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Face Off--1986 Porsches

Back in 1986, Road & Track ran a feature in which the staff drove and tested every available 1986 model-year Porsche. It struck me as an interesting idea in that it differed dramatically from the normal practice of extensively testing an individual car or comparison-testing similar cars across a brand. R&T didn't declare winners or losers, but the experience did provide a perspective of the manufacturer's overall offering.

It was a novel perspective, and it helped me realize that Porsche's lineup has one very curious quirk--namely, that many of Porsche's cars performed very similarly. Most car manufacturers have clearly stratified product lines with very little overlap, broken by size differences, performance disparities, or both. Porsche, on the other hand, was a little different. While it had the Porsche 924S and 944 on the low end of the performance spectrum and the Porsche 911 Turbo on the high end, there was a vast middle ground inhabited by the 944 Turbo, 911 Cabriolet, and 928S, all of which ran the 0-60 sprint within a half-second range.

This is not to say that the cars were in any way clones of each other. In fact, the most intriguing thing about the performance logjam was the fact that the three cars differed so radically in price, purpose, and technology, making each a logical choice for a different type of customer. Today's Face Off is your opportunity to make that choice. If you had been a consumer in the market for a Porsche back in 1986, with a price an object, which of these three cars would you have purchased?

Car As-Tested Price Horsepower 0-60 (seconds) Top Speed
Porsche 944 Turbo $30,820 217 6.0 155
Porsche 911 Cabriolet $41,301 200 5.7 130
Porsche 928S $50,702 288 6.3 152

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

Porsche944Turbo1 Porsche 944 Turbo
We have discussed the Porsche 944 in its naturally aspirated form before, concluding that the 944 was a sweet, nice car that just happened to be one of the best-handling cars of its era, with evocative looks and telepathic steering. It was an enormously entertaining sports-car classic that was held back only by its relatively pedestrian 147-horsepower engine.

Enter the 944 Turbo, which married the 944's brilliant handling with 70 additional horsepower--a mammoth 50% increase. This hefty horsepower infusion transformed the cheerful 944 into a straight-line screamer that could run with the performance goliaths of its day. A 6.0-second sprint from 0-60 was in Corvette and entry-level Ferrari territory in 1986, and only a couple of tenths behind the Ferrari Testarossa and Lamborghini Countach.

Unlike most of those cars, the 944 Turbo didn't drive like a deeply compromised supercar. It was still a sweet handler and an effortless daily driver, and its hatchback body made it a practical runabout--it was just a practical runabout that happened to handle and accelerate like a race car.

1986Porsche9112 Porsche 911 Cabriolet
We have somehow managed to avoid covering the Porsche 911 in any sort of official sense (though a reader submitted an Our Cars post). My official negligence has sprung from a certain underdog preference for the other, overshadowed Porsches, but it's also probably true that there's very little unique left to be said about the 911.

Everybody knows the Porsche 911 as one of the world's most iconic and classic sports cars. The air-cooled 911 ran for decades with changes that were generally evolutionary in nature, yet it was still one of the top sports cars in the world when the water-cooled 911 arrived in 1998. The 911 is one of the best-recognized sports cars in the world, thanks to its unique combination of longevity, an unparalleled racing heritage, its quirky rear-engined layout, and its excellent performance. Again, this is all common knowledge.

The 1986 911 used the 3.2-liter flat six that had arrived in 1984, but otherwise the 1986 model was like its forebears. The 1986 911 had the air-cooled six's characteristic boxer bark, the weight of the rear engine still drive spooky at-the-limit handling, the brakes were almost supernaturally good, and as it had been since the 1960s, the 911 was still one of the quickest and mot capable sports cars on the road. Some Porsche-philes have been heard to complain about today's water-cooled 911s and the character that has been lost over the years; a lack of character was not a concern in 1986.

Porsche928S1 Porsche 928S
Unlike the 911, the Porsche 928 is a long-time Car Lust favorite. Not only is it a gorgeous and fantastically capable car, an icon in the class of high-performance grand tourers, but it has also been tragically overlooked by mainstream car enthusiasts.

From our previous post on the 928:

"The 928 was a fantastic car that helped define the sports GT category, marrying supercar performance with comfort and everyday practicality. The 928 had such an embarrassment of ability that it captured the imagination. Considering the standard of its time, it had incredible top speed and high-speed cruising ability; married to its relaxed nature and natural comfort, that made the 928 the perfect choice for bombing along the Autostrada at triple-digit speeds while listening to Chopin, or for compressing a trans-Montana drive from five hours into three. Think of it as an executive Lear Jet for the road."

