The car designed to succeed the 911 had all the right ingredients, but few loyal fans.
The 928 was sleek, sexy and sophisticated and could outperform just about anything on the road. But, with its engine positioned in front of the driver instead of behind, was it a real Porsche?
In the years since its demise, the debate rages on. Most Porsche loyalists were shocked and annoyed when the 928 first arrived in 1978. That car, as well as the fourcylinder front-engined 924 series that was launched two years earlier, threatened the future of their beloved rear-engined, aircooled 911 that was a direct descendent of the very first 356 model engineered by Ferry Porsche back in 1950.
Whether they knew it, 911 fans had every reason to worry. In the early 1970s, a new management group at Porsche was determined to modernize the company by developing more mainstream models with traditional liquid-cooled motors behind their noses. The 911, it was thought, would be too expensive to bring into compliance with North America’s increasingly strict emissions and safety regulations. The plan was to phase out the 911 as the 928 and entry-level 924 gained acceptance.
The first 928 was displayed at the 1977 Geneva Auto Show to generally positive notices. The 2+2 hatchback design, penned by American Tony Lapine, featured pop-up headlights, aluminum body panels and integrated bumpers. Under the hood resided an all-aluminum 4.5-liter V8 (the first use of a V8 by Porsche) that made 218 horsepower, 46 more than the similarly priced non-turbocharged six-cylinder 911. The top-of-the-line — and much more expensive — 911 Turbo made 265.
Transmission choices consisted of a fivespeed manual, or optional three-speed automatic, both of which were located adjacent to the rear axle to optimize the weight distribution. Perhaps the 928’s best feature was a rear suspension that automatically adjusted to keep the car straight in the corners. As an early form of four-wheel steering, it was a vast improvement over the rear-engined 911’s tail-happy and unpredictable demeanor.
The 928’s overall performance was especially impressive with the car producing zero-to-60 mph times in the 6.5-second range and a top speed of about 140 mph.
Compared to the 911’s spartan cockpit, the 928 looked rich and luxurious with comfortable seats, power-operated controls and a generous amount of luggage space.
If management was expecting the more technically advanced and stylish 928 to outdistance the similarly priced (around $25,000) base 911 in sales, they were about to be proven wrong. Loyalty to the older Porsche was unwavering and its continuing success on the race track proved there was plenty of life remaining in Ferry Porsche’s original design.
Still, the company kept up development and refinement of its newest exotic. An “S” version, complete with spoilers and sport bucket seats, replaced the original 928 in 1981 and an upgraded 234-horsepower double-overhead-cam 4.7-liter V8 was added two years later.
Improvements in power, styling and comfort items culminated in the 928 GTS, which generated a healthy 345 horsepower from its bigger 5.4-liter V8. A four-speed automatic transmission was by then the norm, but a five-speed gearbox could be ordered at no extra cost.
Along with its high-output status came an equally stratospheric base price of nearly $90,000, about $25,000 more than a base 911 but a relative bargain when compared to the least expensive Ferrari at $120,000.
The GTS marked the pinnacle of 928 production, but it was also the final curtain call for the series. It was clear that wide-spread acceptance of the 928 as a substitute for the 911 would never come. The once-hopeful successor to the Porsche sports-car throne and one of the most competent all-around sports cars ever produced was cast adrift in 1995.
These days, Porsche’s 911 and Boxster lineups are as popular as ever, catering to enthusiasts who appreciate their performance as well as lineage that dates back more than half a century. The company has also added a new front-engine V8 model to the lineup, but this time around it was installed in yet another radically different offshoot: the Cayenne sport utility vehicle.
Now as then, the same question continues to be debated by the purists: is the Cayenne a real Porsche? Since the 911 is in no danger of replacement this time around, it might not matter.
Malcolm Gunn is a feature writer withWheelbase Communications.He can be reached on the Web at : www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html. Wheelbase Communications supplies automotive news and features to newspapers and Web sites across North America.