The 1987–91 Porsche 928 S4 Might Be the Best of the Breed

Deremer Studios

It’s not only true because your grandpa says it: With age comes wisdom. And though many Porsche enthusiasts are devout traditionalists, shaped by the cult of the 911, many have gotten wise to the appeal of another car: the 928. You may recall that the 911’s existence was once in jeopardy, as Porsche faced an uncertain regulatory landscape in the 1970s that threatened its air-cooled, rear-engine sports car. Planning for the worst, executives and engineers birthed an ambitious potential successor—a clean-sheet luxury gran turismo with cutting-edge technology and styling. These were expensive machines then and they’re expensive machines now, but after looking at the market data and spending some time behind the wheel of one, I’d argue that the later examples—the 1987–91 S4—may be the most sage choice in the 928 family.

You can read Andrew Newton’s full deep dive on the 928’s development genesis here, but let’s cover the basics. The car’s entire purpose was to take Porsche in a bold new direction, which explains why it shares nothing with the 911, let alone any other Porsche before it. Front-mounted, water-cooled, aluminum twin-cam 90-degree V-8? Pushing 240 hp from 4.5 liters? Never seen that in a Beetle! Futuristic, low-slung shape with a long nose and pop-up headlights? Larger rear seats, big enough for kids instead of just luggage? Wunderbar! How about the first full automatic transmission offered in a Porsche (a three-speed from Mercedes-Benz, to boot), or a dogleg five-speed transaxle? And standard power steering with speed-variable assistance? Was ist das?!

1983-or-84-928S-cutaway
Cutaway of an early-’80s Porsche 928 S.

Indeed, the 928 was a monumental shift of priorities, arriving for the 1978 model year with the intent to dethrone the Mercedes’ flagship two-door, the luxurious SL. A cushy cabin was in order, yes, but modern technology was the real name of the game. An aluminum hood, front fenders, and doors and helped reduce the mass of the car—balanced nearly 50:50 front to rear but still exceeding 3000 pounds. Spoilers added to the 928 S for 1979 improved aerodynamics. To address safety concerns over handling, Porsche developed a clever passive safety piece dubbed the “Weissach axle,” which was a modified semi-trailing rear suspension that eliminated the ordinary design’s tendency for lift-off oversteer.

Despite Porsche’s fears, the 911 never went away, and it shared showroom real estate with the 928. At first the 928 enjoyed healthy success, both in the press and on the sales charts. (It even starred in Hollywood movies like Risky Business, an example from which sold for $1.98M in 2021.) But despite continual improvements and investment, the 928’s popularity on these shores waned as the years wore on—largely a consequence of an unfriendly exchange rate that drove up prices. Porsche never sold more than 3000 928s per year in America, and by 1989 its base price was just above $74,000, which equates to nearly $198,000 today.

In the collector market, two of the most desirable 928s are the bookends: the earliest examples from ‘78 and ‘79, along with the 928 GTS supercar that ran from 1993 to ‘95 in North America. The older cars enjoy the purest expression of the 928’s distinctive exterior design, along with the beloved phone-dial wheels and retro Pasha interior. These models cost an average of $43,000 in #3 (Good) condition. The 928 GTS is a monster, pushing 350 hp from its 5.4-liter V-8 and topping out at north of 170 mph. Its widened fenders and track, beefed-up brakes, and larger, 17-inch wheels all underscored that this was a luxury 2+2 with the sport knob turned so far up it broke the hell off. Price of entry here is just as intimidating: $90,000 in #3 condition.

Which brings us to the S4—the standard 928 that hit showrooms for the 1987 model year, bringing with it a host of important changes. The V-8’s displacement increased from 4.7 to 5.0 liters, which (along with upgraded cams, piston, heads, and intake apparatus) improved output to 316 hp from the prior 288. Top speed was rated at 165 mph, though one particular Bonneville Salt Flats run in ‘86 suggests the real number was 171 mph. The S4’s dogleg five-speed got a single-disc clutch while the four-speed automatics received a larger torque converter. Styling updates included an integrated spoiler up front, updated fog light assemblies, flush rear taillights, and a taller, trunk-mounted rear spoiler. 

