Why water-cooled Porsches deserve more attention

Porsche 944 Turbo

Experiencing the drive: 1983 Porsche 911 Cabriolet vs. Porsche 944 Turbo 

There’s a saying, “there’s no replacement for a Porsche,” and that may be true. Anyone lucky enough to drive one will agree that the air-cooled wail, high-revs, superior handling and out-of-the-box horsepower of the 911 can’t be experienced with any other marque. But, as I learned in my two test drives, a car doesn’t have to be of the air-cooled variety to get a pure Porsche sportscar experience. 

The classic air-cooled Porsche 911

At one time, the 911 lineage contained the fastest, best-cornering and best-braking cars in America, and the 1983 Porsche 911 SC Cabrio I rented from DriveShare did not disappoint. Clutch down, and a firm twist of the key ignited the 3.0-liter flat-six that was hiding under the massive rubber-lipped whale tail. The engine fluttered to life, then idled to a whirring, steady chug. Sitting behind the wheel, the first thing I noticed was the pedal placement, which forced my feet closer together than that of my American-made muscle car. The driving position allowed for more precise foot agility and smoother heel-toe motions. 

The exhaust crackled with each downshift and then rumbled whirring echoes through the valleys as it accelerated up mountainous inclines. For a U.S. car like this one, horsepower is rated at 172-hp, and at 4,200 rpm, the torque tops out at 189 lb.-ft. The North Carolina road was the perfect combination of elevations, bank variations and esses to put it to the test. 

The clutch takes a heavy left foot and the 915 gearbox slots into the first and second gears vaguely, but not so vague as to miss a shift. It didn’t take long to gain confidence in the unfamiliar gearbox. Once the car was moving at a spirited rate, I felt every fighting turn and every bump and crease in the road through the steering wheel. Its manual steering box is incredibly responsive but may seem cumbersome and none-too nimble to an inexperienced driver. However, it is weighted perfectly for taking on faster bends and medium-speed sweeping corners, with slower turns and hairpins giving my (decidedly weak) forearms a workout. The engine’s distinctive whirring turns into a howl when pushing up inclines at higher rpm’s, and the car’s excellent brakes will lock up if you aren’t careful.

Water-cooled is still cool

Many Porsche aficionados deemed the 944 less worthy of the Porsche badge because their water-cooled engines were mounted at the “wrong” end of the car. However, with the engine mounted up front and the transaxle gearbox at the rear, the 944 is a much more balanced car than the 911, with nearly 50/50 weight distribution. Machines like this 1986 Porsche 951/944 are becoming more sought after, bonus points for turbo models. Thanks to Johnson American Driving Experience for listing this clean example on DriveShare for other car nuts like us to enjoy. 

Getting into the 944, the first thing I notice is a cockpit from another era. The driving position is low and laid back, with more room and comfort for taller drivers compared to the 911’s cozy interior. The shifter is positioned in such a way that it falls into the hand nicely, and the 944 pedals feel more standard in their placement. 

Stuttering to a lively start, the 944’s 2.5-liter inline-four comes off as decidedly agricultural at idle compared to the more lopey flat-six in the 911. The turbocharged model is boosted to 217 horsepower and 243 lb.-ft. of torque. Top speed was advertised as 152 miles per hour, but I didn’t push it that hard on the public roads to prove it. However, the ease of shifting and maneuvering gave more confidence while manipulating the throttle, steering and four-piston brakes, allowing for a more spirited drive out of the gate.  

The 944 shot out of corners, rotating effortlessly around its center, its tail adhered to the asphalt. Fresh out of the turns, the car’s low-end responsiveness was lacking compared to the 911’s naturally aspirated flat-six. Still, once the boost kicks in, its sprinting capability is impressive, if not enthusiastic. The gearing is perfect. Each upshift in the heart of the powerband clicked into place without uncertainty, putting the engine back into its sweet spot for progressive, consistent acceleration. The turbocharged four-cylinder threw me back in the seat to inhale short straights while delighting my ears with a low, mechanical growl through the rev range. Overall, the 944 feels light on its wheels with more predictable handling. 

Which would you choose?

Looks are subjective, of course, so it’s hard to say one was more beautiful than the other. Being a mid-80s kid, the 944 induces a sense of nostalgia. I tend to lust over low, wide stances and flip-up headlights, including vehicles that take on a similar silhouette, like the second-generation Mazda RX-7 or the Toyota’s MR2. I’d also like to see a full spare set of four wheels and tires fit into the 911’s frunk space. 

The sense of occasion and exclusivity rests with the 911. The feel of sitting in a solid, purpose-built, minimalist cockpit is very unique, and the rear-mounted air-cooled flat-six plays to the heart of Porsche enthusiasts. It wins the nostalgia battle every time, and due to the car’s higher values, they often can make a better investment. 

The 944 is much easier to pilot. I would question the driving ability of someone behind the wheel of a 944 if their car is easily outmaneuvered by a  naturally-aspirated 911 from the same generation.  The Cabriolet had a firmer ride, and although the steering is heavier, it’s sharp and precise. A turbocharged 944 might be faster, but a classic 911 will ultimately make you a better driver.

Still can’t decide on your favorite Porsche? DriveShare has you covered. Now you can drive the models you find most alluring to grasp the experience first-hand. 


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