Pros: Still turns heads, great handling, outstanding reliability
Cons: Interior has many flaws, repairs aren't cheap
I remember looking at the Porsche 944 when it first came out and drooling a little. Hey I was still a kid and most guys, we had our eye on one car or another in our youth. There was something about the muscular sheet metal and those beefy tires that the fenders could barely contain. The semi-exotic word, Porsche slapped across the read of the car didnt hurt either.
Well ten years ago my finances finally caught up with those adolescent dreams (read midlife crisis, I guess). I traded in my uber-bland Honda Accord for the car that I had my eye on since before I was old enough to drive. Now that ten years have passed, I think I might be ready to share my feelings on the car with the world.
The History of the 944
1983 was the first production year for the 944. Porsche had big plans, hoping to replace the aging 911 with a water-cooled front engine, rear drive model. Their flagship 928 also bore this engine configuration, but with a V-8 and a much larger price tag than the 944. The 944, they hoped would be the car to pick up where the 911 would end. However, it was not to be as the public refused to embrace the 944 as they had the 911.
The 944s heritage was one of the biggest factors that nipped the end of the 911 in the bud. The 944, for all appearances, was just a glorified 924, perhaps one of the least loved cars that Porsche had ever built. Unfortunately, the 924 had more in common with the mediocre Volkswagens of the time than it did with its Porsche siblings.
While the curves of the 944 were pronouncedly burlier, it was still quite apparent that it shared the same frame as the 924. For those who somehow failed to notice the resemblance, the interior was an exact match. The unseen things, components under the hood and throughout the car were vastly improved but unseen. The 944 sported an updated engine. The suspension, brakes and transmission of the 944 were substantial upgrades from those of its less fortunate sibling. Still, it was hard for the public to see beyond the wrappings.
Further there was a huge backing that believed the Porsche 911 was the only real Porsche. History dictated that Porsche automobiles must be air-cooled boxsters as they always had. This new water-cooled thing was not making easy fans. And putting the engine in the front! What were they thinking in Stuttgart? Part of the beauty of the 911 was that rear engine that actually caused the wheels to grip a little better under acceleration, giving the novice driver fits, but allowing the expert to push the envelope a bit further in the turns.
Thus the 911 and 944 competed side by side, vying for top billing a full eight years until the 944 eventually became the 968 which continued on until 1995. In 1995 Porsche discontinued both of its front engine, water-cooled cars, dropping the 928 as well. The 911 was the lone car in the Porsche lineup for two model years until the Boxster was introduced in 1997.
Informed Opinions on the 944
Many who have driven numerous Porsches regard the late model 944 as one of the best cars the company ever made. Albeit the 1983 is most certainly not the same car as the later versions; I will get into the differences later. But the handling of the 944 is what makes all of them outstanding.
Porsche engineered this car with near perfect front and rear balance. This coupled with a lightweight car, built on a stiff frame, makes it much more driver friendly than the tail heavy 911. In fact, while the average driver is more likely to wreck their 911 than figure out how to use the somewhat backwards handling to their advantage, the 944 responds quickly, willingly and predictably to input from its pilot.
The 968, which was the final iteration of the 944, was an outstanding car by any assessment. In the turbo version (of which a mere five examples were built) the 968 was capable of munching on Corvettes and Ferraris . . . and it was still a 4-cylinder engine.
The 944 is a much more practical automobile than its siblings are as well. The rear seats are too small for real people to fit into comfortably, but small children do have the option of sitting there rather than being lashed to the roof. The hatchback on the 944 gives a good deal of room for hauling such trivial luxuries as groceries as well.
All three of the Porsche mechanics that I regularly take my 944 to list their 944 as a favorite toy. They love to talk 944 as well. I spent an hour talking to one of them who wanted to show me the new quad piston brake calipers and sixteen valve head he was fitting on his personal 944.
Thats the way many 944 owners I have met are. When I was still considering buying mine, I mentioned it to a total stranger I noticed driving his. He got all excited, bought me a cup of coffee, sat, and talked about the half dozen Porsches he had owned with me for thirty minutes. He even left me half a dozen old copies of Excellence, a Porsche magazine, which he had in his car.
- - - -The 1983 Porsche 944 - - - -
As mentioned the 1983 944 was certainly not the best. Perhaps Porsches biggest mistake was to borrow the interior from its poor cousin the 924. There were numerous issues with this interior and it looked dated even when it was new.
The instrument cluster appears to be an afterthought. It is so bad that the tachometer actually starts with the needle on the right and runs downward so you can see it through the steering wheel. The clock is one of the funniest things in the car. In the same year that the Corvette boasted the first all digital instrument panel, the 944 still has a cheesy looking and rather inaccurate analog clock.
Also strange, there is a gauge that shows estimated Miles Per Gallon. I would have rather seen a voltage gauge than this. Oil pressure and temperature both have gauges, but there is nothing more than an alternator warning light for the voltage.