The S4, which ran from the 1987–91 model years, packs a lot of performance, luxury, and style for the $39,000 it commands on average in #3 condition. The 928 S4 is uncommon, if not outright rare like the manual-only GT and later GTS, and these days it really stands out in traffic. The cab-rearward proportions combine with the hatchback rear to give the car a distinctive profile. Pop-up headlights lend the car a delightful ‘80s charm, and in their flush, upward-facing rest position they give the hood a unique character. You can drive great distances in the leather-trimmed seats before even thinking about back spasms, the trunk is more usable than the 911’s frunk, and you can increase the space by folding down the rear seats. 

When wearing the GTS’ larger, 911-style wheels, as did the 1987 model-year car we drove, the 928 S4 has an even more aggressive stance that pairs nicely with the rear spoiler’s sportier sensibility. 

As you land in the 928’s bucket driver’s seat, the cockpit feels tidy—more sports car than luxury cruiser. The seating position is low, with plenty of lateral space for both front passengers. On the outer side of the bottom seat cushion are its electronic controls, which work well and offer a surprisingly modern degree of adjustability. Optional upgrades for the S4 included adjustable lumbar support as well as a memory function that included side mirror position.

The thin-rimmed, perfectly sized steering wheel sits almost in the driver’s lap, framing clear and legible gauges. Working the controls on the center stack seems a bit obtuse at first glance, although nothing an owner wouldn’t adapt to in short order. Compared with a 911, the environment feels airier but still snug.

I depress the clutch pedal and twist the ignition, impressed at the ferocious growl of the 5.0-liter V-8 as it barks to life. The clutch, positioned way off to the left, demands more pressure at the top of the pedal travel than I was expecting, and there’s a novelty to the five-speed transaxle’s dogleg pattern. Throws are short. Each gate offers positive, mechanical feedback, but the layout is somewhat narrow and it’s easy for the novice to grab the wrong gear. A high majority of 928 S4s were delivered with a four-speed automatic transmission.

This Porsche feels noticeably happier at speed than it is puttering around town. The naturally aspirated V-8 wants high revs, rewarding late shifting with a mechanical chorus from the intake and throaty rasp from the exhaust. (Reasonably tall gearing enables this, and much handiwork around town is doable in second or third gear.) There is a willingness and eagerness to this engine that encourages high speed. Above 60 mph or so, the steering and suspension settle into an easy rhythm. What feels at first like a nonchalant chassis transforms in high-speed bends, exhibiting remarkable agility and composure even with generous mid-corner throttle.

The S4’s brakes—employing updated, larger caliper pistons for 1987—are also phenomenal, with stunning stopping power and outstanding feel through the pedal. In a March 1987 road test in Road & Track, the magazine recorded stopping distances of 137 feet from 60 mph and 234 feet from 80. “That’s shorter than any production car we’ve ever tested save the Ferrari 412, which does [80-0 mph] in 230.”

1987-Porsche-928-S4-white-motion-side
The S4’s powerful brakes are a common retrofit for older 928s.Deremer Studios

The 928’s mature, high-performance driving experience holds up today—especially so for well-maintained examples. Such high pricing and low demand in the late 1980s and early ‘90s resulted in substantially lower resale, explains Porsche Club of America Technical Director Manny Alban. “928s fell in the hands of new owners who enjoyed the depreciated pricing but did not want to partake in the required maintenance which would be quite pricey. Many suffered from deferred or quick fixes to get sold. Thus, when enthusiasts get their hands on one, they quickly find out that there’s a lot of work to be done to be bring it up to spec.”

