New cars

Another World

In a world ruled by stylists and accountants, no motor manufacturer could possibly hope to wring a quarter of a century out of a design, no matter how good it was. Fortunately there is another world which is ruled by engineers and enthusiasts, for whom time has less meaning, and Porsche's 911 model is at its centre. Hardly a year has gone by without some significant improvements being carried out, and at the start of its next 25-year life (as chairman Heinz Branitzki says with only a hint of a twinkle) the Zuffenhausen company has prepared what is virtually a new model, 85% new anyway, with an entirely new chassis, four-wheel drive, ABS braking, a worthy heating/ventilation system, and a 3.6-litre air-cooled engine developing 250 horsepower.

The 911 Carrera 4 is an addition to the range, while in the "more affordable" department the four-cylinder 944 models have been revised with bigger, more powerful engines which will increase their appeal quite considerably, carrying them well clear of such newcomers as the VW Corrado which intrudes in territory once occupied by the 924.

944: an evolution

Porsche's responce to recent setbacks in the four-cylinder market has now been given: the 924 has been axed, and so too has the 2.5-litre base model 944. Instead the Zuffenhausen manufacturer will concentrate on higher-performance 944 models at higher prices, but produced in lower volumes.

The 944 range now consists of three basic models, the standard 2.7-litre model rated at 165 bhp, the 16-valve 944S2 which is now enlarged to 2990cc and develops 211 bhp, and the 944 Turbo which stays at 2479cc but has the Turbo Cup racer's specification and develops 250 bhp. Maximum speeds range from 137 mph for the base model to 161mph for the Turbo. In Britain the price-scale ranges from £25,990 to £39,893 for the Turbo, with the 3-litre S2 model costing around £32,000 when it arrives in the new year.

Both the 2.7 and the 3.0-litre models have a new bore dimension of 104mm, compared with 100mm for the Turbo, and this has involved the complete redesign of the aluminium crankcase which is stiffer and lighter. The cylinder-liners have been siamesed, and the water-jackets raised in height, enabling the designers to reduce the wall thickness and cut the weight by 9.9 lb, also reducing the volume of coolant in the block by one-third, to just one litre. All four-cylinder models have ABS braking as standard equipment.

The Cabriolet version of the 3-litre S2 will go on sale early in 1989, and will be available in Britain although the principal market will be California, and in time for the 1991 model-Year production of the four-cylinder models will be transferred from Audi's Neckarsulm Plant to Porsche's new Works V factory at Zuffenhausen. "It's the last of the biggies" said Peter W Schutz before he departed prematurely last December, the last of the major investments made possible by exceptional profits in the mid-Eighties trading period.

The credibility gap will be closed, but as ever the four-cylinder models will have to perform well to hold attention in their niche. The 911s offer raw hunks of power, pushed through the bars, where the 944s dish it up with waiter-service at a pink linen-clad table.

Following the natural order of things, I first drove a 944 automatic, and soon wished I could be better impressed. The 2.7-litre engine with its twin counterbalancer shafts is of course extremely smooth, easily comparable with a "six", but somehow not all the power seemed to be getting through the three-speed Audi box and its torque converter, so the 944 gathered speed rapidly, rather than accelerating strongly.

Revised suspension settings made the '89 model markedly more comfortable than before, the much-discussed "bump-thump" being absent. There is to be more suspension travel (it is quieter too) but the base model seems to tramline, and follow cambers, more than the sportier versions. The auto badly needed a four-speed transmission which is still a couple of years away, but it is a fact of life that people who buy the auto version do not desire more performance anyway.

The general characteristics were confirmed in the 2.7-litre manual, which again had a relatively soft ride and gentle manners, reminiscent perhaps of the 356 "Dame" model which was introduced in 1952 to appeal to "tourists" rather than "sportsmen". Acceleration was certainly better, but at the expense of greater engine-noise at higher revs.

We were driving in the carefree way that German roads encourage. A section of autobahn was included for the simple purpose of checking the top speed indicated, and gentle and tight curves were there only for evaluating the handling. Back home we probably wouldn't often drive like that and would undoubtedly find the 2.7-litre 944 a fine companion. So, too, will be the S2 Cabriolet, though Porsche didn't produce one for evaluation.

Suspecting that the 3-litre might be the nicest of the trio, and best left until last , I went straight to the 250 bhp Turbo, a real powerhouse. The suspension is lowered and stiffened, it has low-profile tyres on 7J and 9J x 16 forged alloy wheels, massive brakes from the 928S4 model and a limited-slip differential. This may sound like the recipe for a hard-riding road-racer, but the 944 Turbo turns out to be nothing of the sort.

Admittedly acceleration is wooden in high gears, with little response for instance at 80 mph in fifth, but drop down a gear (or two) and the rate of acceleration becomes truly impressive, the sort that pins your passenger helplessly in the seat alongside. A time of 5.7 seconds for the sprint to 60mph is impressive by any standards, and in normal road conditions the 944 Turbo may never be far behind the legendary 911 Turbo.

As well as the larger bore the unblown 944S2 also has a new forged crankshaft with an 88mm throw which raises the capacity to 2990cc. The original 2.5-litre 944S never realised Porsche's expectations because it offered no appreciable gains in performance below 4000 rpm, within the realms of speed-limits worldwide in other words. The addition of 500cc has changed a great deal now, because although the performance steps up at 4000 rpm there is a substantial amount of torque to be had from 2000 rpm upwards. As well as that the throttle-response is snappier.

Three litres is probably as far as Porsche can go with the four-cylinder engine, despite the twin balancer shafts, for you can almost feel the individual piston strokes as they merge into a 6000 rpm symphony. The S2 rides on the previous Turbo model's suspension (and has its uprated brake system — a happy combination), and is likely to become a much sought-after version. AMC