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Porsche vs. in-period rivals: Was there really no substitute?

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Article by Rob Sass

Because of self-assured tag lines like “no substitute” and “nothing even comes close” plus the enthusiast magazine’s and road testers unabashed love for the marque, and because of Porsche’s consistent success on the track, the entire sports car world always seems to be gunning for Porsche. Over the years, there have been some serious and not-so-serious contenders. Here are a few notable matchups.

1972 Porsche 911E vs. 1972 Dino 246 GTS


Above: 1970 Porsche 911E. Photo courtesy Porsche

Enzo Ferrari famously decreed that “a Ferrari is a 12-cylinder car.” So when il Commendatore needed to homologate a new V6 for racing, the Dino marque was born. Named for Ferrari’s deceased son, the 2.0 and 2.4 liter 206 and 246 Dinos were undeniably very pretty cars. But how did they stack up against their main rival, the Porsche 911?


Above: Ferrari Dino 246. Photo by Niels de Wit from Lunteren, The Netherlands - 1972 Ferrari 246 GT Dino, CC BY 2.0

Looks: Any long-hood 911 is an iconic and beautiful car, but if we’re being completely honest with ourselves, Pininfarina designed one for the ages in the low, swoopy and curvy Dino. A slight edge to the Italian here. 

Price: Road & Track’s as-tested prices for the 911 and the Dino were $10,500 and $14,750 respectively. An obvious math-based win for the home team here. 

Performance: Road & Track tested the 2.4 liter E in 1972, not an S, but the E was enough to smoke the Dino. The 911 was nearly a second and a half quicker 0-60 and a half a second faster in the quarter mile. Road & Track’s conclusion was this: “If you must have a mid-engine car, you could do worse than the Dino. But don’t expect to wallop your neighbor’s 911S with it.” The Porsche clearly wins in this all-important category.

Durability/reliability: Road & Track rated both cars “better than average in reliability,” but in actual use, Bosch generally beats Marelli in terms of fuses not popping and wiring not disintegrating. As far rust-proofing, while most early 911s are rather rust-prone (the pans were at least better protected by the early 1970s), Italian cars were in an entirely different league as rust-buckets. Advantage Porsche. 

Conclusion: The pricey and pretty Italian falls to the 911 (which Road & Track, incidentally named one of the best cars in the world in 1971). 


1993 Corvette ZR-1 vs. 1993 Porsche 928 GTS


Above: 1992 Porsche 928 GTS. Photo courtesy Porsche

The buff books couldn’t resist the comparisons here back in the day, calling the 928 GTS “Zuffenhausen’s ZR-1,” so this one is a pretty obvious matchup. Let’s get on with it.


Above: 1993 Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1. Photo courtesy Mecum

Looks: We’re partisans here, but that said, the 928 was designed to look good in perpetuity and so it does. In fact, it seems to get better with age. The facelifted front and rear fascias and the bulging rear fenders just make that car all the more appealing. The Corvette? Meh. It’s just aged. Any C4 is a dated piece of ’80s design and that’s before you take a look at the truly hideous/cheap/silly interior complete with a then-trendy digital dash.  An easy win here for the 928.

Price: Almost no corners were cut with the final iteration of the 928. And all of that German goodness came at a price at a time when the exchange rate wasn’t that favorable. On the other hand, you could tell exactly where the corners were cut on the Corvette—interior design, NVH, panel fit, paint finish, the list goes on. Still, at $52,000 versus $89,000, the Corvette then as now was an astounding bargain. 

Performance: Here’s where it gets a bit sticky. The ZR-1 was no ordinary Corvette with an ancient pushrod V8. The ZR-1 sported a 32-valve four-cam Lotus-engineered, Mercury Marine- built V8, not unlike the 928’s. The Corvette also had a 30-hp advantage. The result? A half second advantage 0-60. A slight edge to the ‘Vette here. 

Durability/reliability: Both cars are complex and both can be challenging to source parts for. The 928 is pricier to fix, but most of the stuff in the Corvette can be counted on to wear out faster and C4 Corvette squeaks and rattles are legendary. Call it a draw. 

Conclusion: This is probably one of the closer matches of the bunch. The Corvette may have been appallingly cheesy in many ways, but it was undeniably a great performance car. The 928 was perhaps one of the best cars that Porsche built up to that time. Build quality, engineering, and safety bridged the small gap in performance, but this one was close. 


