MOTORING / Goodbye, City cowboy: The Porsche 968 is aimed at a different market. John Fordham puts it through its paces

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Superb handling

Shrewdly uprated engine

Build quality


Uncomfortable ride

Revamp of earlier models

Messy controls

FROM the Fifties to the Eighties, a Porsche was something the rich forked out serious money for - and they were happy to do so. The car was seen as unique, with a prestige not far behind Ferrari's. But this summer, Porsche has launched the 968, a cheap car by its standards ( pounds 35,000, but that's half the price of some of its products), and there are plans for an even cheaper one. For every K-reg model Porsche dealers sell this month, however, they'll shift six used ones. The firm's publicity sometimes claims that its outlets are selling more cars than ever, but these are second- hand; and that's a problem.

The Zuffenhausen factory produced 50,000 cars a year in the mid-Eighties, a production high. This year there will be little more than 20,000, and short-time working is in force. The recession and some brilliant Japanese competition aimed specifically at its products (Mazda's 1991 Le Mans win woke Europeans up in a sweat) has panicked Porsche in the last two years into a very public management crisis.

Porsche people now claim, rather disingenuously, that they didn't much like the Eighties anyway, because the era gave their cars a City- cowboy image that didn't suit them. Like an antique dealer who is queasy about dealing with customers who think a Chippendale is a bloke in a jockstrap, Porsche was sensitive about a new clientele more interested in the Vodafone than the handling.

Porsche GB has a new chief executive and, this summer, a new model - the 968. Kevin Gaskell, the new MD, is young, energetic and unsentimental, knowing the company's past is still a big sales factor but refusing to be imprisoned by it. 'We can't rely on any history,' he says. 'We have to rely on the product we sell. I'm bringing the realism of the marketplace to this job. I grew up with Japanese cars, after all, and I have no preconceived notions about them other than that they're very good.'

There are stories galore about the haughty way previous Porsche executives dismissed Oriental competition; Gaskell, however, knows only too well what he and his colleagues in Germany are up against. But though new-car sales have plummeted, he can take comfort from the facts that the company still has healthy cash reserves and no borrowing, and that Porsche-mania among wealthy fans remains strong. This is borne out by good used- car sales and by the number of restorations the company undertakes - owners still shell out an average total rebuild cost of pounds 50,000, sometimes bringing to life 30-year-old cars.

What are traditional Porsche virtues and are they evident in the new 968? The car is derived from the 944, sharing such items as rear wings, roof, doors and dashboard; the seats come from the 911. Which is why the advertising hoardings bear the legend 'Long Live the Evolution'. Porsche are quick to remind you, however, that 80 per cent of the parts are different, that there are 22 patents out on 968 ideas, and so forth. The car's ancestry is very obvious in its appearance; a body-shape not as curvaceously bold as the new Mazda RX7 (to name its most direct competitor). The engine comes from the 944 S2, but has been significantly tweaked.

A four-cylinder engine in this class of car may be a bit anachronistic, but if anyone can make an imaginative virtue out of economic necessity it's Porsche: the old power-unit's thumping beat contributes substantially to the new car's personality. The gearbox options on the 968 are a new six-speed unit and the Tiptronic automatic transmission which was fitted to the cabriolet I drove.

Seating is low, as you'd expect - though there is electric height adjustment. There's no room for anything much more than luggage on the rear bench; even children would find it cramped. The steering wheel is raked low and isn't adjustable, so the driving position can be a problem for very tall occupants. The instrumentation is dated-looking and is obstructed by the wheel, the switches aren't as logically distributed as you might expect from Porsche, and the analogue timepiece looks rather like a mail-order alarm clock from a catalogue.

But if these incidentals detract from the Porsche mystique, driving the car certainly doesn't. The overwhelming impression is of solid build and a pedigree chassis with a lot of tough experience behind it. If you and your bank manager can survive at these altitudes, the pricing is more realistic too. Even if it is a gruff and rugged four-cylinder, the uprated engine can hurl drivers to 60mph in not much more than five and a half seconds, it pulls sensationally from very low down in the rev range, and at around 3,000rpm its responsiveness to brusque demands for power are spectacular.

This improvement is the result of lighter pistons, new plumbing and variable valve-timing, adjusting gas admission and expulsion to changing engine needs. Appropriately counterbalancing such brute force is a sensational set of brakes - big, well-ventilated and supported by anti-lock technology.

Handling - traditionally a Porsche strength - is well up to scratch too, since the suspension is lifted from the 944 Turbo which by general consensus took the biscuit for front- engined, rear-drive road manners. But a 968's ride is harsh to the point of discomfort, particularly at low speeds. And though the handling balance is impeccable and the steering immensely responsive, your forearms always remind you that you're driving a heavy car; noise from the big tyres is intrusive at high speed.

You may, incidentally, baulk at the idea of an automatic shift in a car like this, but the Tiptronic might convert you. It's a wonderful piece of Porsche elegance, a stubby manual- like stick that selects the options like any auto box, but which springs into a parallel slot when you're under way, marked with a plus and a minus sign. If you want to drop a gear when it wouldn't occur to the machine, flick it to the minus position and the car takes off like Concorde. It will be surprising if this elegant compromise between the responsiveness of a manual transmission and the convenience of an automatic doesn't become a common feature in future.

All in all, the 968 is a Porsche through and through, with a distinctiveness that Kevin Gaskell says the firm will never relinquish. Whether the public decides it's a mish-mash of too many earlier Porsches will be one of the most intriguing revelations of the K-reg era.-