The Porsche 928 debuted in 1978 and was updated to 928S spec in 1983 with a slightly more powerful 4.7-liter V-8. The 928S received a four-valve-per-cylinder head in 1985 and boasted 288 horsepower in 1986. 

My Choice
A savvy Car Lust reader would bet on my choosing the Porsche 928S in this Face Off, and given my well-established love for the 928 that's a safe bet. The 928's voluptuous body, smooth, torquey V-8, and luxurious interior make it an irresistible grand tourer, and I'd jump at the chance to own one.

However, I'm not choosing the 928S in this Face Off, and that's because I specified price as a factor. The 928S cost more than $50K--more than twice as much as the average salary in 1986. That's $10,000 more than the 911 Cabriolet and $20,000 more than the 944 Turbo. I prefer the 928S, but I don't prefer it to quite that degree.

The Porsche 944 Turbo is my choice here; compared to the 928S, the 944 offers similar grunt and much more agile handling. It's not quite as luxurious as the 928, but it's just as useful as any other hatchback sports coupe of its day. It just happens to be a hatchback sports coupe that performs like an exotic.

The 911 Cabriolet has the benefit of an iconic shape, the fun promised by a retractable top, and the 911's timeless driving experience. I certainly wouldn't push it out of the garage, but I can't justify the $10,000 premium over the 944 Turbo in this case.

--Chris H.


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944T all the way. Similar power, similar performance, WAY more predictable handling, way more useable space, way more livable.

However... knowing what the resale values are for the cars today... which one would you choose? That would be interesting. Obviously 911s hold their value much better than the other two.

Today, Porsche has the 911, the Boxster, the Caymen, and the new Panamera. Now... in 20 years, do you think history will repeat itself? The 911 retaining the most value, the technology filled panamera rapidly declining in value, and the caymen being viewed as a nice car, but not a real porsche?

I would have picked a 911 Carrera 3.2 coupe. It would have split the difference in price between the 944 Turbo and 911 Cabriolet and been a better long term proposition than either of them. Even a standard 944 can cost as much in upkeep as a 911, and the Turbo just increases the burdens. The 3.2 Carrera was the last real 911, and as such it was a highly developed, charismatic classic. It is the only one of the three model lines that retained any of its value to justify the cost of maintenance, and that is why Porsche still pretends to build them today. Incidentally, when Car and Driver tested the 911 Carrera 3.2 in 1984, it reached redline in 5th gear, for a top speed of 149 mph. The convertible was probably slower, but probably not that much slower.

Since I am not a fan of cabrios, I would have to default to the 944T. However, like CJinSD, I would take a Carrera Coupe over all of them. But since we're already off-road, I would also want a 1987 with the G50 transmission. Having owned a 1980 911SC myself years ago, anything but that 915 would be much better.

CJinSD: "Incidentally, when Car and Driver tested the 911 Carrera 3.2 in 1984, it reached redline in 5th gear, for a top speed of 149 mph. The convertible was probably slower, but probably not that much slower."

I was surprised by the 130-mph figure quoted as well, but I'm using the information directly from the R&T article above - which is also why I'm using the Cabrio instead of the coupe. I agree that a 911 of that vintage would top out at around the same 150-mph top speed that the other two cars hit.

It really is remarkable to me that three such different mechanical packages performed so similarly. One was a big, heavy front-engined coupe with a big V-8; one was a smaller sports coupe with a turbocharged four; the third was a light sports car with an air-cooled, rear-mounted boxer six. All three performed pretty well identically - in a straight line, that is.

If it was 1986, I'd have to splurge and go for the 928S, white-on-white please. The 944 would've been too much of a yuppie pretender at the time, the 928S meant you've ARRIVED. And if it was 1987 I would've skipped all of them and just gone for a BMW M6.

Strangely enough, I saw three separate '86 vintage 911s this past weekend while driving through Indianapolis. All in different locations, all in Guards Red. Is this a Porsche haven I was not aware of?

Hindsight being 20/20, I would have waited one more year and bought a 924S. Same power as the non-turbo 944 with less weight and better aerodynamics. Nowadays you can pick one up for peanuts and upgrade its various bits with the best of the 924/944/951 series.

Me in 1986? The 944, because it's the cheapest.

Today I'd go for the 928 because I've rarely seen one on the road and I know of a few that could be possible candidates.

And I'm not so wild about convertibles.

