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Face Off--Ferrari 288 GTO vs. Porsche 959

This isn't exactly news to long-time readers, but we at Car Lust enjoy our cars a little on the offbeat side. Sure, we like fast, beautiful, and competent cars, but unlike many sites and most car magazines, we give at least as much love to the lumbering land barges, wheezing econoboxes,French oddities, and Eastern bloc agricultural implements.

I'm proud of the diversity of the cars we highlight, but after last week's Jellybean Quasi-Sportsters Face Off, which featured six brightly painted, 130-horsepower, economy-car-based, quasi-sports coupes, I feel as if I owe the long-suffering readers of this blog something just a tiny bit more traditionally lustable. Hopefully high-performance homologation specials from Ferrari and Porsche will do the job.

More detail follows after the poll and the jump.

[The poll widget is no longer available because has ceased operations.]

Ferrari 288 GTO
From the post:

"This latter-day 1980s GTO just happens to be that rarest of breeds--a limited-production, hyper-exotic Ferrari supercar that, due to a strange combination of circumstances, has remained far more obscure than its nameplate and performance would indicate. ...

Ferrari-288-gto-back-3_101[Compared to economy-car-based Group B cars], Ferrari started with something infinitely more exotic--the long, low, and swoopy mid-engined 308 sports car. To that promising beginning, Ferrari added a twin-turbocharged V-8 that cranked out 400 horsepower. The result was the 288 GTO--a scarlet supercar that exploded from 0-60 in 5 seconds flat and topped out at 190 mph--serious speed in the mid-1980s. A competition background, a gorgeous body, world-class speed, and of course the instant cachet of the Ferrari badge--this car had everything needed for lasting fame. Everything, that is, but an identify of its own, because against all odds the 288 GTO was completely overshadowed by its contemporaries.

"As a street car, the GTO suffered in comparison with its Group B cousins. With relatively conservative engineering and without AWD's game-changing traction, the street-going GTO couldn't keep pace with cars like the Ford RS200 or the Peugeot 205 T16. ... That doesn't fully explain the GTO's lack of fame, though. After all, in the flashy world of the mid-1980s, Americans should have been worshiping at the altar of a sexy, high-performance Italian car. Well, they did; the problem is that they were adoring other sexy, high-performance Italian cars.

"The GTO never had anything like enough visual horsepower or notoriety to displace the Lamborghini Countach as the teenage dream machine of choice. And even within the Ferrari lineup, the GTO was overshadowed--its stablemate, the Ferrari Testarossa, was nearly as fast, far more distinctive, and had a starring role in Miami Vice that turned it into a lust object for millions. ... I don't mean to claim that the 1980s Ferrari 288 GTO was completely ignored or overshadowed; it is a Ferrari. But I've always found it remarkable that Ferrari produced a pretty, low-production, high-performance special that, somehow, never really impacted the public consciousness."

Porsche 959
From the post:

Porsche 959 2

"I always respected the 959 for two reasons--because it was a thinking man's exotic, and because it was the supercar epitome of speaking softly while carrying a big stick. Oh, and what a stick it was.

"In a straight line, on dry pavement, the 959 ... was in an entirely different zip code (from the Italian exotics). Its all-wheel-drive traction helped it sprint to 60 in 3.6 seconds, and it rocketed up to the very verge of 200 mph. That's stunning, heroic performance for 1986; even two decades later, that 0-60 time is incredible. Only the outrageous Ferrari F40 could run with the 959.

"Ah, but that's on straight, dry pavement. The 959 was outstanding on straight, dry pavement, but it was otherworldly when the road turned curvy or wet. The 959 excelled in real-world conditions that would cause a Testarossa, Countach, or even an F40 to run and hide.

"Most supercars depended on brawn, but the 959's genius derived from its brainy technology. Rather than the huge V-8s or V-12s favored in other performance cars of the time, the 959 made do with a 2.85-liter flat six similar to the engine that appeared in plebeian 911s. Similar, that is, but for two sequential turbochargers that pumped the output to 444 horsepower. Few exotic car manufacturers used turbochargers at teh time, but those that did tended to use large turbochargers. That's not surprising, as large turbos provide amazing boost--albeit at the expense of jerky, delayed response. Porsche's sequential turbocharging system, on the other hand, paired a small, responsive turbo with a large, powerful sibling--providing both smooth, immediate power delivery and tremendous top-end thrust.

