Rave reviews for Porsche 944

By , Automotive editor of The Christian Science Monitor

With one of the lowest coefficients of drag in the industry, the all-new Porsche 944, successor to the widely criticized 924, hits the US road -- with a roar.

The roar is from the shouts of motorists who have seen the car and like it.

''A masterpiece,'' exclaims one longtime motorist who really likes cars and can be tough in his judgment.

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In fact, the 2-door sport coupe with all-glass hatchback -- a ''true Porsche, '' says the factory, unlike the 924 and its predecessor, the mid-engine 914 - gets a high score for handling, ride, and fit 'n finish.

With the weight distributed about 50-50 between the front and the back, the handling is entirely predictable under almost any condition on the road. In other words, there are no surprises at some critical point in the driving cycle.

Instrumentation is good and the driving controls present no problem at all.

With a base price of $18,450, the 944 costs significantly less than a sports car, such as the aging Chevrolet Corvette, but is in the same ballpark as the Datsun 280ZX.

The 4-cylinder, aluminum-silicon-alloy engine, all new, is derived from the 8 -cylinder powerhouse in the top-of-the-line 928, which has led some motor buffs to say that the 944 engine is ''half a 928.'' That has to be praise, not criticism. Even so, the new engine still has features of its own.

The fuel-injected engine was developed by the company's research and development center at Weissach, near Stuttgart, and is built at nearby Zuffenhausen. The engine achieves a maximum torque of 137.1 foot-pounds as early as 3,000 r.p.m.s, according to Porsche, and produces 143 hp. at 5,500 r.p.m.

Despite its small size -- 2.5 liters (151 cubic inches) -- the in-line engine rates high in performance even though it lacks a turbocharger. In fact, it doesn't really need one, anyhow. Yet, for the benefit of the sports-car buff who wants one, a turbo is on the way, Porsche reports.

Acceleration is fast -- 0 to 50 m.p.h. in 5.9 seconds -- a good blend of high performance and economy. And it's smooth all the way at any speed. Internal balance shafts give the big 4-cylinder engine the smoothness of an in-line ''6'' or even a V-8.

Environmental Protection Agency figures for the slippery, wedge-shaped 944 list an m.p.g. of 35 on the highway and 22 in the city. In a 250-mile run from upstate New York to Boston a few weeks ago, I got very close to the EPA highway figure at the legal speed of 55.

The seats, I discovered, fit like a glove, although I would prefer to sit a bit higher myself. Remember, though, that this is a Porsche-built sports job and the seats are part of the plan.

Is there nothing wrong with the car? Well, a wiper would make a lot of sense on the rear glass. Too, the spoiler on the rear glass of the car makes it somewhat harder to see where you're going when you back up. I'd like a little more toe room on the rider's side in front.

No matter, the 944 is the latest example of the Porsche family's expertise in automotive propulsion and design. Standard equipment includes a sunroof, power windows, air conditioning with tinted glass, and a leather sport steering wheel.

The company expects to sell about 7,000 sleek 944s in the United States this year.

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