Fine-Tuning the Range

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Ferry Porsche has said on several occasions that the front-engined Porsches are intended for the “man in the street” while the rear-engined 911 derivations are specifically for the enthusiast. Now that may, in truth, be a rather loose interpretation of what Herr Porsche precisely said, but that is the essence of his message. However, the dividing line between the “man in the street” and the “enthusiast” is so blurred when it comes to considering the current Porsche range that, to all intents and purposes, it does not exist.

Make no mistake, I love the 911s. That distinctive profile will live forever in the annals of motoring history as one of the greatest classics (if I may borrow that over-worked epithet once more) of all time. But to dismiss the front-engined cars in the German masque’s range as somehow displaying a softer personality is unfair. What is more, it is also inaccurate, as anybody who has experience of the 928S will testify. And quite the best car in the entire range — if you compute performance and refinement against cost — must be the four-cylinder 944 model.

To some readers, that may seem a rather extreme statement. But I stand by it and, in fact, have believed it to be the case ever since I sampled one of the first 944s back in 1982. At the time the car cost just over £14,000. Five years later we have been assessing the 944S, which has a tax-paid price tag of £25,302.88.

I was discussing the unobtrusive way in which Porsches evolve with DSJ recently. He does quite a bit of his motoring in 924s, and was remarking about the may in which you suddenly become conscious that a certain detail has been improved when you switch to a slightly newer model. There has been no official change in the specification, but subtle revisions are being incorporated in the designs all the time. I must say I was particularly aware of that aspect after a few miles behind the wheel of a 944S. Back in 1982 I simply could not believe that a large capacity four-cylinder engine could operate so smoothly. Now I found myself thinking that the package was even better.

This particular model has prompted a lot of debate in recent months, slotting in neatly between the 944 Lux (£22,863.53) and the superb 944 turbo (£34,168.22). It is particularly important in that it is equipped with a new version of the 2.5-litre counter-balanced four-cylinder engine, now producing 190 bhp with a four-valve head which owes its parentage to the new V8 engine in the Series 4 928. A twin layout is employed with the exhaust camshaft driven by a toothed belt from the front of the crankshaft, while the intake camshaft is driven from a hydraulically-tensioned central chain.

Subtle chassis improvements include a rear brake pressure-limiting valve as standard equipment, and the option of ABS anti-lock braking. The front suspension now has negative scrub radius geometry, but the overall chassis specification remains unchanged, with MacPherson struts and coil springs at the front, semi-trailing arms and transverse-mounted torsion bar set-up at the rear. Power is still transmitted via a sturdy five-speed gearbox in unit with the differential, one of the major factors which has always contributed to the superb inherent chassis balance of the front-engined Porsche range.

Although the latest engine produces 27 bhp more than the two-valves-per-cylinder version, the 944S is fractionally slower all the way up the range to around 100mph. From that point onwards it out-performs the 944 Lux appreciably, up to a point above 130 mph, although the Porsche estimated” top speed of 137 mph seems to be achieved only in the most favourable of conditions.

Objective assessments are a crucially important facet of any road test appraisal, you bang down bland performance statistics on paper you may end up viewing the 944S in a somewhat cautious light. Recent price hikes make it look extremely expensive when lined up alongside some of its well-publicised rivals.

It is comparable with the four-door Mercedes-Benz 190 2.3/16 for performance and price, but when you take into account the turbo brigade — Renault’s GTA turbo (see elsewhere in this issue) or the bargain basement-priced Sierra Cosworth (which, let it be said, may not look quite so bargain basement when the next production batch appears!), you might begin to question whether the 944S is worth the money.

However, the 944S exists in an area of the market where subjective purchasing decisions play a crucial role. Truth be told – and here I’m harping back to ground covered in the Mercedes 560SEC test in last month’s issue — many people who are considering one of the 944 range would probably drop dead rather than be seen in a Sierra Cosworth, excellent machine though the Ford undoubtedly is. Sown can detach ourselves from objective comparisons and concentrate on reminding ourselves of the inherent appeal of the 944 range.

In terms of refinement, the new 16-valve Porsche engine is in a class of its own, surpassing even its immediate counterpart in the 944 Lux. From just under 4000 rpm right round to the point where the acceleration begins to fade as the electronic cut-out does its work at 6800 rpm, the Porsche four delivers an unimpaired surge of power. In fourth gear it sprints from 80 to 100 mph in 8.5 sec, and feels as though it could go on forever.

True, there is a certain softness of response lower down the performance range, but when combined with the magnificent gearchange, the reliable and progressive clutch action, and sensitive and responsive steering, it is a sheer delight when out Motoring with a capital ‘M’.

Our time with the car involved a considerable amount of journeying on rural roads, the surface of which could benefit from a lot of resurfacing. The 944S hardly glides over the bumps and ripples, having a typically Germanic firm well-damped ride, but the combination of its excellent chassis and a set of low-profile Continental radials on smart cast aluminium rims produces quite superb traction and directional stability.

Inside the cockpit, one is always overwhelmingly aware of its unobtrusive high quality. The relationship between the seating position and steering wheel is fine, much improved from the irritatingly low wheel position on the pre-1984 944s. The firm seats are well designed, although slightly more lumbar support might be preferred, and they can be occupied for 300 miles without inducing any discomfort at all. Above all else, there is that splendid feeling that the whole package has been put together by people who understand cars and want to do their job properly. In short, the sort of people who once came up with the 911 design.

Wind noise is well suppressed, the sealing round the doors precluding any irritating roars, whistles or draughts. All the ancillary controls exude a similarly high-quality feel, and fall to hand with ergonomic ease. In terms of fuel economy, the latest Bosch Motronic injection/engine management system features a trio of knock sensors, which allows the unit to perform to its optimum close to the knock limit, while protecting the engine should it be necessary to use ostensibly unsuitable low-octane fuel. The 944S averaged 23.8 mpg during its time in our hands, very little of which involved sustained high-speed cruising on trunk roads.

You can hold your breath as you run through the expensive list of factory-fitted options to boost your 944S price tag beyond the £30,000 mark. These include the ABS system, limited slip differential, leather seats and an electric tilting sunroof, to add to standard equipment which encompasses power steering, rear wash-wipe, central locking, two electrically adjustable door mirrors, tinted glass and a top quality stereo.

It is easy to say that the 944 Lux represents better value for money, but that it is hardly a criticism of the new S. Perhaps in ‘fine tuning’ the specification of its range, the German company should consider fine tuning its price structure as well. The critics are right. Objectively, the 944S is a fine car, but its biggest competitor comes from within Porsche’s own ranks. I wonder why this has been allowed to happen? AH