These days, three decades since the newest 928s, it’s a sure thing that any original parts made from rubber are due for replacement. That includes cooling components, engine mounts, suspension bushings, as well as weather seals. “If the car has a sunroof,” says Alban “check the sunroof drains for any clogging. If water doesn’t flow freely through those drains, it will end up in your interior. There’s a good chance that window seals, especially the rear hatch, have shrunk or dry-rotted and are no longer keeping water out.”

Electronics are another sensitive area, which means it’s critical to check that everything in the interior works as expected. “It’s no secret that the wiring harness is extensive and not inexpensive,” says Alban. “What may seem like a simple fix can turn into a multi-day repair.  This includes air conditioning, heat, windows, radio, etc.  If the owner has a garage that will darken the interior, take a look at all the bulbs. Not just the instrument cluster but the switches that are supposed to be illuminated.”

1987-Porsche-928-S4-white-side-motion
Deremer Studios

Alban points out that the 5.0-liter V-8 in the S4 is known for its reliability, but like any other engine, that depends on a history of preventative maintenance. Anything short of that reduces the lifespan of critical components and systems.

High repair costs help explain why better-maintained 928s are appreciating faster than poorer-condition examples. Good-condition (#3) Porsche 928 values grew 24 percent between 2019 and 2024 to $39,000 on average, while Excellent-condition (#2) cars grew 80 percent to $73,000.

The data show that 928 prices started increasing in earnest at the start of 2013, when Good-condition cars cost just $11,500 on average. It’s been a steady upward march since then, with the most recent jump for top-condition cars in 2021. One explanation for the rise of the 928 is substitution theory—namely, that 911 prices have gotten so out of reach that 928s started to look more appealing. Over the same five-year time horizon that #3-condition 928s improved their value by 25 percent, comparable Porsche 911s increased by 40 percent, to $74,600 on average.

1987-Porsche-928-S4-white-front-three-quarter-motion
Deremer Studios

Younger buyers (Gen X and younger) represent the majority of 928 interest, accounting for 54 percent of the model’s buyer demographic compared with older generations. While this slightly younger demo bodes well for the 928’s future, demand is still dwarfed by the Porsche 911. For every 1 Porsche 928 insurance quote that Hagerty receives, we receive 6 quotes for the 911. And that figure hasn’t budged over the last six years.

It can be tempting to dismiss the 928 as a kind of road-not-taken sideshow, always living the 911’s shadow. And while nobody doubts the 911’s supremacy in the Porsche hierarchy, that perspective dismisses the 928’s significance. This was a world-class GT car that stayed in production for nearly two decades, continually improving over time and showcasing cutting-edge design and technology that Porsche would eventually introduce to the 911. Front-end design cues from ‘80s 928s previewed similar changes to the 964-generation Carrera, while Porsche’s “Weissach axle” rear suspension technology made its way to the later 993-generation 911.

If nothing else, the 928 is a different-flavored Porsche that stands for the company’s bold vision and innovation at a time when the future looked bleak. These are sophisticated cars with a personality all their own, and the S4 model makes a strong case for the best of the breed.

1987-Porsche-928-S4-white-rear-motion
Deremer Studios

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Comments

    While not a bad car many never considered it a Porsche. Same with the 924,944 etc.

    The 911 became an icon and many never considered the others to be what the 911 represented. Small light weight rear engined etc. it also was at a time Porsche tried to go high volume and it hurt their image as an exotic sports car.

    Today the media tries to push the 928 and the early ZR1. Both are way under valued because there is no demand and still many sitting around. Both are hard to get parts for and not cheap to fix.

    Porsche went Rear engine and mid engine with future cars and rebadged and tuned VW ups for volume.

    The 1980’s for Porsche was like the 70’s for AMF Harley Davidson.

    While it’s true that the 928 is not the 911, which is the only Porsche for some people, the 928 is an excellent GT car, then and now. Ironically, the modern 911 has evolved into a luxury GT car, nearly identical to the 928 in all dimensions. Parts are still readily available from dedicated enthusiast retailers and Porsche at reasonable prices (compared to old 911s and other vintage imports). And 928s are easy to maintain if you have some wrench turning skills and you can read (the most knowledgeable enthusiast support group I’ve ever seen).