There was around here a story that around 10+ years ago, someone imported a German-spec 911 Turbo and was able to get it to 200mph on the highway all while staying stable. He had passengers ride along and they testify that it's true.

Yeah, I know there are a ton of variables (the highway may have been a downhill stretch, the gearing and tire size, wind from behind, etc.), but it's an awesome story nonetheless.

My love for Risky Business and Weird Science would create an interest in the least successful model here.. the 928.

The Cabriolet would be timeless. I would have to chose it as my #1.

The 944 would out handle many modern cars. Money was an object... fo sho!

Smoke: I love the 924S. Downside is they just cannot handle as much tire as the 944's. Handling will be difficult to match. The too low for many steering wheel that was non adjustable could be a slight "meh".
I liked the slick looks and phone dial wheels of the 924S.

My mother had a 924S for 18 years. The driving position was the closest to a formula racing car this side of a Caterham 7. I never had any problem fitting under the steering wheel. I drove that car over 500 miles in a day a few times, and was never uncomfortable in the driver seat. This is in contrast to the abominable Cayenne, where I always feel like a champagne cork with my legs jammed into the cubby formed by the fat door panels, low dash knee barrier, and Hummer H1 sized center console. That the Cayenne and Toureg are also the worst engineered and built cars on the market suits people who buy them perfectly. While the tire size on the 924S was a very conservative 195/65R15, it was also the lightest and best balanced Porsche of the past 30 years. Any missing tire size is an aesthetic preference rather than a performance one. The benefit of light weight and 'small' tires is that the 924S has the best steering of any mass produced car ever. By today's standards, they don't have much power. Still, if anything short of a Corvette is able to keep up with you on a backroad, you aren't trying hard enough. I'd buy another one in a second, except that Porsche mechanics of any quality all own their own Gulfstreams.

I should add... I like that cloth seats are available for the 924S. I am not a fan of sticky-stinky leather. :)
The 15" wheels would be plenty for me, but I recall hearing the 944 was better planted?

Regardless, the cost of maintaining and tuning up pretty much ANY of these Porches would be a major turn off for me.... oh yeah, cost is not an issue...I forget.

Just a timing belt and water pump on the 924S alone is like 1000 bucks, right? Sure I can get one for 2 grand in nice shape, but the cost to drive it would make me a little crazy.

Why I drive a 16v GTI.

944 Turbo for sure, even though I loved the 928.

I was a test engineer for GM around that time and got to drive both of these at the Proving Grounds. While the 928 was a glorious, effortless GT, the 944T was just so much more FUN! It was tremendously involving for a German car. It came across as a half-breed: half-German, half Italian.

If you wanted to cross Europe, the 928 was the choice. If you wanted to go out for a couple of hours of hooning it was the 944T. One of the greatest Porsches ever, imo.

It's too bad the Porsche owners couldn't get over their prejudices and accept the front (read: proper) engined cars as real Porsches. Maybe they were afraid of the competition? :)

928. I still cry when I see a 928.

The 928, thanks. But if I had been smart about it and about what would suit best, the choice would have been the 944T. As to today, mein Porsche salesguy has a Boxster, an old Caddy and a 928. The costs to maintain the 928 are high, even with his discounts.

I drove a 91 Carrera 4 for 12+ years and traded it for a Cayman S when I got too worried about repair costs. Price out the wheel sensors on the first gen 'Sputnik' awd - its sobering. Also, my wife wouldn't drive the 911 - she felt the communicative steering was the car contending with her for control. The Cayman is in some ways the modern version of the 944 - not a real Porsche, blah, blah, blah. But it is a happy little car, ready to do your bidding, right now and right quick, too. And my wife will drive it. Need more power - TPC has a low pressure turbo package for you but then you'll want the suspension upgrade too. You won't get that investment back.

Will the non 911s hold their value? Maybe not, but I'm gonna drive the Cayman S for a long time as a daily driver and I don't care. Sooner or later, Porsche will have to switch their first line car to mid engine. Maybe they'll call it a 911.....

I owned a 1985 911 cab for 22 years, and can honestly say it was the most fun car I've ever owned. Until I sold it to get a BMW 335i convertible three years ago, People would still look over at stop lights and marvel at how great it looked.

Those I knew who owned either the 944 or the 928 loved their cars, but with the caveat that they were maintenance hogs. Everything on the 911 was manual, so other than tuneups and the annual fight to survive the 911's poor a/c, it was reasonable. (After the warranty, I used a mechanic who raced Porsches rather than the dealer.)