The styling of the entire interior is very bland and more of something I would have expected to find in an early 1970s model than a 1983 Porsche. The door panels are covered in vinyl and sport armrests that are a bit too small for me. The dash is as much an afterthought as the instrument panel. Cupholders? Sorry none.
The sunroof is very big and driving with it out is close to being in a convertible. However the hardware on the sunroof was well behind the times as well. Rather than a simple single lever to open the sunroof, two goofy tabs need to be pulled down, twisted to unlock the roof. Then you push it open and prop the tabs in the sunroof gutter. The entire thing is kept from flying open by a leather strap with a snap on it - so much for German engineering being so great. It is the most laughable sunroof mechanism I have ever seen.
The seats are comfortable and there is a ton of legroom. In fact I was quite surprised at the amount of legroom. The 944 is to date, the only car that I have driven and had more than enough legroom for my six foot tall self. There are three notches of backward travel beyond where I set the seat. The balusters are good on the seats. If there is any complaint about the seats, it is ridiculously difficult to adjust the angle of the seatback. Rather than a ratcheting lever, there is a knob that when turned ever so slowly adjusts the seatback.
The controls take a little getting used to, especially if youve been driving Japanese cars.
The electric mirror adjustment switch is under the window switches, somewhat hidden away. It is also a source of annoyance as it turns the mirrors in unexpected directions, partly because it is upside down, and partly because Porsche thought it would be funny to turn it 90 degrees from what you would expect. The switch to select which mirror you are adjusting is on the unlighted center panel, easy to find in daylight, difficult in night. The rear wiper switch and headlight washer switch are there as well.
The Parking brake lever is on the drivers left side. There was really no place to put it on the right, but it still took me a good five minutes to find it the first time. Also I call it a parking brake, because it is too inaccessible to use as an emergency brake if the need arises. Without the door open it is very hard to reach.
The headlight switch is to the left of the steering wheel, while the high beams are where you would expect them, on the turn signal stalk. The fog or driving light switch is on the other side of the steering wheel, down on the center console near the stereo. I guess putting them closer together might have made too much sense.
The heat vents are small and inefficient. Even if they worked well, the heater controls are marked with odd indicators that to this day I have to fiddle with to determine if I am changing vents or temperature. At least the AC controller makes more sense, although it is oddly on its own control system.
The stereo system has never been one of the high points for Porsche apparently. Apparently the OEM stereo in the 944 was a Grundig. Mine came with a Pioneer that had been upgraded but improperly installed. The electrical system in the car is a beast, and wreaks havoc on stereos. The manual actually warns that the electrical system might cause your garage door opener to activate, weird. Even my professionally installed CD player has a little bit of alternator whine.
The speakers that Porsche used were two pair of 4x6 dual cone, paper speakers. There really isnt room in the car for anything bigger to be installed and they sound terrible.
The Engine and Drive train
Well, now that Ive told you about the part of the car that I really dont like much, here is the good part. I tend to think of my Porsche as a go kart, rather than plush transportation. It stopped being a daily driver a little over a year ago, but I havent yet had the heart to part with my toy.
The engine is a 2.5 liter, 8 valve, four cylinder. In the 1983 model it developed 143 horsepower at 5500 RPMs. By todays standards that isnt much, but in 1983 it was enough to make the 944 the fastest ever production model with a 4 cylinder engine.
The production of the engine is outstanding. The cylinders are lined with ceramic sleeves. This makes them highly durable. In an age where expectations insist a car go over 100,000 miles, the Porsche engine will easily last three times that.
The drive train is very unique on the 944 and a big part of what makes it such a great car to drive. The engine, as mentioned is in the front. However, the transmission and transaxle are combined into a single unit in the rear of the car. This allows for near perfect 50/50 weight distribution between the front and rear tires.
Driving the 944
Now those of you thinking to yourself that 143 horsepower isnt enough, well youre essentially correct. Then how much is enough, really? The standard PT Cruiser widely regarded as vastly underpowered has a 150 horsepower 4 cylinder. With a curb weight of 2778 pounds compared to the PT Cruisers 3121, the Porsche 944 has a weight advantage. Even with less horsepower the Porsche has a ratio of 19.42 pounds to each horsepower, while the PT pulls 20.81, almost another pound and a half. But dont get me wrong, 19 pounds to a horse power wont make you fast.
Truly the 1983 944 is not a fast car by any standards. Zero to sixty time hovers around 8 seconds. Compared to my other toy, Subarus outstanding WRX, which does 0 to 60 in under 5.5 seconds, the acceleration is downright disappointing in the Porsche.
Still, it is a fun car to drive. The seating position itself is different than most people will be used to. You sit down low in the 944 . . . very low. When switching back and forth between my Porsche and my wifes Liberty I get a bit of vertigo sometimes. In one car I am level with the under carriage of most, in the other I am looking at their roof.
