Say you’re looking for a classic, cheap rear-wheel-drive sports car for cruising in the countryside over the weekend, or even whip out for the occasional track day session. You could get an old British roadster, but the headaches that come with those cars have pretty much turned you off by now. And besides, you’re not a goddamn mechanic, but an average human being with a normal life, maybe a few kids and a mortgage to pay. All you’re looking for is a cheap way to let off some steam behind the wheel of a machine. You need a Porsche 944.
You could default back to the tried and tested Mazda Miata formula. But that’s the easy route, the obvious choice, the Japanese reliability safety net where all your drives will end up being a carbon copy of one another from lack of drama or worry. You’re looking for something a little spicier. Something with some kind of challenge, but not too much of a risk. You want to at least brag to your homies that you “tinker” with your ride.
You need a Porsche 944.
The car also needs to have some kind of exotic flair, something with pedigree, a car people will ask questions about the moment you’ll pull the key out of your pocket at the local bar, something a Miata can’t brag about.
You need a Porsche 944.
But there’s a catch: you only have about six grand to spare. Guess what? You’re still good.
So go out and get a Porsche 944. You’ll even get pop-up headlights thrown in there as an added bonus. I took one out for a drive, as I typically do. And I’m here to tell you why the 944 is the classic, mid-eighties German sports car you need in your life.
As long as you get yours in beige.
(Full disclosure: The opportunity to drive a Porsche 944 came from a Montreal-based automotive journalist who also happens to be a Jalopnik reader. After reading our Corrado G60 review, he emailed me right away so I could take his beige Porsche for a spin.)
What Is It?
Sold between 1982 and 1991, the Porsche 944 was the replacement to the 924 that came before it. The 924 was a lightweight, front engine, rear-wheel drive sports car powered by a Volkswagen/Audi-sourced four-cylinder, intended to replace the 914 as Porsche’s entry-level car.
But the 924 didn’t do too well for Porsche. Plenty got sold, but it was slow, and got lukewarm reviews from the automotive press. And new Japanese competition from Datsun and Mazda offered more power at a much more affordable price. Porsche enthusiasts also gave the car a bad rap for not being a “real” Porsche due to its shitty, underpowered 2.0-liter engine which, on top of only producing a measly 110 HP (in North America), could also be found under the hood of an Audi 100, Volkswagen van and even a variant of the AMC Gremlin at the time.
Yes, a fucking Gremlin.
This forced Porsche to bring the car back to the drawing board. Instead of scrapping the thing from the shame of failure, Porsche did what it does best, which is not admit defeat, and gave the car a total overhaul instead, hence the birth of the 944. Still using the 924's platform, but heavily reworked through chassis stiffening and improved suspension tuning, Porsche dropped an all new and larger 2.5-liter four under the car’s hood.
This time, the engine was all Porsche. And some say this engine was actually half of the 928's 5.0-liter V8. The math certainly adds up.
Anyway, the car’s body was also given a wider, more hunkered down look thanks to bulging fender flares, and reworked front and rear bumpers. The car also got a larger, 911-inspired rubber rear wing, so it ended up looking a hell of a lot better than the dorky, skinny-tired 924.
And thanks to a new, five-speed manual transmission that was fitted at the rear of the car’s transaxle, like what you get in a Ferrari or a Corvette, the little 944 boasted near 50/50 weight distribution.
The end result was a much more substantial and better-focused sports car that did actual justice to the Porsche nameplate but was still sold at an attainable price. At the time, Porsche claimed the new engine pumped out 147 HP (142 HP from 1982 to ‘85) and 137 lb-ft of torque, with acceleration times from a standstill to 60 mph in about 8.3 seconds.
Sure, most modern crossovers would eat this car alive at a stoplight, but back in the eighties, 8.3 seconds was actually quick.
A larger, bored out, 2.7-liter version of the base 2.5-liter was later introduced in 1989 for the 944S model. That one was good for 162 HP, according to Porsche. Finally, the almighty turbo version was sold between 1985 and ‘91 with 217 HP on tap.
That one, the 944 Turbo, is obviously the one we all want, but those cars are notorious for having serious reliability issues, so for the sake of keeping things cheap and simple, let’s stick to the straightforward, quasi-trouble free, naturally-aspirated 2.5-liter version.
Why Does It Matter?
