First Impressions

Testing two Turbo-Look heros of the 1980s.

911 3.2 vs. 944 S2 1
August 6, 2010

It’s been said that appearances are everything. Thankfully, most people would disagree — but they’d probably agree that looks are exceedingly important when it comes to cars. Por­­sche’s marketing department certainly would, seeing as it regularly commissions normally-aspirated models that aesthetically mimic turbo versions.

Today, several specialty 911s come with the Turbo’s wider hips and you can’t buy an all-wheel-drive 911 without them. Offi­cially, the tradition can trace its roots to Option M491 for 1984 Carreras, which added the 911 Turbo’s flares, front spoiler, rear wing, wider wheels, fatter tires, up­graded suspension, and bigger brakes.

By the end of the 1980s, another normally-aspirated Porsche was aping a top-line Turbo. It was the 1989–91 944 S2 — a 16-valve, 3.0-liter evolution of the 944S. The S2 got the 1986–89 Turbo’s smoother front bumper, slick side rocker trim, smart aerodynamic rear undertray, and some of the underpinnings Por­sche came up with to keep the 944 Turbo grounded.

911 3.2 vs. 944 S2 2

So when reader Larry O’Rourke offered us a drive in his pristine 944 S2, it seemed a good idea to line up an example of the “other” Turbo-Look. Initially, our plan was to have his 1989 944 S2 face a 1989 Carrera with the preferred G50 transaxle and ten more horses than 1984–86 Carreras. When that plan fell apart at the last minute, Ed Ricci came to the rescue with his 1984 911 Carrera, finished in a classic 911 combination: Grand Prix White on Black. Other than a 915 gearbox and a little less power, little separates it from the M491 offered in 1989, the final model year for the Carrera 3.2 and the first for the 944 S2.

Ricci has had his Carrera for 18 years. His search for the perfect candidate took a year and a half. He had always coveted the lines of the fat-fendered 930/911 Turbo, but then his mechanic suggested he “could have the 930 look without the 930 expense” — with an M491. At the time, the car had to fulfill a role as a daily driver in Cali­fornia traffic, so reliability was a greater consideration than outright performance. He bought the M491 from Kinesis founder Peter Stacy after seeing it at 1991’s Porsche Parade in Colo­rado. Ricci had to bug Stacy for a year to convince him to sell the car.

It wasn’t Ricci’s first Porsche. Like so many, he suffers from the highly contagious but still widely misunderstood “multiple Porsche syndrome.” His case began with an affinity for 356s, which blossomed into 911 fever. Currently, the white M491 shares garage space with a ’63 356 Super 90, a ’69 911T, and a 2004 996 Turbo.

911 3.2 vs. 944 S2 3

Parked next to the Carrera at the top of Southern California’s appropriately named, incredibly sinuous Stunt Road is O’Rourke’s pristine 944 S2. Like Ricci, he has owned his share of Porsches, from impact-bum­per Carreras to current 997s. He’s an avid Ferrari enthusiast, too, and has an award-winning 328 GTB in the garage. He only recently acquired the S2 after a long search for the best one he could find.

“I looked for three and a half years to find one this clean and I specifically wanted a Guards Red-over-Black example because it best shows the lines of the car,” explains O’Rourke. While looking for the right S2, he learned what many 944 buyers have: 944s are rarely as well cared for as other Porsche models. “Sadly, there are so many 944s out there in poor condition. Finding an S2 in this condition was an even greater task because there are fewer of them.”

Seeing his S2 in person is like stepping through a time portal and emerging in 1989. “I found the car in Naples, Florida with 20,500 miles on the odometer,” reveals O’Rourke. “It had belonged to two collectors who were avid Porsche fans. The paint, interior, trim, engine bay, original books, spare tire, and the rims were absolutely pristine.” At the time, O’Rourke was on a spree and bought everything from this car to an ’84 Wolfsburg Edition Scirocco. He later came to his senses and sold off many of the cars (including a spotless Testa­rossa), but he kept the 944 and 328.

911 3.2 vs. 944 S2 4

While I can’t wait to find out more about why O’Rourke is so into the S2, I open the door to the beguiling M491 first. No surprises await me inside. It’s vintage 911, and by that I mean there isn’t much between this cockpit and one in a late 1960s 911. Sure, the gauges look more modern, the seats are more accommodating — but the basic layout is identical. That same wide, oval-shaped instrument cluster, that same upright driving position, that same shift lever sprouting out of the floor.

It’s cozy if claustrophobic, particularly in all black. It does feel exceedingly well screwed together, though. The driver’s door shuts with a tching, and the interior has held up well, with hardly a wear mark in sight. Everything about it smacks of quality and has a hand-made feel.

A twist of the key ignites the 3.2-liter six under that massive rubber-lipped spoiler — a wing that, thanks to its sheer presence, still shames any Pep Boys contraption adorning the trunk of an unfortunate Civic. After firing up with a smooth flourish, the 3.2 settles down to a whirring, chugging idle. Horsepower was rated at 207 for a U.S. car like this one, torque a similarly modest 195 lb-ft.

911 3.2 vs. 944 S2 5

The clutch is a bit heavy and the 915 transmission slots into first easily if a bit vaguely. 1987–89 Carreras with the G50 transmission offer a more modern, more precise shifter, but I find that the 915 feels more appropriate in an impact-bumper 911. Once underway, the heft of the clutch carries over to the steering, which is nicely weighted through sweepers but gives my forearms a workout in tighter hairpins.

