Tuesday, April 15, 2008

My Cars: Porsche 924S

The classic front engined, rear wheel drive GT has to be one of the most evocative profiles in motoring. It conjures up images of playboys in continent-crushing Aston Martins and Ferraris howling around alpine passes to the sound of Matt Monroe. It's all so exotic and unobtainable. Or is it?

Whilst I had my 205 GTi up for sale, I began considering a replacement. I wanted an affordable sports car that would not only introduce me to rear wheel drive, but also serve as a genuinely realistic mode of every day transport. I considered various options, but in the end I homed in on either the Porsche 924 or 944. I eventually choose the 924S, which technically speaking is an amalgamation of the two - arguably containing the best bits of both.

Porsche designed the original 924 for Audi using various bits from the VAG parts bin including the two-litre, four-cylinder engine used in the Audi 100 and the Volkswagen LT van. When Audi backed out of the deal, Porsche bought the rights to the project for £40million – a cool £6million less than they'd charged in development costs. Upon its release, the car met with a lukewarm reaction. Porsche enthusiasts took a dislike to the use of a water-cooled engine – in particular its location at the front of the car and modest 125hp output. However there was no denying that the company was onto something with the beautifully balanced transaxle layout and pretty, yet practical, body. Its eventual successor, the 944, was released six years later with a 2.5 litre, 165hp engine developed in-house from the 928's V8. It featured an all-new body shell along with a whole raft of improvements to the suspension, transmission and brakes. Curiosity rapidly got the better of the Porsche engineers, who began experimenting with the improved mechanics of the 944 in the lighter, slipperier shell of the 924.
The result was the 924S and initially it seems to have worked a little too well – the cars were noticeably quicker than the base model 944 and production models were fitted with low compression pistons to reduce their power output. Even so, 0-60 took around 8 seconds and the top speed was in excess of 130mph. It wasn't until the final year of production – with the eight valve 944 safely out of the way – that the full specification engine was put in. There was little doubt that the performance of the 924S eclipsed that of the 944, however to this day the stigma of the original 'van-engined' car remains and the prices have never really recovered. This is, however, great news for the budget-conscious buyer, which is exactly where I fit in… In April 2006 I part exchanged my troublesome Pug for a 1988 924S, costing a grand total of £1,900.

The first thing that struck me coming from a hot hatch is how differently the performance was delivered. The 924S' long gearing and low coefficient of drag ensured it could hold its own on the autobahn, but it lacked the initial punch of something like the Pug. Once on the fly, the smooth, torquey engine delivered impressive real world pace, even if its reluctance to rev sometimes felt like someone had set the red line too low.

The car's real trump card was its balance. Thanks to the rear mounted transaxle it had a near-perfect 50:50 weight distribution, the benefits of which rapidly became clear. When provoked, the tail end would break away slowly and progressively. Correcting the slide was an equally relaxed affair; the beautifully direct steering allowed you to respond with precision, while the forgiving chassis meant you didn’t strictly need to. Sadly the feel was never quite there to back up the steering poise and a floaty ride further reduced the confidence that the excellent chassis would otherwise have generated. The brakes were also a little inert, with neither the stopping power nor the modulation that you might expect. These three points may well have related to the mechanical condition and tyre choice of my particular example; whatever the reason it seemed unfortunate that they were allowed to spoil such a competent chassis.

The story was much the same with other areas of the car. With the rear seats folded it had a truly huge loading area, which the hatchback allowed you to make maximum use of. Two mountain bike frames in the back? No problem, try that in an MX5… However actually accommodating adults in the back was almost impossible without some form of amputation. Likewise, its high gearing, torquey engine and respectable fuel consumption theoretically made it an ideal long distance tourer, but in reality its pint-sized fuel tank required repeated stops. Everywhere you looked, the 924S was full of contradictions.

All of these things led to a car that was frustrating, not for its shortcomings, but because it so obviously had the potential to be truly great. Its fundamental spec was a relatively compact, two plus two, rear wheel drive sports car with sublime balance, hugely practical boot space, cheap running costs and impressive reliability. What more could you need? It even had a removable targa panel in the roof, which made a surprisingly close approximation to open air motoring. The only things the fundamental concept lacked were a bit more power and some beefier brakes. I was sorely tempted to take the car on as a project and address those, but there was one problem, or rather there was already a solution…

For the cost of modifying a 924S to my requirements, there was already a car that fulfilled them all; the 944 S2. This used a version of the 944 engine that had been fitted with a sixteen valve head and bored out to three litres; it revved far more freely than the original unit and gained no less than 50hp. It also featured up-rated ventilated discs all round combined with an ABS system, the larger 944 fuel tank and the options of stiffer suspension and a limited slip diff.

So, why didn’t I buy a 944 S2? Well, simply the cost. It may have been more economical than modifying the existing car, but a decent example would still have been two or three times the price. And that's not really what the 924S was about – while they do have their foibles, they also offer a huge amount of car for the money and a very affordable entry into the sports car market. My example may be long gone, but I do sometimes find myself considering a return to Porsche ownership. If I did it would undoubtedly be a 944 S2, but this isn't due to hindsight – it's simply a result of having the means this time round. For the money, nothing beats the 924S.

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