“A Tale of Two Turbos” – Automobile Magazine, June 1988

  • “A Tale of Two Turbos”
  • “Automobile Magazine
  • By Kevin Smith
  • Photographs by Vic Huber

To borrow Thomas Magnum’s line, “I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right.” You probably have an idea how this story will turn out, as I did going in. And, to a great extent, we’re all going to be correct. Yes, Porsche’s tail-heavy 911 Turbo is a great, lusty old beast whose character is exceeded only by its quirkiness and whose fans are more loyal than reasonable. Yes, the same company’s 944-series has set a standard for balance roadworthiness in modern sports cars, and now the new Turbo S version also fat outruns the hoary 911 Turbo. Yes, that means there’s no longer any good excuse to put up with the 911’s much stories incipient-spin handling, and, on every realistic score, it means the 944 Turbo S is a vastly better, more contemporary automobile.

All of that is the truth. But it’s not the whole truth. During four days of cruising and corner carving through the towns and coastal mountains of Southern California, some completely unexpected twists on this comparison slowly became evident. I, for one, wound up with curiously mixed feelings where I’d expected neat conclusions.

Let me start at the beginning: Willow Springs International Raceway, Rosamond, California, where a dry but windy winter’s day is drawing. Jean Lindamood, Michael Jordan, and I are here with what is happily turning into “our” team of pro sports car pilots: Derek Bell (five-time Le Mans winner and twice world endurance champion mainly in Porsche sports prototypes) and Bill Adam (he ran a works Porsche 962 at Le Mans last year and Group 44 Jaguar before that; he currently drives the Chevrolet-backed Protofab GTO Corvette).

We are track-testing a pair of turbo-charged sports cars. They were conceived, created, and delivered by the very same company, yet they’re as different as Bach and boogie. Porsche’s 911 Turbo is an institution: early Sixties technology thriving in the late Eighties on sheer bravado, the highest evolution of the 911 concept to date (not counting the hypertech four-wheel-drive 959). Like all 911s since 1965, it hangs an air-cooled flat-six engine way out in the back and is quick, maneuverable to a fault (literally), and difficult to drive well. Quite unlike the 1964 version, it can now muster 282 horsepower and over 155 mph, so the too lively balance and the dreaded chop-throttle oversteer take on grim implications.

In profound contrast, the 944 Turbo S – the brand-new up-power variant of the 944 Turbo, which first appeared in 1985 – is most remarkable for its amenable nature. Its front engine, rear transaxle layout puts a heavy mass at each end of the car. This provides even weight distribution and high polar moment of inertia, meaning the car resists yawing right or left unless you ask it to. Together with thorough development by able engineers, these qualities bless the 944 platform with amazing pitchabilit. It sticks, steers, and slopes so well that even untalented or unattentive drivers can work up impressive speed with minimal risk.

Porsche Turbo versus Porsche Turbo would have made an interesting matchup simply on the basis of the utterly different histories, technical approaches, and driving sensations of the 911 and the 944. When the 944 Turbo S arrived this year, with 30 more horsepower (now 247) and a quoted top speed all the way up to 162, the confrontation became inevitable. This sweet, compliant 944 suddenly had the grunt to match or bury the 911 Turbo, even in a straight line. The last justification for the wild and woolly rear-engined turbopanzer – that, in the right hands, it could still blow off the best of its four-cylinder sisters – had vanished in a cloud of dust and tire smoke.

That is our premise at Messrs, Adam and Bell begin lapping Willow Springs, settling into the cars and working up to meaningfully fast laps. The earliest returns confirm our expectations. Says Bill Adam: “When I first jumped out of the 944 and into the 911, I pulled in because I thought it had a low rear tire!” Such is his impression of an uncooperative rear end – and of a heritage rooted in another tehnical epoch. “It’s like driving a vintage race car.”

Derek Bell immediately cites “that 911 characteristic. You’ve got all that jot in the back that rides up and rolls, kicks up and rolls. It doesn’t slide flat. You have to be very delicate. The 944 you can drive a little sloppily and still be quick. In the 911, you have to be right on the money.”

The 911 has more peak power (282 to 247) and slightly less curb weight (2976 versus 2998). At first, Derek thinks it is pulling better coming onto Willow’s straight, but after another car swap, he realizes he has been misled. Around the long, climbing Turn Two (see sidebar), he has the 944 wide open – and going much faster – long before the straight. “In the 911, you arrive at the exist and can then floor it. You open it up and it feels stronger. But the 944 is already on the power and on the boost. You’re flat all the way through!”

This effect is later demonstrated with painful clarity at the other end of the track when both cars exit wicked Turn Nine onto the long front straight. The Adam/Lindamood team in the 944 slingshots past Derek and me in the 911. So much for power-to-weight rations.

The 911s have always been praised for their powerful braking; that heavy tail keeps the back tires contributing some stopping power despite forward weight transfer. But here, too, progress will not be denied. The electronic wizardry of anti-lock braking gives the modern 944 a clear advantage entering turns, even on a dry track, in the hands of expert drivers. The 911’s inside front wheel is prone to early lockup, which further complicates the rear-engined car’s already jittery corner entry. Derek says, “The ABS gives you much more confidence to just stand on the brake pedal, yet still pull the car over to where you want it to be.”