    And Dennis, some commentors like yourself, are more knowledgeable and unbiased. BTW, as for one guy’s swipe, I’d like to know how my friend’ s 1987 944S or my 1989 944 n/a are “rebadged” anything?

    The original 944 isn’t a “rebadge”, but it wasn’t designed as a Porsche, either. VW had hired Porsche to design a vehicle for them that would replace the Karmann Ghia, but used as many off-the-shelf parts as possible. The original had a 2.0 engine with a unique cylinder head, a 4-speed from the Audi 100LS (including the empty bell housing at the rear), a mix of Super Beetle and Golf (Rabbit) front suspension and VW Type 181 (Thing) rear suspension and axles. The switchgear was mostly Audi, as were the door handles and as many other parts as they could pull from the shelves. When VW decided not to build it Porsche got the rights and it was built at the Audi plant in Neckarsulm.

    All of that said, I really like the car and I don’t consider it a “knock” on the 924/944/968, but I’m sure many do. A friend has one that is well sorted and I think it’s a delight to drive.

    Kellymoon, you’re partially correct, except that the car Porsche designed for VW was the 924 for iwhich they reacquired the productions rights. Yes, it was produced by Audi with a the Audi 2.0 L motor. The 944 replaced the 924 and is a Porsche design, Porsche manufactured and has had a Porsche 2.5 L inline 4 derived from the V8 in the 928. Later iterations of that motor included a 2.5 L I4 and a 3.0 L I4 which is also found in the 968 with variocam.

    Yes, but while it had a new number/name and new components, it’s the same car underneath. All of the hard points are the same.

    The most incorrect interpretation of the car and the times I think I have read in recent memory. I bet you are the kind of person who wears a Rolex Explorer. Figure out what I mean by that.

    I’ve never done the research to validate this, but I suspect that the slant-4 in my previous 944 is essentially one bank of the 928 V8. Porsche part numbers have a habit of starting with the model of the vehicle that contains them, and many of my engine parts had 928* part numbers

    Your suspicions are entirely correct — it is essentially one bank of the V-8, Sort of a highly sophist acted take on the early 1960’s ‘Trophy 4″ that was one half of the Pontiac 389 V-8…

    Great GT cars! These Grand Tourers (think – cruising at 100 mph on the Autobahn) are still misunderstood (no they are not 911 replacements nor engineered as such they are not purely racers) by collectors and classic sportscar enthusiasts so kudos for an article helping to illuminate the darkness. That being said, there is nothing in this article that strengthens the idea that the S4 is the ‘best of the breed’. In fact I would posit that the the best choice for a 928 is the early first generation cars- lighter, nimbler, cleaner lines with less plastic (wings and spoilers) and a purity that isn’t repeated with the later generations. I thank you for not adding fuel to the 928 myths (the automatic is inferior and the 5 speed is scarce. It was the 5 speed that was much more common on the first generation cars and looking at the acceleration and top speed curves in the factory manual one can see that both choices were equally fast…..of course, that is with perfect manual shifting through a dogleg layout 😉 After the early generation one (often called OB by owners) the final S4 cars are the next desirable cars- why? Because just like a 3 act play, the opening and closing acts are the bones and skeleton of a classic tale.

    I love the 928 S4 and GTS. I know some like the earliest years best but I thought the car got better looking on top of better performing with the passing years. It’s a great car in any version but on the very rare occasion I see an S4 or GTS variant in the wild I always smile.

    “Porsche enthusiasts are devout traditionalists, shaped by the cult of the 911” I guess I have a different take on that. I, for one, developed my love of Porsches based on the seventeen years of four cylinder 356 production. That is the core tradition. I had a friend that traded in his 1965 356SC for a then brand new soft window Bahama Yellow 912 TARGA. Why a 912 and not a 911. A Porsche with a six cylinder engine was way out of character. It was just as hard to accept as a Porsche with a water cooled, front engine or four doors. The 356 was unique and performed more than adequately. It was a winner in SCCA E production. It was also simple. The 911 has certainly since proved itself as worthy of a Porsche badge however it is the 356 that started the cult.

