March 2009

















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Full frontal

Born of the 924, Porsche’s front-engined, four-cylinder range lasted for

nearly 20 years, and developed into some of the best-handling cars Porsche

ever built. We pitch the highlights together in a full-frontal shoot-out

Words: Steve Bennett Photography: Antony Fraser





Mid December on the North York

Moors, and it’s damp, misty and cold.

Rivers of water criss-cross the road,

and sheep and the odd hardy walker

roam the bleakness. It’s not really a day for

pushing any sort of car hard, let alone a Porsche

but, at this particular moment, it strikes me that

the 18-year-old 944S2 that I happen to be

behind the wheel of is making light work of the

conditions, and I’m happy to go along with it.

It’s a confidence thing.

The front-engined, rear-drive machine is

going with the flow, settling into corners,

finding the grip, working with the contours.

Sudden camber changes don’t phase it,

undulations are absorbed, the pace is fast

but relaxed – as fast, in fact, as the day before

in the bone dry on the very same road, when I

was somewhat nervous and clenched at the

wheel of a Carrera GT.

No, I’m not saying that a humble 944S2 is

some sort of Carrera GT slayer, because that

would be delusional. The GT was a full-on

panoramic-widescreen, surround-sound

experience played out in HD. It was a once in a

lifetime moment to cherish, and I can still conjure

up the full force of the 600-plus bhp V10 and its F1

yowl in a file of grey matter that is unlikely to fade

with the passage of time.

But I was never going to push it hard on the

road. Not me, not you, not even the bloody Stig or

Lewis’s dad, who stuck his through a brick wall.

Supercars and the public road aren’t really

compatible. You can scratch the surface, give

them a bit of a prod but, ultimately, to get

something like a Carrera GT up to the sort of

speed where it will really start to dance on the

road would require the freakish talent of Lewis

himself and, if that were the case, then you

wouldn’t need to get your kicks on Blakey Ridge.

So, back in the real world and a trio of

front-engined 200-plus bhp Porkers that feature

Porsche’s third best road-car chassis set-up (the

first is the Cayman, second is the 997 GT3 RS), it’s

time for somewhat cheaper thrills. Gathered we

have a 944S2, a 944 Turbo and, of course, a 968,

which respectively boast 211bhp, 220bhp and

240bhp. All very modest these days, but each one

will flatter, encourage and draw out every fibre of

talent you’ve got behind the wheel without fear of

I’m not saying that a humble Porsche 944S2

is some sort of Carrera GT slayer,

“because that would be delusional

death, thanks to that revered front-engine,

rear-transaxle set-up.

Born of what many considered to be a

front-engined folly – the 924 – and surprisingly

long-lived as a layout (nearly 20 years), these cars

were rapturously well received in their day, and for

good reason. The 944 gained acceptability and




Porsche 968 1992–1995 (5731 built)

Engine: Four-cylinder, dohc, 3000cc

Max power: 240bhp at 6200rpm

Max torque: 225lbs/ft at 4100rpm

Transmission: Six-speed manual transaxle

Suspension: Front: MacPherson struts, anti-roll

bar. Rear: Transverse torsion bars, anti-roll bar

Steering: Power-assisted rack and pinion

Brakes: Four-pot brake calipers front and rear,

298mm/299mm ventilated discs

Weight: 1370kg

0–60mph: 6.5 secs

Top speed: 157mph

Price when new: £34,000

credibility with its ‘proper’ Porsche engine that

cleverly made use of plenty of 928 bits and bobs

(including the cylinder head) and those counter

rotating balance shafts. In an early ’80s era when

the Capri still used an all-iron pushrod V6, and the

Rover V8 was about as good as it got, the 944’s

all-aluminium construction, steel crank, rods and

forged pistons in Nikasil-coated wet liners, plus

state-of-the-art fuel injection – well, that really

was German engineering at its very best. So what

if it only had a single overhead cam and eight

valves. Typical of Porsche, that was what was

required to meet the objective.

There was, of course, more on the way. Porsche

had run Turbo 924s at Le Mans with modified 944

engines, and it was no secret that the 2.5-litre

engine was more than capable of taking a lot

more power. A road-going 944 Turbo wasn’t a case

of if, but when. The Turbo arrived in 1985 and

immediately became the enemy within. With

220bhp, a top speed of 150mph plus and

0–60mph in a smidge over 6 secs, its performance

was on a par with the Carrera 3.2. At £25,000, its

price was, too. Talk about the old and the new

although, as we know now, the 911 won the day –

but, even so, there were still plenty of folk willing

to pay for what was actually the world’s most

expensive four-cylinder car.