Bill notes that, through the very fast Turn Eight and the tighter Turn Nine, which almost link up in a single decreasing-radius curve, the 944 absolutely kills the 911. “Simultaneous deceleration and turn-in is okay in the 944. It’s too insecure in the 911,” he says.

In both action and reaction, steering differences between the two cars leave much to choose from. Derek praises the 944’s feel. “Steering weight is just right. You can take an easy, light hold on the wheel. In the 911, your veins are popping out.”

But there’s something about how the cars respond to steering input that sparks a lively discussion. The 911’s rack-and-pinion is a straight mechanical setup, whereas the 944 has hydraulic assist. The 911’s overall ratio (17.8:1, versus the 944’s 18.9:1) and its turns lock to lock (three, compared with three and a quarter) indicate somewhat faster, more direct steering. And the 911 does have a more immediate feel in the wheel. Its firmly sprung body also rolls much less than the softer 944, so everything indicates the 911 should snap into bends much more positively than its more civilized sibling.

But no matter who is driving, corner entry and steering connections happen more quickly and cleanly in the 944. What’s going on? We finally decide that even though the link between driver’s hands and front wheels may be more direct in the 911, communication between the front wheels and the rest of the car is not. Derek characterizes the process as sending a message that has to travel way back there to the 911’s center of mass, which then reacts with an attitude change, sending another message forward that you have to correct for. It’s almost like trying to manage two separate cars linked together by a hinge. “The 944, though, rolls all together, as one car,” says Derek. Even though it’s softer in roll, the 944 is much better coordinated.

Not surprisingly, it is also faster around the track. The 944 circulates Willow’s 2.5-mile length in the 1:41 range, averaging 89.1 mph. The 911 – its driver always working harder, flailing at the wheel and cursing colorfully – can only manage 1:43, for 87.4 mph. Section times through Willow’s tightest portion, from the entrance of Turn Three to the exit of Turn Seven, show the 944 building almost a second’s lead during the low-speed tossing. It clocks 33.6 seconds to the 911’s 34.5.

Our pro chauffeurs, like the rest of us, had expected the 944 to be easier to drive and probably faster overall thatn the 911. But Derek Bell and Bill Adam both seem fascinated by how different the two Porsche Turbos really feel when driven back to back. Of the 911, Bill observes: “You’re constantly in a state of reaction to the air, rather than having the car work with you. At steady state on a skidpad, the two cars would probably get around about equally fast, but any kind of change is hard to handle in the 911. The 944 will save you in a situation where the 911 will hurt you.”

Derek sums up the 911 experience with his usual sparkle: “You have to get in and attack it all the time. If there’s going to be an accident, you have to drive into it!”

Had we ended our story with the Willow Springs lapping, the plot line would have been simple: Charming young buck dethrones grizzled old warrior. Intelligence and sophistication send brute force packing. But we had a road ride to do yet, up spectacular Highway 33 out of Ojai and eventually around to Santa Barbara on the coast. And the old soldier turned out to have some unexpected powers of persuasion.

For starters, there’s no question the 911 Turbo still has visual horsepower on any 944. Motor by in the whale-tailed coupe, and everyone says, “Wow! There goes a Turbo!” If they say anything at all about the 944 Turbo S, it’s, “Hmm pretty nice Porsche.”

More important, the 911 Turbo is a ball to drive. All of the sensations from the driver’s seat – that raucous engine note, the boot in your back as the boost comes up, the steering that stiffens precisely with rising cornering loads, the ride that tells you all about pavement texture – levae you on choice but to become intimately involved in the task of driving. It’s more than a fear of spinning that makes you pay attention; it’s the car’s reactivity in everything it does.

People call the 911 a dangerous over-steerer, but that tragically shortchanges the car. Sure, most drivers who get into serious in the rear-engined Porsche do so because they fly into a fast bend and then try to get ride of speed. The engine’s inertia hurtles on and pivots around the drag of the tire contact patches like a rock on a string, and another 911 pilot backs through the Armco.

But that trailing-thorttle (or, worse, panic trail-braking) mode is only one dynamic situation., Roll through a tight corner and open the 911’s throttle, and weight transfer from the acceleration lightens the front end, reduces tire grip, and lets the car plow on exit like your favourite front-wheel-driver. A 911 understeering? That’s right. But all at your command. It will understeer right off the road, but put a little bite back up front by lifting slightly; the instinctive response is correct in this case.

Between these two extremes, there’s a good range of neutrality in the 911 Turbo’s cornering repertoire. Get into its rhythm on a snaking road like Highway 33, and you’ll find you are slowing a bit more before turning in and then rolling back on the gas to motor through bends on part throttle. That securely plants the car on its huge rear tires, gives you some latitude if you need to back off unexpectedly, and spools up the turbo in preparation for the exit.

If you don’t like that kind of driving, hey, you don’t like driving.