    And it is so funny to see the snobs denigrating the four-cylinder turbo 718s. I don’t know if they are just ignorant of the first products or just like being jerks.
    The badge still has the crest and they drive very well. Yeah, sound isn’t as good as a six but that’s subjective anyway!

    IIRC, Porsche had issues with the Nikasil coated bores of early 4.5 cars’ blocks…not exactly the kind of first impression you want consumers to have with the technology you’re betting your company’s future on, and something that probably hobbled the 928’s ultimate success.

    Having owned half a dozen 928s over the past 40 years, from a euro-spec ‘79 5-speed to an ‘89 5-speed, and currently have an early US production ‘87 in my garage, can honestly say that I would not discount the automatic S4s. Such a joy for touring!

    I had the pleasure to own one for ten years. When I got it, (3 rd owner) it needed some love; battery, tires, A.C etc. Water pump and main belt.had been done. It was not my driver, but I had numerous long trips with it. It was amazing to feel the change of personnality when asking for some speed. The growl from the engine was followed by a fast forward push that would bring you quickly much over legal speed. At night you could travel in the 160-180 km with too much ease. It bore the famous red guard red, very attractive for police. I have been lucky to live with such a car which was years in advance. ButPorsche intensive research was not lost because most of it lives now a new life under the skin of the actual Panamera.

    Nobody is going to say it!…Really! Nobody is going to say it!…Alright then..I’ll say it! The problem with the 928 is…the 944. Too perfect.

    I have an 1986.5 928S 5 speed and I feel it’s the best of the earlier and later cars. A few mid year updates from the upcoming S4 but with the original styling that I prefer. I love it!

    I’ve had my early 1986 5-speed for 27 years and I still love it! It drives like it’s on rails, stops on a dime, and the interior is super comfortable and adjustable. Our cars are lighter than the S4 with the same engine (different intake). Most have no idea that 1st gear goes to about 50mph, 2nd to 80mph, 3rd to 110mph, 4th to 140mph, and 5th gear just keeps pulling! It drives at 120mph like it’s doing 70.

    Amen, J Simon! 86.5 has the engine, brakes and suspension of the awesome S4, but about 200 lbs. less weight. IMHO, it’s the epitome of the 928 for performance and style.

    Also kudos to the author for pointing out the reliability of these cars. Once sorted, you have a very reliable classic that’s extremely fun to drive!

    I have owned a 1986.5 S3 35 years now. Also garaged and never winter driven. It has been a fun car to own but I have been amazed over the last few years, the amount of attention this car gets especially from the younger generation. When I bought it was one of a few beautiful cars that a really tall person could drive comfortably. Over the years we have in addition to the 928, Audis, Volvo, Mercedes and more Porsches ( presently Panamera) but the 928 is still here.

    beware of running costs ! every part on these seemed to be 2k from Porsche if you want to maintain the value that comes from a good service history. 16 litres of coolant ! ECU longevity is also an issue and hard to get fixed.
    Had a 1991 S4 in Amethyst purple

    I drove one many years ago, and it was indeed a car that came alive at 70 MPH plus – seemed very much like an optimized Corvette, but more comfortable and refined. Even then, maintenance costs were pretty daunting. While I never cared for the pop-up headlamps aesthetically, or the later rear spoiler, it remains an impressive memory. I’d say it was a more mature car than my father-in-law’s 944 (which was fun & athletic). But at the top of my list of cars I wish I’d kept is my old 73.5 CIS 911T.

    Funny — “optimized Corvette” — when Corvettes from C5 on have been based on the 928’s transaxle design from at least a decade earlier! I agree the pop-up headlights can be a bit creepy, but they are key to the design of the first Porsche I ever found truly attractive. Porsche’s first clean-sheet design since the original VW.

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