Turbocharging was still comparatively new in

the mid ’80s. But Porsche really went to town on

its installation, particularly in terms of heat

transfer and cooling – heat, of course, being

the enemy of the turbocharger. The exhaust

ports featured ceramic liners and the entire

exhaust system and manifold were made from

heat-resistant steel tubing (just ask any owner of

a mid-’80s Esprit Turbo about cracked cast-iron

exhaust manifolds). An intercooler helped to keep

the charge air dense, and the KKK turbo was

water-cooled with a thermostat that would keep

the water flowing to cool the turbo bearings after

the engine had been shut down.

The engine management was a further

development of the standard car’s Bosch

Motronic system and, while the compression ratio

(8 to 1 against 10.6 to 1) was typically lower than

Despite what Porsche said about the 968 at its

launch, it was really just a cleverly updated 944S2,

with new panels front and rear to give it a more

contemporary Porsche look. The engine, though,

was much developed and incorporated Porsche’s

VarioCam system to develop 240bhp

that of the normally-aspirated 944, it was notably

higher than most contemporary turbo

installations, thanks to the 944’s combustion

chamber design – and explaining a healthy torque

figure of 243lbs/ft at 3500rpm. By comparison,

the Audi Quattro managed 210lbs/ft at 3500rpm

and the Sierra Cosworth 205lbs/ft at 4500rpm.

The 944 Turbo got the full gamut of suspension

changes that would feature on future cars.

Cast-aluminium front wishbones – instead of

steel, uprated springs, dampers and anti-roll bars,

too, plus serious braking from bigger discs and

four-pot alloy calipers.

Oh, and finally, the 944 Turbo got the

smoothed-off front end, flushed windscreen and

the oval dash treatment to bury any lingering

comparison with the 924.



When the 24-valve V8 was developed for the

928, it was no surprise to see the 944 receive

what was essentially the new 928’s top end, or at

least half of it. That was the 944S, with its

190bhp, 2.5-litre 16-valve, which arrived in 1986 to

sit between the standard Lux and the Turbo. It

wasn’t much of a success, and while the heads

might have worked with a capacity of 5 litres, a

singular version didn’t do much with 2.5 litres, the

standard 165bhp 944 Lux generally feeling

quicker on the road thanks to notably better

torque and mid range.

The S withered in the range, to be replaced by

the 944S2, which mixed heavy breathing with a

gruntastic 3-litre bottom end. The S2 delivered

211bhp and 207lbs/ft at 4000rpm compared to

the S’s 170lbs/ft at 4300rpm. That’s the sort of

difference that you can really feel, like the

149mph top speed and 0–60mph dash of 6.9 secs.

The S2 mixed a wider bore with a longer stroke

to achieve its near 3 litres, all within a new, lighter

block thanks to thinner walls and reduced water

jacket capacity around the cylinder liners. Coolant

was directed only where it was needed, a trick

picked up from the Porsche TAG F1 engine project.

A new inlet manifold introduced a ram air effect to

the cylinders, and a new Bosch Motronic M2 engine

management system crunched the numbers.

The end of the line for what was originally

supposed to be a Volkswagen was

“the 968, launched in 1992

Not surprisingly, the S2 got the beefed-up

gearbox and driveshafts from the 944 Turbo, plus

the same brakes and broadly similar suspension

and, of course, the smoother front end. The Turbo,

meanwhile, had gained an extra 30bhp and was

now the 250bhp SE, taking it past the S2 in terms

of performance.

The end of the line for what was originally

supposed to be a Volkswagen was the 968.

Launched in 1992 at a time when Porsche was on

its knees financially, the 968 was heralded as a

new model, but really it was an evolution of the S2

– or even the 924 if you want to trace it back that

far. Clever body modifications gave it a much more

contemporary look, as did the 911-sourced wing

mirrors and door handles, not to mention wheels.