"The 959 put that power to the ground through a sophisticated all-wheel-drive system, one of the very first to be installed on an ultra-high-performance car. The system could alter power delivery to each wheel depending on available traction--technology available to the most humble compact SUV today, but exotic stuff indeed in 1987. As a bonus, the 959 was relatively easy to drive slowly and smoothly; it wasn't quite a grocery-getter, but neither was it a snorting, ill-behaved brute like a Countach."

My Opinion
Both the Ferrari and the Porsche were exotic evolutions of their company's bread-and-butter sports cars (the Ferrari 308 and the Porsche 911, respectively), though heavily enhanced with much more exotic hardware. Both the GTO and 959 were built to help homologate race cars for the planned but ultimately abandoned Group B asphalt racing series. Both street cars were hugely rare, obscenely expensive, and among the fastest street cars available in the mid-to-late 1980s.

Yet, interestingly, the two cars present completely different personalities. Just look at the pictures in this post; the Ferrari's achingly emotive lines are highlighted in blood-red paint, while the Porsche's arodynamically sculpted profile is painted in a more dispassionate silver. The Ferrari looks like a barely restrained beast; the Porsche resembles scientific equipment. This impression is carried through to the engineering--the Ferrari was a cramped, hot, snorting beast; the Porsche was relatively civilized and used all-wheel-drive to put power to the ground with a minimum of fuss.

My vote is for the Porsche 959, and it's not particularly close. While the GTO is a compellingly unique Ferrari and a bona fide object of lust, the 959 speaks to my imagination in a much more direct way. As I said in my original post, "in a decade that celebrated excess and extravagance, the 959 was a Porsche that was excessive in its technology and extravagant in its intelligence." That still sums it up for me. The GTO was an adolescent's fantasy car; by contrast, the 959 was a grown-up's exotic. As evocative as the Ferrari is, the Porsche is faster, subtler, and boasts more innovative and, ultimately, more influential technology. And, perhaps paradoxically, that makes me want it all the more passionately.

--Chris H.


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This is a tough one. I'm predicting a win for the Porsche, not only based on better performance and streetability, but for the urban legend factor. I recall reading that, when the 959 came out, not only was it legally barred from being registed for road use in the US, it couldn't even be imported (not sure if that's true or not). Aren't there stories about even Bill Gates not being able to get one? All that mystique would be the cherry on one hell of a strudel.
Personally, I'd get the Ferrari, though. I've always had a thing for the 308/328 body style, despite the Magnum PI references. PLus the point of an exotic is to get the whole experience - possibly trading discomfort, limited usability, exorbitant maintenance for incredible performance. I think the Ferrari would bring that.

Cogito ergo ZOOM!

Unfortunately, you couldn't bring the 959 stateside and drive it on the our roads.. I don't know if there are current exceptions now for it, but it was the case before.

I had always lusted after the 959 and it's fantastic performance for the day. It's probably the *only* Porsche which I've actually lusted after and would love to have today. The 288? "Meh" by today's standards, but wouldn't decline a free one.

At the time, the 959 seemed really exciting because of its Kevlar bodywork and details like the planetary gearbox in a beer can lug wrench. Porsche has fallen so far as an engineering company since than that it seems to have just been a bitter harbinger that they would start making everything look like the 911 as they became an ugly marketing arm of VW. Neither of these cars particularly appeals to me. Turbos are for people who don't know any better, and government regulations are about to cause them to proliferate.

CJ, you are smoking crack. How are turbos for those who don't know any better? They allow small displacement engines to cruise getting great MPG, and then when you floor it and the boost kicks in, they have the power of a large displacement engine.

As an automotive enthusiast, I laugh at you for disregarding turbos. You truly do not know what you are talking about, at all.

As for the subject.. 959, no question. It will destroy most supercars, even today.

Let's not get personal about it - turbos do have some negative points. After all, you've got turbo lag, added heat and complexity, and (unless you care for them) the tendency to reduce the life span of key components of your engine. All things being equal, a larger displacement engine provides smoother power delivery across the whole rev range and has fewer longevity concerns.