1976 Porsche 914 2.0 vs. 1976 Lancia Scorpion


Above: 1975 Porsche 914 2.0. Photo courtesy Porsche

For his German-Italian matchup, I suppose we could have gone with the Fiat X1/9 and the 914 1.8 liter (spoiler alert, the results would have been the same), but it just seemed like more fun to choose the pricier and better performing Italian car to go up against the top of the 914 of the lineup circa 1976.


Above: Lancia Scorpion/Montecarlo. Photo by Andrew Bone from Weymouth, England - Lancia Monte-Carlo (1982), CC BY 2.0

Looks: If you sense a pattern here, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your powers of observation are 99th percentile. The Scorpion (known as the Montecarlo in Europe) was another very pleasant Pininfarina design. In hindsight, one can quibble that it looks a bit like a three-quarter scale DeLorean, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that it’s a very attractive mid-engined car. The 914 is a functional design that seems to get more appealing every year, but for sheer sexiness, the Italian car has the edge here. 

Price: There’s no contest here, the mini-Ferrari carried a mini-Ferrari price. $11,000 for the Lancia versus about $8,000 for the 914. 

Performance: The extra money that you paid for the Lancia sadly didn’t buy much in the way of performance. While the fuel-injected 2.0 liter 914 could do 0-60 in a shade under ten seconds, the carbureted Scorpion took an agonizing 13.4 seconds to get to 60 and it was slower in the top end by about 15 miles per hour. In handling, things were closer. Both cars were mid-engine designs with a premium on agility and balance. The Lancia, with its wider stock tires than the Porsche, had a slight edge in lateral acceleration. 

Durability/reliability: By the mid-1970s, Lancia was owned by Fiat and the reputation for quality and durability that Lancia had built was out the window. It didn’t help that the Scorpion was originally designed to be an up-market Fiat. Nearly everything (including the VW parts bin stuff) was of conspicuously higher quality in the 914. No contest here. 

Conclusion: Because of Fiat’s stubborn adherence to carburetors, the U.S. version of the Scorpion was a terminally compromised car summed up by this typically biting Road & Track headline: “So lovely, so agile, so ingenious, so slow.” 


1986 Porsche 944 Turbo vs. 1986 Mazda RX7 Turbo


Above: 1986 Porsche 944 Turbo. Photo courtesy Porsche

Those of you itching for an epic Japanese vs. German matchup will get satisfaction with our last comparo. The Datsun 240Z was a game-changer when it arrived in the U.S. in late 1969. It challenged the 911T in every category except build-quality for about half the price. But the Z-car turned into a self-parody by the mid-1970s and it was left to Mazda to rescue the Japanese sports car. The first-generation RX-7 gave the 924 a very tough time, and the second-gen car was clearly gunning for the 944, down to its copycat looks. Things got really interesting in 1986 when both Porsche and Mazda fielded turbo versions.


Above: Mazda RX-7 Turbo II. Photo by Niels de Wit from Lunteren, The Netherlands - 1991 Mazda RX-7 Turbo II, CC BY 2.0

Looks: You have to go with the originator of the look. The RX-7 was a shameless imitation of the 944 down to the bulging fenders, except that everything looked cheaper and less well-executed on the Mazda. The same held for the interior. The Mazda couldn’t hold a candle to the facelifted 1985 ½ 944 cabin. The 944’s handling was a bit sharper as well. Advantage 944.

Price: Not surprisingly, the Porsche was more expensive. About ten grand more to be exact ($30,000 versus $20,000). Advantage Mazda.

Performance: The 944 has a horsepower advantage, 217 vs. 185 and that certainly showed up in performance numbers: 0-60 mph in 6.1 seconds versus 6.6 for the Mazda and 14.4 and 15.2 in the quarter mile, respectively. The difference in top speed was pretty negligible too—153 mph versus 146 mph. Slight advantage to the Porsche

Durability/reliability: Porsche rust-proofing had gotten quite good by the 944 Turbo’s day. The Mazda’s? Not as bad as a Datsun Z-car, but not wonderful either. Plastics and fabrics in the interior were not surprisingly of lower quality in the RX-7. In terms of powertrain, the Porsche also has the advantage. Change the timing belt at the proper intervals, and the 951’s longevity was pretty good. The Mazda was not as robust. Like all rotary engines, rotor-tip (apex) seals are the heart of things. When these go, so does compression and there just aren’t that many mechanics out there familiar with rebuilding rotary engines. Advantage Porsche. 

Conclusion: The RX-7 was a great effort for the money. If its styling had been less of a shameless rip-off of the 944, maybe the second-gen RX-7 would have more cred today. As it is today, so was it then, the 944 is just a more desirable car, period. 

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