Coupes are back in fashion. Now that the Manta, Capri and Fuego rest in peace, the bottom segment of this market is firmly in the clutches of the Japanese. The Europeans have — with the exception of the ageing Scirocco and Alfa Sprint, and the odd Volvo 480ES — moved up-market where the prices are higher and the volumes lower. Porsche has always been at home in this segment of the market, but even the Swabian firm has now nudged upwards a little further by dropping the entry-level 924S in favour of a once-more-improved 944.
Whereas the Porsche was born as a true sports coupe, its two rivals in this giant test are of saloon car descent. The Audi Coupe is basically a 90 saloon with a flat tank and an even flatter roofline. And the VW Corrado is a Golf GTi that wears fancy clothes and is powered by a more potent supercharged engine.
Buying a coupe calls for a certain amount of foolishness. After all, you pay more money for less space. The car must fulfil three basic requirements to make the extra expenditure worth your while. Number one is, obviously, performance. If a coupe is only just as quick (or even slower) than its stablemate with four instead of 2+2 seats, shop elsewhere. Number two is driving pleasure, and by that we mean an inspiring combination of handling and roadholding, assisted by co-operative controls and the right noises. Number three is flair, an ingredient that should not be under-estimated. A truly desirable coupe must offer emotional strengths, which include charisma, pedigree, quality and style. Together they constitute a personal goosepimple factor which is often a better yardstick with which to measure the attractiveness of a coupe than the stop-watch or the g-force meter.
Styling and engineering
The Audi is the only one of this lot that can be had in front- or four-wheel-drive guise. We picked the £22,486 Quattro version which features the advanced torsen centre differential assisted by a manual rear diff lock that automatically disengages above 16mph. A close-ratio five-speed manual transmission is standard (no autobox available yet) as are anti-lock brakes, alloy wheels and a slightly tauter sports suspension. The only engine available at the moment is the familiar 136bhp 2.2litre five. Next spring, Audi will add the catalyst-only 170bhp 20-valver that offers considerably more top-end go, and there is even talk of a turbocharged 220bhp edition which would effectively replace the original Audi Quattro turbo coupe.
The Corrado follows in the footsteps of the Golf GTi. Chassis and floorpan are taken over almost unchanged, but the driveline is all-new. The familiar eight-valve 1.8Iitre four is mated to a mechanical supercharger for sports car performance and plenty of low-end torque, and the five-speed gearbox is the same cable-operated device used in the new Passat. The supercharger, which boosts the power output from 112 to 160bhp, is a convincing alternative to the turbo. Its principle is simple and efficient. The G-lader consists of two interlocking snail-shaped scrolls. Inside this plenum, a central oscillating lobe sweeps pockets of air along the spiral gallery towards the centre from where the hot compressed air is channelled through the intercooler and into the cylinders. Unfortunately, the (approximately) £19,000 Corrado G60 will be available only in left-hand drive when it goes on sale in Britain in March. The right-hooker will be powered by the notably less exciting 138bhp 16V GTi unit.
The engineering concept of the 944 dates back to 1976 when the 924 — originally developed to be a Volkswagen — was introduced. The Porsche wears its age surprisingly well. The strut-type front suspension does not differ much from the configurations used by VW and Audi, but its semi-trailing arm rear end is used in conjunction with the transaxle layout, notably more advanced than the Audi's struts-and-lower-wishbones solution or the Corrado's compound axle. Like its rivals, the £25,991 944 is fitted with four disc brakes, ABS, a five-speed gearbox, aluminium wheels and a relatively stiff sports suspension. For 1989, the four-cylinder engine is modified once more. Its capacity is increased from 2.5 to 2.7litres, and it receives bigger intake valves, new camshafts, a higher compression ratio and an uprated electronic black box. As a result of these modifications, the output climbs from 163 to 165bhp. The maximum torque rises from 152lb ft at 3000rpm to 1661b ft at 4200rpm.
The baseline 944 does not look as aggressive and muscular as the S2 and the turbo, but its design (by Harm Lagaay, who later fathered the BMW Z1) is nevertheless attractive and functional. The drag coefficient of 0.35 compares well with the newer Audi and VW, both of which check out of the wind tunnel at 0.32. And most of the details are still up-to-date, such as the flared wings, the tall tail spoiler, the pop-up headlamps, the tapered sills, the wide track and the sloping windscreen. The Corrado has some unmistakable Scirocco overtones which is hardly surprising since it was originally intended to replace this model. Characteristic styling elements include fat bumpers, a typical Volkswagen face, a tall belt-line and an adjustable rear spoiler which extends above 45mph and retracts below 25mph. The Corrado is no beauty, but the shape attracts attention.
