The car we’ll have a look at this week can very truthfully be described as a well-designed, well-built, practicle and perfectly balanced transaxle coupé with a real Porsche engine. Or, as is far more common, looked down upon as a Porsche-badged Audi. You’ve guessed it, this week we’ll look at the Porsche 944 in its different iterations, a car that is far better than generally believed, and in my view one of the few remaining bargains in the Porsche line-up!
The year is 1981, Ronald Reagan is the new US president, pope John Paul II gets shot (but luckily not killed) and Kim Carnes tops the charts with “Bette Davis Eyes”. The Porsche 924, the car that was indeed more of an Audi, had already been produced five years by then, and interestingly, was originally not intended to be a Porsche at all, but rather a Volkswagen. Had Porsche not picked up the project when Volkswagen decided to abandon it in the early 70’s, the 944 may never have existed (and, Volkswagen could potentially have had a far cooler image than it does today, had it not abandoned it!). As known though, when VW pulled the plug, Porsche picked up what was to become the 924 and thereby inherited quite a few parts along with it, notably the Audi engine with a power output of only 125 hp in the base version. Both the origin of the engine and its lack of power were always the weakest points of the 924. So in 1981, when Porsche decided it was time to launch the beefed-up 944, the first priority was more power. The six-cylinder from the 911 was not an option, notably since there were rumours at the time that rear-mounted engines would be banned in the US, and the only other engine Porsche had in stock was the newly developed, aluminium V8 in the 928. Cutting the V8 in half became the solution, and resulted in the original 2.5 litre four-cylinder of the 944, in its first version developing 163 hp (in Europe, 20 hp less in the US). Better, although still not shooting the lights out.
Apart from the engine which we’ll come back to in a minute and which except for the power output had a lot going for it, the rest of the 944 did and still does so as well. Firstly it looks good, in a nice 80’s way. At the basis it’s obviously the same body as the 924, but the more muscular, wider rear part makes a big difference and makes the 944 look like a real sports car. It’s also quite a practical car, with back seats (that can be folded) offering reasonable comfort for children, and quite a large luggage space under the glass lid. Secondly, the transaxle construction witth the new engine in front and the gearbox in the back gave the car a near perfect weight distribution of 49/51, making it very well-balanced. The advantage of the aerodyamic shape was also to give the 944 a very respectable top speed of far more than the 210 km/h Porsche had officially quoted. Thirdly, after the face lift in 1985 it also offered a nice interior, far better than the one of the first years that had been identical to the 924, and also far nicer and more modern than the 911’s (911 Carrera or 964) of the time.
Until 1985 there was only one version of the 944, but in 1986 the Turbo was added, producing no less than 220 hp and thereby putting it in a different league to the base model and improving the 0-100 km/h time by all of three seconds, to 5.9 seconds. The Turbo had various other improvements to it as well, notably larger breaks. A year later, the even stronger Turbo S (a name that is obviously still around today for Porsche’s strongest versions) took that up to 250 hp, making it the strongest four-cylinder engine in the world at the time. During the last three years of production until 1991, the S-engine then became the standard engine in the Turbo. There were however also improvements made to the naturally aspirated engine, through the “S” version in 1987 that thanks notably to 16 valves took the power to 187 hp, and then the “S2” in 1989, increasing that further to 208 hp, by now with an increased engine volume of 3 litres. All these engines were also available in the convertible version of the 944, that in my taste however loses a lot of the nice lines of the coupé, with a strange convertible top and through that also a strange looking boot.
It’s a couple of years since I last drove a 944 in the 187 hp S version, but interestingly I remember doing so in the same week as driving a 964. No doubt the latter conveyed more of the “true” Porsche feeling, largely also thanks to the engine which is far stronger at lower revs than the 16v four-pot in the 944 S, which needs a bit of revs to reveal its best side. When you do rev it, it does however turn out to be a very nice companion that in no way feels short on power. The 944 also left a very positive general impression in everything from the steering over the surprisingly precise gearshift to the nice cabin, which as mentioned feels quite modern, especially compared to the 964. I actually struggle to remember a single car from the 80’s that presents a better total package for the money in question if its a true sports car feel you’re after. There are clearly atlernatives, some of which we’ve explored here such as the BMW 635i (see here) or the Jaguar XJ-S (see here), but those convey more of a GT than a true sports car feel.
EUR 25-30.000 buys you a nice, late 944 in the S or S2 version, which would be the ones I would for. The first 163 hp version is a bit too weak, and the Turbo is on one hand at least EUR 10.000 more expensive and also more prone to problems. Potential issues are less costly than with a 911 but owner and maintenance history are nevertheless critical. The precise feel in both steering and gearshift that I mention above is a notable sign of a well maintained car, but also something that can vary a lot. Equipment-wise there wasn’t much to be had in the 80’s, but a well-maintained leather interior is nicer than the textile one, and the sunroof is indeed quite special, as it can be tilted but also fully removed in a slightly complicated procedure – nice as long as it works!
If your set on a Porsche but don’t think it necessarily needs to have six cylinders in the back and your budget is around EUR 30.000, options are still few and far between. I’ve mentioned the 911 Carrera (G) and 964 here, which in a comparable condition cost two to three times as much as a 944. You could obviously also go for not only half but all of the engine, i.e. the V8 928, but that will also set you back at least EUR 10-15.000 more. It will also mean losing a bit of the sports car feel and vastly higher maintenance costs (as the 911’s will as well). That leaves the more modern 996, which is comparable in price and equally underrated. I can’t believe it’s almost to the day six years since I wrote about it, in a post you’ll find here. Compared to six years ago the 996 is still a bargain (albeit slightly less so) and the better car, but also one you see if not on every, then at least on many corners. If you buy the right car you can’t really go wrong with either one of them leaving it down to personal preferences. What is clear however is that the 944 is a true Porsche and we should be thankful to its “Audi” cousin 924, without which it would probably never have existed at all!