Of course, all things are rarely equal, and I'm a huge fan of turbos for all the reasons you outline, Rob. Turbos represent a great way to wring big power out of a small engine, and the whistle and rush of power never fails to make me grin. Many of my favorite cars are turbos, I enjoyed my time storing and driving a VW 1.8T, and the downsides won't prevent me from owning a turbo car someday.

It's like choosing between James Bond and Rambo. The 959 definitely has the white tuxedo,the martini, the yacht, the Walther PPK, and the stunning blonde.

The 288GTO shoots flaming arrows.

The only way I am ever going to have a car like this is in the unlikely event that I win the Powerball, have a midlife crisis, and then slip through a dimensional portal into an alternate universe where I have no wife and children.

In that alternate universe, I'm driving the Ferrari.

I'd suggest turbo defenders take a look at page 34 of the July 2009 issue of Car and Driver. "Donkey Show: Displacement Downsizing," explains how the automakers are using small displacement turbocharged engines to game the EPA tests while producing no gains for the buyers. They compared the much faster BMW 328i, rated 18/28 mpg by the EPA to the 8/10ths of a second to 60 slower Audi A4 2.0T which receives an EPA rating of 21/27 mpg. Real world observed economy was 25 for the naturally aspirated and quick BMW and 23 mpg for the pedestrian turbo Audi. Similar results came from comparisons between the Nissan Murano V6 and the Mazda CX-7 turbo - 23 mpg and 0-60 of 7.3 for the V6 to 20 mpg and 7.8 to 60 for the turbo. In luxury cars, the naturally aspirated Mercedes S550 was a tenth slower and 1 mpg better(17 to 16) than the turbo BMW 750Li. In addition to inferior real world economy and generally inferior performance, the turbos also need more maintenance, won't last as long, and will be avoided by experienced used car shoppers. To each their own. The world isn't one big mystery to some of us though.

I'm not sure about the SUVs since I don't care, but your argument of the BMW vs Audi is completely flawed. One is AWD, the other is RWD. Of course the RWD car is going to have better mpg and more speed; it has a more efficient drivetrain due to less parasitic loss.

If you compare a 300hp 4 turbo banger vs a 300hp v6, the performance should be the same, all other things equal. The smaller displacement turbo engine, however, will use less fuel when not in boost than the V6.

I think you need to read up more. You are comparing cars with different drivetrains, different gear ratios, different weights, and trying to justify your statement that turbos are dumb. The reality is such an obviously flawed comparo only makes you seem ignorant.

I would suggest you compare the real world mileage with the EPA ratings. Naturally aspirated cars do better relative to their EPA numbers. If I seem ignorant on this particular topic to you, let me assure you that the feeling is more than mutual. Turbos come with serious negatives. The reality being that their positives only occur in a flawed lab test on a chassis dynometer means their purchase represents a rookie mistake.

So you're saying that comparing cars with different final drive ratios, different weights, and different drive systems (AWD vs RWD) is a valid argument to prove that turbochargers are inferior?

I have to agree with Rob here - engine technology is only part of the equation. Detroit in the '70s "improved" gas mileage of their large boats by manipulating the gearing of their V-8s; sure, they couldn't accelerate worth beans after they slapped on 2.4:1 rear axles, killed compression, and set the gearing to be as passive-aggressive as humanly possible, but, hey, they finally cleared 10 MPG. It wasn't because Detroit V-8s magically became more efficient (quite the opposite, actually); they just reconfigured their cars to "emphasize" economy and emissions over performance.

In the end, though, this "debate" is highly immaterial, for it completely ignores the One True Powertrain:

Turbo Diesel!

Your inferior gasoline-powered "engines" shall tremble before the might of superior low-end torque, longer engine life, and superior gas mileage! Muahahahaha!

Not to throw gasoline on the fire, but I'm not so sure about that, CJ. If you'll go back and read my GTI post, I noted that I'm consistently outperforming the car's EPA rating in normal driving (which is, for me, slightly lead-footed driving). I think it depends on the car, and the kind of driving you do. The turbo lets you get more peak power out of a smaller displacement--but when you're not under full throttle, like in extended freeway cruising, you're using less fuel than a larger-displacement unboosted engine with the same peak horsepower.