There were also changes under the restyled

bodywork. The engine was significantly changed,

with Porsche’s VarioCam system (featuring

adjustable timing of the inlet camshaft)

broadening the spread of torque and top-end bite,

also helped along by a revised plenum. Power was

up to 240bhp and torque a whopping 225lbs/ft

at 4100rpm, enough to push the 968 to close

on 160mph. Not bad from a normally-aspirated

four-cylinder engine.

It fed its power to a new six-speed transaxle

that was based on the old Audi-designed

five-speed and assembled by Getrag.

Subtle suspension changes were made in

terms of dampers and roll bars and, of course,

there was the Club Sport model that helped

bestow the 968 with the stuff of legend. But that

actually masks the fact that the 968 was a sales

flop, and incoming Wendelin Wiedeking decided to

pull the plug after just 18 months of production –




Porsche 944 Turbo 1986–1988 (17,627 built)

Engine: Four-cylinder, sohc, 2500cc

Max power: 220bhp at 5800rpm

Max torque: 243lbs/ft at 3500rpm

Transmission: Five-speed manual transaxle

Suspension: Front: MacPherson struts, anti-roll

bar. Rear: Transverse torsion bars, anti-roll bar

Steering: Power-assisted rack and pinion

Brakes: Four-pot brake calipers front and rear,

298mm/299mm ventilated discs

Weight: 1280kg

0–60mph: 6.3 secs

Top speed: 152mph

Price when new: £25,000

and the final 968s were sold in 1995, nearly 20

years after the launch of the 924. Not a bad

run, really.

So that’s the development curve, but what are

they like to drive? Which would we take home with

us? Well, starting from the beginning, let’s try the

Turbo first.

This 220bhp version is in time-warp condition,

and whoever ticked the options boxes in 1986

certainly had a bob or two. The Guards Red

paintwork – complete with go-faster turbo script

on the front wing – is period perfect and well

matched by the black and grey interior, which

sports both air con and cruise control. There are

just 80,000 miles on the clock to account for its

23 years on the road.

The mid-’80s turbo generation have a

reputation for all or nothing when it comes to

delivering the power, something we rather nerdily

alluded to by comparison with the Audi Quattro

and Sierra Cosworth’s torque figures. The 944

Turbo is certainly not up with the current turbo

generation, but it beats its contempories hands

down, with power building strongly from 2000rpm.

It doesn’t come in with a thump, though, which

does make it feel perhaps a bit soft to respond to

the throttle, but the reality is it’s all there – and at

its peak of 3500rpm, and right round to 5000-plus

when it starts to tail off, there is boost to spare.

It’s still old school and you can’t absolutely rely on

getting an accurate and measured response with

the turbo working in tandem with the throttle, but

then who doesn’t like the odd surprise every now

and again?

Compared to its sibling rival, the Carrera, the

944 Turbo does feel like it’s from another planet.

It’s difficult to fathom that both cars could even

come from the same manufacturer, so

fundamentally opposed they are. And that

obviously extends to the handling – and, indeed,

nothing quite handles like either of them. The 911

of that era is all tail squat, grip, light nose and

wriggly steering, and the 944 is all about pivot and

balance, thanks to its front-engine and transaxle

layout. In the 944 you really do feel like you’re

sitting in the middle, connected by two equal

weights front and back working together.

Surprisingly, perhaps, this early 944 is softer

than you might think – certainly a lot softer than

the later 250bhp Turbo SE. It sits noticeably higher

than the S2 and the 968. The body doesn’t feel

quite as pinned down and it floats a little over the

The 944 Turbo was one of the fastest cars on the

road in its day, matching the performance figures of

the Carrera 3.2 and its price. Power from the

2.5-litre, 8-valve engine was 220bhp. Later SE

versions would have 250bhp to push performance

beyond the 944S2. Still feels pretty brisk today

bumps, but then these earlier cars had softer

anti-roll bars and weren’t subject to the raft of

suspension tweaks that hit the 944 post 1987

when the arrival of ABS meant different front

suspension geometry and a wider track. Perhaps

that’s why the 944 Turbo doesn’t quite turn in

with the enthusiasm you might expect.

Jumping into the 944S2 is effectively like

jumping five years into the future. It’s a 1991 car

and, again, it’s low mileage and completely

standard – perfect for this sort of comparison.

You can tell it’s a late model, thanks to the

sought-after bridge rear spoiler, which also made

the jump to the 968. The white with blue interior

was inexplicably popular but, aside from the

exterior and interior décor, and the Design 90

alloys as opposed to Teledials, its shape is

identical to the Turbo.

