Manna from Stuttgart

Porsche 968 sales are up. On this evidence, it's not hard to see why the model has recovered from its 1992 doldrums

From small acorns, so the saying goes, do oak trees grow. Perhaps total sales of around 500 units per annum is more of a potted plant than an oak tree in this context, but Porsche is rightly encouraged by the dramatically improved sales performance of its 968. In 1992's depressed market, after all, when 'luxury' cars were selling as fast as Faberge eggs, only 150 or so found buyers.

The apparently immortal 911 might still be Porsche's strongest asset in the showroom, but the 968 at least now holds its own, and Porsche GB will admit that it was pleasantly surprised by last year's results, which show that the UK is actually one of the most buoyant markets for the model. The introduction of the minimalist Club Sport (at £29,975) may have aided the 968's recovery, but it seems that there are some Porsche customers who simply can't live without certain common-or-garden modern-day comforts.

Hence, for the benefit of those aghast at the concept of manually-operated windows, there is now the 968 Sport. Since its introduction in January, this £32,995 coupe has just outsold the Club Sport, although the two of them are proving to be comfortably more popular than the 'standard' lie most opulent) 968 (£37,495) and its cabriolet sibling (£40,695). Visible differences between the 968S and the CS are nil, save for the absence of colour coordinated wheels on the former. The adornments are mainly time-saving: electric windows, mirrors and tailgate release, plus central locking.

The only other differences are the inclusion of vestigial rear seats, an electric sunroof and an alarm system. (Although the roof only rises by an inch or two, it does allow you to increase headroom if you try to cram an adult in the rear. This is presumably more accident than design, but it's handy nonetheless.) It is perhaps hard to believe that the car-buying public can be so fastidious as to be swayed by such trifles.

To my mind, the well-developed, three-litre, four-cylinder engine and a taut, lively chassis are of somewhat greater import than whether the thing has electric windows, but Porsche insists that the 9685 has been added to the range to satisfy customer demand, and the aforementioned rate of sales suggests that they have probably now found the right balance between pace and comfort. Opt for one of these rather than a CS, and it will cost you £3020 and 30kg...

In the past, I have to admit that I found the 968's fore-runner, the 944, a touch characterless. In its turbocharged guise, it was fast, certainly, and efficient in the extreme, but its potency was offset by a degree of blandness. Early experience of the 968 cabriolet left much the same impression (MOTOR SPORT, March 1993): superlative engineering without soul.

But... Like the CS, the 9685 redresses all that. This is a chassis with real communication skills: a PR officer in a Porsche suit. The suspension is firmer than that on the 968 ordinaire and the S sits a little lower. It has been uprated without diminishing ride comfort (eastways, not seriously), and there is the option of what Porsche calls a 'sport chassis', featuring further uprated springs and dampers and larger ventilated discs. Available for both S and CS models, it costs £1525, but we haven't had an opportunity to evaluate it. (It's one of only two listed options; the other is an air bag.) Besides, the 9685 should be plenty crisp enough for most tastes as it is.

It is supremely well balanced, no matter what the conditions. Turn in is precise, and although it is easy to unsettle the tail with brutal use of the throttle in the wet, it is surprising just how hard you can push before the rear tyres do anything other than stick and go.

It's flexible, too. The six-speed gearbox (with firm, positive change) facilitates access to 225 lb ft of torque (delivered at 4100 rpm), and there is plenty of zest from tickover upwards. If you really want to attack a tight corner, second might be the optimum choice; if you are in a less feisty mood, third or even fourth will probably do. The 9685 picks up strongly, without complaint. For a four-cylinder, it is incredibly smooth, a process aided by Porsche's now-familiar counter-rotating balancer shafts. and even taking its 2990 cc capacity into account, its yield of 240 bhp (at 6200 rpm) Is impressive.

Curiously, Porsche quotes the same performance data for all 968s: a top speed of 157 mph and the ability to reach 60 mph From rest in a touch over six seconds. Any fractional accelerative advantages that the Sport models might possess are irrelevant in the real world.

The nimble chassis and willing engine are not: that is the point. Driver satisfaction is further enhanced by communicative steering. Some wheel rims just feel so 'right', and this is one such. The fact that it is such a mine of information on the move is a bonus.

Brakes ventilated discs are fitted all round are powerful and fade-free. And the ABS? You wouldn't know it was there.

So, it's a pretty well perfect car then? Dynamically, certainly, there is little to fault. Ergonomically. Porsche has often been a shade off-beam. Although instrumentation is a model of organisation and clarity, the switchgear has been scattered liberally around the cabin: the major controls are within operating distance, if erratically sited, but the hazard lights, for instance, are within safe reach only of the front-seat passenger. The clock, too, is positioned at such an angle as to be barely readable from the driving seat. Also, we wouldn't expect any car to have the sticking seat-belt reel that we encountered, be it a Kia Pride or a Bentley Continental.

The driving position itself is comfortable, although it's easy to bang one's left leg on the transmission tunnel, and the seats are more supportive than they look. Quite what the point of the rear seats is remains a mystery. No adult would tolerate a long trip in the back, and there is insufficient platform even to hold a child's seat securely. The best thing you can do is to fold them forward to increase carrying capacity.

But forget practicalities. That's not what you buy a Porsche for. Any Porsche. Personally, I think it would be best if they abandoned any pretence that this was a two-plus-two. To all intents and purposes, it isn't.

It has, however, a presence borne of an attractive profile (a tasty development of the departed 944, with a few elements of the 928 thrown in) and that simply fabulous chassis. The electric blue pain twork of the test car was less convincing: as one observer aptly put it, it suggested that the owner had pots of money, but absolutely no taste...

Verdict

In fact, it is only Porsche's perceived image which might fool the unwary into thinking that a 968S owner was stacked with cash. Sure, in the overall scheme of things it may be way beyond the means of most, but compare like with like and its sub-£33.000 price tag appears positively reasonable.

The Nissan 300ZX, soon to be withdrawn from the UK market, is a little more expensive. Mitsubishi's 3000GT and Honda's NSX are way more costly. True, they aren't quite fishing for the same clients, but if it's heritage you're after, where do you shop? (Further food for thought: the Club Sport is roughly the same price as a Marcos Mantara and cheaper than a Subaru SVX.) In that light, the 968S is an even more reasonable package. It may lack the outright telepathy of a 911, but it really doesn't fall a long way short. And it is cheaper by the not inconsiderable margin of £21,000.

On this evidence, It's no surprise that the 968 should have recovered so strongly from the harrowing events of two years ago. It's a triumph for niche marketing, and for an engineering policy which assumes that homo sapiens Is still a responsible species. No frills. No unnecessary electronic gizmos. lust straightforward driving pleasure. Amen for that. -- S A