While the '83 944 didnt have power that slammed you into your seat, it is still one of the best handling cars I have ever driven. The Porsche will take corners at speeds that would leave my Subaru upside down. Further the 944 will take those turns without a complaint.
The feeling in a turn is that the car is very tight. Feedback in the wheel is good despite power steering. Body roll is negligible. In those rare moments that the rear end does cut loose in the Porsche, usually in wet conditions, all it takes is a quick stab of the clutch to right the course. It is almost frightening how quickly it will pop back in line. One instant you feel the tail coming out a bit more than youd like, the next bam you are back in on your line.
Maintenance and Repairs
Perhaps the one real headache of owning a Porsche is the repairs. This isnt a car that you can take down to the corner station for most repairs. Oil changes yeah, but a new timing belt, forget it. There are no less than half a dozen special tools required to fix the 944. Most shops dont work on enough to own the tools, let alone know they need them.
Finding a good Porsche mechanic has always been a difficulty for me. Finally I found out that the tire guy where I bought some wheels and tires drove an 1984 944 himself. Great, he does all my suspension work now.
As far as the other two guys, Im in a big enough town that there are two Porsche dealers in driving distance. One is terrible, the other outstanding. After a few trips, I got to know the guys wrenching on my car and they are fantastic. In fact at one point the sales/service guy told me my car needed a new transmission. It was going to cost almost $4000 when all was said and done. After thinking it over I told him I thought it was time for me to get a new car since the book on my car was only $6500 at the time. Half an hour later one of the mechanics called me to let me know he had a brand new transmission they had order four years ago and never installed. He could let me have it for $1000 with labor. Suffice to say, I still go back there and will possibly name my firstborn after him.
If your done coughing from seeing that transmission price, let me add the good thing about fixing the Porsche. All of Porsches parts are race quality. The clutch in the car is one of the best examples. A clutch replacement runs about $1500 (two or three times what you might expect). However, the clutch in my 944 has about 50,000 miles on it and the first one lasted to 85,000. I never had a clutch last that long, before. Porsche parts dont get replaced and fail six months later. In fact, if they are installed by a Porsche certified mechanic, most parts come with a three year, 36,000 mile warranty. Thats hard to beat.
So bottom line, it is not easy to find a good mechanic, parts and repairs are expensive, but they will last a long long time.
The amazing thing is, that even at 21 years old, my 944 could still be a daily driver. With 138,000 miles on it, the second clutch is the only thing that will need to get fixed soon. For now even it is going strong. Thats a big part of what makes Porsche such a great company and the 944 such a great car.
Whats the point of having one?
Really, there isnt any point in having the 944 besides the fun factor. It isnt fast, not really fast anyway. It lacks amenities that are expected in newer cars. Its noisy and the stereo isnt loud enough to compensate. But all that becomes unimportant when you are out driving a twisty road with the sunroof open.
Half a dozen times Ive been close to selling mine, but I havent been able to part with it. Its just too fun. Yeah, the styling might be dated to some eyes, but when I wash it up and the twenty-year-old paint comes back to life, it is still a great looking car to my eyes. There still are still lots of people waving and honking when I drive around town, like it was the first 944 off the showroom floor. With my Subaru, its just another car.
Things to look for if you are thinking about getting one
The biggest piece of advice I would give is to find one that is at least a 1985 ? model. In late 1985, the 944 was redesigned and the poor interior was given a much-needed face-lift. The newer models kept this updated interior all the way through to the last 968 cars and it fixed most of the problems with the older 924 carry over interior.
The interior is the easiest way to tell if a 944 is an early or late 1985 model. If the instrument cluster is in a boxy protrusion and the heat vents in the center have a strange vent that looks like a speaker grill above them, the car is pre-1985 ?. The later models have a rather streamlined looking dash with an elliptical console for the gauges that ends on the far side of the heat vents.
The stereo is still fairly worthless in the newer models, but the A/C and heat actually works much better with bigger vents. The instruments are much easier to read. The engine is slightly improved and there are major updates to make the suspension and transmission linkage better.
I would also highly recommend having a Porsche mechanic give the car a good once over if you are thinking about buying one. While you can get a very good 1986 or newer Porsche 944 for under $5000, if there is something wrong, it could easily cost you half that again to fix.
One of these days I will sell mine. I have been thinking about a 968 convertible for a long time. Eventually the right one will come along and if I have to trade the WRX and my 944, I wont hesitate. For the meantime, it is enough fun that I will keep it.
But I almost forgot, you wanted to know if it is still fast 20 years later. Well, sorry to disappoint, but I dont think it every really qualified as fast. In 1983 it was head to head with Chevettes and Le Cars I guess. Nope, speed is not a high mark for the 1983 944. Youd have to look at 1986 when they popped a turbo in the 944 . . . that is another story.
? Scott Noble Unauthorized use prohibited
Also see: '03 Subaru WRX