It is, though, a rather different driving

experience. Whereas the Turbo is lethargic to




Porsche 944 S2 1989–1991 (9352 built)

Engine: Four-cylinder, dohc, 3000cc

Max power: 211bhp at 5800rpm

Max torque: 207lbs/ft at 4000rpm

Transmission: Five-speed manual transaxle

Suspension: Front: MacPherson struts, anti-roll

bar. Rear: Transverse torsion bars, anti-roll bar

Steering: Power-assisted rack and pinion

Brakes: Four-pot brake calipers front and rear,

298mm/299mm ventilated discs

Weight: 1310kg

0-60mph: 7.1 secs

Top speed: 149mph

Price when new: £35,000

respond to the throttle, the S2 snaps to it.

Where the turbo smoothes the 8-valve motor, the

16 valves living in the top of the S2 motor fizz and

buzz. Wow, this thing really does feel alive to the

touch. The power spread is more even, too, and

it’s always there bottom, mid and top. Its

willingness to rev is at odds with its big 3-litre,

four-cylinder capacity.

Strangely, the gearshift is snappier, and those

later suspension mods can really be felt in terms

of body roll and control. You can chuck the S2 into

a corner and hold it there and, as it opens out,

tread on the power and really revel in the rear end

squatting down and gripping as the front does a

slight lift in characteristic 944 style. In short, and

surprisingly, the S2 feels more exciting when

pushed hard. It’s the difference between a Mk2

8-valve Golf and a 16-valver. The old 8-valve

always felt superficially quicker but, when it

mattered, those extra valves and the lower, stiffer

suspension always won out.

Move on another couple of years and it’s the

end of the road for the front-engined four-cylinder

concept. The 968, in super subtle metallic grey

with matching grey leather interior, is very much

of its mid-’90s time. Quite who dictated that we

would no longer have primary coloured cars is

unclear, but it seemed to start around this era.

The 968’s makeover didn’t extend to the

interior, which is largely identical to the Turbo and

the S2, save for the overly thick Club Sport wheel

and different door furniture. The controls feel

even more engineered, the clutch on the 968

operating with the sort of linearity that

contemporary Porsche owners would be familiar

with. The gear shift, too, has lost some its

free play, and twangs from gate to gate with a

strangely chunky, rubbery feel.

On the road, the 968 feels more composed

than the 944 S2, but at the expense of the S2’s

verve and excitement. The 968’s engine is so

The power spread is more even, too, and its

willingness to rev is at odds with its

“big 3-litre four-cylinder capacity

strong on torque that frankly it doesn’t really need

a six-speed gearbox. But it’s lumpy with it and,

whereas the S2’s motor spins and sings up the rev

range, the 968 just doesn’t have that 16-valve

sweet spot. It revs, no problem, but it really does

feel like it’s pumping four big pistons, whereas the

S2 doesn’t. There are engine-related bad vibes,

too, which resonate through the body.

There’s no doubting that the 968 is quicker, and

it probably handles marginally better. Certainly,

the balance is superb, but there’s something

missing. This isn’t supposed to happen in such

comparisons but, on this day and on these roads,

944S2 replaced the under-performing 944S.

Attaching the 16-valve head to a 3-litre bottom end

was an inspired move, and it produced an engine

with both torque and high-rev bite. The white

bodywork and blue interior of this immaculate

example are perfect of its time. Still, it’s a great

drive – and they can be a bargain today

I’ve had more fun with the 944S2.

Where does that leave the Turbo? In third place

in this instance. I love its colour and looks and its

pace but, out of the three, it felt softer and less

convincing on the road. That said, I reckon a few

contemporary turbo tweaks would sharpen up the

throttle response, which would bring it into play.

Likewise, suspension from a later Turbo SE would

be simple enough to retro fit – and there’s always

the M030 kit, but then this is a standard car and

perhaps should be kept that way.

Ultimately, though, all three of these cars are

great fun to drive, have outlived any competition

they may have had, and still feel remarkably

modern and well screwed together. Oh, and on the

right road at the right time, just as quick as a

Carrera GT – and all for comfortably under £10k.


Many thanks to Specialist Cars of Malton for

their help with this feature. All three cars

featured here are for sale with them right now

– and if you get there early enough, you might

get a bacon roll from the chuck wagon.


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