944 Turbo S: Performance

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The 944 Turbo S, though critically acclaimed by automotive journalists and enthusiasts alike has always suffered an odd stigma in that although its performance rivaled the fastest cars of its time, it’s ultimate desirability was never held to the same stature as other exotics such as Ferraris, or even the 911 of the same Stuttgart badge. Even today, the models from the 944 series are perhaps some of the most underrated performance cars on the market, while similarly the most under appreciated Porsche series to roll off the Zuffenhausen assembly line. Nevertheless, the S’s performance speaks for itself.

Although with age the 944 Turbo S (indeed any model from the 944 series) has succumbed to the temperamental nature associated with many classic sports cars, and its frequent servicing bills “may cost more than the car is worth,” its performance remains on par with many modern sports cars. Such was true of its contemporary competition as well. In fact, the Turbo S was so competitive during the 1980s that Porsche felt it prudent in 1986 to remind buyers that “[f]or lunch, the Porsche 944 Turbo generally prefers Ferraris, although it has been known occasionally to snack on Corvettes.” [click here to view the “For Lunch” advertisements]

The former claim, it turned out, could not be more correct; the 944 Turbo S proved to be well equipped to handle Scuderia’s prancing horse, as well as a host of other notable sports cars in (and sometimes out of) its price range. Confirmation of the S’s threat came when Performance Car tested the S against its Italian rival Ferrari 328 GTS. The Ferrari, they commented, would have its work cut out for it, “for only the previous morning its rival had shot to 60mph in just 5.3 seconds… and had gone on to lap the high speed circuit at a regular average of 158mph.” Although Tony Lewis made note of a slight itch in the chassis characteristics of the S, he nonetheless concluded that “so technically overwhelming was the Porsche, so devastating its performance, that it would take an awful lot of Ferrari magic to swing the verdict back to the Italian team.”

Despite the 328 GTS’s best efforts, the S proved technically superior. Moreover Lewis was struck by the relative livability of the S. “[S]nicking the lever into first after pressing the moderately weighted clutch, I was impressed by how easy the Porsche is to drive.” Such seemed to highlight the success of the Porsche, not only did it perform on par with the Ferrari 328GTS, but it betrayed any notion of a typically eccentric, or otherwise unlivable performance car. Nevertheless, the less than subtle increase in racing orientation of the Turbo S was noted. “Take the howler around the block and get used to the sensation of the no-nonsense suspension, which goes blop-blop through potholes and over railway crossings, pressing all four tires against the tarmac with teeth-chattering determination.” Ron Perry outlined the technical changes which improved the Turbo S:

Going back once again to its fount of racing knowledge and its larder of special equipment, Porsche made some minor, but significant changes to the 944 Turbo S suspension. The factory installed stuffier and shorter front springs, Koni adjustable shocks, harder rubber suspension bushings…, a larger diameter (26.8-mm versus 22.6-mm front anti-roll bar, larger-diameter (25.5-mm) rear torsion bars and added reinforcing plates between the side members and wheel housings to stiffen the bodywork.

The rough, racing oriented side of the S, especially highlighted by the S’s aggressive Koni suspension package (but also by the powerful engine), lead Performance Car to conclude: “[the 944 Turbo] represents the crushing victory of technology over engineering convention and customer prejudice: demolishing almost all opposition within the vast sweep of its performance, it proves that four cylinders can do everything that five, six, eight – even 12 – can achieve.”

Similarly, the performance of the 944 Turbo S represented a direct assault on Porsches quintessential model, the 911 Turbo. In June of 1988 Automobile Magazine’s Kevin Smith ran a story, “A Tale of Two Turbos,” in which he compared the two Porsche models both in terms of performance observations and on-track data. Although the performance numbers speak to similarities between the two Turbo models, Automobile was quick to point out the vast differences between them. Most obvious was the differences in weight distribution between the two models. The 944 Turbo, with its nearly perfect division of weight over the front and rear axles, proved quite composed compared with the noticeably rear-heavy 911. Contrary to rear weight bias typical associated with 911 models, Automobile remarked:

[T]he 944 Turbo S… 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.

Automobile’s conclusions were confirmed by other magazine tests of the Turbo S. Motorweek made similar observations when they drove the 944 Turbo S at Summit Point Raceway: “The car is more forgiving than other Porsches,” they noted. The more easily controllable 944 Turbo S allowed Automobile’s driver to explore more of the edge of its performance. The results of the test at Willow Springs International Raceway, an excellent venue to push both Porsches to their limits, definitively proved that, at least from a performance stand-point, the 944 Turbo S was the victor. “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.”

Thus the Turbo S was more than just another sports car, perhaps more than just another Porsche. In nearly every aspect of its design and performance, it stood to test the boundaries, and therein proved a measurable threat to the established hierarchy of the established sports cars during its time. Although the new release of the Nissan 300ZX Twin Turbo spelled the end of the Turbo S’s reign, the S remains to this day a potent sports car, and under the right conditions can even give modern Porsches or Ferraris lively competition.

Even in the modern age of super exotic sports cars, reaching well into the 500 bhp range, the 944 Turbo S still performs surprisingly well. Most mid-range sports cars are adequately disposed of, and even highway runs with Ferrari F430s are surprisingly competitive (based on personal experience!). In fact, in the right hands, a Turbo S (indeed any 944 Turbo) can be a lethal sports car on either the track or the street. Thus, an interesting dichotomy has developed between the release era of the Turbo, and its graceful aging within automotive history. While it was largely ignored during its time, it has since been recognized as a top level performance car. It is for this reason, that regardless of its depreciating value and rising maintenance costs, that 944 Turbos, and particularly the 944 Turbo S are both loved and revered in automotive enthusiast’s communities.

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