The star of the show is the 3.2, which pushes this fairly light 911 out of corners and shoves it down the road enthusiastically. The flat six makes all the right noises and offers solid torque for quick progress. It whirs distinctively in the midrange and howls like a rip-saw at higher rpm.

Thanks to its wider contact patch, this M491 offers less of the fine feedback narrow Carreras do. While this is most apparent at the rear end, there’s still decent feedback and tactility at the front tires, which helps you place this wide-feeling 911 where you want it on canyon roads. After firing out of a few corners and inhaling short straights, it’s apparent that this is a car better suited to medium-speed sweepers and faster bends. Its heavy steering makes it feel slow-witted and none-too nimble. In tight turns, understeer rears it head and the front end washes wide — a sure byproduct of the additional grip provided by the Turbo-sized, 16×9 rear wheels and 245-mm tires.

911 3.2 vs. 944 S2 6

There’s enough grip on hand to go very quickly, but the car’s mid-corner reflexes aren’t as sharp as I expected and would have preferred. It turns in nicely, with the front tires keying into the pavement, but it’s difficult to adjust your line through a corner once you’re committed. Attacking a succession of turns is best done with forethought. As for braking, the Turbo-sourced stoppers feel firm, so you lean on them harder — but they’re easily modulated and slow the car quickly.

Coming to a stop next to the 944 after a spirited run through the hills, I’m struck by how old the impact-bumper 911s are starting to feel, a trait that encompasses everything from their interior layout to the sound of the air-cooled masterpiece that powers them. It’s no bad thing, but it’s a sentiment echoed by O’Rourke when he returns from a stint in the 911.

“The thing I like about the Carrera is that it has that ‘original 911’ feel to it,” says the 944 owner. “The car and the power come alive in the higher revs. The steering is heavier than the S2’s, but it’s precise and turn-in is razor sharp.” He also noticed the Carrera’s firmer ride. We’re in the same camp when it comes to the Turbo-Look’s lines. “The lines, the flares, the wing… (It is) by far one of the best looking designs to ever come out of the factory.”

911 3.2 vs. 944 S2 7

Getting into the 944, the first thing I notice is another cockpit from another era. This cabin, while on the austere side — think liberating negative space to the 911’s busy, cozy interior — has aged well, thanks to its wraparound gauge cluster and less-is-more ethos. The driving position is low and laid back, similar to a 928’s, and the shifter falls to hand nicely.

So far, few disappointments. But turning the ignition key leads to a letdown. The 944’s big inline four comes off as decidedly agricultural — at least at idle. That’s not so much an insult as a commentary on inline fours with rare exception (Alfa Romeo twin-cams come to mind) and no exceptions when they get this large. There is no denying that the S2’s 3.0-liter four is an impressive piece of engineering, however. The 16-valve, DOHC four offers 208 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque, beating the 911’s larger flat six on both counts.

Once underway, it’s obvious that the S2 has decent sprinting ability. It feels quicker than the 6.2-second 0–60-mph dash Por­sche claimed when this model was new, and the engine makes a smooth, mechanical growl throughout the rev range. While it doesn’t rev as cleanly as the Carrera’s flat six, it picks up revs enthusiastically.

Stringing a few fast corners together brings a vivid reminder of why 944s generated rave reviews in their heyday and why they continue to be so widely appreciated for their handling. There’s a little roll on turn-in, but once the car takes a set, it rotates beautifully around its center, turning in precisely with its tail following obediently. The S2’s on-road behavior feels more akin to that of the 2010 Boxster S I arrived in than the 911 it’s here to face.

With more familiarization, I feel comfortable to drive right up the adhesion limits and keep the 944 there, manipulating its throttle, steering, and brakes to finely adjust its attitude anyway I want or need to –– something I didn’t feel comfortable doing in the 911. Out of turns, the normally-aspirated 3.0 has low-end immediacy lacking in its 944 Turbo sibling. Where the Turbo suffers from old-school lag, the S2’s 16-valve four gives up useable power and torque sooner, then builds from there. It may lack the smoothness of the 3.2-liter Carrera, but it revs quickly and enthusiastically, and the gearing is absolutely perfect. Shifting up in the heart of the powerband always puts the engine back in its sweet-spot, so acceleration is always progressive, always constant. Overall, the S2 feels light on its feet and good to go.

Ricci, a 944 newbie, is as impressed as I am by the S2’s talents. “Never having driven a 944, I was quite surprised at the balance of the car,” he says. “And I particularly liked the fact that you always had plenty of torque. The gearing was always right.” It’s no surprise that, today, the 944 S2 has a cult following that’s probably as ardent as the M491 Carrera’s.

Choosing between the two comes down to how you like your Porsche experience. It’s undeniable that the Carrera offers more of a sense of occasion. It feels handmade, thoroughly infused with Por­sche DNA, and steeped in competition history. Compared to the 944, however, it feels like something of a throwback. The S2’s feisty four-banger, perfect gearing, transaxle chassis, and un­real balance represented another era for the company — and did so beautifully.

Also from Issue 186

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  • Rare one-off 1953 Phoenix-Porsche
  • Driving a 1974 RSR in the last Historics
  • How the 911 won Le Mans in 2010
  • Real 1973 RS 2.7, Hot-rodded
  • Sebring Winner Kees Nierop
  • 911 Turbo Buyers Guide
  • Early 911: Affordable Fun
  • 2011 Panamera V6 Driven
  • The Cashmere Cliff Part 3 (911 SC)
  • Porsche's Latest Parts Emporium
  • Porsche Batteries and Electrical Systems
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