As far as sales went, the Porsche 944 and the 924 before it did rather well. More than 300,000 of these cars were sold worldwide, making it Porsche’s first massive sales success. It was the Boxster, which appeared in the mid-1990s, that beat the 944’s sales figures and carried on the “poor man’s Porsche” torch through the new millennium.
Today, the 944 happens to be a track day favorite for many enthusiasts looking for a cheap way to get into some sort of motorsport event. The car’s renowned handling, low price and readily available spare parts, make it a no-brainer vehicle for anyone wanting to battle it out Gran Turismo style on the track against overclocked Civics and roll-caged Miatas.
But the 944 mattered a lot in the eighties because it was the first time Germany was playing catch up with the Japanese invasion of cheap, fun, and cool rear-wheel-drive sports cars, which peaked during the 1980s and early ’90s. Nissan had the Z cars, Toyota had the Celica and Supra, and Mazda had the RX-7, which not only looked and performed uncomfortably similar to the 944 but were sold at much lower price points.
The 924’s rushed update was Porsche’s reaction to that quickly changing market. And the car that spawned from this, as you’ll discover shortly, was absolutely brilliant.
Just A Slight Electrical Problem
My first contact with the Kalahari Beige Metallic (that’s the best name for a beige) sports car was during a breezy, warm summer’s day in Québec. Fred, the owner of the car, and I had scheduled an appointment just outside Sanair Super Speedway. I had offered the man to bring his car on the track for cool track day action shots, but he preferred leaving his aging yet still impeccably pristine German coupe on the public roads. Humble man.
Upon my arrival, the 944 was parked on the side of the road, hood open, with Fred bent over the engine bay, fiddling with something in there. Shit, what a typical yet worrying sight. I prayed the poor guy hadn’t broken down on the way there for the sake of this review.
“Are we good for the photo shoot, Fred?” I shouted from the driver’s window of a Kia Sportage.
“Yeah man, it’s all good, just a minor thing with the car draining its battery when it hasn’t run for a while. I’ll just let her run on idle for a bit.”
“Needs a new battery?” I asked.
“Nah, I changed that. It’s some weird electrical issue, not sure what it is, but nothing major,” Fred replied.
Cliché. Predictable. But totally appropriate. The car looked great though, no signs of rust or damage on the body. That beige paint glittered like a party dress under the blazing sun. Fred believes this is the car’s original paint job. As he went over the car’s story, the 944 sat there, low and wide next to my six-foot frame. It’s a tiny car compared to today’s overweight plastic shuttles. Even a Boxster would look like a whale next to this.
But the 944 still looks fresh and modern, even today, with that long hood, sloping rear glass, and wide fender flares. Fred added Boxster wheels to the car; no biggie, they look fine on here. This 944 also has an aftermarket suspension, so there’s no sag in the way it sits.
I open the driver’s door and stumble upon a very brown cabin, complete with an equally brown dashboard, black shifter, brown on black, period correct seats, and a black steering wheel from a 968.
Except for a minor rip in the passenger seat, and a few cracks on the dashboard, which is a known 944 design flaw, this 944 interior held up surprisingly well over the years. It’s simple. Spartan. Purposeful in there, with most controls slightly slanted towards the driver like the best sports cars out there. No infotainment system, no screen, no bullshit. Just cockpit.
I started up the vintage German four-pop, it fumbled to life like an old geezer emitting a loud cough before beginning to speak – EURGH KEKEK VROOOOM - once turned over, the engine was burbling smoothly, with a slight hint of misfire in its exhaust note. There’s an aftermarket exhaust under there, but the sound isn’t annoying, so it’s all legit.
Fred tilted the window-less, retractable sunroof. The electric motor that operated it sounded tired. But it was still hanging. I dropped the handbrake located to my left, by the door, and off we went in a beige Porsche 944 from 1986, sunglasses on, windows rolled down under a scorching eastern Canadian sun.
Seriously, not many. It’s low on power by today’s standards and you sort of get why even Porsche itself bored out the engine for the 944S, or why a turbo was kind of inevitable later on. The torque curve is weird, nothing happens below 3,500 rpm, and it runs out of puff after 5,000. It’s all mid-range. And it’s not fast.
It also has odd brakes, the pedal is squishy, but this more has to do with me being used to modern cars. Seriously, this car rocks. It’s hard to fault. It’s a no-compromise sports car, and in that respect, I wasn’t disappointed at all.
