1986 Porsche 944
4-cyl. 2479cc/143hp Bosch DME FI
With an experienced team and a lot of data.
After three decades of producing rear-engined, air-cooled cars, Porsche began experimenting with more mainstream configurations in the late 1970s with an eye towards mass appeal. The Stuttgart company released a series of front-engine, water-cooled cars, first with the 924 in 1976, then with the 928 in 1978. The Porsche 944 appeared in 1982 as a more performance-oriented take on what the 924 initiated.
While the 924 was most often criticized for uncharacteristic performance courtesy of its Audi four-cylinder, Porsche equipped the 944 with a more powerful alloy 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. To counter some of the vibration that was associated with the 924, Porsche installed a Mitsubishi-patented Lanchester balance shaft. The overall unit was descended from the 928 and was good for 143 hp and a 0-60 time of 8.3 seconds.
Better than its speed or power was the 944’s handling. In 1984, Car and Driver named the 944 the “Best Handling Production Car in America.” A four-wheel disc brake setup and wide 215/60-15 tires complemented its balanced chassis, and wide fender flares reminiscent of Audi’s Ur-Quattro helped the car look the part. All the same, dyed-in-the-wool Porschephiles tended to shun the model as a mainstream compromise.
Halfway through the 1985 model year, Porsche revamped the car's interior to match the 911 and 928. A redesigned dash improved ventilation, better seats were installed, as were a new steering wheel and an antenna in the windshield. The traditional Fuchs wheels were replaced with “phone dial” mags.
Several mechanical upgrades also accompanied the mid-year make-over. The engine was significantly modified, with the valves, pistons and combustion chambers revised to the tune of an extra 15 hp. The oil pump was redesigned and oil capacity was increased to six quarts. The radiator was improved and suspension pieces were lightened and strengthened. Antilock brakes became optional in 1987, and 1988’s standard dual airbags were cutting edge.
From 1986 through 1991, 944s came in a vast array of configurations, including Turbo, S, Turbo S and S2 models, and a Cabriolet (in 1991). Depending on the trip, up to 250 hp was available out of the four-banger. Prices climbed even faster than horsepower, though, with the Turbo costing $29,000 in 1986 and the Turbo S skyrocketing to $45,275 in 1988. By way of comparison, a Chevrolet Camaro IROC-Z cost just $13,490.
In addition to unfavorable exchange rates, competition from the Nissan 300ZX Turbo (MSRP $33,500) and Toyota Supra Turbo (MSRP $23,760) hurt sales. The 944 departed quietly in 1991, followed by the similar, slow-selling 968, in 1993.
Porsche later went on to build water-cooled 911s and front-engine SUVs, so period objections to the 944’s “purity” don’t really resonate in hindsight—nonetheless, the market and values haven’t really warmed up. As such, the 944 represents an affordable and entertaining entry point to Porsche ownership. Second generation cars have held up particularly well, as performance was better than earlier models. Check for oil leaks and service history, and make sure the timing belt is recent, as replacing one costs more than $1,000. The Turbo’s superior performance warrants its premium over the S, but finding one that has been well maintained can be difficult. An easier option is to find a non-turbo, four-valve S model instead.