Motoring: Porsche shows off its pedigree: James Ruppert finds there's never been a better time to buy a second-hand Porsche 944, while Roger Bell tests the 968, its cheaper replacement

SOME OF the biggest names in sports cars are floundering - victims of the recession, if not their own mistakes. In killing off the costly Elan, General Motors has brought its Lotus subsidiary to a virtual standstill.

Although Porsche's nadir is nothing near as low, dwindling sales - down from 50,000 in 1985 to just over 26,000 last year - have brought drastic cost-cutting measures. The company is free from debt, but not from internal strife, and with the 'new' 968 heading an ageing model range, Porsche's future is uncertain, not least because of mounting competition.

Despite its fresh face, reminiscent of the 928, the 968 is not so much new as an updated version of the 944 it replaces. Evolutionary development has served Porsche well - its wonderful rear-engined 911 will be 28 this year, and the 928 will be 15 - but bold new pretenders to its crown, notably Mazda's svelte, rotary-powered RX-7, lay bare the 968's long lineage. Porsche's cheapest model is none the worse for being mature, however.

Power comes from a 3.0-litre, 240bhp engine which displays great muscle without being extended; response to the throttle is eager, even at low revs. Raced through the gears, the new car thumps you in the back almost as hard as the old 944 Turbo (there is no turbocharged version of the 968). Although the engine has only four cylinders, where six or even eight might be expected, special balancer shafts make the beautifully sculpted unit very smooth. Only in tune and timbre does it mildly disappoint.

The 968 driver has six slick-changing gears to play with, even though top gear is of no great benefit in Britain. Only on the German autobahns does overdrive sixth really come into its own as a 130mph cruise ratio. Catering for the two-pedal enthusiast, Porsche also offers the option of its clever four-speed Tiptronic transmission, fully automatic in one mode, semi-manual in the other.

The 968's heart is its strong and flexible engine; its soul lies in an accomplished chassis. Wide, grippy tyres and firm suspension - which penalises ride comfort - account for some of the car's cornering alacrity. Its true pedigree is best reflected, though, in knife-edged balance, and communicative steering that is as intimate as it is precise. Porsche's racing heritage shows in the 968's brilliant handling. Strong anti-lock brakes (ventilated discs all round) add to driver confidence.

Inside, the 968's cockpit is almost identical to that of the displaced 944. Although the steering wheel has a new design, it remains low-set and is not adjustable. The switchgear is still strewn rather haphazardly across a simple, low- tech dash. Comfortable hip-hugging seats do much to mask the firm, knobbly ride, a corollary of handling-biased suspension entirely in keeping with a thoroughbred sportster. The rear-seat squat will usually be folded flat to create extra luggage space. The car is cramped but is all the more agile for being so compact.

The 944 was heavily discounted at the end of its run to shift unwanted stock. None the less, the 968 is cheaper still, suggesting that Porsches were over-priced during the boom years, when the well- heeled were spending freely. At pounds 34,945, the 968 coupe (the cabriolet costs more than pounds 40,000) is now reasonably competitive in the junior supercar sector, provided it does not carry costly extras (Tiptronic, CD, air-conditioning). Several cheaper alternatives are available from Japan and Germany, but none beats the Porsche on quality.

SPECIFICATIONS

PORSCHE 968, pounds 34,945. Engine: 2,990cc four-cylinder twin-cam, 240bhp at 6,200rpm. Transmission: six-speed manual gearbox, rear-wheel drive. Performance: 0-60mph in 6.2 seconds, top speed over 150mph. Fuel consumption: 18-25mpg unleaded.

COMPARISONS

AUDI S2 COUPE, pounds 28,940. More refinement, less character than the Quattro it supplants. Performance from turbocharged engine matches 968's, four-wheel drive traction even better.

JAGUAR XJS 4.0, pounds 32,115. Big, ostentatious coupe that puts comfort and refinement before brio and agility. Although out-performed by more frugal 968, the dated Jag is swift and relaxing. Motoring in the grand manner.

MAZDA RX-7, pounds 34,000. Porsche 968's keenest competitor is svelte, lightweight and with terrific performance, handling and grip. The latest of Mazda's speciality cars is shaping up to be its best. Unique rotary engine is smooth, potent and thirsty.

NISSAN 300ZX, pounds 32,775. Formidable powerhouse undercuts and out-performs smaller, more nimble Porsche. Lacks image, but not much else. Twin-turbo V6 engine and rear-wheel steering are hi-tech features of impressive vehicle.

VOLKSWAGEN CORRADO VR6, pounds 19,895. VW's dumpy Golf-based coupe with exciting new V6 engine. Very smooth and fast, lovely to handle, sensibly packaged, keenly priced. Best-value junior supercar you can get.

VAUXHALL CALIBRA TURBO, pounds 20,950. Porsche performance for Vauxhall money. Cheapest 150mph car on the market, four-wheel drive, too. Very roomy for coupe, fine styling, good quality. Handling safe but not uplifting.

(Photograph omitted)

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