The Audi is not going to win the Miss Coupe beauty contest, either. its lowered roofline bears a fatal resemblance to the Volvo 262C by Bertone, the proportions are not nearly as elegant as those of the four-door saloon, and the prominent wraparound rear air dam looks like a body-colour boomerang that has just returned to base. The biggest asset of this controversial new design (done in-house by Hartmut Warkuss) is the big tailgate which provides hatchback practicality despite the Matterhorn-style loading lip. To make room for the folding seats, the engineers did for the coupe what they should have done long ago for the notch: developed a modified rear axle with a flat fuel tank placed above it. All three cars come with comprehensive anti-corrosion warranties but the Audi is the only one that has a totally zinc-dipped body.
For different reasons, none of these vehicles has the six-cylinder engine it deserves. Porsche can't afford one, which is why it increased the capacity of the V8-derived four to 2.7 litres. The 16-valve S2 musters 3.0 litres, and according to the parting chief engineer, Professor Helmuth Bott, the company is already working on a 3.3-litre four, so we ain't seen nothing yet. Audi still doesn't have a six because Wolfsburg will not release the money required to build one. Until the parent changes. its mind, its daughter in Ingolstadt must be content with the long-running five, which is adequate but by no means as sensational as chairman Piech would have us believe. VW has a six under development, but because of its unique narrow-angle concept, the proto-types still vomit valves and water. By 1990, however, the 170bhp 24-valve 2.4-litre VR6 should at last be ready for production.
The Audi is quick, but from a performance point of view, it's hardly a sports car. The 2822lb coupe takes 10.1 sec to accelerate from 0 to 60mph. Top speed is a more adequate 126mph. Although the figures look OK, the straight five is a disappointment on the road. It buzzes and drones, hums and roars to the 6250rpm red-line. The maximum torque —an unexciting 137lb ft — is available at a reasonably low (but still noisy) 3500rpm. Unfortunately, the engine's vibration problems are not only perceived by your ears but also by your feet, which can feel a persistent tingle through the clutch and accelerator pedals. To make things even worse, Audi chose suspiciously soft engine mounts which add a new level of underbody nervousness. These de-throttle and full-throttle jerks are accurately transmitted to the gearlever. Despite the fact that it sits virtually on top of the transmission, the shift action is baulky and rubbery.
The gearbox is also a weak point of the Corrado. Although cable-operated cogs should have died with the Austin Maxi, VW reopened the grave and pulled out a set of strings that are as inharmonious as a warped record and as vague as a horoscope cast by a fair-ground fortune-teller. Somehow, the gearlever always feels as if it is being pulled into position by two dozen rubber strings.
Reverse is a particularly tricky affair since it's difficult to engage and even harder to get out of. Mated to this sub-standard range-changer is a well-above-average engine. Thanks to the help of the G-Iader, the first-generation GTi unit is strong enough to propel the 24531b lightweight in 8.0sec from 0 to 60mph and on to a maximum speed of 140mph. This turbine-like four-banger is an unusual engine for a sports car, because it provides plenty of urge at low to medium revs before it gradually starts to run out of steam above 4500rpm. Like Nesquik, the G-Iader supplies instant oomph without much need of stirring. In the Corrado, you have always enough power on tap — even at 2000rpm in fifth — but the price you pay for this urge is an omnipresent humming noise that can't be much different from the music recorded inside a beehive.
The Porsche is the most accelerative car, but its advantage is marginal. In the sprint from 0 to 60mph, the 944 2.7 beats the Corrado by an academic 0.1sec – it's 7.9 for Stuttgart versus 8.0 for Wolfsburg. The Porsche has a slightly lower top speed — 136mph. According to an engineer from Weissach, the power output of the 2.7litre engine is known to vary by up to 16bhp from one car to the other, which would explain why a 944 we drove in Germany recently topped an indicated 156mph. The throttle response of the Porsche is even quicker than that of the Corrado, and the communication between engine and gearbox is sharp and positive. It's the thirstiest car of the group, though: its 22.6mpg figure compares with the Audi's 24.2 and the Corrado's 27.5.
