Or more accurately, a German, Italian and Japanese car park on a driveway…
My father and I have an incurable petrol head disease of wanting to change cars regularly. Which often leads to some interesting combinations of vehicles in the family stable at any given time. Now while the title of this piece might sound like the start of a bad racist joke, I can assure you that the 3 cars that have recently been in the driveway deserve better than the prejudice they have garnered.
The cars in question are an odd bunch. A Porsche 944 S2 cab, a Nissan 300ZX twin-turbo, and a Ferrari 348. All 3 cars are 1990 models. All considered premium sports cars at the time. But most interestingly, have all been living in the shadow of their bigger brothers. Namely the Porsche 911, Nissan R33 Skyline, and the bigger Ferrari Testa. Having all 3 on hand meant it was time to figure out whether these were objectively bad cars. Or whether they mostly just suffered from living in their siblings’ shadows for too long.
my very first love affair with Porsche
First up is the Porsche 944 S2. My very first love affair with Porsche ownership as well as my father’s many years before. The sentimental factor runs deep. As a package it’s great and ticks many boxes; Drop top with pop-up headlights. Near-perfect weight distribution thanks to its trans-axle layout. Superb driving position (better than the equivalent 911 at the time in my opinion). And a punchy and slightly unorthodox 3.0L 4 cylinder naturally aspirated motor kicking out 208hp (10 less than the Turbo, with half the maintenance pains).
The chassis is so sublime that I’d say with confidence it doesn’t have enough firepower under the bonnet to realize its full potential. The driving dynamics are also spot on. The 944 offers great input response from the steering and brakes. But also enough comfort to drive long distances without back issues. Even the fuel consumption is decent. I averaged around 11 kilometers per liter when I drove it from Cape Town to Plett and back. With all these plus points it’s ironic considering the biggest issue with the car is perception. Something every Porsche that was not a 911 at the time suffered from and still suffers from to this day. Is it a real Porsche? Go drive one yourself and find out.
The Ferrari is an interesting one. The 348 didn’t have an easy life at launch. The Japanese threat which was the brilliant Honda NSX went out of its way to prove it was better than the Italian Ferrari and won. When the F355 followed, the 348 was also quickly forgotten and has since been labeled as the worst Ferrari ever. Even by Ferrari bosses.
the tail lights are peak Miami Vice
How does the Italian stack up today? The answer to that question is relative. On the one hand, it’s still not as good as an NSX or an F355, but then again it’s also not nearly as expensive, around a bar cheaper than an F355 and multiples cheaper than an NSX, which you can’t get in SA anyway. For the discounted price tag you get to have a lot of car. The styling has aged pretty well. The side slits and louvers on the tail lights are peak Miami Vice and the exhaust note is superb, especially with a Tubi fitted. You also get a very analog experience. No power-assisted steering, a very minimalist cabin, and spartan engineering make you feel like you’re in a road-legal race car on the road. At speed, however, the early critiques still ring true.
This car is not fun to drive fast. Keeping it in the lanes is a mental and physical exercise and all creature comforts fly out the door. The aircon is also about as efficient as an asthmatic pensioner trying to blow up a balloon. But luckily with this car, you don’t have to drive fast to enjoy it. A characteristic that is lost with modern supercars that only come alive on the edge of their performance. With this Italian, the sweet spot appears between 2nd and 3rd, and getting to enjoy that beautiful exhaust note while prancing around on the B-Roads. As a car, it’s absolutely terrible. As a loud and kinetic sculpture that gives you goosebumps at the redline, it’s brilliant.
Then the Nissan 300ZX. A groundbreaking piece of engineering that also came second to the Honda NSX at the time and never achieved the cult status of the Godzilla Skylines and much later Supra and RX7. However, the same price argument also applies as the cost of NSX’s, Skylines, and Supras are multiples of the 300ZX, making a comparison relative. But unlike the Ferrari 348, the Z isn’t seen as a grossly inferior offering amongst its peers and successors.
As long as you have the wallet to keep its thirst quenched
The Nissan will keep up with the majority of exotic performance cars of the time, including the Ferrari 348, Porsche 911 Turbo and Honda NSX. My only major gripe with the car would be its brakes, which are grossly underpowered to inspire confidence and have made me think twice before approaching a corner with a bit more gusto. On the open road, this car is also a gem. Electric seats, climate control, cruise control (major luxuries in 1990 what have you), and enough oomph to overtake make it a brilliant long-distance cruiser. As long as you have the wallet to keep its 5 kilometers per liter thirst quenched. Servicing and parts availability are also brilliant thanks to the petrolhead culture of modifying Japanese cars.
Compared to Porsche and Ferrari it does slightly fall behind in terms of brand affinity, but not as much as some might think. Millennials who were used to driving Nissans and Hondas on Gran Turismo at home on their Playstations while growing up are now getting into money and will no doubt be looking at the cars they grew up with and found cool. The amount of street appeal and admiration from younger people in the Nissan matches that of the more exotic Ferrari time and time again.
few cars match the Italian Fezza’s allure
So which is best? Well, like everything, it depends on what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for affordable classic Porsche ownership then there aren’t many options left other than the 944. If you’re looking for something classic, exotic, and analog between 1 and 2 bar, then few cars match the Italian Fezza’s allure. And if you’re a bit younger and want a taste of high-performance JDM, but don’t want to cough up the price of a house for a Skyline, then the 300ZX is king, if you can find an unmolested one.
No one of these cars is perfect, but as a combination of 90’s sports cars they are absolutely sublime, whether experienced together or over a lifetime. Finding the perfect car is like the pursuit of happiness. There is no perfect car at the end of the rainbow, but rather the kinds of cars you experience on the journey to find it that bring joy. Try and experience as many as possible.
For more on Italian cars, read our take on “Emozione” in our test of the Ferrari California. And if that gets your interest, our sponsors at Gilmour Collection, currently have a very nice example for sale HERE.