Balancing act

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Ask and ye shall receive, they say; and if it is Porsche who is listening, the chances are that ye shall receive it pretty smartly. The Stuttgart company’s cycle of model improvement is so rapid and so thorough that it borders on the obsessive. Partly this is the evidence of the weight the engineers carry at Weissach — the compulsion to improve whichever element is seen as the weak point of a model — and partly it reflects the hard work of selling even a Porsche, that most desirable of car symbols.

For although the basic material in all three of the current lines, four, six and eight-cylinder cars, has served a healthy length of time, Porsche strategy requires that none of them should be seen to stand still. Progress for the marque and upgrading temptations for the loyal customers are the aims. Almost alone amongst manufacturers, Porsche has a facility for repeatedly updating its styling in a way which is both cost-effective and aesthetically successful, and clearly distinguishes senior from junior models. Both 928S4 and Careers 4 and 2 models are recognisably different from their predecessors without actually looking like new cars. Similarly, the 944S2 tested here is the third generation shape to derive from the 924, and it brings to the middle 944 the bluff nose and under-tail venturi previously reserved for the Turbo. For the next set of revisions we can expect to see the bottom 944 get these clothes too, with something new for the Turbo.

Meanwhile the capacities seem to have become oddly tangled: the base 944 has jumped 200cc to 2.7-litres, the top-range Turbo has the smallest engine at 2500cc, and middle S2 not only has the biggest lump amongst four-cylinder Porsches, but at 2990cc is the largest four you can buy. 750cc per pot sounds almost Edwardian in scale, and might feel it too were it not for the balancer system which whirls twin shafts round at twice engine speed, in opposite directions and at different heights on the block, cancelling out much of the vibration.

This gives the huge unit, canted at 30″ in the engine bay, the sort of smoothness you would expect from a six for most of the time, while preserving the compactness of the shorter layout and the higher efficiency which results from reduced frictional losses. Both 8-valve and Turbo engines stick to single belt-driven cams, but the 16-valve unit adds a second camshaft driven from the first by a short chain to open the valves in the hemispherical head. The spark plugs are central in the classic manner.

Those details are as on the previous 2.5-litre 9440; the extra capacity is derived from MO changes. First, the bores, and indeed the block, are those of the larger 2.7-litre 8-valve car, but a new long-throw crank adds the extra 309cc which boost it to 2990cc. A modified intake manifold, a separate oil cooler (it is integral with the filter in the plain 944) and some reprogramming of the Bosch L-Jetronic injection system and its associated Digital Motor Electronics complete the changes. Power jumps from 190 to 211 bhp at 5800 rpm, but as expected, given some disappointment with the torque spread of the earlier car, it is the latter factor which really surges up — by 22% to 206.8 lb ft at a middling 4000 rpm.

Previously the 16-valve car needed to be kept revving to experience its best — fun when circumstances vvere right, but a bore no traffic jam at the end of a long hard Journey. Not a characteristic typical of or appropriate for today’s Porsches. Now, with the capacity jumping by as much as a big motorcycle and the car screwed up another notch to 10.9:1, the bland sound of the heavily silenced motor as it oozes away from 2000 rpm gives no clue to the relaxed but relentless pulling power which expands seamlessly to the 4000 rpm peak. From this point the easy “revviness” of the lightweight cam system dominates, and the needle swishes to the 6400 rpm cut-out without any castrate of the acceleration falling off.

If you are lulled into triggering it, the rev limiter is of the “soft” variety, keeping the engine running at the red line instead of killing it for a second or two as more basic mechanical ones do. If you stop just short of the red line, you can his 60 mph in a fraction over six seconds, and if you take it that far in all five gears you should level out at an absurd but exhilarating 144 mph. This power unit is extremely good, but not flawless: under full throttle conditions it passes through a period around 4500 rpm where it becomes, if not harsh, then at least hard. It’s more surprising than annoying. But there is little risk of being caught off-cam with this fluid and willing engine: keep the needle above two grand and there is always a ready response. Use the precise movements of the stubby leather-bound gearlever to choose between well-sorted ratios foes reaction which will be gentle in fourth, urgent in third and dramatic in second. You can readily miss out alternate gears furs relaxed 1-3-5 progression, or heel and toe down through every ratio for the sheer pleasure of watching the inch needle dart up and down the dial.

Driving any 944 highlights two peculiarities about the generally fine relationship of major controls: the wheel appears to point outwards slightly, and it has been flattened off at the bottom as if for extra thigh clearance, even though it is actually set rather high. This eccentricity will catch out the lazy driver who lets the wheel spin through his hands.