I don't have the sense that anyone disagreeing with me is or can do the applicable the math. It is like asking people of questionable intellect to do the math. It is improbable to happen.

Do what you've got to do. People who know me hate that they have to weather disagreeing me that one time.

CJ go back to No one likes your argumentative style here.

I have some sympathy for the C&D comparison. While it may be true that, all other things being equal, a smaller engine will provide better fuel economy than a larger engine, all other things are hardly ever equal; it's not just the engine, it's the whole package. Not to mention driving style as CDO says (recalling the Top Gear M3 v. Prius test). I can easily see manufacturers putting smaller engines in, but then tweaking them such that, even with a smaller displacement they're burning more gas to get the required power than they may otherwise do. And some no doubt depends on gaming the EPA tests as well. The smaller engines could, in the real world, be more marketing tools than actual fuel-savers (maybe even more expensive -- and therefore profitable -- than perhaps less complex larger ones).

I remember Toyota making some of their larger models into hybrids that ended up having nearly identical MPGs as the normal models, but they had more overall power.

They're devious, these capitalists. . . .

IMNHO the 959 has the sexiest curves of any car on the planet. So for that alone it gets my vote.

The body makes me think of a modern take on Art Nouveau.

And twin-turbo driven I-6 pumping out 444HP - dreamy!

--Big Chris

Rob/CJ - if you guys don't find a way to disagree in a respectful way, I'm going to have to either close comments or start removing offending comments. I don't want to do either, so please find a way to argue the issue without being derogatory to the people who disagree with you. Seriously, it's turbocharging, not nun murder - there's room for reasonable people on both sides of this debate.

Not really sure where I've been disrepectful, other than pointing out his flawed arguments.

Addressed to everybody, here are comments in this thread that are dismissive of anybody who holds the opposite position.

CJ: "Turbos are for people who don't know any better"

Rob: "CJ, you are smoking crack. ... As an automotive enthusiast, I laugh at you for disregarding turbos. You truly do not know what you are talking about, at all."

CJ: "The world isn't one big mystery to some of us though."

Rob: "trying to justify your statement that turbos are dumb. The reality is such an obviously flawed comparo only makes you seem ignorant."

CJ: "If I seem ignorant on this particular topic to you, let me assure you that the feeling is more than mutual. ... [a turbo] purchase represents a rookie mistake."

CJ: "don't have the sense that anyone disagreeing with me is or can do the applicable the math. It is like asking people of questionable intellect to do the math. It is improbable to happen."

Steve: "CJ go back to No one likes your argumentative style here."

None of this is necessary. The debate works just fine without these barbs, and including them serves only one purpose, to belittle the people who don't agree.

Think of this blog as my living room and me as the host. We're all talking cars in a collegial fashion. Would you barb your statements like that in real life? If you did, you'd probably find that everybody else in the room would find that really off-putting and it would discourage conversation and attendance at future events. As the host, I'm asking my guests to allow me to keep the party going by being respectful of the other guests.

Obviously I like Rob a lot - he's a contributor to this blog, and we share a lot of opinions. I also like CJ a lot, he adds a lot of thoughtful comments, and I think he's making some good points here and backing it up with a C&D article. The conversation itself is pretty interesting. Just tone down the snark; it's counter-productive to making your respective cases.

I'm more than a little biased. I owned a 959-bodied 1988 Carrera in Guards Red. The former owner spent 10 years creating a nearly perfect replica, so much so that it won its share of Concours competitions. Porsche rules!!!

This face off has been pretty competitive; when I checked it on Friday, the Ferrari had an extremely narrow lead. I'm talking about a 50.4/49.6 type lead. It's interesting that the Porsche had sprinted ahead to the degree that it has.

Chris. I'm not sure how calling someone ignorant when they are being ignorant is an insult. The article he mentioned did not back up his viewpoints, as there were so many variables that changed between the two cars that it does not even support his viewpoint. I was purposely trying not to be insulting, but merely sticking to the facts. I feel that he does not know what he is talking about. The biggest downside to a turbocharger is lag. That is it. Yeah, they're slightly more complex than an NA engine, but I know many turbo cars with well over 200k miles, on the original turbo, engine, and transmission. If a car is engineered well, it is not a problem.

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