Think of box-flared German sports coupes from the 1980s, and BMW’s E30-series M3 is probably the first car to pop into your head. But don’t do yourself a disservice and forget about Porsche’s 944. Sure, the 944 has long been the target of “poor man’s Porsche” comments and yuppie jokes, but as it transitions from being “just a used car” to a classic car, it is worth taking a second look at a model that once signaled Porsche’s future.
When the 944 launched for the 1983 model year, Porsche hoped it would mark a change in tides for its entry-level-priced car. The 924 that preceded it was mired in cries of “not a real Porsche” on account of its front-engine, water-cooled configuration, and tepid performance from its Audi-derived 2.0-liter inline-four. And that’s to say nothing of the 924’s meek, egg-shaped styling.
Porsche considered using a six-cylinder engine for the 944 but ruled it out quickly, believing the necessary cost and development time wouldn’t result in any significant advantage over a well-designed four-cylinder — if anything, a six-cylinder would be heavier. In the end, Porsche essentially chopped off half of the SOHC V-8 from the flagship 928 model, creating an eight-valve, 2.5-liter inline-four making 143 horsepower. Without the opposing bank of cylinders to balance out vibration, Porsche licensed belt-driven balance-shaft technology from Mitsubishi, which results in near-six-cylinder smoothness. A five-speed transaxle is hung out back, giving the car even weight distribution for excellent handling.
Porsche also toughened up the styling, adding dramatic box flares at the front and rear wheel arches, inspired by the 924 GTR race cars that ran at Le Mans. The flares were more than just eye-pleasing, as they allowed Porsche to run wider wheels and tires on later, more powerful 944 variants.
Indeed, the 944 evolved over time, dropping its dated 924-style interior halfway through 1985 for a sleeker dashboard and center console. A 944 Turbo with bigger Brembo brakes and a better-integrated front bumper came in 1986 with 217 hp. By 1987, Porsche introduced the 944 S with the same 2.5-liter, naturally aspirated engine as the standard 944, but a new 16-valve, DOHC cylinder head bumped output to 190 hp. Yet the ultimate naturally aspirated 944 is the 944 S2, which arrived for the 1989 model year. With a redesigned engine block, the S2’s engine capacity rose to 3.0 liters, making it the largest four-cylinder engine in production at the time. It retained the 16-valve cylinder head, and the car also got the Turbo’s Brembos, integrated nose, larger anti-roll bars, 16-inch wheels, and stronger five-speed gearbox. Output increased to 208 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque — almost the equivalent of early Turbo models but without the low-end lag inherent to those cars.
A period AUTOMOBILE road test drove the whole crop of 1989 944 models and declared the S2 the best choice for U.S. buyers, summing up with, “And so it is that the 944 S2 is now the better choice for American roads, horsepower figures be damned. The S2 revs more quickly than any Porsche this side of a 928, producing instant power off the line—unlike the Turbo—and demands fewer around-town downshifts in the bargain.” In the end, the S2 was the only version sold in North America during the last two years of production in 1991 and 1992. Nearly 20,000 total 944 S2 models were built in both coupe and cabriolet form (several thousand fewer than Turbo models), but fewer than 7,000 found their way to the U.S., making them among the rarest 944 variants to find today.
This 944 S2 came to me with 125,000 miles on the odometer and a cracked cylinder head. I sourced a replacement head, along with typical preventative maintenance. (The 944 needs new timing and balance belts, tensioner, and pulleys every 30,000 miles.) After writing a few checks, the car ran perfectly. Next, I splurged on new Koni shocks installed by AU Tuning, in Huntington Beach, California, new braided stainless fuel lines from 944 expert Lindsey Racing, new Porsche-rated Michelin Pilots, and a fresh set of performance brake pads and slotted rotors. The result is a car that lives up to the hype it was given in-period for its torquey engine and excellent handling. The spacious hatchback body style almost demands road tripping, and the car has effortlessly handled 1,000-mile journeys between Los Angeles and Monterey, California, and Scottsdale, Arizona. At freeway speeds, the 944 is quiet and comfortable and feels much more modern than its model year suggests, passing slower freeway traffic without breaking a sweat.
Classic Porsche prices may seem out of hand these days, but while 944 values have risen (especially for S2 and later turbos), it’s still among the most affordable Porsche models today, with pricing that now overlaps the first-generation Boxster, another so-called “poor man’s Porsche.” But that’s a Collectible Classic for another time.
|Engine||3.0L DOHC I-4/208 hp @ 5,800 rpm, 207 lb-ft @ 4,100 rpm|
|Front Suspension||Struts, coil springs|
|Rear Suspension||Trailing arms, torsion bars|
*Hagerty insurance average value (www.hagerty.com)
The 944’s charms are once again apparent. From the excellent weight distribution, which earned it handling accolades when new, to the nostalgic traits of German build quality—evident even in the soft click when you close a door—that simply aren’t found in newer Porsches, the 944 is a reminder of a special period in Porsche’s history. Add to that 2+2 practicality and a spacious rear hatch, and the 944 is a classic you can use daily.