Such laxity has no excuse, as the rack and pinion steering has a pleasantly fast ratio. Load-sensitive assistance keeps itself discreetly absent for small light wheel movements, fading in smoothly as the loads increase to keep a consistent weight in the system. With negative roll radius geometry in the wishbone-located strut, castor angle is high to add feel, but external intrusions are so well filtered that the effect is of an uncannily realistic simulator, free of realworld roughness. Admirable in all respects. To match the extra wallop, now only 9 bhp short of the original 944 Turbo, itself now supplanted by the 250 bhp Turbo SE engine, the 02 gets most of the Turbo chassis mods: four-piston calipers to go with its massive ventilated discs, a tougher gearbox and half-shafts, different anti-roll bars, and wider 16in diameter wheels of seven and eight inches.

It does not get the stiffer Turbo springs, though the matching shock absorbers are available as a £266 option. However, the ride is hard enough on London’s scarred roads. On Z-rated Dunlop D40 rubber of 205/55 and 225/55 width, the grip is very confident, allied to balance which, thanks to the transaxle layout, not only postpones any breakaway well beyond expectation, but renders the proverbial limit something to approach on the test track with a smile rather than with nerves. It announces in capital letters what it is about to do, and offers you every chance to back out, but if you force it it will finally begin to slide the rear wheels. A moment of crossed hands and then all is square again; but that excitement is a long way off on the highway. Instead you can revel in the tautness and accuracy of the chassis, and muse on the fact that it is done with unpromising-sounding rear semi-trailing arms and transverse torsion bars.

Current Turbo owners may be peeved to find that their exclusive £40,000 motor car now looks no different to the 944S2 at some £8000 less, apart from one small badge in the shadow of the rubber spoiler lip on the rear “glassback”. In gaining the elegant and smooth low-drag nose, underbody panel and undertail spoiler, the S2 sheds two drag factor points, coming down to 0.33 despite its wider tyres. Even the airflow through the engine compartment is now regulated by a three-speed fan system.

Extra equipment added to the standard list for British market cars includes ABS braking, making the belt-stretching stopping power almost foolproof, plus automatic climate control, full electric adjustment for both seats, and an integral ultrasonic alarm system which is switched on with the electric door locks. This gives warning to would-be interferers by flashing a red light in the top of the door lock button, which you can’t miss as you bend over the door handle. Also aimed at deterring trouble is the absence of an external radio aerial, but the thin wire sandwiched into the front screen seems an inadequate substitute, as reception on the Panasonic radio-cassette is erratic.

Few other noises are likely to interrupt The Archers, though; mechanical noise is well-contained if not particularly hushed, only the big tyres booming when they plunge into gas-main trenches filled on the currently popular bas-relief principle. It is odd to be able to reconcile the sensational performance of a car like the 944S2 with its everyday placidity, but if you can live with the shallow boot, restricted ventilation and that awful handbrake position, and have mastered the hit-and-miss switch layout across the striking dash, then (assuming your company is paying up to purchase price), you will be hard put to it to find any imbalance, let alone weakness, in its spread of ability. Unless, that is, yea have a passion for cars and expect some of that to be returned; somehow the four’ cylinder Porsches are so universally competent that it’s almost disappointing. Like the school swot who excels in all fields, one can’t help wishing for a crack in the facade just to prove that the machine is, so to speak, human. GC

Model: 944S2

Maker: Porsche AG, Stuttgart. Importer: Porsche Cars Great Britain, Reading, Berks.

Type: 2+ 2 sports coupe.

Engine: front-mounted all-alloy dohc 4-in-line, 2990cc (104 x 88mm), 4 valves per cyl, hydraulic tappets, 10.9:1 cr, two balance shafts. Bosch LJetronic fuel injection. DME ignition system with knock control. Power: 211 bhp at 5800 rpm. Torque: 206.8 lb ft at 4000 rpm.

Transmission: five-speed rear transaxle, torque tube to engine and single dry-plate clutch.

Suspension: (Front): spring/damper struts with alloy lower wishbones, antiroll bar. (Rear): alloy semi-trailing arms, transverse torsion bars, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar.

Steering: rack and pinion, load-sensitive power assistance.

Brakes: (Front and Rear): servo-assisted, ventilated discs, four-piston calipers.

Wheels and tyres: (Front): 205/55 ZR16 on 72 alloy rims. (Rear): 225/50 ZR16 on 82 alloy rims.

Performance: 0-60 mph: 6.3 sec: 30-50 mph: 6.1 sec: 50-70 mph: 6.3 sec; 70-90 mph: 6.2 sec. Max speed: 144 mph.

Price: £31,304. As tested with sunroof, £32,334.

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