Roadholding and handling
The Porsche loses points in this chapter. It is a wonderful long distance tourer, but on winding sick-bag B-roads larded with crests and tight corners, the 944 is simply not as nimble and agile as the Corrado. The Porsche can switch quite easily from understeer to oversteer in one and the same bend. Turn-in is reasonably quick, but the nose does not always follow the chosen path with the necessary obedience. A wider throttle opening is likely to tighten the line, and yet this neutral phase is narrow and fragile. Press on, and the tail will come around and destroy the short-lived composure. Catching it is easy and fun! - but there is no doubt that a hard-charging 944 requires a lot more care and attention than its challengers. Traction is so-so in the wet, and poor on truly slippery surfaces, and the directional stability is not perfect either because the steering is too sensitive around the straight-ahead position.
The Corrado lifts a rear wheel at speed, but these acrobatics do not upset the car's balance. Under power, the VW will eventually understeer away from the apex, reacting obediently to any de-throttle manoeuvres that instantly tighten the leash. Lift-off oversteer can be induced quite easily, and it is actually possible to keep the tail out by applying enough power and a generous dose of opposite lock. The Corrado has more grip than the 944 and more traction, it has more responsive steering, and has impeccable directional stability.
The Audi is, above all, protected by a Guardian Angel called Quattro. If it were not for the clever 4wd system, the car from Ingolstadt would fall straight through the grid into oblivion. It is hard to understand why Ingolstadt did not do a better job when tuning the Coupe's suspension. Although the springs and dampers have been stiffened, the Coupe floats and wavers just as badly as the 90 saloon. While the Quattro drivetrain does its best to keep all four wheels busy, the body and chassis fight a constant battle that is dramatic to watch and traumatic to experience. The whole car heaves and lurches like a four-wheeled successor to the Titanic. Roadholding, traction and grip are fine, but balance and composure are definitely not. Excessive body roll, doughy steering and an underdamped and undersprung chassis mar the Audi's handling to an extent that is simply incompatible with the manners expected of a sports car.
Accommodation and comfort
The Audi does not win this one, either. Although its cabin looks big, the roofline is much too low. In the back there are two comfortable seats but still not enough leg- and elbowroom to go four-up any further than to the pub or airport. The rear passenger compartment of the Corrado is slightly smaller than the Audi's, but the VW offers at least an extra inch of headroom and generous recesses in the side panels. The Porsche is a true 2 +luggage-seater. Its tiny rear buckets are hardly big enough for school children. The glassback 944 also suffers the smallest boot (6.7cu ft) whose pull-out luggage cover is flimsier than the stiff parcel shelves of the other two cars. The Audi has an unusually tall loading lip and a rather unexciting cargo deck which can take 8.7cu ft when you include the separate oddments bins. This leaves the Corrado. Its luggage compartment will swallow 10.6cu ft, but since all three con-tenders come with folding rear bench seats, the if-need-be carrying capacity can easily be doubled or even tripled. The Corrado's fuel tank is a joke: it holds a mere 12.2gal. The reservoir of the Audi is good for a much more useful 15.5gal, but the driving range trophy goes to the Porsche which can accommodate 17.7gal of lead-free juice.
The VW has the best seats – and the best driving position. After all, it is the only coupe in this test that has an adjustable steering column. The seats of the Porsche are almost as competent, but they are more thinly padded and have fixed instead of pull-out head restraints. The Audi disappoints again, because its seats are soft and tall and not very supportive. Noise is a problem in all three vehicles. In the VW, engine noise, G-lader whine and road buzz build up a sound barrier that becomes tedious on long journeys. Driven leisurely, the Audi is commendably quiet, but as the speed increases, its Pirelli P600 tyres (Michelin MXV2s on the VW, Continental Super-Contacts on the Porsche) start droning. Above 4000rpm, it's the engine that sings the lead tenor in this decibel concerto. The 944 is the worst offender in the dB(a) chapter. Its body is a resonance chamber that quickly fills with tyre roar, exhaust bellow, wind noise and engine hum.
The Porsche also has the least comfortable suspension. Stiff springs and firm dampers act as simultaneous interpreters which instantly transmit every undulation straight into your spine. The Audi has much softer hardware and probably twice as much spring travel which is fine for pussy-footed drivers. Anybody ambitious enough to push this car to its limit will, however, experience a rough and bumpy flight which is unnerving, un-comfortable and, in the final analysis, potentially unsafe. The Corrado strikes the best compromise. Its suspension is compliant and supple, and although there is a generous amount of body roll, the car's mid-corner tap dance frightens onlookers more than the occupants.