Where is the 944 Turbo S in all of this mountain-road scratching? Going about its business calmly and quietly, somewhere far ahead of the 911, attracting little attention and demanding little of its driver. Actually, the 944’s over-the-road handling profile is not so different from the 911’s except in degree. It can e made to oversteer or understeer, but much less dramatically. And it’s amazingly neutral over a much wider range of dynamics, so you can lift and scrub off a little excess speed at almost any time. That’s what makes it so cooperative and confidence-inspiring when it’s running quickly. It requires relatively little planning ahead. You bend it into a fast curve, feel the lateral forces and traction coming to terms, speed up if you have room, slow down if you don’t. Simple.

Tremendous velocities come easily in this remarkable car. Its 2.5-liter four has a little more rasp than its 217-bhp 944 Turbo predecessor had, but it’s still smooth enough to work continuously in the 4000-to-6000-rpm range. Flogging along at 60 to 90 mph (on a road the civilians take at 45, except for the tighter turns signed for 30), the 944 uses third and fourth of its five gearbox ratios, occasionally dropping to second. It has a lot of leg for a four-cylinder car; a 60-mph highway cruise puts only 2600 rpm on the tach.

Its power increase, the result of upping maximum turbo boost from 8.8 psi to 10.1, has been thoughtfully matched by chassis upgrades. Front braking (calipers and twelve-inch rotors) are 928 pieces. The suspension is firmed up, with stiffer springs and anti-roll bars, harder bushings, and clampers with ride height and rebound adjustability. The new-pattern forged wheels – the only visible distinguishing features of the S-model – are an inch wider in back (sixteen by nine inches, with sixteen-by-seven-inch wheels up front) and mount a special N0-series of Goodyear’s Eagle VR tires, 225/50 front and 245/45 rear. First- and second-gear pinions in the transaxle are shot-peened for a little extra durability, and although the differential ratio is the same 3.73:1 as the 944 Turbo’s, the limited-slip mechanism (standard on the S) is strengthened.

This impressive mechanical package makes the Turbo S far and away Porsche’s fastest four-cylinder and puts it right up with the 911 Turbo and the 928 flagship for on-paper performance. Off the spec sheets and out in the world of fast pavement – where turns must be quickly eyeballed, speed swiftly judged, and the unforeseen deftly accommodated – the fleet and friendly 944 Turbo S has speed on the entire Porsche range. In fact, on 90 percent of this country’s twisty roads – and for 99 percent of its drivers – this is the fastest car from point A to point B on the market today.

But fastest does not always mean best. The 911 Turbo is also fast and effective. Even if driving it is a little like shooting an arrow up the road feathers first, it takes you there in a hurry and entertains you all the while.

And, anyway, how fast is fast? There’s no stopwatch ticking on the street; there’s no glory to be won when you’re out there alone, just you and your car hustling over a beautiful road. An automobile that talks to you, involves you, and demands respect from you is something you can enjoy no matter what som great cosmic Average Speed Meter might be reading. In fact, you can enjoy a communicative sports car even when you’re not going fast.

Think about sports cars that have a lot to say to you, and you’re thinking about the Porsche 911 Turbo. True, the 944 Turbo S is superior in every objective way: It has a more spacious and better-laid-out interior, greater fuel economy, more accessible speed, and a much lower price tag ($47,432, compared with $68, 670). But take both cars on a fast run over an unfamiliar road, and see if you ever once ask the 94 4if it could take a downshift this late into a bend without being upset; if the opposite member of that next apex will pull harder at its tail than at its nose; if you can roll the throttle on this fast or THIS fast before the weight-transfer understeer changes to power oversteer. See if you ever ask the 944 anything.

This may sound like waffling. But, as I said up front, the obvious conclusion I’d expected became oddly mired as the subtleties of these cars unfolded. The 944 Turbo S is faster, okay? It’s a better automobile. If what you want is a modern no-nonsense tool that can blast you over the road faster than almost any other modern no-nonsense tool out there, here’s your car. Go get it. You’ll love it.

But I’m not going to apologize for how the 911 Turbo manages to make me want it. It’s great fun to drive and a thrill to be around, and we make a good team. There’s some give and take; think of a motorcycle, which can’t even stand up by itself if you get off and walk away, and you grasp something of the insidious and irresistible appeal of the 911.

Two utterly spontaneous events from our Porsche Turbo drive may say all there is to say about these wonderful but profoundly different automobiles. I needed to make a tight-jawed, flat-out sprint back up Highway 33 to find a lost photographer. Without a moment’s thought, I leaped into the 944. But, later that Saturday night, our high-spirited group was leaving the restaurant to cut our way across a teeming, profiling Santa Barbara, which looked like one massive street party. I fished two sets of keys from my pocket. Lindamood took one look at the 944 keys I tossed her way, fixed me with the evil eye, and asked, “Just what do you think you’re pawning off on me?”

[*] This article is copyright Automobile Magazine, June 1988. It is used solely for educational purposes, and not for profit. It should not be considered representative of Automobile Magazine.


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