Full circle with the 944

Looking over the hood of my Alpine White 944 at a brisk, but leisurely pace on the morning’s coffee run brings back great memories. The 944 is by far the slowest car in my collection of five Porsches, yet it is the most tactile, most mechanical, and most engaging in an analog way. Though it lacks the 6-cylinder snarl of the other cars (the 944 does not have a sexy engine sound) it’s purposeful 2.5-liter four-cylinder powerplant gets the job done in a confidence inspiring manner. Oddly enough, it’s incredibly easy to find the speedometer lingering between about 75 and 95 m.p.h. while sweeping through the corners ahead.

The sheer connectedness between the steering wheel and the roads surface establishes a more hard-wired feel between driver and machine than any current Porsche provides. Jumping back into the 2016 Cayman S with PDK covered in Carrera White upon arrival for a quick comparison confirms this.

Car & Driver refers to the steering in the Cayman S 981 series Cayman S thusly, “There’s no twitchiness or uncertainty in the steering; on-center is just that; and there’s no slack, no delay in response. Left and right happen right now.” The 981 feels like a PlayStation in comparison. C&D goes on to say, “This may be the best a Porsche ever gets.” But the 944’s steering response is like nothing else.

Ditto for the shifter. Fortunately, this car has had its shifter recently refreshed with a factory short shift mechanism. There is no question where the forward gears are, and shifting up or down feels more like pulling the bolt back in a military carbine rifle. However, it does lack the delicacy of a perfectly aligned Muncie 4-speed.

Many younger, current Porsche owners have not driven a 944, nor the 986/987 or 996/997, hydraulic steering versions of the Boxster, Cayman, or 911. Things were different then. To be fair, Porsche has done a better job with electric power steering than anyone else. My last few BMWs were dreadful at best. (Though oddly, the electric i3 had incredible steering feel – who knew?)

In the mid-1980s, Car & Driver called the 944 “The best handling car ever made,” with Ferrari, BMW, Chevrolet, and Mercedes as rivals. It remains a benchmark for road feel, closely matched by the original Miata, and only bettered by the Lotus Elise today.

The newer cars are better in terms of creature comfort and the way Porsche treads the thin line between sports car and GT car, all in a package that you can drive every day without living at the service center. They have buckets of horsepower as well, yet the old car (and this includes 911s of the same era) feels right in the same way taking pictures with a Leica M6, or putting a vinyl record down on a top-notch turntable does. This is an experience to be savored, as it doesn’t exist much anymore. Current Ferraris don’t even offer a manual gearbox.

By comparison, my neighbor tells me she bought her new Subaru Legacy (Consumer Reports best mainstream car for 2023) because it has an infotainment screen the size of an iPad Pro. When I tell her I drive a car for the sheer pleasure of driving, she looks at me like my English Bull Terrier does when I whistle at her, cocking her head to the right as if I’m speaking in Portuguese.

Though my 944 has an upgraded, CD radio with Bluetooth capability, it’s only to charge my phone. With miles of twisties close by, fun is only 10 minutes away, listening to the wind in the trees with the driver’s window down and the sunroof tilted up, as the speed increases is where it’s at.  Nothing peels off the stress, assisting focus better than a brisk but not maniacal drive through turn after turn, shifting back and forth between 2nd, 3rd, and 4th gears, absorbing one turn after another. In my early days it was all about acceleration, now it’s about pace.

While today’s Porsches are quite forgiving of driver error in all but the most catastrophic circumstances, everything in the 944 is linear in feel and execution. There are no computers, traction controls, or even anti-lock brakes to help should a misstep occur. The 944 is a car that you must engage with and drive. Sub triple-digit speeds have never felt so glorious.

The 944 does not impart a feeling of speed the way the new 911 Turbo S does, nor does it nudge your psyche to go faster in the way the 981 Cayman S does when that six shrieks near redline. It merely whispers “I can do this all day” in your ear, with the small, orange triangle in the middle of the tachometer reminding you that you should have shifted up 3,000 r.p.m. ago.  A lovely EPA thing remaining in current Porsches, perhaps as a hint we shouldn’t enjoy driving after all.

Government regulations aside, an hour disappears and it’s time to get back to real work. Even if you’ve never owned a 944, should the chance to take one for a drive materialize, partake. It will make for an excellent car memory.

If you add one to your garage, I salute you. Check Bring A Trailer, excellent examples can be found in the 15-20 thousand dollar range. Less than a used Subaru Legacy.