than that. Nevertheless, they are better cargo racks in the upright position than folded down to make the flat deck, although the latter will be preferable for suitcases. A full-sized spare tyre sits upright in the tail, while on either side are useful wells for oddments, and the whole compartment can be covered by a neat roller blind.

MacPherson struts support the front of the car, while the rear rides on generously sized alloy semi-trailing arms with transverse torsion bars, and continuous development has endowed the car with a pleasant ride insulated from the worst effects of “high-relief” road-mending. Inevitably, the 195/65 VP 15 Continental tyres thump across cats eyes and the like, but have commendable adhesion even in rain, adding to the very good traction that the axle offers. Under cornering, mild understeer fades away with increasing throttle until the car balances nicely and only on the tightest bends will the rear tyres break away under power, something which they do smoothly and briefly.

Apart from the blind spot of the rear pillar, the car feels nicely in tune with its driver at all times, it is relatively quiet, a lot of detail work having gone into, for instance, the door shuts which are completely sealed at roof level, and its stability is unaffected by potholes even while cornering

For the driver who needs no more space than this, the chief disadvantage of the 924S would seem to be how close it is to the admirable 944, rather than the other way round. —G.C.