It is that time of year when I take my annual summer vacation. These trips were usually good for some rental car reviews, and last summer I even rented a C7 Corvette through Turo and reported my findings here.
Alas, COVID-19 means that this summer’s vacation will be a staycation, but at least I can still get my Turo rental fix. I live in northeast Ohio, and the vehicular pickings on Turo are considerably slimmer than in LAX, where I had my Corvette Summer last year. I was looking for something either exotic or old, preferably with a manual transmission, and then I spotted this 1985 Porsche 928S which actually met all these criteria.
To prepare for my drive, I did my homework. First I pored over every post here at CC on the 928. To my surprise, there were no fewer than eleven articles and even a COAL from a former 928 owner. (It really is tough finding fertile ground to write about here.) Then I rewatched every scene in Risky Business with a 928 in it on YouTube (really, there’s no way that ‘75 Cadillac should have been able to keep up for as long as it did).
As an added bonus, this 928 is one of the rare few cars on Turo with a manual transmission. The 5-speed unit on the 928 has a reputation for being balky, with Car & Driver having the temerity to declare that they prefer the 928 with an automatic. Sacrilege, I say! I say if you are going to drive a Porsche, you should shift your own gears. So is the 5-speed really that bad? I’ll find out.
My Turo rental turned out to be a well-used 1985 928S, with at least 149,000 miles on the clock (probably more – the odometer was non-functional). However, the owner has done a good job keeping up with the car, with a new set of rear tires, a recent engine rebuild, a replacement transmission, and a 2011 respray among the maintenance items performed.
I opened the long, heavy door and (being careful to avoid the door-sill mounted handbrake lever) slipped back into 1985. It is a very long reach to get the seat belts, as they are mounted to the body behind the door opening, and there does not appear to be anything to stay the loose belt to the seat.
This is a car literally from another place and time. Surveying the interior, there are a bunch of chunky knobs and buttons with cryptic icons that wouldn’t look out of place in the Millennium Falcon. With the large instrument pod (that adjusts up and down with the wheel), it feels a bit like piloting a spaceship.
After inserting the key into the dash-mounted ignition switch, I noticed that the engine requires a few turns more than modern engines to fire up. Once it does, it settles into a raucous burbly idle that would sound instantly familiar to any muscle car owner. While not unpleasant, it certainly doesn’t sound very exotic. And it certainly sounds nothing like a flat-six with a large cooling fan, which surely must have appalled Porsche snobs of the era.
Pulling the gear lever down to first (the 928 employs a dogleg racing pattern, with first down and to the left), I ease up the gas (the touchy throttle is a little difficult to modulate) and raise the clutch pedal for what seems like an eternity before hitting the very high engagement point. Unlike Japanese cars, which disengage the clutch almost as soon as the pedal is off the carpet, German cars seem to prefer a high clutch engagement point, which always makes the pedal action feel a little less immediate. My TT, Jetta, and A4 all had a similar high clutch engagement point.
The 5-speed is a close-ratio unit, which in practice means lots of rowing. I quickly learned to skip gears to minimize the workload, similar to my six-speed Jetta. Other than a clutch that required a somewhat high level of effort and the additional shifting dictated by the close gear ratios, the experience is certainly not unpleasant. The transmission is a brand-new unit with less than 20,000 miles and snicked satisfyingly smoothly between gears. I really have no idea what C&D could have been complaining about.
Once underway, strangeness abounds: The side A/C vents are mounted to the door. There is a single indicator light on the dash for the turn signals, like on an old VW Rabbit. Above you is a comically small mail slot of a sunroof. Oh, and there are rear sun visors over the hatchback.
Once I hit the freeway, the 928 finally hit its element. This would have been a supremely easy way to gobble the miles at high speed in 1985. The transmission and clutch are of no issue since it is always in fifth gear, and it lazes along at 2400 RPM at 70 mph. The brakes are highly effective; nothing like those on the luxobarges and K-cars I was driving back in the 1980s. The ample glass area affords excellent visibility in all directions. The seats are surprisingly comfortable, even on my 35-year-old high-mileage example. The hatchback is spacious, large enough for a couple to easily carry enough luggage for a week-long trip.
The air conditioning, since you asked, is adequate, but only just. It is a semi-automatic unit, with automatic temperature control, but manual fan and direction controls. I later found out that the owner had converted the system over to R134a from R12, which might explain its decreased output. In any case, I could only get cold air out the center outlets and not the door-mounted ones.
Finally, to answer the question everyone seemed to ask me: Is it fast? I have to qualify my answer and say “well, it’s eighties fast” which basically means that it was a fast car in its day. A well-driven current Civic Si will run circles around it (or even a modern Cadillac, in what would surely be an interesting reversal of Risky Business). This is no knock against the 928 – it is more a testament to the capability of modern performance cars and 35 years of advancement.
It is easy to see why the Porsche faithful were not impressed by the 928 at the time. It is not a hardcore sports car, from a company that up until that point had built nothing but. It is a grand touring car that is as concerned with passenger comfort and gadgets as it is with all-out performance.
It may not have been appreciated by the Porschephiles of the day, but the 928 it ended up being on the right side of history in a lot of areas. The last air-cooled Porsche rolled off the line in 1998. All Porsches since have been cooled by (gasp!) water. The Panamera and Cayenne would ape its front V8 engine layout. Its one-time polarizing spaceship styling has been worn smooth with familiarity, as well as the aerodynamic revolution of the 1980’s it presaged.
In the end, the ethos exemplified by the 928 would prevail. Modern sports car reviews routinely included paragraphs dedicated to extolling how streetable, accessible, and (dare I say) comfortable they are to drive. Even the mighty 911 itself would eventually get tamed, first in the form of the 1986 959. The 959 was a water-cooled, twin-turbocharged, all wheel drive 911-based supercar loaded with technology, yet so docile it could be driven by your grandmother. In other words, a modern car.
The 928 was a brave move by Porsche, in the “Apple removing the headphone jack from the iPhone” sense of the word. It was aimed at where the puck was headed, not where it was at in 1978. It was so ahead of its time that the car was able to be sold with only minor changes for almost two decades (1978 to 1995).
A second generation was never planned or built, but the 928 got the last laugh. By the time the 928 finished its run in 1995, a second generation model was not really needed. It had left its mark on virtually every successor Porsche.