All three cars have strong, easy-to-operate heaters, but the performance of the ventilation systems is only average, so if there is spare cash around, we suggest you invest it in air-conditioning rather than a sunroof which is too small in the Audi and rather impractical in the 944.
The cabin of the Corrado looks like Passat, feels like Passat and smells of Passat. The dashboard is well laid out but otherwise boring, that awful 100percent plastic steering wheel comes straight out of the cheapest Golf, and the door panels were obviously created by an interior designer more used to working for McDonald's. This VW cabin hasn't much more flair than an up-market delivery van's, and that's a shame because underneath all that corporate synthetic ever-last trim lurks a highly competent and entertaining car.
The 944 has more charisma than the Corrado, but it, too, has a rather drab and austere cabin. The seats of the test car were covered in the same yawn-a-yard pinstripe velour that has been around for yonks, the dashboard is pure black plastic, well to wall, and in the tailgate area there's simply too much bare body-colour metal for a £26,000 car. The Audi, on the other hand, has a touch of class. Its upholstery looks expensive and elegant, the dashboard is made of soft-touch synthetics garnished with wooden inlays, and the instrumentation is comprehensive and complete.
The ergonomics in all three cars are good but not faultless. The wiper stalk of the Corrado, for example, is overloaded with 10 different functions. And its ashtray is so close to the heater and ventilation controls that it pops open whenever you change the cabin temperature. Finally, the VW's wipers are too slow. The Audi confuses you with its column-mounted stalks for headlights and hazards which sit in front of two longer stalks operating indicators and wipers. It is thus possible to switch off the lights when activating the left-hand indicator.
Criticism extends to the confusing in-dash push buttons, the tiny ashtray and the secondary gauges which are tucked away at the bottom of the centre console. The switchgear of the 944 is too small, and it is scattered rather aimlessly across the dashboard, the centre console and the transmission tunnel. While some of these fingernail-sized buttons hide behind the steering wheel, others are masked by the gearlever. Another idiosyncrasy is the position of the handbrake which is placed next to the driver's door sill where it is awkward to reach and is likely to catch your trouser legs during entry and exit.
The Porsche has muscular brakes, communicative power steering, the best gearchange and good all-round visibility despite the low driving position. The Audi has mushy brakes, mushy seats, a mushy power steering and a mushy shifter. And its visibility is worse than it should be because of the chopped roofline and the tall driving position.
The Corrado is the most claustrophobic car of the lot. It has fat C-pillars, a high window fine and a narrow backlight which looks even narrower in the rear mirror once the tail spoiler extends. The VW also has spongy brakes, and its steering transmits a reasonable amount of front-wheel drive fight which, for obvious reasons, is absent in the Audi and the Porsche.
The Audi drops out first because it isn't a sports car, but rather a saloon disguised in a moderately attractive coupe body. We wanted to love this car as much as we wanted to love the V8, but Audi again missed the mark by more than just a stone's throw. Why? It failed on two crucial fronts. For a start, the faithful, five-cylinder engine is not sufficiently refined and powerful for a car which is supposed to grab the main artery of your emotions. And the chassis is not up to scratch, either. The car does not handle well, or ride well. It now becomes obvious that Ingolstadt got it wrong when it decided to equip the new 80/90 saloon (and thus the Coupe) with the suspension of the outgoing model. Despite all the modifications and improvements, you're buying a car that does, deep inside, date back to the mid-'70s. And it shows.
Between the Porsche and the VW, the race is close. In the end the 944 comes second, despite the new (and improved) 2.7litre engine and despite the prestigious nameplate. It has a much better gearbox than the Corrado and it has a nicer dashboard. But, for the extra money, it offers no more performance, and in the chassis department the VW has the edge. The Porsche does not handle at well as the car from Wolfsburg, has less grip, less room, and less ride comfort. The build quality is wonderful, and the classic shape is also a boon, but as a driving machine the Porsche 944 is no better than the Volkswagen Corrado.
The Corrado's only serious fault is its awkward gearchange, and VW should be able to fix that within the next few months – possibly before UK sales start. It should also introduce more up-market trim materials, but until that happens you can always specify leather seats. These deficiencies apart, the Corrado is a more convincing all-rounder than its renowned rival. It wins even before we talk money. Money? Well, there is, after all, £7000 between the most expensive VW and the cheapest Porsche. And that helps turn a photo-finish victory for the Corrado into a clear one-two ranking.
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