Got to go with the 86 911.

I'm looking into 911s... but the engine seems questionable. Headstuds pulling out blocks, stupid crap like that. What year is best, for an original CLASSIC 911?

I have to ask the question, in this test, was the 928 an auto or a manual? There is a big difference in how a 928 performs with a stick versus an automatic. A manual 928 is a radically different beast than an auto.

Today, which would I pick? Well, I already answered that question, the 928. It is probably the only car made that is a true supercar that you can buy a pristine example of for less than 15K, and often for less than 10(I bought mine for $8600), and for an additional 7K, you can buy a supercharger for it that will give a 928 enough power to beat all the most fabulously expensive supercars. I know personally of 400+ whp 928s out there as daily drivers. (google 928 motorsports or murf 928)

But what about back then?

Ok, so so we harken back to March 14, 1986, and my time as a mickeysoft/d/d/d/d/d/d/d/d microsoft developer creating the most craptacular/d/d/d/d/d/d/d wonderful operating system known to man has paid off, and I'm now a millionaire as my stock options are now through the roof. I head down to the Porsche dealer with wheelbarrowload of money.

First I look at the 944. It handles well, but 30K? There are schmucks at Commodore who can afford that. I work for Microsoft. That's chump change for me. I'm not going to share a car with a guy who works for a company whose corporate logo is the head from a decapitated chicken.

Then I look at the Cab. Yes, it's more expensive, but why can't I get the turbo? I want Porsche's top of the line car, and this ain't it.

That leaves me with the 928. Honestly, if the 911 turbo was available, I might get that, but since I can't, that leaves me w/the 928.

A while back I thought about checking out an exotic. The two that came to mind were a 928 and an NSX. A number of 928's were available, but not all with a manual trans. Then came the cost of maintenance, which previous posters spoke of as nearly stratospheric. This leaves the choice of the other Porsche models out, but I read several very positive comments about the NSX. It is no longer made, so my next choice will be a Corvette. Domestic, and not a mint to maintain. I didn't mean to stray from the original question, but I still do like the appearance of the 928 above the others.

Having actually owned a 1986 944 from '98 to 2004, I can say there would be no question. The 944 is such a comfortable and comforting car to drive--as well as fun--that I will severely miss it when I go back to driving again (living overseas in places you don't want to drive yourself, sadly). I wish Porsche would return to the 944 design for a new, accessibly priced version.

It's a credit to this place that I'm surprised that the 911 is currently stomping everyone with 47% of the vote- anywhere else I'd expect that or higher, but around here I figured the 928 and 944 would be fairing better. Of course, I'm as much part of that problem with the 911 winning badly as anyone, since I voted for it. Classic, classic design, and plus right now it's high summer in the desert here, hotter than hell and about 0% chance of even a cloudy day for another 2 months, anything convertible seems perfect to me.

Someone in town has a 914, what a gorgeous car! Took me a few times to properly ID it since I kept missing the Porsche badges and it looks nothing like the classic 911/carrera/boxter shapes that I'm familiar with around here. Again, top down in this weather is all thumbs-up and grins for me, I don't care too much how well it performs.

I have to agree with Shawn. Between the three I am buying a 928S because if you are going to be buying a Porsche, you buy a Porsche, not the cheapest one that you can get just so you look good. Go big or go home by friends.

"It's a credit to this place that I'm surprised that the 911 is currently stomping everyone with 47% of the vote- anywhere else I'd expect that or higher, but around here I figured the 928 and 944 would be fairing better."

I agree, Tommy's Dad - I thought that if the other Porsches had a chance to emerge from the 911's shadow, it would be here. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be the case.

Having owned a 1987-924S,1986-928S, 1989-944T & currently a 1985-911C, the 944T was my favorite with the 928S coming in a very close second. Both great Porsche's and I would give up my current 911 for a good one any day.

The nice thing is that there are arguments for choosing any of them. I don't feel that way about most of the cars that Porsche sells today.

I agree with Ken K

My buddy has 744 Turbo, and I'd be happy with that!

Phooey. The 928 is the one to have. All three of these cars can be had for 10-15k today in good condition. 944 turbo? Nice but not a 928. 911 cab? Cool but not a 928!

The 928 sounds better, is more comfortable, and is easy to drive fast. Plus it gets comments and compliments daily... And it still looks modern. Many believe it's a new car. Except for the 16" wheels and high profile wipers, it looks the part at almost 30 years old!

rant off!

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