It’ll cruise along quietly in fifth gear on the highway without attracting too much attention to itself. That suspension, at least, the new one the car is fitted with, is surprisingly compliant. I wasn’t being thrown around on Québec’s garbage roads, and except for the occasional old car squeaks and rattles, the car’s stiffness is still holding up quite well. For a sports car, I reckon this thing is doing all right.
There isn’t a lot of room in the 944. The rear seat is an absolute joke, it was crammed there to please lawyers. Unless you’re three feet tall or have no legs, you won’t fit in the back.
The 944 is a hatchback, so there is some form of cargo area back there, but it’s not deep, and if that retractable sunroof is stowed in there, forget it, your grocery bags are going inside that giant cup holder Porsche calls a rear seat.
Finally, gas mileage is mediocre at best. Back when this car was new, Porsche claimed 20 MPG. It does about 18 now. But does anyone actually care? I don’t.
Fred wanted to test out the car’s claimed reliability reputation. Apparently, you can’t kill these base 944's. So he drove his slightly golden (it’s beige!) sports car to Newfoundland and back to Montréal trouble-free. As a matter of fact, in the four years he’s owned the car, the only repair he’s had was having the alternator rebuilt.
Fun as hell, actually. The shifter still feels solid, with precise and short throws. It’s enjoyable to row through the gears, but a bit notchy at times. Yes, it all feels mechanical and solid, unlike the Corrado’s gearbox which felt all loose and nimble as if it would explode the moment I’d power shift it.
The clutch is low in the 944, and bite point is somewhat vague. What you need to know is how the car handles. Damn, it handles well. Very well. All the stories are true. This car lives up to its reputation. It feels so light on the road; nimble, direct. The hydraulic power steering is well weighted, feels tight, heavy and is super responsive. This car still has impeccable reflexes for an old fart, with sharp turn-in and minimal body motions during cornering - the new suspension definitely helps.
Not sure the original car handled this well on a back road.
But anyway, I do love the way it quickly changes direction upon the slightest inputs, and how the chassis responds to road imperfections. It’s fluid, smooth, confidence inspiring, solid. German.
I know this is also cliché, but driving the 944 made me realize how disconnected new cars feel with their electric power steering systems, throttle-by-wire, and computers interrupting everything. Seriously, where is our automotive industry heading with all the simulated shit?
As I sat there, grasping all that is Porsche, keeping its revs in the meat of the narrow powerband, the burbling exhaust singing its not-so-smooth melody right underneath my ass, wind in my face, sitting atop the rear wheels, I was reminded why I’m so in love with cars. It’s not for their power, extreme cornering G’s, or the record-breaking lap times they can achieve. Or the useless technology carmakers seem to want to cram new cars with.
It’s about the experience behind the wheel. The emotion. The sounds. The handling and the connection with the machine.
The Porsche 944 does all of that. It fills all the voids. It answers all questions. Shuts up every argument and makes new sports cars look stupid.
The great thing about the Porsche 944 if you’re looking to buy one is that it was never really an expensive car, and they haven’t truly gained any value over time. At least, not up to now. But I’m told the internet is starting to take a bite out of them too.
Prices are pretty much all over the place, but the 2.5-liter ones, like the one you see here, can be had for under $10,000. I’ve seen some maniacs sell their turbo models for $20,000 or more. But the reality is, because of the 924’s failure history, and the harsh maintenance bills related to the turbo cars, no Porsche 944 has ever been considered an automotive investment. It’s not really a collectible. Unless it’s beige. Then we can talk.
But, if you’re looking for a cheap, fun German rear-wheel-drive car with a lot of track car potential, but want something a bit more exotic than a BMW, then by all means, this is the car to get. Plus, it’s from the eighties, arguably the best decade ever.
When I was about eight, my dad got back home from a used car dealership, telling me he had just test driven a 944 Turbo and how he had been blown away by its performance. Ever since I’ve always wondered what the car would feel like to drive. Even if this wasn’t the top shelf version, it was as glorious as my childhood dreams could have every conceived.
The Porsche 944 isn’t fast, or worth a lot of money. Sure, the new 718 Boxster and Cayman are fun “affordable” sports cars and all, but there’s just something magical about driving a 30-year-old front engine, rear-wheel-drive Porsche you’ve paid only six grand for on a warm summer’s day. Especially if its beige and has pop-up headlights.
I think you need one.
William Clavey is an automotive journalist from Montréal, Québec, Canada. He runs claveyscorner.com.